Self-writing as Legacy: The Journal of Emily Shore

Barbara Timm Gates

Written in the 1830s by an extraordinarily energetic and precocious young woman, Emily Shore’s journal was not published until the 1890s, more than fifty years after its author’s untimely death of tuberculosis at the age of nineteen. The original manuscript of the journal ran to twelve octavo volumes written in a tiny hand, but the published document was reduced to about a fifth of the length of the original. What we have in the published versions of 1891 and 1898 is something considerably altered from what Shore’s late Victorian editors worked from in the 1890s. They placed a self-representation on a Procrustean bed and tailored a narrative to suit their own taste and times. What they did, in effect, was to turn an early nineteenth-century autobiography into a late Victorian biography.

Two manuscript pages
Fig. 1. Journal of Margaret Emily Shore. Vol. VII, October 6, 1836 to April 10, 1837, pp. 128-129.
Image courtesy University of Delaware Library, Newark, Del.

The editors of the journal were the surviving sisters of Emily Shore— Arabella and Louisa Shore, two Victorian poets and writers, one a translator of Dante, the other a feminist writer for the Westminster Review. As the centenary journal—a 1991 reprint of the 1891 text—went into press (The University Press of Virginia), two of the original twelve manuscript volumes mysteriously surfaced at an auction in London. The manuscripts had been willed to the British Library by Arabella Shore, and the will had been probated, but the Library had never received them. The two “random survivals,” as the auction house called them, now reside at the University of Delaware Library in Special Collections, where with the help of two dedicated research assistants, Tara Stern Moore and James Webner, I have been able to transcribe them for this e-text published by Rotunda. In the process of comparing Emily Shore’s two manuscript volumes, volumes seven and twelve covering 1836–37 and 1838–39, with the sisters’ curtailed narrative, I have uncovered some revealing disparities. In collaborating with their dead sister, the younger Shores certainly distorted Emily’s work. In their edition, they deleted some of Emily’s entries wholesale, and they deleted others but remarked about them in editorial notes. In the manuscript itself, they crossed out some sections in pencil, blacked out others in ink, and sometimes physically cut entire pieces out of the manuscript. In this way the Shore sisters gave us a bowdlerized, late-Victorian portrait of an earlier nineteenth-century young woman. This current introduction, meant to supplement the introduction I wrote for the printed edition of 1991, will discuss a few of the hows and whys of this kind of editing, including what it tells us about Victorian editorial veracity, late Victorian values and interests, and pitfalls for readers of edited autobiographies.

Frontispiece of 1898 edition
Fig. 2. Frontispiece of 1898 edition

Victorian editing was a very different enterprise from editing today. Matthew Arnold’s letters, for example, were sculpted by his earlier editor, G. W. E. Russell, who worked closely with the Arnold family and was far freer with deletions than Cecil Lang could dare to have been in our day. And Emily Brontë’s poems were given titles and revised by sister Charlotte when she brought out the 1850 edition of her sister’s work. I am not therefore about to condemn the Shore sisters for a literary practice that was common in their day but rather to examine the nature of their editing for what it might tell us about Victorian culture and life-writing. In fact, after painstakingly examining the two volumes of manuscript, I find myself a less harsh critic of the sisters Shore than I was in my introduction to the earlier 1991 Virginia edition. Arabella and Louisa Shore certainly took liberties with Emily’s text, but they also made some wise decisions along the way. Their printed text is less repetitive and offers a far tighter narrative than does the original manuscript.

A look at two pictures of Emily Shore chosen by the surviving sister, Arabella, for the 1898 edition can serve as an entry into the Shore sisters’ reconstruction of Emily. The first is the self-portrait used as the frontispiece in 1898, which is dedicated to one or both of her sisters and faces away from the title page of the journal. It is inscribed by Emily Shore and gives the reader the impression that Shore has signed over her story to her family and walked away from it. When one compares this representation with a second, the 1891 frontispiece which is Shore’s full-face, death portrait, one sees that the death portrait stares directly at the reader, authorizing him or her to open the book and find Emily Shore directly. The picture printed in the later, 1898 edition can be read as a revision that grants further validation and authorization to Shore’s sisters who shaped an autobiographical journal to suit their biographical intentions.

