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The Small Details of Life

The Small Details of Life: Twenty Diaries by Women in Canada, 1830-1996

edited by kathryn carter
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 368
  • Book Info
    The Small Details of Life
    Book Description:

    Twenty diary excerpts written between 1830 and 1996 sketch the lives of Canadian women from the upper-class travails of nineteenth-century travelers and settlers to the workday struggles and triumphs of twentieth-century teachers, housewives, and writers.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8237-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-30)

    In Sinclair Ross’s 1941 novelAs for Me and My House, Mrs Philip Bentley keeps a diary as she navigates the rocky shoals of married life during the Depression in a fictional small prairie town called Horizon. Lorna Crozier’s poem imagines the importance of such writing for Mrs Bentley: how it moves her ambiguously towards forgiveness (which might be as absent as the rain); how it functions as a sacred place, a saving place; how it sustains a diminishing self. Crozier calls it a journal. I call it a diary. Whatever it is called, it comprises the act of writing...


    • Frances Ramsay Simpson (1812–1853)
      (pp. 33-58)

      On 4 March 1830, Frances Ramsay Simpson, daughter of Geddes Mackenzie Simpson, a ‘successful London merchant,’ and Frances Hume Hawkins,¹ embarked on a journey that would take her from her home in London, England, to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) outpost of York Factory in the interior of Canada, a journey that lasted four months and required arduous physical exertion over hundreds of miles. At the age of eighteen, Simpson had left England on 24 February 1830 as a new bride, married to George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in North America and then in his mid-forties. Simpson...

    • Sarah Welch Hill (1803–1887)
      (pp. 59-94)

      ‘A fine day &. mild but the roads must bevery bad– Do not feel so cold as I did yesterday – It seems almost nonsense writing down these trifles, but I have had a habit of writing down daily what occurs & no events of more consequence have transpired,’ wrote Sarah Hill on 26 March 1863, closing another entry in her diary. Sarah Hill did indeed have a long-established habit of daily diary writing.¹ Her diary – located, along with other family papers, at the Archives of Ontario² - encompasses sixty years of her daily activities and thoughts. The...

    • Amelia Holder (1855–1936)
      (pp. 95-116)

      In March 1867, eleven-year-old Amelia Holder set sail from Saint John, New Brunswick, with her sea-captain father and her dying mother in a 112-foot, square-rigged, wooden brigantine, theMina. That voyage, which kept Amelia at sea or in ports around the world for fifteen months, was followed by five more long, adventurous voyages over the next six years. One of Amelia’s regular shipboard activities was keeping a diary, and her delightful adolescent journals have been carefully preserved by her family.

      Over the dozen or so years Amelia kept a journal, she used a number and variety of books. The original...


    • Jessie Nagle and Susan Nagle (1844–1873) (1840–1921)
      (pp. 119-150)

      Sisters Susan and Jessie Nagle arrived in Victoria soon after the creation of the colony of Vancouver Island in 1858. The second and third daughters of Captain Jeremiah and Catherine Nagle,¹ they had wandered far with their family by this time: Susan was born on board ship ten days out of Sydney, Australia, in 1840; Jessie was born in New Zealand in 1844; and they had lived in San Francisco for several years before their final major move. Over the years, their father took on various government posts, including Victoria harbourmaster, as well as engaging in several business ventures. Although...

    • Sarah Crease and Susan Crease (1826–1922) (1855–1947)
      (pp. 151-184)

      The Crease family of Victoria, British Columbia, fostered in its members a strong tradition of diary writing. Because several family members wrote over such a long period, the Crease family papers offer a comprehensive view of life in British Columbia from its settlement by British colonists to its early years as a Canadian province. These brief excerpts from 1878 show that the diaries of the women of the family also chronicle domestic life over time and through troubled changes. The Crease family emigrated from England in 1869 and helped to shape the government and society in colonial Victoria, a small...

