Saturday, November 21, 2009

Emily in Exeter; A Day in a Life

What C21 teenage girl of 16-18 years would be content with the simple and self-chosen pursuits of walking, window-shopping, playing battledore and shuttlecock and chess, reading, writing essays, ornithology, drawing, sun-sets, natural-history, self-improvement and spiritual sustenance?

A day in the life of 16 year old Emily Shore's long stay in Exeter, in 1837, was jam-packed with richly acute observations - of birds, weather-phenomena, and other naturalist recordings; it was also crammed with literary critiques, social and political debate and the ritual of keeping up a detailed daily diary. To read even one day from her journal leaves one, as reader, quite absorbed in the minutiae of her daily life. No TV; no ipod; no music of any kind; no laptop or Facebook; or even dancing; no celebrity cult; not even the whiff of a boyfriend. Where even the thought of a walk around Exeter's streets, castle or cathedral, or a relatively brief jaunt or outing to Woodbury or Teignmouth seemed  exciting. And yet, what a wealth of daily existence is here - phenomena that for the most part would go unnoticed in the technologically driven world of today.

 One morning Emily notes 'the little squeak of the golden-crested wren'. On a late October day she notes that 'the thermometer was 24, lower than it had ever been in October since 1817' and that there was  'thick white frost and even ice on the windows'. On Sundays, when she is too poorly to accompany the rest of the family to church, she relishes the time spent alone; 'I greatly like the time for thought and self-examination given me by the solitary Sundays I now pass'. Her self-education whilst in Exeter included the study of Euclid, Shakespeare, Bigland's History of Europe, Keeble's Christian Year, Walter Scott's novels and poems and Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.

You can pick up more in depth understanding about life in Exeter during that mid C19 period than you might from any travel-book or historical document - its streets, its shops, its buildings, weather, people, gardens, its history. And all of this is brought alive with little dramatic vignettes drawn from Emily's daily experiences with the Aunt and Uncle and cousins she was staying with at their home in Baring Crescent. Most dramatic for her - and in its way relevant to today's erratic weather - is her recounting of the traumatic experience of the full effects of a hurricane ravaging Exeter, in late November 1837, where the man and male servants of the household had to lean against the drawing-room windows for over an hour, in order to prevent them ‘with great difficulty’ being ‘dashed in’:

 A most awful hurricane … At about half past nine the storm suddenly came on; there was very little rain but the wind was quite astounding. I was sitting in the Breakfast room with Anna or Phoebe … and I was scarcely able to attend to anything for the wind; one of panes of the window had previously been cracked and I was thinking to myself “the window will be blown in” when just at that moment a part of the pane was dashed into the room and the wind came in raging like a fury …Anna and I were left alone in the darkened breakfast room, by the fire … listening to the roaring and whistling of the tempest and I was every instant expecting the sash to fall in. In a few minutes a startling and tremendous crash was heard at the window. Anna screamed and caught hold of me with both her arms … Where to go we could not tell, the whole house seemed going to rack and ruin. Through every part of it the wind howled, groaned and whistled with a horrible noise; every window on the west side of the house appeared as if it would be beaten in; the trapdoor of the roof burst open, the ceilings of two rooms were split across … The room rocked backwards and forwards, the bed shook about, all the furniture was trembling … At about eleven ‘clock the barometer began to rise rapidly, and presently the storm was over.

Emily Shore was the daughter of a clergyman from Bedfordshire. She was evidently precocious and talented, but sadly died at the age of 19, from consumption. Here, at The University of Virginia Press you can read about the compilation of the Journals and how they were published and controlled by Shore's sisters after her death. There are photos and at least one page from the extensive original diary written in Exeter.

Her later entries close in more and more on her own frailty, on her illness and inner determination to subjugate herself to God's will:
Dec15: I cannot read or write now without a headache and writing also give me a pain in my chest ... Yet ... it is God's will that this year should be passed in illness; and if I have learnt submission to his will and have turned my sufferings to good account in the improvement of my soul, it is not time thrown away.

Yet, by the time she is writing what would be the later pages of her journal written in Exeter, she shows the vitality and ability to appreciate the world around her, whatever fate has in store. Hers was a glass half-full and not empty.

Feb14: A splendid day such as I have not seen for many months. I took a long walk with my cousins on the Heavitree road and a more enchanting walk I have not taken, I think since last Summer ... the sun shone brilliantly the air was clear, calm and warm like summer and all nature seemed waken up ... It was perfectly enchanting to hear the birds singing joyously all around; the sweet, plaintive, interrupted notes of the robin; the clear musical song of the hedge-sparrow; the shrill and lovely carol of the wren....