Brontë and her diary

“The haughty sadness of grandeur beamed out of her intent fixed hazel eye, & though so young, I always felt as if I dared not have spoken to her for my life, how lovely were the lines of her small & rosy mouth, but how very proud her white brow, spacious & wreathed with ringlets, & her neck, which, though so slender, had the superb curve of a queen’s about the snowy throat.”

On Jan. 21, 2011, the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City opened a fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.” Introducing the exhibit were these thoughts:

“For centuries, people have turned to private journals to document their days, sort out creative problems, help them through crises, comfort them in solitude or pain, or preserve their stories for the future. As more and more diarists turn away from the traditional notebook and seek a broader audience through web journals, blogs, and social media, this exhibition explores how and why we document our everyday lives. With over seventy items on view, the exhibition raises questions about this pervasive practice: what is a diary? Must it be a private document? Who is the audience for the unfolding stories of our lives — ourselves alone, our families, or a wider group?”

Timeless questions … certainly legitimate ones for 21st century bloggers and tweeters. The exhibit, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to visit before its conclusion on May 21, featured work from the brightest stars of the literary galaxy. As quoted in the introductory essay, Henry David Thoreau aspired for his diary “to meet the facts of life — the vital facts — face to face.” Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife co-authored their diary to celebrate their new married life together. “I do verily believe there is no sunshine in this world, except what beams from my wife’s eyes,” he wrote. “I feel new as the earth which is just born again,” his wife later wrote in response.

St. Augustine and Anais Nin … Walter Scott and Tennessee Williams … William S. Burroughs and Charlotte Brontë … A prisoner from World War II and a police rescue worker from the 2001 World Trade Center attack — the range of work and creativity and purpose is just as astounding as the authors and the beautiful words this exhibit so elegantly celebrated.

The exhibit lives on online. In addition to the introductory essay, the website offers images of diary pages, diary excerpts, and essays on the authors.

Also included are audio readings of selected diaries by actors Paul Hecht and Barbara Feldon. Reading the diaries is, for me, a joy, but hearing them read to me is a special — and often quite romantic — experience.

This special series begins with Charlotte Brontë: “The haughty sadness of grandeur beamed out of her intent fixed hazel eye, & though so young, I always felt as if I dared not have spoken to her for my life, how lovely were the lines of her small & rosy mouth, but how very proud her white brow, spacious & wreathed with ringlets, & her neck, which, though so slender, had the superb curve of a queen’s about the snowy throat.”

Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin

‘Arch of rosy clouds’

Part 10 of this special series focuses on John Ruskin, an English writer, academic and critic who, like so many others presented in the Morgan Library exhibit, turned to a diary to assuage the pain of depression and anxiety.

This special Stillness of Heart series explores the Morgan Library & Museum’s fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.”

Part 10 focuses on John Ruskin, an English writer, academic, and critic who, like so many others presented in the Morgan Library exhibit, turned to a diary to assuage the pain of depression and anxiety. Ruskin, however, went a step further and used his diary as a primary resource in the study and analysis of his own disorder. As the introductory essay points out, Ruskin “was determined to study his own patterns and learn enough about himself to remain sane. … He re-read his earlier entries, searching for signs leading up to his breakdown, underlining key words and phrases, compiling an index of his experience, and putting down on paper all he could remember of his psychotic visions.”

“No getting things done in this house. Lost all yesterday calling on Marshalls in morning. Fine afternoon, throwing down stones in the wood with Diddie and Maggie. Exquisitest purple I ever saw on hills, in afternoon, and arch of rosy clouds all over old man [a nearby mountain] and opalescent green-blue and rose over blue Helvellyn, divine, but my evening spoiled by finding the poor chaffinch’s nest in ruins, and nestlings dying. A hawk, I fancy, pouncing on the mother;– not able to return for the brood. “

Examine images of his diary and listen to the museum’s audio guide here.

Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin

‘A child of love’

Part 9 of this special series focuses on Tennessee Williams, the famed playwright, who embraced his diary as shelter from the depressive snowstorms that ravaged his life

This special Stillness of Heart series explores the Morgan Library & Museum’s fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.”

Part 9 focuses on Tennessee Williams, the famed playwright, who embraced his diary as shelter from the depressive snowstorms that ravaged his life. Success, drugs, sensual companionship, even public accolades like a Pulitzer Prize (for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) all failed to calm his suffocating anxiety, loneliness, and despair.

“A child of love — dined on the terrace with the cathedral spires lit up and a mass choir singing Catalonian folks songs on the Square below. Then love — came twice, both ways, and divinely responsive as if a benign Providence, or shall we be frank and say God, had suddenly taken cognizance and pity of my long misery this summer and given me this night as a token of forgiveness.”

Examine images of his amazing diary and listen to the museum’s audio guide here.

Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin

‘A bold shore and no danger’

Part 8 of this series focuses on Bartholomew Sharpe, an incredibly daring English pirate and excellent navigator who preyed on Spanish sailors along the western coast of South America.

