The journal of Emily Pepys

May 9, 2016

Monday, 26th August
I was looking in Mama’s trunk for something the other day and the first thing I saw was, at the top of a great many Journal books or something of that sort a piece of paper on which was written “If I die, let these be burnt”, and something else which I did not see! I am sure I should like to see them very much, and I do not see why they should be burnt.

This is an excerpt from the journal of Emily Pepys (1833-1877), which I read yesterday. Happily, unlike her mother’s, Emily’s journal saw the light of day. Written over a period of nearly seven months beginning in July 1844, at which time Emily was about to turn eleven, it was discovered in the late twentieth century and published in 1984.

Emily Pepys

I bought it after reading Marjory Fleming’s diary last year. which I wrote about here. In her excellent introduction, Gillian Avery compares the two diarists:

Ten years old is a good age to begin a diary. You have a reasonable ability with words, and you are not yet afflicted with the tedious self-consciousness and literary aspirations of adolescence … [Emily] is three years older than Marjory, therefore the way she writes is less remarkable. On the other hand those extra years have given her the stamina to persist and provide us with the continuous narrative that Marjory’s small, weary hand had not the energy to set down. Nor could Marjory, aged seven, observe personalities so knowingly. Here are a family’s jokes, quarrels, hopes and disappointments – all the matters that are usually forgotten by the time the mature adult comes to write memoirs.

Though related to the Samuel Pepyses, Emily’s branch of the family pronounced their surname ‘Peppis’. Her father was Bishop of Worcester, and she was the youngest of four children, devoted to her mother and her 14-year-old brother Herbert. Her concerns are those of most children in well-to-do families of that time, I presume. There is much playing of games (including archery), dancing, socialising with other children who come to stay, writing of letters.

Though not a bookworm, Emily reads Dickens, but her ideas about love feel like something out of Austen. There’s a boy called Teddy Tyler she’s very fond of, but she doesn’t meet him during the period chronicled by the diary, only his sisters. It’s hard to see people you want to when you don’t live very near and you’re only eleven and there’s no internet.

Wednesday, 7th August
I should very much like to have a little private letter from Teddy to show me his heart, and also I should like to see him again to revive my love.

Actually, there was another boy, but it didn’t last.

Saturday, 24th August
The only time I ever really lost my heart was to Villiers Lister, a very handsome boy about 11 years old, with long curls, but though I have ever since, and I daresay shall for ever like him very much, yet the actual love only lasted 1 night.

Emily’s schooling arrangements aren’t clear. She’s horrified by the threat of a French governess. Sometimes she goes to a ‘School’ with Mama, the precise nature of which is unclear. She writes very little about her lessons. I’d have liked more lessons and less dancing, to be frank, but there are lovely moments.

Thursday, 25th July
I had the oddest dream last night that I ever dreamt; even the remembrance of it is very extraordinary. There was a very nice pretty young lady, who I (a girl) was going to be married to! (the very idea!). I loved her and even now love her very much. It was quite a settled thing and we were to be married very soon. All of a sudden I thought of Teddy and asked Mama several times if I might be let off and after a little time I woke. I remember it all perfectly.

Wednesday, 21st August
There was one amusing anecdote, viz: The servant came up and said “Your plate please sir”. Mr. Talbot was talking so I just took his plate and gave it to the servant. He turned round and said “Thank you ma’am”, and afterwards I found out he had not finished. It was a capital joke at the time!

Tuesday, 12th November
Miss Lea was married today to a Mr. Heming. She is the daughter of a retired Carpet manufacturer, and he is a needle manufacturer.

Tuesday, 26th November
We had a nice conversation at dinner about the worlds, and whether there were worlds before this, and whether there will be one after this.

Wednesday, 8th January
Herbert and I were left alone, and looked at several nice things in the Encyclopoedia, such as Anatomy, Midwifery etc. etc. etc. but Mama told me to go to bed 10 minutes before 9 so we had not much time. Herbert and I always go together let one another into all our secrets that we would not tell anybody else for worlds.

I see so much of myself in that one, the curiosity of children about the human body unchanged from then to now. When she rejoices that the music-master is too ill to come or complains that her New Year present is likely to be one she will have to share with Herbert, Emily could be a child of this century.