    • Constance Kerr Sissons (1875–1973)
      (pp. 185-216)

      My maternal grandmother, Constance Kerr Sissons, practised the gentlewomanly art of domestic journal keeping from the early 1900s until shortly before her death three-quarters of a century later.¹ In the heavily coded, impersonal Victorian style that her mother taught her, she set out to create a private record of her family’s affairs – including records itemizing household expenses, shopping lists, types of gifts received and sent, and, lengthiest of all, letters sent and received. The meticulous accounts of such ‘trivial’ matters offer a testimony to just how seriously she believed in performing her duties – as young teacher, bride, and...


    • Phoebe McInnes (1878–1938)
      (pp. 219-238)
      K. JANE WATT

      The diary of twenty-three-year-old Phoebe Mclnnes describes eight months in the life of a teacher in the Fernridge district of Langley, British Columbia, at the beginning of the twentieth century. In an area of logging, landclearing, and mixed farming, and in an era of mud, gravel, and corduroy roads, Mclnnes relies on her ‘wheel,’ for transportation, travelling astonishing distances in the course of her ordinary day. Her bicycle, her status as a single woman earning a decent salary, and the particularities of her domestic situation (her mother died two years before, leaving the family in a loose affiliation minus some...

    • Caroline Alice Porter (1844–1934)
      (pp. 239-254)

      The epigraphs were written by Caroline Alice Porter, who recorded her long, eventful, and often sad life in ten diaries that are housed at the Saskatchewan Archives Board, in Regina.¹ Caroline Porter was born and raised in St Eleanors, Prince Edward Island, when that province was a colony of Britain. Despite the fact that she had twelve siblings, her birth family seems to have been well to do: she received her education from a select school for ladies in Nova Scotia. Her father, Nicholas Brown, who was born in New Brunswick, was an aggressive, self-educated, and affluent merchant/ importer who...

    • Sophie Alice Puckette (1885–1971)
      (pp. 255-276)

      This excerpt from Sophie Puckette’s 1908 diary documents a turning point in her life. Twenty-two years old and far away from home for the first time, Sophie was teaching without qualifications on a temporary certificate in a rural community near Colfax, Washington at the time of these entries. Sophie and her brother and sister had contacted, the authorities in Washington State when they heard there were teaching opportunities there. They had to pass a written examination, which they received in the mail and wrote at their kitchen table in Innisfree, Alberta, and they had to submit documentation of their formal...


    • Mina Wylie (1888–1972)
      (pp. 279-300)

      On her winter journey in 1911 from the relatively sleepy city of Ottawa to the bustle of New York City and the major metropolises of Europe, Wilhelmina (Mina) Washington Wylie recorded the sights, sensations, and pleasures of a world that was soon after swept away by cataclysmic social upheaval. Travelling with her mother, father, and sister Ida, Mina is given to using exuberant adjectives such as ‘jolly,’ ‘lovely,’ ‘dear,’ ‘darling,’ and ‘great fun.’ This is the language of an adventurous person who, from her departure on 14 January until she broke off writing in Glasgow on 8 March, records a...

    • Miriam Green Ellis (1881–1964)
      (pp. 301-322)

      ‘Since I went to school and was taught that the world was round and that each end was flattened out a little like an apple, I have wanted to go to the place where it started to flatten. This year I went ...’¹ Thus Miriam Green Ellis begins three of the newspaper articles she wrote about her 1922 journey to Aklavik, on the delta of the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories. The articles and lectures that Ellis produced about her trip were themselves based on material she recorded in the daily entries of the diary she kept that summer....

    • Mary Dulhanty (1909–1999)
      (pp. 323-350)

      ‘I love to write in you diary. It is such a consolation. I suppose some people will think me silly. But no one loves me and understands me like you do.’ These words were written on 17 January 1927 by seventeen-year-old Mary Dulhanty, a student enrolled in the Commercial program at Mount Saint Vincent Academy in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her diary, kept sporadically between 7 December 1926 and 10 June 1927, provides a fascinating glimpse of student life at a Roman Catholic girls’ school in the 1920s.

