Friday, September 27, 2019

Women’s Lives Recorded in Diaries and Sketchbooks

By Lauren Gilbert

Diaries and sketchbooks fascinate me, especially those of women. Many of my favourites happen to have been drawn or written by English women in earlier times. The ability to depict one’s daily life in a way that is clear and entertaining to a third party, whether in art or in writing, is a real talent. (My own efforts tend to read more like the essay read in Cheech and Chong’s “Sister Mary Elephant”.) One cannot always assume that a diary written by a woman, especially a young, unmarried woman living with her parents or guardian, expressed her true feeling or opinions as her diary may not have been private. However, the details of one’s daily activities and the people with whom time was spent can give the viewer an idea of how life was lived on an intimate level. I’d like to introduce three of my personal favourites.

MRS HURST DANCING & Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823 is a collection of sketches made by a young woman named Diana Sperling living with her family at Dynes Hall in Essex. She was the daughter of John Sperling and his wife Harriet Rochfort. The Sperling family was well-to-do, having made money in the fur trade, but were gentry by Diana’s time. She had two sisters, Isabella and Harriet, and two brothers, Henry John and Charles Robert, as well as a half-brother named John Thomas Kilpatrick (from Harriet Rochfort’s previous marriage). Born in 1791, during the period covered, Diana was between the ages of about 21 to 32. She filled multiple sketchbooks. (MRS HURST DANCING contains 70 of her paintings.)

Diana painted and drew informal and frequently humorous pictures of her family and friends, including her sister Isabella falling from a donkey, her mother swatting flies, and her brother Harry falling into a stream. A military review, country walks, dealing with a stubborn donkey are all captured, along with a spirited game of battledore and shuttlecock and the family at dinner. Fresh, lively and very personal, these paintings show the artist, her family and friends engaged in the normal activities about which one reads in the novels and letters of Jane Austen, providing a visual frame of reference. She had a third sketchbook for 1823-1833 which is not represented here. Diana married in 1834 at the age of 43 to Fred Luard Wollaston, and survived to the age of about 70. She died in 1862. Unfortunately, it appears that she stopped painting upon her marriage.

I recently received MAUD: The Illustrated Diary of a Victorian Woman, and find it fascinating. 

Caroline Maud Tomlinson was born in 1859 to William Tomlinson, a school master already 50 years old and his wife, possibly named Anne. She had several siblings who were much older, to whom she was not close, and a younger brother Hugh. Maud was 14 years old when Mr. Tomlinson retired, and 23 years old when they moved to the Isle of Wight. 

Flora Fraser adapted Maud’s diaries for the period 1888 (when Maud was 29 years old) to 1901. Her entries, which include sketches at water colours, address her family, friends, and her marriage in 1892 at age 33 to Colonel James Cavan Berkeley, an older widower with three daughters not much younger than his new bride. Interestingly, Maud had her first child after her husband’s daughters had left their home for their own lives. Maud’s diary entries continue into 1901, at which point she had had her third child, and announced that her diary keeping days were over as she would commence compiling albums for each of her children. It is no coincidence, I think, that this last entry cited includes a photograph of her children. Maud died in 1949, aged almost ninety. She lived through an era of great change, and her diary records her activities with her friends, her marriage, her stepdaughters, and all of the normal life events with great detail, including drawings of fashion, household duties, and her pets. She had an eye for detail and a great deal of humour which shows through her writing as well as her illustrations.

Another favourite of mine is THE COUNTRY DIARY OF AN EDWARDIAN LADY. This is different to the other two volumes, as it is more than a work of art, yet not primarily a diary of activities. Edith Blackwell Holden focused the 1906 journal on nature, not her daily routine (although there are hints here and there).

