History often tends to record a primarily male perspective. The letters of great men have survived, where those of their womenfolk have not. That these are of prime importance is not disputed, but where the letters documenting the military, political and business dealings of the male world can easily be found in various record offices and repositories around the globe, the gossipy letters of their wives, sisters and daughters, more often than not, have been lost to us. And those gossipy letters are what interests me most.
And so it was that, with idle curiosity my only motive, I sat down at the County Archives Office in Lincoln to view the diary of Miss Jane Reeve.
The diarist was the daughter of William Reeve Esquire, of Leadenham Hall and, in 1808 when she was writing her diary, was a young unmarried woman of 22 years. I have debated, in writing this, whether to share with you the additional knowledge I had of Jane before reading her diary; is it wise to reveal an unhappy ending at the beginning of a tale? However, to understand the poignancy with which I read this diary, it is necessary to know that poor Jane died in the year she commenced writing this diary, before even the spring flowers were fully in bloom.
It was a slightly discomforting experience to read the diary, a personal and private journal belonging to someone else, even with a distance of more than two hundred years between Jane and myself. Added to this, to read at the beginning of the diary, the hopes Jane had for that coming year was almost heartbreaking.
January started quietly enough for Jane, at home in Leadenham, with her Mama and younger sister Millicent Mary for company, but then the excitement of the local elections provided a diversion from her usual routine. On the 6th of January she ‘arrived at Lincoln at one o’clock, the town all in a bustle about ye election, went to the Ball introduced by Uncle King to Col. Harcourt wished most sincerely for him & danced with his friend Mr. Howard.’ I have a feeling that Miss Jane Reeve would be horrified by my suggesting it, but there is a hint that she was more than a little attracted by Colonel Harcourt, as he warrants a few more entries in her diary. Indeed, she bumped into him the very next day, after walking in Lincoln Minster with her sister Millicent (referred to as Mili in the diary).
7th Jan. Mili and I walked in ye Minster, returned home were delighted at seeing Col. Harcourt’s party who stood some time before the House, the Col. with Uncle K. came in……..
8th Jan. After breakfast six favors sent us by the Col., was happy in sporting one & flourished out of town with true blue, sorry to leave the interesting scene.
After all the fun home seemed a little dull on Jane’s return the next day. Colonel George William Richard Harcourt, a godson of King George III and a handsome military hero, was aged 32 at the time of the Lincoln election in 1808. He stood as a friend of government, at the time nominally Tory. Jane might have wished Harcourt to be the victor, but he lost the election to Lord Mexborough by 348 votes to 639. The total costs of the election for both Mexborough and Harcourt were estimated at the time as being not less than 25,000 to 30,000l., and it is recorded that Harcourt left many bills unpaid and went abroad soon after.
Though living in genteel obscurity in the country Jane was on visiting terms with some of the best families in Lincolnshire. On the 12th January she visited General and Mrs Manners at Bloxholm, relations of the Duke of Rutland and on the following day Mrs and Miss Chaplin called to fetch Jane and Mili to Blankney Hall for a short stay where there was a party of people their age. January 14th was spent working and gossiping during the day, and then gossiping again after dinner whilst the gentlemen played whist. Jane mentions that, despite the fun, she felt ‘rather flat, did not to my sorrow spot Col. Harcourt.’ Jane and Mili’s Mama arrived the next day to escort them back home whilst the rest of the Blankney party set out for a Ball at Newark.
And so life returned to a quiet round of visiting local families, needlework and reading, until the excitement of a visit to London. Setting out on Friday 22nd January, with her Papa, they visited both Fineshade [Abbey] in Northamptonshire to stay for a few days, home of Colonel the Hon. John Monckton, also Great Stukeley Hall in Huntingdonshire to stay overnight with Mr James Torkington and his family. Jane played chess with Mr Torkington after dinner. The next day, accompanied by Mr Torkington, Jane and her Papa completed their journey and arrived in London. Whilst the menfolk stayed elsewhere, Jane took a room with her Aunt King.
Jane and Aunt King spent the time shopping and sight-seeing, taking in St. Paul’s, the Tower of London, the British Museum and Kensington Gardens. Papa visited, sometimes taking breakfast or dinner with Jane and her aunt, as did Jane’s elder brother, John. Jane no doubt enjoyed the bright lights of the big city; she mentions going to the opera, which she enjoyed and dines out several times.
Sadly though, on February 5th she mentions visiting a play at Covent Garden with a large party, only to record that she is ‘perfectly happy except no real pleasure.’ Her last full day in London, February 6th, was spent being rushed around with a Miss Manners, taking in Westminster Abbey, the House of Lords and Commons and the Court of the King’s Bench, and the next day she left the metropolis in company with her Papa and brother. Taking a detour, they stayed in Cambridge for three days, looking around the colleges, before starting on the journey home to Leadenham.
John travelled with them as far as Wansford before bidding his sister goodbye, not knowing that it would be for the last time. Jane and her Papa once more stayed at Fineshade where they had a quiet family dinner. Jane records that the weather was terribly cold; they had only planned to stay for two nights but were delayed by a day from returning home as a heavy snowstorm fell. The journey was continued despite the snow and in company with Colonel Monckton, getting as far as Stamford on the first day before finally arriving home again on February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day. Jane is no doubt relieved, recording in her diary her happiness in being home.
After having faithfully recorded the events of every day of the year so far, there is a gap until the 22nd February when Jane writes that the weather was terribly cold and that she has spent the day in writing, etc. She gives no reason for neglecting her diary for the previous week. And, with that short entry on February 22nd, Jane’s entries into her diary cease altogether.
A different hand writes an entry on the 3rd of March:
Dear Jane departed this life at half past six in the evening aged 22 the 2nd of
January is struck through, and March pencilled in; the writer was too distressed to notice her mistake at the time and corrected it later. A further entry, in the same hand, records Jane’s funeral which took place at 2 o’clock on the afternoon of the 9th of March.
The Leadenham parish burial registers confirm her burial on that day, ‘Jane, eldest daughter of William Reeve Esq.’
The author of these last two entries was Jane’s sister, Mili. Her identity is revealed by three subsequent entries in Jane’s diary in the same hand and signed as Millicent Mary Reeve. Still distraught two years later, in an entry dated 2nd March 1810 Mili wrote a further entry, observing that two years had passed since she said farewell to her sister. She writes again on 9th March 1810, the two dates having a painful significance for her, again imploring that she may be as good as her sister was.
Her final entry, and the last in the diary is a further lamentation for her loss of both a sister and a friend, dated 19th July 1814.
Distant View of Lincoln by Edmund John Niemann. The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery).