Eleanor Eaden, 1845-1901, The Diary and Travels of a Victorian Lady

Edizioni del Grifo, Lecce, 2008, 167 pages, illustrated.

Transcribed and compiled by Susan Arculus and Tricia Heal.

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The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. L.P. Hartley

A diary is a diary. So Susan Arculus and Tricia Heal thought when they set out to present their forebear, Eleanor Eaden’s. But what they must have soon realized is that there are as many kinds of diary as there are of people writing them. Every diary reveals clues for unlocking the enigma of personality. Who was E.E. according to the evidence she chose to leave us? Her birth in Edinburgh in 1845 was something she didn’t care to comment on, maybe because it hints at a mystery that intrigues us but that she preferred to forget. She may have been adopted. Irony here because of the lofty family tree that sprung from her--seventy-seven descendants and growing. With E.E. the blood sap may have begun to rise from a new root. Or perhaps she simply didn’t care to look backward. Her diary makes clear that her dominant trait was to plunge with gusto ever forward.

 

In any case the couple who brought her up were well-off allowing Eleanor to enjoy a cosmopolitan education from an early age. It marked her for life. In 1900, a year before her death, she visited the Paris World’s Fair, saw the Passion Play at Ober Ammergau, tripped through the Bavarian Royal Palaces and over the Dolomites. Her two years at school in Germany at ten and eleven, and her year in Paris at fourteen tell us something about her and well-heeled Victorians. They were willing to send their children away to school for long periods. E.E., no whiner, didn’t seem to mind.

 

Once married to a prosperous lawyer at twenty-three, E.E.’s true calling became clear. She would be a mother and wife, full stop. Her diary shows that this was to be no small undertaking, household and child management not being a mere sideline for women of her class. “Had a party of 20 to supper”. “Xmas tree party for juveniles. About 35 present”. “The pig killed yesterday. Pork pies made, 20 this time and 18 the last”. E.E. had eight children in a decade, and there was a squad of servants to direct. Her social encounters and geographical displacements make our Third Millennium heads spin.

 

Though living in the Midlands she was often in London and loved to stroll through Piccadilly, Regent and Oxford Streets just as we might today. The theatre meant much to her and she worshipped the couple Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, Sarah Bernhardt, and Lillie Langtry whom with a touch of respect she called Mrs Langtry. Music was the art closest to her. She was adept at copying scores and played the harmonium. Her relationship to literature surprises. We might call it Victorian in that it was put in a box apart. There are no references to reading in her diary nor are there any poetic or even sensual notations. In a piece of prose she does wax poetic, but that seems to be a Sunday attitude amongst her weekday notes, and is something of a self-parody. She mixes lines from Tennyson and Longfellow with tips on diet and healthful living she wishes to remember. “Potatoes, carrots, parsnips indigestible also farinacious food and these are of little good as blood formers”.

 

What strikes a reader of diaries is how outward focused this one is. Is it only because she had so many children and a household to administer that E.E. never for even a few lines looks inward at herself? Was a Victorian taboo against self-absorption being respected or was E.E. simply spartan by nature? When we find her traveling alone on her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, we wait open-mouthed for her to say a word for, against or even just about her husband. No luck, she reflects on the cleanliness of the hotel. Here it may be wrong to speak of Victorian ways and right simply to speak of E.E.’s way.

 

However, her understanding of sickness and death surely belongs to her times. She quotes from a poet what she clearly believes, “All our life is mixed with death and who knoweth which is best?” This was a wise attitude to take at a time crowded with deaths as well as births. Someone was always having their lungs “tapped” for tuberculosis. Diphtheria and scarlet fever were as common as changes in the weather. Mortality was a guest in every household. In Wales she tells us her husband “rescued a boy from drowning” and in the next line gives us a flat weather report. The editors note that the death of E.E.’s son Allen took little space in the diary.

 

These people were not squeamish. E.E. even had a streak of what today would pass for morbid curiosity. In Paris she visits the morgue and notes coolly that one corpse still had his hat on. Passing to the crematorium furnace she watches two bodies being consumed. Her travels are studded with visits to charnel houses and cemeteries that seem to delight her.

 

Not being opinionated shows in E.E.‘s neutral view of religion. No religious wars for her. Traveling she worships in synagogues, Anglican chapels, St.Peter’s in Rome and at various Lutheran prayer meetings that sound rather grim. She is like an exercise addict of our century who abroad will use any health club available.

 

One would have expected a member of the upper middle-class to have political opinions. E.E. has none, perhaps because her social standing was so secure--as solid as the Empire--that she felt invulnerable. She does, however, have a bad case of celebrity fever about royalty. The nobility is a principal theme of the diary. Her interest is not so much for what the royals around Europe are doing. They don’t have to do anything, but simply be, like the planets. “The German Crown Prince underwent tracheotomy”. So when the overfed Friedrich got a bone caught in his throat, E.E. spent as many words as she had on her own brood’s suffering. “All the children had whooping cough”.

 

In a church on the Isle of Wight, E.E., stands awed before a pew in which Victoria once sat her portly person down. For E.E. the Queen had been a continual presence, familiar yet divine. She did compete with Victoria in childbearing, her eight against the royal nine. We might even say that E.E. was a quintessential Victorian and yet,....The Queen was widowed in 1861 and mourned ostentatiously for forty years. One can’t imagine E.E. ever retiring into similar passivity. As diarists the two women couldn’t have been more different. The Queen averaged two thousand five hundred words a day and compiled one hundred and twenty-two volumes. She gushed, as here at the time of her wedding in 1840:

 

“I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!!! MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert ... his excessive love & affection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped me in his arms, & we kissed each other again & again! His beauty, his sweetness & gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband! ... to be called by names of tenderness, I have never yet heard used to me before – was bliss beyond belief! Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!”

 

The most that the reticent and factual E.E. tells us of her husband Edward are items like “Edward went for his holiday”. “Edward returned”. There may be a hint of romance in:

 

May 26, 1882: “Edward and I went to Mrs Buckland’s for a week. Edward went on his tricycle”.

June 2, 1882: “Edward returned home on his tricycle”.

June 5, 1882: “I returned home.”

The two women died in 1901, Alexandrina Victoria, Empress of India, in January and Eleanor Eaden, born Edwards or perhaps Edwards-Woods, in March.

 

Peter Byrne

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