The characteristic medieval theory about women, thus laid down and debated, was the creation of two forces, the Church and the Aristocracy, and it was extremely inconsistent. The Church and the Aristocracy were not only often at loggerheads with each other, but each was at loggerheads with itself, and both taught the most contradictory doctrines, so that women found themselves perpetually oscillating between a pit and a pedestal. […]

But the theory about women, inconsistent and the work of a small articulate minority as it was, was only one factor in determining their position and it was the least important factor. The fact that it received a voluminous and often striking literary expression has given it a somewhat disproportionate weight, and to arrive at the real position of women it is necessary constantly to equate it with daily life, as revealed in more homely records. The result is very much what common sense would indicate, for in daily life the position occupied by woman was one neither of inferiority nor of superiority, but of a certain rough-and-ready equality. This equality was as marked in the feudal as in the working classes; indeed it allowed the lady of the upper classes considerably more scope than she sometimes enjoyed at a much later period, for example, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

C. G. Crump & E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1951)

Plashet, Eleventh Month, 1815

It has pleased Almighty and Infinite Wisdom, to take from us our most dear and tenderly-beloved child, little Betsy; between four and five years old. In  receiving her, as well as giving her back again, we have, I believe, been enabled to bless the Sacred Name. On Third day, the 21st after some suffering of body from great sickness, she appeared wonderfully relieved, and I may say raised in spirit; she began by telling me how many hymns and stories she knew, with her countenance greatly animated, A flush on her cheeks, and her eyes very bright, a smile of inexpressible content, almost joy-I think she first said with a powerful voice, ‘How glorious is our Heavenly King, who reigns above the sky”. […] This was expressed on the Third day morning, and she was a corpse on the Fifth day evening; but in her death, there was abundant calls for Thanksgiving; prayer appeared in deed to be answered, as very little, if any suffering seemed to attend her, and no struggle at last; but her breath grow more and more seldom and gentle, till she ceased to breathe.

—Elizabeth Fry

It sounds like one of those deathbed scenes beloved of Victorian novels which strike a little cord in our contemporary experience, but the fact remains: it was real.

Sarah Gristwood, Recording Angels: The Secret World of Women’s Diaries (1988)

August 31st, 1917

Today, when compassion had grown cold, and I began to feel as mechanical and metallic as the patched-up pump in our back yard an unexpected incident galvanized me once more into activity.

From out of a camion, closely packed with lightly wounded, a tall gaunt figure was led like a child into our shed. In spite of helplessness there was about him the indefinable air of a leader. The head was closely bandaged and the upper part of face concealed. On the field-card attached to his shoulder was written ‘Complete lesion of both eyes’. Of our little group, I alone was on duty, and therefore able to lead him to a relatively quiet corner of the shed; the one in which we keep our stores, and where we have one chair and a table. He asked for black coffee, soap (an unprecedented request) and later for a post card. He explained that he wished to write a few words to his wife himself, fearing that news written in a strange hand would alarm her. It is not often that one sees tragic misfortune borne with self-forgetfulness in the first hours of shock and pain, and my whole heart went out to him in compassion and wonder. Nor did his blindness dull the swift understanding and confidence that passed like a live wire between us and lasted all the hours he was in camp. In spite of pain and loss of sight, he insisted on writing something on the post card himself. What he wrote was indecipherable and without saying anything I was about to supplement a few words of my own so as to make the message intelligible, when a rough soldier blurted out, ‘No one can read that.’ These unlucky words broke down his self control.

—Viscountess d’Abernon

Sarah Gristwood, Recording Angels: The Secret World of Women’s Diaries (1988)

22nd October 1945

With someone so young and vulnerable we are naturally afraid of being too interfering or dominant. (I more so than Ralph, I think.) Or should I for once say what I really believe, that love is far the most important thing in life, a stronger, potentially more permanent and all-pervading force than the wildest of girlhood dreams suggests. People talk, out of a sort of prudery, as if it vanished entirely after five or six years of marriage, and only an affable, humdrum relation was left, enabling couples to jog along pretty well if they allowed each other plenty of freedom. But it needn’t be like that at all. It’s a hopeless failure if it is. After twenty years together one can be in a sense just as deeply in love as ever one was. Love doesn’t simply fade away like ‘old soldiers’; it changes its character, naturally, and matures, but its depth and richness can be as great as ever.

