Despite the fact that Portland native Mary T. Perley rarely wrote more than one or two lines in her diaries per day, which span the decades between 1860 and 1904, it is clear she led a rich life. With an appetite for learning and close with her four sisters and three brothers, Mary traveled extensively throughout her life, taught herself French, attended plays and concerts; she also attended the 1888 International Women’s Council in Washington D.C.
The contrast between her diaries and those of Lucy C. Williams is stark. Lucy was writing on Vinalhaven in the 1980′s and 90′s, and her diaries paint a much more isolated and unhappy picture than those of the well-traveled Perley. As I worked on processing Mary’s small collection of journals, I found myself wondering at the differences in their lives. Mary had seen her fair share of tragedy, having lost both her husband and young son, and she never remarried, but this did not stop her from engaging fully in the world, in a way Lucy – who also faced loss in her personal life – never seemed to manage.
Age could certainly be a factor. Mary was a good deal younger than Lucy when she began traveling, but she was 54 when she went on a three month trip to Bermuda in 1885 – a time when Bermuda was not a plane ride away – and at the time of her last entry in 1904, she was 73 and still traveled up and down the eastern seaboard to visit friends. Rather, I think it was a combined barrier of class and depression that kept Lucy so isolated. She often wrote of her worries over heating bills, and relied heavily on her garden, as well as the support of her community, to keep herself afloat during long Vinalhaven winters. Mary, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Portland area judge and counted people like U.S. senator William Pitt Fessenden, who was also Secretary of Treasury under President Lincoln, amongst her traveling companions. Despite living during a time when women were not even allowed the right to vote, Mary was likely afforded a good deal more privilege and agency than Lucy.
Comparing the two women feels a bit like apples and oranges, considering the different eras in which they lived (although Lucy was born only 8 years after Mary’s death), but as I read Mary’s sparse entries, I found myself thinking about Lucy a lot. Her diaries were often extremely personal, leaving the impression that the pages of her daily planner were the one place she felt comfortable sharing these thoughts. I doubt she talked openly of her depression to many people. Mary was the opposite. As I mentioned, her entries rarely exceed two lines and, for the most part, simply relate an event – a visit, a letter, an event. On the day of her husband’s death, she wrote only, “Alone today and forever on Earth.” Perhaps she was not a particularly emotive person, but my speculation is that whatever thoughts she had concerning the events she recorded were thoughts she shared with the many people in her life. Lucy had an extremely layered internal life, while Mary was perhaps more the extrovert, spending all her time out in the world and surrounded by people. Ultimately, both collections provide remarkable insight into the lives of two Maine women who lived generations apart and both are valuable examples of why it is so important to be saving the diaries and journals of ordinary people.