[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 23 February 2017.]
As I complete publishing excerpts from the 1865 volume, the final year in what I hope will be a single-volume account of the Civil War in the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, it seems like a good time to revisit a Gray diary primer from 2017.
Certain diaries, and their authors, become short-hand for a time and place: Samuel Pepys’s diary of seventeenth-century London, for example, or Anne Frank’s diary of wartime Amsterdam. The diaries of Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong are often invoked to cover the first half of the nineteenth century in New York; for the Civil War years, readers turn to Mary Boykin (Miller) Chesnut’s Diary from Dixie (1905). Although rich in literary resources, Boston lacks such a diary for the mid-Victorian period. Boston men and women of the period wrote enduring works of fiction and non-fiction, but for this generation no Boston diarist has emerged to capture the tone of the times.
Among the treasures of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (founded in a building on Beacon Hill in 1845) is the twenty-five volume diary of Hedwiga Regina (Shober) Gray (1818–1885). Begun on the first day of 1860, when Mrs. Gray was a bustling matron of 41, the diary concludes on 28 December 1884: “The 24th, a snowy, dark day, was my 66th birthday. (I doubt if I ever see another.)”
[A] subject worthy of her qualities. . . .
In Regina Gray are united several features that make her a superlative diarist. Some were contingent – her sex, her city of origin, her status as a poor relation – but in fact it was her intelligence and humor, and a drive to record her times, that makes the diary live. In its pages she has a subject worthy of her qualities, since by the end of 1860 a civil war between America’s northern and southern states seems inevitable.
The first requirement in a diarist is the ability to see, and then to record what one sees. Mrs. Gray sees (and hears) everything:
A most lovely day; how delicious it must be at Manchester. That is a truly charming seashore place – I should be quite content to spend our vacation there every summer. It was rather aggravating, to be sure, to watch the rising tide swell dreamily up and, falling, ebb sleepily out of our quiet cove, and know all the time with what a sun-lighted green glory the long Atlantic rollers were surging grandly up the white sands & weed-draped rocks just outside, within sound, but out of sight, where the long ocean-swell is ever gathering up its threatening sea-green water-wall, only at last to fling its proudly curved crest down upon the waiting sands, or fall back in a mad frenzy of white foam and scattering spray from the ever baffling yet ceaseless conflict.
I never weary of the ocean – all day long can I sit entranced with its sameness which is yet never quite the same – its variety which is ever renewing and repeating itself. The utterance of its great voice thrills me like a grand organ peal – with its roar and surge, and sullen plunge, and sweet lapsing flow of mingling & receding waters – a glorious monotone, in which there is yet no trace of monotony. (18 September 1860)
To the diarist’s skill with the pen is added needed distance: she can, as an outsider, be objective. As an insider (a well-connected “lady” from Philadelphia married into a prominent Boston family), she is privy to the news and gossip of the day. She is part of a network of women bound by ties of blood, marriage, and affiliation, and she can extract a novel’s worth of feeling from a chance meeting on the street:
Walked up Beacon St. with Thomas Frothingham yesterday. He looked very pale and worn, but talked calmly of his losses. His oldest and youngest boys – one lying unburied at home, the other laid to rest a week or 10 days since – both of water on the brain. He held his last child, a girl of 4 years, by the hand – I was glad to understand that his wife had the sweet hope of another in prospect for next summer. He says she is a brave hearted woman and does not repine – but it must be a terrible blow to them. (17 February 1862)
Regina Shober first visited Boston in 1831, following her father’s second marriage, and thereafter she made frequent trips from Philadelphia to visit Mrs. Shober’s family. As a result, when she married Dr. Francis Henry Gray in 1844, Boston was already well known to her, and she was soon taken into a sewing circle. The Grays had five children between 1846 and 1856: her children’s friends, and their parents, formed another network of relationships for the diarist to mine.
It is the intersection of these successive circles that forms the body of the diary: almost everyone who is not a member of her family (or her husband’s family, or Mrs. Shober’s family) is referred to by name in full. The members of her sewing circle are listed as Mrs. N. Hooper and Mrs. Alanson Tucker, although sometimes greater intimacy leads to a given name (Margaret Tucker) being employed. Elderly ladies are sometimes Madam Pratt; even intimate older friends are Mrs. Lyman or Mrs. I. P. Davis. Her contemporaries can be Miss Grant or Miss Ticknor, Mrs. Sam Rodman or Mrs. Lowell. Only family or old and intimate friends merit first names: Emily, or even E.M.A., denotes Emily Adams, whose brother Charles was once engaged to the diarist’s sister Sue; Rebecca Wainwright, a friend from childhood and an -in-law, is the Gray children’s Aunt Rebecca or R.P.W.
Mrs. Gray calls her husband Dr. Gray; once, when he faints at home, she refers to him, jarringly, as Frank. Her siblings and Dr. Gray’s siblings have nicknames and their respective sets of initials, while the diarist’s sister Mary (Moll, M.M.S.) has a name bestowed by Mrs. Gray’s children: Am Mai, for Aunt Mary.
It is the intersection of these successive circles that forms the body of the diary. . . .
The result is a mixture of formality and informality that is surprising to modern eyes. Yet the diary surges on like the waves at Manchester, from dancing classes to lectures to intensive sessions with that modern marvel, the sewing machine; from battle reports of Vicksburg or Richmond to an appraisal of the Grays’ new minister at King’s Chapel, a list of recently-engaged couples, or sad stories of deaths from diphtheria or cholera.
And Mrs. Gray’s diary is, finally, a chronicle largely arrayed around Boston Common. Her friends lived in houses stretching from Beacon Hill (Beacon, Bowdoin, Chestnut, Hancock, and Mount Vernon Streets) down Park Street to a line of houses, all long-since demolished, on Tremont Street, thence along Boylston Street to the new Back Bay, with a focus on Arlington Street, Commonwealth Avenue, and (again) Beacon Street. The 1842 Sewing Circle sometimes met in Chester Square, in the South End, but Mrs. Gray was apt to leapfrog the Back Bay development to her numerous friends living in Roxbury, or perhaps in the country in Dorchester and Brookline.
When she wasn’t working with seamstresses on the never-ending project of clothing her children, she was out calling on friends and acquaintances; in the process she collected information she wove together into a lasting document. The 1860–65 diary is a fitting introduction to Mrs. Gray, who comes to life in its pages.
 All entries from the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.