—Frances Partridge

Sarah Gristwood, Recording Angels: The Secret World of Women’s Diaries (1988)

Wednesday, July 10th 1895

Papa is much beloved in my family. Everybody likes him and says he’s a very good man and a very good husband. I like hearing it but I’m always surprised at their just saying that papa’s a good husband and never saying that mama’s a good wife. Nevertheless, from the bottom of my heart I believe that only Our Lady could be better than mama.

I don’t think anyone could be a better wife to papa or a better mother to us than she is. With papa leading a miner’s life, most of the money he gets goes back into mining; there’s not much left over for the house. We complain about things sometimes, but never a peep from mama. She never says a word that might upset my father; she just keeps telling him: ‘Don’t be discouraged; to live is to suffer. God will help us.’ But I, being less patient, built castles in the air before I go to sleep, about being invisible and taking money from the rich and bringing it home. I’ve discovered it’s a good way to get to sleep.

When I see mama getting up at five in the morning, going out to the yard in all this cold, struggling with wet, green wood to start the kitchen fire to have our coffee and porridge ready by six, I feel so sorry I could die. She begins then and goes without stopping until evening, when we sit on the sofa in the parlor. I sit holding mama’s arm on one side and Luizinha’s on the other, to keep warm. Renato and Nhonho sit on the floor beside the stove, and mama tells stories of bygone days…But this pleasant time never lasts very long. At half-past eight mama goes back to the kitchen to struggle with green firewood and get our porridge.

And yet nobody ever says mama’s a good wife.

Sarah Gristwood, Recording Angels: The Secret World of Women’s Diaries (1988)

Addressed to a Certain Miss Nobody

Poland Street, London, 27 March 1768

To have some account of my thoughts, manners, acquaintance and actions, when the hour arrives in which time is more nimble than memory, is the reason which induces me to keep a Journal. A Journal in which I must confess my every thought, must open my whole heart! But I think of this kind ought to be addressed to somebody – I must imagion [sic] myself to be talking – talking to the most intimate of friends – to one in whom I should take delight in confiding, and remorse in concealment:- but who must – this friend be? to make choice of one in whom I can but half rely, would be to frustrate entirely the intention of my plan. The only one I could wholly, totally confide in, lives in the same house with me, and not only never has, but never will, leave me one secret to tell her. To whom, then, must I dedicate to my wonderful, surprising and interesting Adventures?- to whom dare I reveal my private opinion of my nearest relations? my secret thoughts of my dearest friends? my own hopes, fears, reflections, and dislikes!- Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since to nobody can I be wholly unreserved – to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my life! For what chance, what accident can end my connections with nobody? No secret can I can conceal from Nobody, and to Nobody can I be ever unreserved. Disagreement cannot stop our affection, Time itself has no power to end our friendship. The love, the esteem I entertain for Nobody, Nobody’s self has not power to destroy. From Nobody I have nothing to fear, the secrets sacred to friendship Nobody will not reveal; when the affair is doubtful, Nobody will not look towards the side least favorable.

Sarah Gristwood, Recording Angels: The Secret World of Women’s Diaries (1988)

Author Michele Nacy, in Members of the Regiment, writes these former laundresses, newly reborn as officers’ wives, were sometimes called “half-way ladies”. The term was used derogatorily, indicating that the former laundresses would never be true ladies because of their lack of refinement and education. Some society-conscious officers’ wives apparently believed that the army could promote a soldier from enlisted man to officer, but nobody could promote his wife from laundress to lady.

This class distinction based on rank revealed itself when a laundress testified as a witness in a trial. An officer faced a court-martial for conduct unbecoming a gentleman. In the end, the laundress’s testimony was deemed worthless because of her social class, and because she, a white woman, was married to a black soldier.

Jennifer J. Lawrence, Soap Suds Row: The Bold Lives of Army Laundresses, 1802-1876 (2016)