Martha Ballard’s Diary

December 4, 2010 at 12:14 pm (books, research) (, , , , , , , , )


As I hone the earliest chapter of my book — which will set the tone for the whole, I pick up once again a book owned since 1990: A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, based on her Diary, 1785-1812.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich won the Pulitzer for this history of Martha Ballard, Hallowell (Maine), and Ballard’s life as midwife.

I remember well finding this book. We used to have a small “family” bookstore not too far from where I lived in Essex (this, in the years before stores like Burlington’s Chasman & Bem and then the mega-mega Barnes & Noble in South Burlington). In its earliest years it was called The Little Professor; another branch (same owner? I’ve no idea) did once exist on Church Street, in Burlington — but I’m not sure it was still there at this time. In both shops, there were creaky wooden floors, the cash to the right of the door, and simple shelves along the walls and in the middle of the store.

In Essex, I always took a look at the foreign coins on sale in the case straight ahead from the door; bought a couple over the years: British shillings and old Irish pence. Then you came to the modest “History” section. Just four or five shelves, with room to display some books face on, while others just showed their spine-titles.

Crouched to look at the shelves nearest the floor is how I came face-to-face with Martha Ballard. Was it the title? Maybe it sat with its front cover peering straight at you. But I can bet it was the earliest book based on a diary that I purchased; as well, the earliest in which a woman from some historical period of the past was discussed.

Needless to say, my collection has grown since!

But it is interesting, as my book begins with Mary Gosling’s travels, in particular to Oxford, and I envision the hubbub of readying horses and carriages in the stables attached to a grand London home of a rich banker, to see that Ulrich begins with the mighty river of the Kennebec – frozen river, rushing river, spring freshets. There is much for a writer to learn in READING the writing of others.

So I close this brief mention of Martha Ballard, by including a link to a long-standing website in which the original diary — in transcription as well as in its handwritten form — can be seen: DoHistory.org. It is also a great opportunity for blog  readers to see an original diary!

Few realize that I wear many hats in this research: research “assistant”, transcriber, typist among them. Pick up any published book by a well established writer and there’s someone who helps find material, someone else who prepares material for the author. Sometimes I feel like a one-man band! Just wish I could pursue it 24/7. So this website is a wonderful opportunity for readers to see not only an original document, but what can be done with and to it. I sure wish I had the possibility of ‘enhancing faded ink’, as mentioned on this page. And as I’ve worked both with microfilm as well as original documents, the photos displaying glare retouched and shadows lightened shows what technology can do.

I have had such “technology” thoughts, when transcribing Augusta Smith’s 1798 diary (the Mark Woodford Diary) — she must have recorded IN PENCIL many of her petty purchases and wins or losses at cards, now only faint indentations on the page. Each gives information about life in English society at that moment, and is precious; I managed to decipher just a few — I’m sure “technology” could uncover more. Though few beyond me would revel in such ‘trivia’.

An interesting item to note is Ulrich’s discussion of earlier uses of Martha Ballard’s diary: an 1870 history of Augusta, Maine by James W. North; another History of Augusta by Charles Elventon Nash, in which “a third” of Nash’s 600-page book consisted of an abridgement of Martha Ballard’s diary (mainly birth/death information evidently); as well as a 1970s “feminist” history of midwifery. Each time Ulrich gives readers what those earlier authors thought of Ballard’s diary: “with some exceptions not of general interest”, “trivial and unimportant”, “filled with trivia about domestic chores and pastimes”. But life is “trivia”-filled and often not more than “daily chores”. Whenever I read about The Memoir of Jane Austen or Henry Austen’s short “biography” being negatively cited because they claim that Austen’s life was nothing more than “uneventful”, I ask myself: whose life IS truly “eventful”?? I could never say mine is. So what do present-day English professors really want Austen’s life to have been characterized as? Was Martha Ballard’s life “eventful”? To her, even the tragedies of her life were just everyday occurrences. But that can never remove from lives like hers, like Austen’s, like Mary’s or Emma’s, the human drama bound up in that very “trivia” of daily life.

Ulrich discusses how Ballard would be nothing more in the history books than a birth date, a death date and in between notations of marriage and children. But — because her diary was written, kept and still exists — she too exists.

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1 Comment

  1. How do I love thee: The Browning Letters « Two Teens in the Time of Austen said,

    […] Martha Ballard’s Diary […]

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