Early in the book a young mother dies of scarlet fever within days of giving birth. It makes one grateful for modern medicine. I’ve got an ear infection at the moment, and I hereby give thanks to antibiotics. I wouldn’t fancy pouring some of the ‘Jalop’ (jollop, presumably) that Emily takes every month or so into my ear. Emily herself only lived to the age of 44, but did at least fulfil her childhood dream of marrying a clergyman, William Henry Lyttelton, Canon of Gloucester.

Diary excerpts 3

May 2, 2016

13 April
Tonight at Alan Bennett double bill, the woman next to me showed her smartphone to an elderly companion. Him: ‘Can you get hard porn on it?’

19 April
Someone in this library’s got a sneeze that sounds like Michael Jackson going ‘hoo-hoo’.

20 April
Idea: Italian lute music to be broadcast in all public swimming pools worldwide for 5 minutes at 4.00pm every day. Result: Happy people.

24 April
There’s honey in my shampoo and tea in my conditioner. I imagine they will make my hair look like Rupert Brooke’s.

5 May
I can feel another children’s literature dissertation coming on: ‘Gay subtexts in Frog and Toad.’ Reading the books as an adult, it’s clear that Frog is flamboyantly queer, while Toad is drably straight but may be turnable.

6 May
When I had the gastroscopy, Dr M said think of something else. My brain was singing ‘Oliver’, so I just concentrated on that instead, sang it very loud in my head. Next time, sedation.

9 May
Little children bickering at Victoria Road traffic lights: ‘I’m the red man!’ ‘No, you’re the green man!’

13 May
On the lawn outside King’s this afternoon: a duck, a blackbird and a fat pigeon hopping about together.

Shakespeare, pastries and holy water

April 23, 2016

There’s John Falstaff, a comical fellow
And that envious Moor called Othello
But the star of the folio
Is surely Malvolio
In cross-gartered stockings of yellow

The above is my humble contribution to mark the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s shuffling off of his brief candle.

Relatedly, this is what I recall of the dream I had last Sunday night:

I met J at an unspecified event. She was sitting in some communal room, like the Green Room at Gonville and Caius but a bit swisher. She had a bowl of water and was aspersing people. I said ‘Asperges me hyssopo’ and she chucked a bit of water at me.

Then we had a good-natured chat about Shakespeare in which I surprised myself at my knowledge of the plays. I certainly mentioned Florizel and Perdita, and we discussed Twelfth Night, which I said was my favourite. I suppose knowledge grows by accretion without one realising it.

I took a pastry at her prompting, which appeared to be a loosely coiled croissant, then walked with her as I ate. It uncoiled into a kind of baguette, much more substantial than it had seemed, the end dragging on the ground, the other still in my mouth. I was glad to see her looking so well.


The 1938 Club: Barren Lives / Graciliano Ramos

April 14, 2016

The 1938 Club

I suppose I’d have got around to Three Guineas eventually, but the joy of any reading challenge like the 1938 Club is that it leads you to explore unfamiliar byways. I wouldn’t have lit upon Barren Lives (Vidas secas) by the Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos otherwise. The copy I read was one I catalogued myself several years ago – evidently this is a book frequently prescribed to undergraduate students of Portuguese. My own Portuguese is somewhat deficient, so I read an English translation by Ralph Edward Dimmick, with sweet accompanying illustrations by Charles Umlauf.

Dimmick’s introduction observes that Graciliano Ramos ‘is concerned much less with telling a story than with studying an individual in a particular situation.’ That’s the case here. The protagonists are a poor family: parents Fabiano and Vitória, two young sons, and a dog. A portrait of the family, as individuals and as a unit, is built up through vignettes covering a period of about a year. They find an uninhabited farmhouse and settle in, Fabiano has a disagreement with a policeman and spends the night in prison, they go to town to celebrate Christmas, the birds drink the water supply for their animals and they have to move on.

