Books: Leamington's Lady of Leisure; in the Pages of a Young Lady's Diary Chris Upton Discovers Aspects of 1800s Midlands Life
Byline: Chris Upton
Of all the documents that history accidentally preserves, there's something especially intriguing about diaries. Whether they are any more faithful and accurate than any other historical source is open to debate, but you always feel they ought to be. Life, after all, is one damn thing after another, and the diary at least captures this feeling.
Life for Miss Adelaide Pountney was certainly one thing after another - a constant and unending round of paying visits and receiving visitors, promenading, shopping and church-going. Such was the case for most of the Victorian middle classes, but the majority deposited their days in the bin marked 'yesterday' and moved on. Adelaide took time to describe and illustrate them in her diary. The diary she kept - one of those the stationers call 'a week in two pages' - did not allow much space for literary style or detailed composition, but then she probably would not have considered her life worthy of such elaboration anyway.
To church and school twice. Jane took a class. Called to see Mrs Meredith. Thence to Aunt Clifton. Mrs Purton came to supper.
The date of this entry is April 24 1864, and the church Miss Pountney attended twice that day (and taught in the Sunday School) was either All Saints or, more likely, Christ Church in the town of Leamington Spa. Church attendance was something Adelaide had grown up with, being born the third daughter of Rev. Humphrey Pountney, vicar of St John's church in Wolverhampton. But that was 25 years before. Adelaide's father (and twin sister) had since died, and the family had migrated to the untroubled waters of Leamington. Here they would remain for five years before letting their house and moving once more, this time to Devon.
December 1 1864. Left Leamington at 8 o'clock this morning for Torquay where we arrived at 3.46. Had a lovely journey. Louy met us at the station. Dreadfully tired. Fleas and dirt.
And to this entry Adelaide appends a tiny sketch of a crowded railway carriage, Adelaide and her mother and younger sister sharing their coach with, we imagine, three strangers.
Moving to Torquay must have felt like an awfully big adventure, and in marked contrast to the social round of Leamington where the occasional soire and a walk in the park were about as exciting as life ever got. A contemporary guidebook describes the town as 'the resort of the weary invalid, the fastidious valetudinarian, the wealthy merchant and the thoughtful student'. Certainly the famous mineral waters (first exploited in the 1780s) had given the town that atmosphere of elegance and tranquillity that can be felt in all the great spa resorts. But any valetudinarian who was actually born in Leamington (and there were probably precious few of those) would have told you how rapidly this transformation had taken place. …