      Marked ‘P[r]ivate S.W.A.K,’ the hard-covered notebook in which Mary chronicled her adolescent musings...


    • Dorothy Choate Herriman (1901–1978)
      (pp. 353-370)

      Dorothy Choate Herriman’s great ambition in life was to be a poet, to join the hallowed ranks of those who can capture a country’s human and natural essence. Ironically, her foremost achievement as a writer is not her poetry, in which she invested so much hope and energy, but her incidental writings, her diaries. Born in 1901, in Lindsay, Ontario, Herriman was the only child of Nellie J. Williams and Dr William Choate Herriman. Her father was a physician ‘specializing in mental diseases’ as well as a hospital administrator, and she was raised in a series of central and eastern...

    • Elsie Rogstad Jones (1918-)
      (pp. 371-392)

      Elsie Rogstad Jones was born in Robsart, Saskatchewan, on 14 January 1918, to Perry and Anna (nee Hansen) Rogstad. Her parents were both children of Norwegian immigrants. Drought and hail in southern Saskatchewan drove the young Rogstad family to Minneapolis in 1921, where Elsie’s father did house painting and wall papering. Three other children were born there: brother Bob, sister Pat, and ‘little brother’ Jack. The youngest was just five months old when, in 1927, Perry Rogstad died of heart failure, leaving Elsie’s mother with four small children. If economic necessity had brought the family to Minneapolis, it now drove...

    • Dorothy Duncan MacLennan (1903–1957)
      (pp. 393-419)

      The epigraph, inscribed by American-born writer and artist Dorothy Duncan MacLennan on a MontrealGazetteclipping, is inserted between two pages of her 1955 diary.¹ Beginning on New Year’s Day 1953, and continuing through a long period of recurring illness that ended in her death on Easter Monday, 22 April 1957, Duncan kept a series of diaries.² At a time when painting had replaced writing as her mode of artistic expression, these personal journals offered her a private space in which to analyse her situation and attempt to come to terms with her physical and mental stress. Allowing her to...

    • Marian Engel (1933–1985)
      (pp. 420-442)

      In the summer of 1976, Marian Engel used some of the money she received from the Governor General’s Award for her novelBear¹ to leave Toronto and stay at a cottage outside Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. At the time, her marriage was ending, although she had sought counselling in an attempt to repair the relationship and had tried to convince her husband, Howard Engel, to do the same. She thought that the marriage was still salvageable, even though he had embarked on a relationship with a woman whom Engel saw as a younger version of herself. Her angry reaction to...


    • Mary Eidse Friesen (1923–1996)
      (pp. 445-453)

      My grandmother, Mary E. Friesen, was born 28 January 1923, a half hour ahead of her identical twin sister, Annie. Mary was the seventh of eleven children born to Abram K. and Anna I. (née Bartel) Eidse, although four of her siblings (including twin boys) died in infancy and early childhood, leaving Mary the third oldest of the surviving seven. Her parents farmed in Rosenhoff, a small Mennonite community (later renamed Riverside) in Manitoba, south of Winnipeg.

      On 1 October 1944, at the age of twenty-one, Mary Eidse married Pete S. Friesen (born 3 September 1924), son of C.T. and...

    • Edna Staebler (1906-)
      (pp. 454-468)

      Edna Staebler started writing in her journal when she was sixteen, coming of age in Kitchener, Ontario. Now in her mid-nineties, she can reflect on a long, distinguished writing career from her home west of Waterloo. She and Mally, her cat, live in a small cottage surrounded by helpful and supportive neighbours.

      When she talks about her youthful diary-writing, Staebler blushes, recalling its sentimental tone and emphasis on boyfriends. It was not long, though, before her journal transformed itself, proving a valuable aid to a woman who wanted to write; in it, she found her own voice. At the University...

  11. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 469-478)
  12. Contributors
    (pp. 479-484)
  13. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 485-486)