Frontispiece of 1891 edition
Fig. 3. Frontispiece of 1891 edition

What, then, did the sisters do with this large job—their tribute to their still-young older sister, a task they managed when they themselves were quite old women? Before plunging into specific edits, I would like to reemphasize the fact that their task was a large one. Emily was a diligent intellectual, something that clearly emerges from both the published and unpublished accounts. She read and reflected on everything from economics to world literature, from science to newspaper accounts of the London Zoo. An amateur botanist and ornithologist, she cataloged the world around the family home and wrote two essays on bird behavior for The Penny Magazine. She produced histories of the Greeks and Romans and of the Jews, and she wrote plays and poems as well as her journal. She was so talented that her father, a teacher, taught her first and then left much of the education of his younger children to Emily. Nearly every day of her life, however, this busy young woman took out time to record her impressions in her journal. This, then, was no lightweight, personal diary that confronted Arabella and Louisa Shore but a long, detailed manuscript definitely in need of some trimming.

I would like to discuss briefly three areas of the Shores’ work in editing this prodigious “life”: the editing of Emily’s life among family and friends, the editing of her natural history, and the editing of descriptions of her illness. But first, I would like to quote an interesting, omitted passage on the art of journals that Emily Shore herself wrote about a Mrs. Butler’s journal. This may serve to illustrate how difficult it must have been for the sisters Shore to do any editing at all:

I think that both the work itself, and the publishing of it, are very disgraceful to the writer, particularly as a woman. In the first place, it is full of vanity and conceit; of vulgarity, coarseness, and profaneness, in expression; of affectation & display; and of unfair, improper allusions to private individuals, by initials or by circumstances which I should think must make them known. … With respect to her publishing it, whether bad or good in itself, she ought by no means to have done so,—her own private journal! What an idea! Had it been a mere journal of her travels, meant to instruct the public, the case would have been different,—but to publish what ought to have been meant for herself alone, or only for herself and her most intimate friend,—this is almost disgusting. (5 January 1839, 52–53)

I quote at length because herein lay caveats for Shore’s editors. Emily Shore did not like to see private diaries published. In another section deleted by the sisters, she says to the journal: “I made thee a bosom-friend, I have poured out to thee complaints meant for thy ear alone, I have entrusted thee with secrets hid from all the world beside” (8 April 1837, 174). The sisters of course read and appropriately deleted both of these passages from their printed book as they went on about the business of editing the journal for publication.

Nevertheless, they took careful heed of Emily’s taste—and of their own legal status. Harmful or gossipy entries are deleted. Family and friends, even those dead and gone, are protected from print except when they appear as innocent, kindly or decent human beings. For example, whole sections about some sort of trouble among young women cousins vacationing with an aunt in Exeter were not just deleted for the purposes of the edition but were literally cut out of the manuscript. By reading the surrounding passages, one can just barely detect that several of the girls were sent home in some sort of disgrace, and that Emily pined for one of them. Similarly, all of Emily’s adolescent crushes on young women—and there seem to have been several of these—are left out of the 1890s editions. “I cannot express how I love Anna,” says the manuscript for 1836. “I never loved anyone as I love her, and I never shall again” (17 November 1836, 32). The sisters drop this sort of thing entirely and shape an Emily Shore who loves family beyond all others. Whatever Emily’s young passions, no love would be allowed to surpass this love, certainly not a questionable passion for young women. In the 1890s, a time of New Women novels with new kinds of printed sexual encounters, the surviving Shore sisters wanted no aspersions cast on their sister’s character, which had formed long since, in the years just before the accession of Victoria.

In contrast to the passion for other young women, throughout the printed editions Emily’s passion of natural history is featured. Her perceptions were keen, her naturalist’s eye and ear well trained. “I observe more and more,” she wrote in 1837, “the differences in dialect between not only the songs of the chaffinches of Devonshire and Bedfordshire, but the different individual chaffinches of Devonshire alone. One which I heard to day had a particularly fine variation; he greatly improved his song by the introduction of a clear, liquid, high note near the conclusion. I have not perceived yet that the same individual bird varies at all” (8 April, 171). This passage shows what a careful observer Shore was, and although the rest of the entry for that day was deleted, this portion was carefully retained. Nevertheless a number of passages similar to this were deleted from printed versions of the journal. Shore wrote about natural history in the tradition of earlier nature diarists. Like Gilbert White’s and Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, hers can often be read as a book of days for the natural year. And here again is where late Victorian editing becomes evident. Whereas in the 1830s gathering of information like Emily Shore’s was both in vogue and essential to the scientific enterprise, by the 1890s such amateur natural history had been supplanted by a greater degree of professionalism. In the wake of the Darwinian revolution, facts like Emily’s were well-known, some even commonplace. I believe that here the sisters were not trying to construct Shore as less focused on things natural. They certainly leave in enough of her natural history to suggest that this was not the case. But they also seem to have been ready to omit material that would not present Emily in the best light to scientifically more sophisticated, fin-de-siècle audiences, ones more accustomed to scientific theory as well as to a large variety of scientific popularizations.