Thanks to the publication of this book in 1977, followed by a biography of Edith, we know a great deal more about Edith than we do about Diana or Maud. Edith was born September 26, 1871 in Kings Norton, Birmingham, England. Her mother was the former Emma Wearing, who had been a governess, and was the author of two religious books. Her father, Arthur Holden was a successful business man (Arthur Holden & Sons Paint Factory), a town councillor and philanthropist. They were Unitarians and spiritualists. A cousin was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician; Edith’s middle name was selected to honour Dr. Blackwell. One of seven children (she had four sisters and two brothers), Edith and her sisters were taught at home by their mother. At age 13, Edith was sent to the Birmingham School of Art, where she did extremely well. Two younger sisters followed her there. At age 19, one of Edith’s paintings was accepted by the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists for the Artists’ Exhibition. At the age of 20, in August of 1891, at the suggestion of her tutors at school, Edith became a residential student with Denovan Adam, an established artist, for a year, an unusual step for a young woman. Her work was exhibited several times between 1890-1907 at the Birmingham Society of Artists. She also had a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1907.

Edith taught art at the Solihull School for Girls from1906-1909. She created NATURE NOTES FOR 1906 as an example to assist her students. Organised by month, each month’s section contained beautiful and detailed illustrations of some combination of flowers, plants, birds, animals, reptiles and insects, which were identified, poems and mottos, and diary entries. She went on to work as a professional illustrator from 1907 on. Her illustrations were found in 4 volumes of the magazine “The Animal’s Friend” and children’s books, including BIRDS, BEASTS AND FISHES, THE THREE GOATS GRUFF and MRS. STRANG’S ANNUAL FOR CHILDREN.

In 1909, she gave up teaching and moved to London. Edith married Ernest Smith, a talented sculptor in 1911 (she was 40 and he was 30 years old). They lived in Chelsea, and she continued her work as an illustrator. Another of her paintings was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1917.

Edith drowned in the River Thames near the Kew Gardens Walk on March 16, 1920, at the age of 48. Her death was determined to be an accident. She had no children. NATURE NOTES FOR 1906 stayed in her husband’s family, finally inherited by a great-niece Rowena Stott, who arranged for publication in 1977. It became a best seller. Edith’s biography THE EDWARDIAN LADY: The Story of Edith Holden compiled by Ina Taylor was published in 1980. Much to everyone’s surprised, an unknown document, NATURE NOTES OF 1905 was found in Hampshire, in the possession of people unrelated to the family. The authorship was confirmed, and this was published in 1989 as THE NATURE NOTES OF AN EDWARDIAN LADY. It was also a best seller.

These three women, in their own individual ways, illustrated their lives. Through their art and, in the cases of Maud and Edith, their words, we can see something of what they experienced. Their works are not only delightful to study; they give us valuable insight on the lives of women in their respective times. I highly recommend all of these works, as they give glimpses of normal lives and different perspectives to time periods we may only know from history.


Fraser, Flora. MAUD: The Illustrated Diary of a Victorian Woman. 1987: Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

Holden, Edith. THE COUNTRY DIARY OF AN EDWARDIAN LADY. 1977: Webb & Bower Ltd, Exeter, England.

Sperling, Diana (watercolours) and Mingay, Gordon (text). Pictures (c) Neville Ollerenshaw. MRS. HURST DANCING & Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823. 1981: Photoset by Rowland Phototypesetting Ltd, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England. Green, T. George, H. INDEX TO THE MARRIAGE BONDS OF THE DIOCESE OF CLOYNE, IRELAND For the Years for the Years from 1630 to 1800, p. 88. 1899-1900: Guy & Co. Ltd, Cork. HERE “Diana Sperling, Artist.” (No author or post date shown.) HERE “Edith’s Biography.” (No author or post date shown.) HERE “Holden, Edith B. (1871-1920)” From WOMEN IN HISTORY: A Biographical Encyclopedia, (c) 2002: Gale Research Inc. HERE “Berkley, James Cavan 1839-1926” Catalogue Description. HERE


An avid reader, Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life. Lauren has a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. A long time member of JASNA, she has presented various programs at meetings of the South Florida region, and presented a breakout session at the Annual General Meeting in 2011. She lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is available. A second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is finally due out later this year. A long-time contributor to this blog, some of her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also researching material for a biography. For more information, visit her website here.


  1. Fascinating post. Thank you! I remember when THE COUNTRY DIARY OF AN EDWARDIAN LADY came out. It was indeed a big best seller. I believe there was even a yearly calendar for a while. A sure sign of success.

    1. It still seems to be quite popular. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for commenting.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.