Sunday, January 19, 2014

Gillespie's Diary

I finished reading Emily Hawley Gillespie's diary (an abridged version, of course) last Sunday, and I've been meaning to blog about it.

It's a funny thing, when you read a diary that someone kept for over 30 years, you start to feel like you knew them somehow.  So I was seriously bummed out when, in the final three years of her life, Gillespie became extremely ill.

She died in 1888 at age 49.  She was only 4 years old than I am right now.

Gillespie felt that a life of hardship as a farmer's wife drove her to an early grave; during the last years of her life, she began to experience paralysis and edema.

Her husband, James, claimed it was all in her head, that she was making it up to get out of work.

In the last decade of her life, Gillespie's marriage unraveled to such an extent that she and her husband ultimately separated, although she never obtained a divorce.  He was prone to fits of rage and, at one point, Gillespie was forced to flee and seek legal protection from him.

In the mid-1870's, she was compelled to sign the deed to their farm back over to him.  He had initially signed it over to her, a fact of which she was extremely proud.  Some scholars speculate that he did so to avoid losing it to creditors.

Gillespie was eventually forced to sign the farm back over to her husband, against her own wishes, because after her mother's death, her father, Hial Hawley, showed up on her doorstep and expected to be taken care of for the remainder of his life.

Because Gillespie was better off financially than her brother or sister, the burden of supporting her father would have legally fallen on her.  Lawyers advised her to sign the farm back over to her husband, otherwise she would be required by the county to provide for her father.

Not surprisingly, Gillespie's diary entries became increasingly bitter about the lot of women and the confines of marriage.  Her work was not valued, she was often not allowed to keep any money that she earned, and her life was one of relative isolation.  In one year, she received an average of 6 visits per month.  She herself went visiting three times.  She went to the nearest city, Manchester, three times.  Otherwise, she was confined to the farm and consumed by the labor of the farm.

As the years rolled on, her husband became increasingly abusive (both physically and emotionally) and would often suffer from suicidal fits of anger.  She regretted the fact that she hadn't left him when she had the chance.

As Judy Nolte Lensink writes in her concluding essay about Gillespie's life, Gillespie's regrets were not at all atypical.  In a study of letters and diaries written by women in St. Petersburg, Virginia between the years 1784-1860, Suzanne Lebsock noted that "one-third were miserably married; another third 'wrote as though their husbands lived on some other planet'" (Lebsock, qtd. in Lensink, 372).

Those aren't good odds: one third are miserable and one third feel like they're dealing with an alien.

In 2010, Natalie Merchant (formerly the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs) set a poem, written in 1897 by Laurence Alma-Tadema, to music.

It's called, "If No One Ever Marries Me."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."