Something similar was afoot with the sculpturing of Shore’s illness. What killed John Keats and what may have killed most of the Brontës was what killed Emily Shore. Tuberculosis was widespread and lethal throughout the whole of the nineteenth century. But by the 1890s, incidence of the disease was down in Great Britain. For women, in 1851 the mean annual death rate per 100,000 living was 285; in 1891, the year of the first publication of the journal, it was 140 (quoted from tables in F. B. Smith, The Retreat of Tuberculosis, 1850–1950 [London: Croom Helm, 1988], 7). Moreover, in 1882 Robert Koch announced in Berlin that tuberculosis was caused by bacilli and was communicable. Word of Koch’s discoveries reached England and began to change the management of the disease by the early 1890s, the time of the first printing of Shore’s journal. In 1898, when the second edition appeared, the National Association for the Prevention of Consumption and other forms of Tuberculosis had been established and a conference convened by the Prince of Wales.

Shore’s later volumes, full of descriptions of her disease, of its effects, of her removal to Madeira for the sake of her lungs, and of her contemplations about dying were again more the product of the romantic age rather than this new time in the history of tuberculosis. Rene Dubos, in his classic White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man and Society (1952, chapter 5) has described the disease in the earlier nineteenth century as a literary as well as physical phenomenon. For romantics, death by tuberculosis was considered as bestowing heightened awareness, heightened creativity, and heightened intellectual powers. Consumption became the artist’s disease, a badge not only of their courage but of their talent. With its frequent measurings of the disease and reflections about it, to some extent Shore’s journal was a part of this phenomenon.

But Shore’s sisters, living on into an age when sentimental attitudes toward consumption were being replaced by more scientific etiologies of the disease, alter or delete large numbers of Shore’s entries about her health. Morbid sections of the journal—like the ones where Shore contemplates the foreign cemeteries in Madeira and thinks of herself lying there—are sometimes retained in the printed text, possibly for their Dickensian dramatic effect. Take this one, for example:

I gazed round this silent cemetery, where so many early blossoms, nipped by a colder climate, were mouldering away; so many, who had come too late to recover, and either perished here far away from all their kindred, or faded under the eyes of anxious friends, who had vainly hoped to see them revive again. I felt, too, as I looked at the crowded tombs, that my own might, not long hence, be amongst them. … It is the first time any such idea has crossed my mind in any burial-ground. (300-301)

Nevertheless the sisters expunged large numbers of sections where Shore speaks of the ups and downs of her illness as well as bitterly ironic sections where she thinks she may be recovering, as in the conclusion to the 1837 volume:

And so I conclude the seventh volume of my journal. Many feelings crowd upon my mind while thus I wind it up. The first is that of gratitude to Heaven for having restored me almost to perfect health. … I shall never forget the state of mind and body which I was in during the summer of 1836. I was then fast sinking into consumption, I felt I could not live, I fully expected that death would speedily terminate my sufferings. I remember in particular, that horrid cough seemed nailed to my lungs as if it could never be removed. (10 April 1837, 174)

Of course this kind of irony might have seemed anticlimactic in a document published sixty years after a person had died. The editors consequently controlled their printed journal/biography so that it would lead up to Shore’s death differently from the autobiographical manuscript. They wanted Emily to emerge as a heroine, not as a complainer, and they reframed her death to make it seem more gradual, less a series of ups and downs. This also enabled them to have the last word, since Emily’s own final written words, formed in an extremely deteriorated cursive hand rather than in her usual print-like hand printing, did not quite fit their story of youth gone into swift decline, a story of Brontë-like stoicism. “When will my release come!” exclaims Emily. “But this is wrong. I must wait God’s pleasure” (24 June 1839). The printed version ends differently, with the editors’ words:

Here end the extracts; but the writer added a page more to her journal, the last words being written in a tremulous, yet quite legible hand, on June 24th, a fortnight before her release. (351)

A passage like this one leaves us in no doubt about who is in control of this supposed self-writing.

Manuscripts like Shore’s, edited in the nineteenth century some decades after their writing, can force us to look not just at deletions of words and reshaped literary documents but at altering cultural climates. I have tried, in this brief compass, to show just a few of the kinds of deletions, alterations, and retentions of writing that helped the Shore sisters to transform a romantic autobiography into a biographical text more suitable for Victorian readers. Other readers can begin to find others transformations, something they will be able to do now that the digitized text has become available.

Portions of this essay, particularly those sections about Shore and tuberculosis, have previously been published in my essay “When Life Writing Becomes Death Writing: The Journal of Emily Shore,” in Literature and Medicine 24, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 70–92; reprinted by permission.