This special Stillness of Heart series explores the Morgan Library & Museum’s fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.”

Part 8 focuses on Bartholomew Sharpe, an incredibly daring English pirate and excellent navigator who preyed on Spanish sailors along the western coast of South America. Sharpe was sent back to England to be tried for murder in 1682, but he carried a secret gift for the king that he knew guaranteed his acquittal.

Examine images of his amazing diary and listen to the museum’s audio guide here.

Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin

‘I have deprived my family’

Part 7 of this series focuses on Walter Scott, a 19th century British author who fought depression and debt late in life with the inspiration and energy gained from keeping a journal.

This special Stillness of Heart series explores the Morgan Library & Museum’s fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.”

Part 7 focuses on Walter Scott, a 19th century British author who fought depression and debt late in life with the inspiration and energy gained from keeping a journal. Four six years, the book became the place for him to ponder the depths and causes of his lifelong sadness, celebrate and record the famous people that moved in and out of his life, and preserve a private life he hoped his family would appreciate long after he was gone.

“November 20th. I have all my life regretted that I did not keep a regular [diary]. I have myself lost recollection of much that was interesting and I have deprived my family and the public of some curious information by not carrying this resolution into effect.”

Examine images of his powerful diary and listen to the museum’s audio guide here.

Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin

‘He was nearly pulled apart’

Part 6 of this series focuses on Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet, a British couple who honeymooned in the United States and Canada in the 1840s.

This special Stillness of Heart series explores the Morgan Library & Museum’s fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.”

Part 6 focuses on Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet, a British couple who honeymooned in the United States and Canada in the 1840s. They wrote and illustrated a travel diary, recording — and often haughtily (and hilariously) criticizing — daily life in American society.

“On the boat’s arrival at her destination, the passengers were assailed by a mob of cabmen, porters &c who though not allowed to come on board the steamer quarreled about their passengers, and if any one ventured ashore and presumed to scorn their offer he was nearly pulled to pieces for his temerity.”

Examine images of their wonderful diary and listen to the museum’s audio guide here.

Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin

‘A strange vanity’

Part 5 of this series focuses on John Newton, a British slave trafficker and later a minister who wrote ‘Amazing Grace.’

This special Stillness of Heart series explores the Morgan Library & Museum’s fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.”

Part 5 focuses on John Newton, a British slave trafficker and later a minister who wrote “Amazing Grace.” Throughout his adult life, he struggled with his religious faith and with his views on slavery, and the diary captured in daily detail the long, tumultuous spiritual journey he made. In the end, as the exhibit essay explains, Newton simply hoped that someday he “would serve as inspiration to others.”

“I have been reading what I have recorded of my experience in the last year – a strange vanity. I find myself condemn’d in every page[.] But the Lord is good, O how gracious! How wonderfully has he born with my repeated backslidings! And yet the thought but faintly affects. What I can I will – Lord I am not able to praise thee, accept the desire, which I trust is thine own gift – deliver me from that pride, impurity & self seeking, which so fatally interrupt my progress.”

Examine images of the extraordinary diary and listen to the museum’s audio guide here.

Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin

‘Happiness has no succession of events’

Part 3 in this series focuses on Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, newlyweds who co-authored a diary celebrating their new lives together.

This special Stillness of Heart series explores the Morgan Library & Museum’s fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.”

Part 3 focuses on Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, newlyweds who co-authored a diary celebrating their new lives together.

“Happiness has no succession of events; because it is a part of eternity, and we have been living in eternity, ever since we came to this old Manse. Like Enoch, we seem to have been translated to the other state of being, without having passed through death.”

Examine images of their heart-swelling diary and listen to the museum’s audio guide here.

Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin

‘I woke with a feeling of agony’

This special series explores the Morgan Library & Museum’s fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.” Part 2 focuses on Frances Eliza Grenfell, whose parents forbid her to spend her life with the man she loved. So she secretly wrote him letters, spilling her broken heart and feverish longings, page after page after page.

This special Stillness of Heart series explores the Morgan Library & Museum’s fascinating exhibit, “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives.”

Part 2 focuses on Frances Eliza Grenfell, whose parents forbid her to spend her life with the man she loved. So she secretly wrote him letters, spilling her broken heart and feverish longings, page after page after page.

“I dreamt a long letter came from you, & I opened it, Oh! how well I can see it now, & as I was eagerly beginning the first page, I woke with a feeling of agony, for to have read it in a dream w[oul]d have been a blessing. I slept again; & again a long long letter was brought to me in your hand – I opened it, I found it was my own writing inside – the Journal I had kept for you.”

Examine images of her beautiful diary and listen to the museum’s audio guide here.

Entries in this series:
Part 1: Introduction to the exhibit and Charlotte Brontë
Part 2: Frances Eliza Grenfell
Part 3: Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne
Part 4: Paul Horgan
Part 5: John Newton
Part 6: Mary Ann and Septimus Palairet
Part 7: Walter Scott
Part 8: Bartholomew Sharpe
Part 9: Tennessee Williams
Part 10: John Ruskin