19th Century Harford County Woman Remains Tight-Lipped In Diary
The prospect of reading someone else’s private thoughts is, of course, enticing; that’s why young women guard access to their diaries with an elaborate system of locked boxes and combinations. A diary should be the perfect beach read--embarrassing, salacious, hyperpersonal, and yet endearingly human. Reading a diary should feel like catching your best friend picking her nose while she’s sitting on the toilet.
Maybe the definition of "diary" has changed in the last 150 years. Priscilla "Mittie" Munnikhuysen--later Bond--kept a diary from May 1858 until July 1865. She left her home in Harford County when she married and moved to her husband’s sugar plantation in the muggy swamps of southern Louisiana. The Civil War broke out, her husband fled to another state, she didn’t get along with his family, and she was slowly dying. In January 1866 she finally succumbed to her chronic tuberculosis at the age of 27. Now published in full as A Maryland Bride in the Deep South: The Civil War Diary of Priscilla Bond, with a few personal letters and an introduction and extensive footnotes by Kimberly Harrison, the diary is a laborious read, despite the built-in drama of the Civil War setting and Mittie’s failing health.
But except for a few scant passages, it’s difficult to make any connection to this young woman--even though she’s just around my age and a distant relation, born on a farm with her extended family 10 miles from my family’s home, socializing with the ancestors of current Harford County residents. If any casual reader would be fascinated by such a diary, I should be--if not for the content, then for the familiar names and places. She seems relatively intelligent, writing decent if trite poetry and recording the smart-ass comments she makes to her mother-in-law and the tight-fisted merchant’s wife.
But, dammit, Mittie just isn’t very interesting--at least as far as what she put on paper. It’s not really her fault, although you do wonder how she could possibly find it important to so meticulously record her social calendar and the weather. The first 200 pages are composed almost exclusively of passages very similar to the following: "Thursday 19th, George Vanbiber called this morning, Mary and Delia Archer, Peggie Bond & Dr. Archer spent the evening. Dr. A. took sister Fannie riding. Rained after supper. Friday morning 20th, Very cloudy and disagreeable. Mr. Stump called this afternoon. Dr. Archer brought sister Fannie home from uncle Jim’s. Saturday 21st, I am very sick today, have a bad cold and cough. Lovely day..."
And so on. She agonizes over her sinfulness without letting us in on any juicy specifics of what she calls her "evil desires." She laments her poor health, but her musings on death and the afterlife are cliché--and this is a dying woman, remember, so she must be partially in earnest. She questions her relationship with her beau, later her husband, Howard Bond, but doesn’t say why. You keep waiting for some scandalous--or, at least, something mildly provocative--details of their courtship, but Mittie stays mum, even in the week after her wedding night. We all know you did it, Mittie. What’d you think?
Complaining that the diary itself is boring is both unfair and a moot point, since Mittie wasn’t writing to entertain and an editor can’t rewrite a primary source. In her introduction, Harrison defends her choice not to make substantial edits as protecting the original intentions of Mittie’s writings without interpreting her words through a modern perspective. Fine, then, a few critical essays to draw out the more fascinating elements and fill us in on 19th-century Southern culture would have done just fine. The introduction is a good start, but Mittie’s diary works better as a reference text than the main event.
Luckily, the story picks up somewhat when Mittie moves to Louisiana. Her mother-in-law is a raging bitch who admits she wishes her son had never married. Her father-in-law is a merciless, whip-wielding slave owner. Most of the local men are gun-happy drunks. We discover that Mittie is a Confederate sympathizer, and that she can be brazen at times--she calls her mother-in-law out for being unkind, in front of guests, and reproaches an acquaintance that "she would sell her soul for a dime"--and at one point, very fleetingly, she contemplates suicide. Unfortunately, although she lets more personal detail slip in the wartime turmoil than she did while at home in Maryland, Mittie’s writings soften, filter, and so restrain all the action around her that the words almost always sounds hollow.
But maybe that just means that when her personality does come through it takes on poignant significance. She writes down some dumb jokes she heard ("When does the farmer act with rudeness towards his corn? When he pulls its ears."); she mentions that an acquaintance wrote to her mother-in-law as though Mittie was already dead; and thinking that Howard had abandoned her at the end of the war, she removes her wedding ring: "it almost felt like a snake around my finger." Too bad these parts are very few and far between.
Poor Mittie. Poor, sick, isolated, dead Mittie, beset on all sides in life, and now her far-off relative is disparaging her boring diary. But with the right material surrounding it, condensing the unwieldy bulk into a thorough study of its themes and context, referencing specific sections--if someone else would have slogged through the interminable religious passages and weather reports and plucked out the good stuff--her diary could have made it into the beach bag.