I LOVE Diaries: they offer such personal perspectives into the past, encompassing both “big” events and everyday occurrences. I read diaries, teach with diaries, and think about diaries often. I even like books about diaries, such as Kate O’Brien’s volume in my favorite Britain in Pictures series. So it is rather odd that I have omitted one of the most important diaries of a Salem woman in this year of #SalemSuffrageSaturdays until now: that of Mary Vial Holyoke (1737-1802), the second wife of Salem’s most eminent physician, Edward Augustus Holyoke (1728-1829). Mary’s diary was published in a compiled volume of Holyoke diaries published by the Essex Institute in 1911, after having been in the possession of several collectors, including the famed Salem numismatist Matthew Stickney.
Last week’s list of “notable Salem women” from the perspective of 1939 included Mary and drew me back to her diary, a record of 40 years of her rather enclosed life in Salem from 1760 to 1799. I had read it several times before but found it………….. unpleasant is the word I think I want to use. At first reading, the impression that I formed was of a superficial woman who gave birth to babies annually—most of which died within days—and resumed her social activities and household duties without missing a beat. None of this was unfamiliar to me as an early modernist: infant mortality hovered between 15 and 20% while 60% of all children born died before the age of 16 in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and childbirth was the leading cause of death for women, who were not especially introspective when they took pen to paper. But both Mary’s losses (8 of her 12 children) and her diary’s quickfire mix of the mundane and the sorrowful are comparatively extreme. Just one page of entries from the summer of 1767 contains entries about gardening, polishing or “scouring” furniture brasses, hanging bed curtains, attending “turtle” feasts and hosting the regular Monday assembly. Then on September 5 she was “brought to bed” at 2:00 in the morning, and gave birth to a daughter baptized Mary on the next day. On September 7 she reports that “The Baby very well till ten o’clock in the evening & then taken with fits.” Two days later, “It Died about 8:00 in the morning.” On the next day, we read simply “was buried” without even a pronoun.
As I read the diary again over this past week more carefully, Mary emerged as a more thoughtful, caring, and substantive person. She was among a circle of women in Salem who were not just drinking tea and attending “turtles” (I love this name for social gatherings and think we should resume it) with great regularity, but also attending all those were brought to bed: for birth, for illness, for death: they were always “watching”. Mary was watched, her dying children were watched, and she herself watched. The entry above seems cold to be sure, but Mary generally referred to “my dear child” while noting the burials of her infants. And then there was the particularly poignant entry after the death of yet another of her newborns in 1770: the same as all the others. You almost can’t blame her for getting right back to the business of household work, which she does with great relish after she and the Dr. (this is how she refers to her husband) move into their permanent house on Essex Steet: this becomes “our house” and there’s a lot of work to do to maintain it: scouring, provisioning, ironing, soap-making, bottling, sewing, cooking, gardening, preserving (preserved damsons, a week too late! exclamation mine) and other tasks are all noted in detail. I think I dismissed the diary previously because Mary had little to say about the Revolution, but she does take note of the repeal of the Stamp Act and the “setting off” of a “feathered man” before the Revolution, and as it proceeds she gradually refers to the Americans as “our people”, perhaps reflecting her husband’s transition from Tory to Patriot. Dr. Holyoke was an early adopter of smallpox inoculation, and she records the constant outbreaks as well as the incremental inoculations. Earthquakes also appear with surprising regularity in the diary: I had no idea Salem was subject to so many tremors in the later eighteenth century. Extreme weather was also notable: Salem experienced some very hot summers and several “great” snows during Mary’s lifetime she elaborates on the former and is quite succinct about the latter. There’s more to learn about and from Mary Vial Holyoke, to be sure: you’ve just got to read carefully, between the lines and with careful attention to the personal pronouns, as she brings us into her world.