I’m reading an obscure novel that my main character (based on a real person) read in January 1881. She finished it on January 10, to be precise, after she’d also finished writing a few letters and tidying the house. Earlier that day she’d baked some bread and finished off some sewing, the weather not being conducive to outside work, so that any thought of collecting eggs or checking on the rockmelons in the garden was out of the question. But by evening she wasn’t feeling very well and gave herself permission to finish her book.
How do I know this? Because she kept a diary; just a few lines for each day, nothing fancy.
Rain all day. Wind S.E.
Self not very well, slight bilious attack.
FInished reading novel ‘Running the Gauntlet’.
Sometimes she lists the number of chickens that have hatched or the number of fish caught. Every now and then she mentions a fight she has had with her husband.
Bob and self row again,
all about the dead ducks.
I did not make any answer
when he said something about the weather.
There is something extremely endearing about the sheer ordinariness of what she has written, an account of a life lived more than one hundred and thirty years ago but which, ducks aside, could have been written by any of us. By me.
It seems to me that one thing that history provides is the opportunity to grasp that nothing much ever really changes. We go through each day dreaming our dreams, tending our chickens (metaphorical or not), sometimes bickering with those with whom we are closest, and taking note of the weather. Bigger events will always intercede, for better or for worse, but it’s in the details that a life is lived.
As you might have guessed, very bad things happen to the author of this diary and to those she loves, and this is naturally what brought her to my attention. When it comes to bringing her to life, however, it’s by way of the small details that I want to tell her story.
It’s through the minutiae that we can recognise ourselves in those about whom we read, and fiction (historical or otherwise) is nothing if not about recognition.
(These are obviously pumpkins and not rockmelons. And they’re growing in Switzerland and not North Queensland. But a garden’s a garden…)