The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order.
– Eudora Welty
Why keep a diary? Ever since I read Julia Cameron’s book, Vein of Gold, I am a convert to her system of writing ‘morning pages’. She is the author of The Artist’s Way, a classic book for artists, and recommends writing three pages, first thing in the morning, by hand. Her theory is that we mine our subconscious, the place where our truth lies, in our early waking minutes. I have a favorite Pentel mechanical pencil and it is a ritual I value, and serves as a sort of meditative time.This journal belonged to my Aunt Charlotte Hay, who was born in 1807, and was given to my mother whose name was also Charlotte. Charlotte Hay is the first family Charlotte from whom many of us are named. Her sister, Martha, had a twin journal.
What a delight it is to have some evidence of what Charlotte’s life was like, which is ultimately the goal I think, for those of us who poke around in our families’ history. I am always looking for glimpses of who my ancestors really were! There are drawings and verse, penned by friends, in this quite handsome volume, engraved with her name in gold lettering and “Sold by W.B.Gilley, 92 Broadway, New York.” Charlotte was born in Haverstraw, New York, and moved South when her younger sister, Martha Louisa Hay, married Dr. Thomas Woodward Hutson Sr. in 1829. They had old ties to Charleston, Beaufort and the Lowcountry. Her great grandfather was John Gordon, a Scots highlander who arrived early at the settlement at Darien, Georgia, and stayed in South Carolina until the Revolution. He was a merchant, with ships that sailed from the Charleston and Beaufort harbors; his schooner was named “Tybee”. He amassed land from Charleston to Florida. I often think about those tall ships sailing the waters off these Lowcountry waters when I walk along the beach. I still have not yet figured out where his plantation was, near Charleston, named Belvedere (SCHGM, vol.3, 1902, pg 177).
The first entry in Charlotte’s book, from South Carolina, was written from Mt. Pleasant, my new hometown, in 1830. Can you imagine what Mt. Pleasant looked like then? Today it is bustling and charmingly well populated. The entry was penned, in the finest hand, by a gentleman friend, and signed Edward – dated Aug 5. It is a poem to her called A Morning Walk. Charlotte never married, and was buried in Boiling Springs, near Barnwell. She still had a Scottish accent we know from letters. Her sister, Martha, with whom she joined the Stony Creek Presbyterian Church in Pocotaligo, and where she is buried, died at just twenty-six, a young mother of three. Charlotte’s friends wrote poetry about the moon, and love, in a calligraphic hand that is slow and careful.
This little book makes me think about the purpose of diaries. A few years ago someone published the great writer, Susan Sontag’s, personal journal, after her death. Some of my personal penciled writing is processing stuff. I am not sure Susan Sontag would have been happy about this diary being published. But, honestly, I am really grateful for diary writers, for having the courage it takes to risk by writing it all down. Unedited versions help me see how they processed their own joys and sorrows.
Thanks to the existence of used book stores worldwide whose inventory is now amazingly online, I was able to find the diary of my grandmother Mary Woodward Hutson, who died in 1757, at a little bookshop in London where it was printed, after she died by her husband, the Rev. William Hutson. She was amazingly devout, and surely her entries were edited. But to hear her voice is really important to me. She is more than a name and a date to me now, and I can hear what she’d say in a way. (She admonished her children, in the mid 1700′s, to “read only good books” making me wonder what bad books were then.) The South Carolina Historical Society here in Charleston on Meeting Street, has the diary of her husband, the Reverend William Hutson, too, which was written while he was minister of the the Circular (Congregational) Church. It’s discovery by my cousin, Mike Hutson, years ago in McPhersonville, SC is worth telling. One of the elderly aunts simply handed him a paper bag, and in it was the hand written diary. It had been ‘borrowed’ by the Rev. George Howe for his renowned History of the Presbyterian Church so some of it had been recorded. But now it has been transcribed and studied, and serves to give us insight into Charleston in the middle of the 18th century.
Diaries, Journals, Morning pages. I am a believer. What do you think?