A farming family in direst poverty seeking a better life – it sounds very Grapes of Wrath, doesn’t it, and the two books are of a similar vintage; but the book I found myself thinking of most often as I read Barren Lives, to my surprise, was William Maxwell’s small masterpiece So Long, See You Tomorrow. It’s many years since I read that book and my memories of it are slight, which isn’t surprising given that, like Barren Lives, so much of the action is internal. But I do remember vividly a section late in the book where the narrative viewpoint is granted to a dog, Trixie, whose partial understanding of the tragic events of the book is unspeakably poignant. When a writer endows any animal with near-human emotions it can so easily come across as cheap and manipulative, but that is not the case with either Maxwell or Ramos. They share a gift for communicating what it is like to be small, to be a spectator, to lack control of your life; and even the most prominent character in Barren Lives, the patriarch Fabiano, is a small man in his way, perpetually conscious of his weaknesses and his inferiority.

In moments of madness, Fabiano tried to imitate [Tomás the miller]. He mouthed big words, which he got all wrong, and tried to convince himself he was improving. This was nonsense. It was perfectly obvious that a fellow like him was never intended to talk properly.

Early in the book reference is made to Vitória having killed the family’s parrot for food; here the dog mourns the parrot:

With no sign of food in the vicinity, hunger had been too much for the drought-sufferers. The dog had eaten the head, feet, and bones of her friend and had no more recollection of the matter. Now, standing there waiting, she looked over the family belongings and was surprised not to see on top of the tin trunk the little cage in which the bird had struggled to keep a balance.


Communication is a big deal in this book, or the lack of it. The members of the family are taciturn in the extreme – the book’s dialogue wouldn’t fill a page – and a beautifully observed detail is that the parrot who has recently joined the choir invisible had only a tiny vocabulary itself, having failed to pick up any phrases from its owners. The boys themselves presumably have names, but the reader isn’t told what they are.

Later on, language becomes a weapon. The older boy hears Hell mentioned in conversation and asks what it means. Vitória, convinced he is being impudent, beats him, and he finds consolation in the dog. The boys, like Fabiano, relate more easily to animals than they do to other humans. (Meanwhile the dog is dreaming of meat.) And yet the older boy, crippled though he is by his lack of language, has a curiosity about the world that is poetical, mystical at times. He will look at the skies and think to himself, ‘How could there be stars on the earth?’ During the family’s trip to town he marvels at the church and the shops.

The older boy hesitated. He looked at the stores, at the stands with their lights, and at the girls in their pretty dresses. He shrugged his shoulders. Perhaps it had all been made by people. Then a new problem presented itself to his mind and he whispered it in his brother’s ear: In all probability those things had names. The younger boy looked at him questioningly. Yes, surely all the precious things exhibited on the altars and on the shelves in the stores had names.

The younger boy, less curious about the wider world, worships his unworthy father. In a rare comic episode he tries to emulate Fabiano’s breaking in of a mare by mounting a billy goat, ending up on the ground (‘He was vaguely conscious that he had escaped from his adventure without honor’). He dreams of growing up to be just like Fabiano, while Fabiano despairs of the same thing, the inevitability of his boys turning into him, indigent farmers all. He and Vitória dream of a better life (she, more specifically, of a better bed), aware of being at the mercy of fate but periodically convincing themselves that change must be possible. The depiction of their marriage, filtered mostly through Fabiano’s perspective, is touching. He’s not proud of himself, knows that he isn’t good with words or numbers and has a short temper that gets him in trouble, but he acknowledges and is proud of his wife’s superior intelligence. Neither of them thinks they would be better off without the other, and they give each other the encouragement to carry on.

His was a bad lot, but Fabiano was determined to struggle against it and felt strong enough to come out the winner. He didn’t want to die. He was hidden in the brush like an armadillo – as hard and as clumsy as an armadillo. Some day, though, he would come out of his hiding place and walk with his head up, his own boss.

That this book isn’t a joyless trudge (far from it, in fact) is probably down to Ramos’ understanding of his characters. They are drawn with respect, neither patronised nor glorified but depicted straight and unadorned. These are his people. In spite of the lack of dialogue, I’m not surprised to find that a film version was made in 1963. At the time of writing it’s available for viewing here. I’ll watch it soon.


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