My song today is ’Diary’. This song was written and produced by David Gates and released by his band ‘Bread’ in 1972. It spent 11 weeks on the ‘Billboard Hot 100’ chart, peaking at No. 15 while reaching Number 3 on ‘Billboard’s Easy Listening’ chart.
Most of us use a diary these days to jot down important occasions, addresses, or birthday reminders. They tend to be used more by women than men, but that is more of a historic throwback to the Victorian times when diary use was more prominent in the bedrooms of women and girls as opposed to the writing desks of some men, but with several significant exceptions. Many authors and politicians, preachers, and cooks would use diaries. Such famous diarists included William Cobbett: Samuel Pepys: Anne Frank: Isabella Mary Beeton, and the rather less well-known, Adelaide Pountney.
Like all good diaries, Adelaide Pountney's ‘The Diary of a Victorian Lady’ provide written scenes from two years of her Daily Life (1864-1865). The diary gives its readers the chance to imagine the life of its author between the lines. Such diary entries include the daily round of walks and shopping, visiting the homes of others, churchgoing, homemaking, and charity work.
There were many famous people who became poets, writers, and diarists of ‘World War 1’. Many of them would often first note their ideas, observations, and witnessed experiences in a small pocket diary which would be later written up more fully. Such famous scribblers/poets/ writers included people like Wilfred Owen: Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke to name but a few.
Keeping a diary has been a practice of many women ever since Victorian times. Often, with women being regarded as second-class citizens to their menfolk throughout all Victorian classes, the middle classes females, along with those women from the upper classes would invariably keep a dairy that was literally locked to prevent the contents from being seen by anyone other than the author of the diary. Prior to the late 1930s, women were generally discouraged by the male society of publicly expressing their view in the company of others as such practice was considered ‘impolite’ and ‘unladylike’ for women to worry their pretty little minds upon a wide range of serious topics like religion, politics, and topics of war. Such matters were best left to their menfolk to discuss and deal with while ‘the little woman’ ran the home in the absence of her marital master. Living in such restrictive times, the only way a woman could express her opinions and views was if she kept them in her private diary. In many ways, it was a secret practice of silently expressing the feminine viewpoint.
My dear friend, Etta Denton, who acted as my substituted mother when my own mother died in the mid-1980s (and who lived to 94 years of age before she too died in the late 1990s), was the perfect example of a polite lady diarist. Etta was born at the turn of the century into the working-class home of strict Methodist parents; a time when the Victorian Age gave way to Edwardian society. Etta kept a diary (indeed, many diaries) between her teenage years up until a few weeks before she died. She was a clever woman who was widely read, but like many girls of her time, education was seen as an experience for the better-class male student. She started working in the mill as a girl of barely fifteen but had to give it up when her disabled mother became bedridden. From her twentieth year of life until her 70th year, Etta worked as a full-time carer to a bedridden mother. She also undertook additional roles as a housekeeper to her father and brother, and a general dog’s body and servant to all. After her mother died, Etta remained a housekeeper to her father and bachelor brother until he also died. In short, apart from a few years of millwork in her mid-teenage years, Etta experienced no normal childhood, and it was only in her 70Safter both parents and brother had died before Etta became free to pursue her own life.
Etta remained a spinster throughout her long life, and the only love she ever had beyond reading her books, studying her bible, and playing her piano on a Sunday afternoon was a soldier sweetheart who she secretly met and saw on a Sunday afternoon for an hour. Her parents would never have tolerated Etta seeing any man, especially after her mother became bedbound. She was too valuable a family asset to lose to a marriage union with any man. Hence all contact with young men was discouraged and deeply frowned upon. Her continued spinsterhood was essential to the smooth functioning of the parental home. Etta had been brought up in the strict Methodist tradition and remained highly obedient to parental wishes which she would never have openly defied. Indeed, the only secret she ever kept from her parents and brother was the love of her young man who she saw briefly and secretly every Sunday afternoon. She knew that was that knowledge to be known to her father, she would have been turned out of the family home. For over one year, Etta wrestled with an uneasy conscience as she continued to deceive her parents about her Sunday afternoon walks ‘alone’ while she would secretly meet up with her man friend.
