Today’s (somewhat lengthy) post was indirectly inspired by the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. As I poked about in our records looking for challenged books, I remembered that several of our diarists describe their reading material, and how much I enjoy learning what people read for pleasure. Let’s take a look at what some county residents* were reading in the past, presumably censor-free.
*Only ladies today, but that’s simply because I remembered these particular diaries – nothing against the men!
Caroline Miller (1842-1904) grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, daughter of a prominent Quaker family. In 1867 she married Roger Brooke Farquhar of Sandy Spring, and lived her married life at “Rock Spring,” a farm between Rockville and Norwood. She kept a diary during her teenage years, and again from 1885 until her death. The first volume of her diary gives us a hint as to her reading preferences, and to the problems she faced because of them.
October 22, 1859: . . .After tea I read a good while in a magazine, but Mother reproved me for reading so much that was pernicious in its tendency, and advised me to go to my sewing, which I did. In a short time I put my work up, I read some of Leigh Richmond’s letters to his children, in which I was much interested; I shall read more of them, and endeavor to profit by the good and beautiful rules which he lays down for his children.
November 17, 1859: . . . I enjoyed [Quaker] Meeting very much, I had a good many good thoughts, and the Extracts from the minutes of the Yearly Meeting, which Sarah Wright read, I liked very much, especially what was said about the reading of pernicious books, which I wish I could follow.
February 15, 1860: . . . I have just commenced “Irving’s life of Washington,” and so far I am much interested and I think I shall grow more so, as I go on; it is a great undertaking I know, for me, to read so large a work, there being three volumes, but I hope I may persevere and get through with it and derive some benefit from it; I can see in what I have already read, that Washington, even in his youth was remarkable for his forethought and carefulness in all matters of business.
In addition to these specific passages, Carrie mentions reading “some trifling stories” several times, and in December 1859 she reads Adam Bede (George Eliot, 1859) though without editorial comment. In the back of the volume she made a shopping list (below) that includes The Mill on the Floss (Eliot, 1860) for 87 ½ cents.
In the later volumes from her youth, Carrie no longer frets about the pernicious tendencies of her reading. In the back of the 1863 diary she lists twenty works by Sir Walter Scott, and a shopping list at the end of 1866 includes Wives and Daughters (Mrs. Gaskell, 1866) for $1.50. Either she’s come to terms with her own taste for novels, or she’s stopped telling her parents. And what of adult Carrie? In the 1885-1904 volumes there are few references to specific works other than the Bible, A Tale of Two Cities, several Shakespeare plays (read aloud by family members), and a Civil War-themed novel called In War Time, published in 1884. She makes no judgement calls about any of them, though In War Time did occupy her “all the evening” (March 18, 1886). The rather arduous life on a farm may not have left her much time for novels.
Now let’s move forward several decades, to two women who are unapologetic in their tastes. Mrs. Ethelyn Clagett Pratt of Rockville kept a small journal from 1919 through 1930, in which she wrote down the menus served at her various club meetings. In the back of the book she also noted a few novels, complete with plot summaries:
“Visitors to Hugh [actually Hugo] by Alice Grant Rosman. Invalid young man. [Published in 1929.] —– Pirate’s Face by Norval Richardson. Queer story – Lucienne and Meredith marry – father makes the match – loss of memory. Couple to go South America. At last everything turns out OK. [1928. Sign me up! This book sounds awesome.] —— The Fifth Latchkey by Natalie Sumner Lincoln. Murder story – near Wash[ington]. Rockville Court House &c. [1929. I bought and read this book last year, and it does indeed take place in Rockville.] ——- A Lady of Quality, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Beautiful girl – grows up wild like weed, becomes fine woman. [First published 1896.] —– Read in July 1930: Shepherds by Marie Conway Oemler ; The Road to Understanding by Eleanor H. Porter author of Just David [1917; Eleanor H. Porter also wrote, more famously, Pollyanna].”
We’ll end our survey of “What Are You Reading? The Past Edition” with Catherine Dawson (1910-1974) of Rockville. According to the evidence of her childhood diary, Miss Dawson was a voracious reader. Nearly every entry includes time spent reading, and she finishes books with great rapidity. Just in the first four months of 1922 (remember, she’s 12 years old) she buys eleven books, reads at least sixteen books, and borrows several more from friends and the Rockville Library. Here’s a sample day, Monday January 9, 1922:
“Went to school and had a pretty good time. After school I went with Lillian to Hazel’s. About four o’clock I came home and read Two Little Women and Treasure House. After dinner I practiced and got my lessons then I finished Two Little Women. It is just fine, and peachy.” [I couldn’t identify Treasure House, but Two Little Women is by Carolyn Wells, 1915. Catherine uses "just fine" as in "simply great," not "only so-so."]
Catherine doesn’t provide all the titles, and some books are only mentioned by author - including Dickens - or series, but in case you want to recreate her list (many are available as free ebooks, if you search for them) here’s what is named from January to April 1922:
Outdoor Girls at Bluff Point [Laura Lee Hope (also wrote The Bobbsey Twins), 1920]
Georgina’s Service Stars [Annie Fellows Johnston (also wrote The Little Colonel), 1918]
“[Street &] Smith’s College Stories” [a pulp magazine]
The Border Boys Across the Frontier [Fremont B. Deering, 1911. Clearly Catherine was an equal opportunity reader of boys and girls stories.]
Mildred’s Boys and Girls; “it is fine.” [Martha Finley, 1914]
Elsie Dinsmore [borrowed from her friend K. Hicks. Also by Martha Finley; it's not clear if Catherine meant the first book, or one of the series published 1867-1905.]
The Best Man [I’m not sure about this one, but it is probably the novel by Grace Livingston Hill, 1913.]
The Lost Prince [Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1915]
The Veiled Lady [Not positively identified; I really want this to be the short story by Agatha Christie, one of Poirot’s early adventures, though I can’t find a reference to it being published before 1923.]
One or more books in the Grace Harlowe series [Josephine Chase writing as Jessie Graham Flower, 1910-1924]
The Lucky Sixpence [Emilie Benson Knipe, 1912]
These lists of books, and the occasional plot summary or mini-review, are highly entertaining to me, as a modern reader. Some of the best parts of reading old diaries and memoirs are those moments of connection between your own experience and that of your predecessors, whether it’s complaining about homework or housework, enjoying a good time with friends, or sharing an opinion of a book. Who hasn’t felt guilty for reading “trifling stories,” as Carrie Miller did, or gone to school and had “a pretty good time” like Catherine Dawson? Plus, I love reading old novels – whether Mrs. Gaskell or an Outdoor Girls story – and these lists give me some good tips. Judging from Mrs. Pratt’s description of Pirate’s Face, it is a Must Read.
Sources: Caroline Miller Farquhar’s diaries were donated to our library by her son, Roger Brooke Farquhar II. Mrs. Pratt’s menu journal (which has been featured here before) was donated to the library by a member of her family. Catherine Dawson’s diary is still in the hands of her family, but a copy was provided to the library by Beth Dawson Rodgers. Authors and publication dates, when not given by the diarist, were gleaned from many internet searches. Alas, we do not have any of these exact novels in our collections.