Etta and her sweetheart would meet on a Sunday afternoon where they would snatch the briefest of time together. Crunch time appeared on the horizon when he was called up to serve as a soldier overseas in the ‘Second World War’. The couple was in love with each other, and they made a secret pact to marry after the war was over, whether Etta’s parent’s approved or not. Her soldier sweetheart would post his letters to Etta from the front line via Etta’s lifelong friend, Mary Milner. Mary had worked at the same mill as Etta when they were young women, and she left to marry her husband around the same time as Etta had to give up the mill job to care for her bed-bound mother, father, and bachelor brother.
For the first two years of war, Mary Milner (unknown to her husband) would act as ‘go-between’ post mistress and post man regarding her friend’s love letters to and from her soldier sweetheart. Not daring to risk-taking her sweetheart’s letters home with her, Etta would read them at Mary’s house; then after committing as much as she could to memory, she would burn them. When she arrived back home, she would then transcribe as much of what she could remember from her sweetheart’s letter into her diary, which she locked, and which never left her bedroom. During the week ahead, and before her next visit to see her friend, Mary Milner, Etta would write a letter of reply to her soldier sweetheart and Mary would post it on her behalf.
Sadly, Etta’s soldier sweetheart died during the war, and though Etta was extremely saddened by her loss, it was a loss that she had to carry alone. Only she and her friend Mary knew about the secret relationship with her soldier sweetheart. Indeed, Mary Milner would not even dare tell her husband that she acted as ‘go-between’ for Etta and her sweetheart soldier, knowing that he would have strongly disapproved and prevented her from continuing to see Etta if he ever found out. Like many women in her situation after the war, Etta could not officially mourn the loss of her secret soldier sweetheart, or even visit his grave. Being a spinster, she was left to grieve alone in the privacy of her own sorrow and bedroom. Etta’s friend, Mary Milner, died almost ten years before her older friend. One month before Etta died, I stayed at her house during the day and slept there every night once we knew from the doctor that she had not long left to live. We were like mother and son, ever since the start of our relationship. Being forever fearful of her one day having to enter an old folk’s home, I promised Etta early on in our relationship that she would be accommodated at my house with my family before I would ever allow that to happen. Apart from one surviving niece, Etta had nobody else whom she viewed as being family, and knowing in advance of her death that she would never become the reluctant resident of an old folk’s home, provided her with the only reassurance she ever needed from me.
During her last two weeks of life, Etta revealed to me for the first time, her love for her soldier sweetheart and how she had been obliged to keep their association secret from her family and the rest of the world. She revealed his name to have been ‘Bill’ (the same name as mine), and occasionally when she talked about him, she would refer to one of her many diaries in which she wrote about him or something he had said to her. In her last week of life, Etta asked me to fetch her a book upstairs to her bedroom from the oak book cabinet in her lounge. She asked me to open the book at a certain page, and when I did, I found a pressed flower which Bill had given her over fifty years earlier before he was called up to serve in the war.
When Etta died, I arranged for her funeral and administered her estate. I also ensured that inside her closed coffin, placed in her hand, was the pressed flower that her sweetheart Bill had given her before he became a soldier and died fighting for his country. There was only one place suitable for her private thoughts, so I also ensured that her most personal diaries were placed beside her in her coffin so that she would have something loving to read as soon as she arrived in heaven. Mum Etta left me her old house and its contents, and I kept one of her earlier diaries for myself. This was a diary that has no mention of Bill in it and pertains to her sixtieth year of life onwards. God rest her soul. I love you, Etta Denton.
Your adopted son Bill xxx
PS: After Etta’s death, I wrote a poem of the love she felt for her soldier sweetheart, Bill, along with all the other single women who lost soldier sweethearts in the war, and because they were not officially engaged or married were left to mourn their loss alone, as Etta had. My dear late friend, Vera Lynn encouraged me to publish it more widely one day. It is entitled, ‘Arthur and Guinevere’ as Etta and Bill’s love for each other turned out to be ‘the love that could not be’, just like the Knight, Lancelot, and Queen Guinevere of Camelot.
Love and peace Bill xxx