The Difference a Day Makes: Mary Moffat’s Journal 1819-1820

The Difference a Day Makes: Mary Moffat’s Journal 1819-1820

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2016) ‘The Difference a Day Makes’ and also provide the paragraph number as appropriate if quoting.

1. The voyage out

1.1 Mary Moffat (1795-1870) nee Smith married the missionary Robert Moffat immediately after her arrival in South Africa in late 1819. Moffat 1She was the daughter of market gardeners from near Manchester who were evangelical Congregationalists. Robert Moffat, originally from Scotland, had worked for the Smiths as a gardener, and was later trained and ordained and became an LMS missionary who was sent to South Africa. She had experienced a call to the mission field a strong as his. After some opposition, in part because it would most likely mean they would never see her again, in part because they thought her call to mission work might be transitory, in part because they worried about the strength of Robert Moffat’s feelings, her parents eventually consented to their marriage. The then Mary Smith left Dukinfield in the north-west of England in early September 1819 to join him.

1.2   After a lengthy voyage by sail, Mary Smith arrived in Cape Town in early December 1819 and was married a few days later. She had promised her parents she would write and send to them a journal of her voyage out. It is the resulting document that is the subject of discussion here because of its curiously complex character. It is difficult to pin down whether it is better seen as a journal, letter, memoir, something else entirely, or whether it is actually two or perhaps even three separate kinds of documents, as it has some attributes of all these but lacks others.

2. The document in question

2.1   The document in question is a component within the Mary Moffat collection in the Cory Library in Grahamstown, South Africa. It is 31 hand-written pages long. It has two separate sections. The first is concerned with the small events of the voyage and is signed off from Latakoo on 23 May 1820. The second writes about ‘domestic concerns’ of a mainly housekeeping kind after she had arrived in Griqua Town and is dated 11 August 1820. They are curated together and assigned the single heading of being the journal of Mary Moffat.

2.2   The document’s sections are in two different handwritings. The hand-writing in the first part looks different from what is usual in Mary Moffat’s letters, so it is not certain whether or not this is a copy by someone else. The second part is headed so as to indicate it was written by someone other than Mary Moffat herself, but who this was is not known.

3. Pages 1 to 26

3.1   The first part of the document is 26 pages long and is a fair copy with few mistakes and just an occasional crossing out. It contains a number of internal dates, all within the period of the voyage to South Africa. Its opening half page is addressed to ‘My dear Parents’, is in a letter format and has Mary Moffat’s signature at its end. Its first page is shown in the JPEG here.

3.2   After this introductory paragraph, it continues with the heading dated 23 May 1820 from Latakoo. However, what follows beneath it is dated ‘1819 On Tuesday the 7th September’. On subsequent pages there are additional dates, these too falling within the period of the voyage. The document is clearly indicated as ‘a journal’, while its opening half page combination of letter and introduction belies this by showing it was written up after arrival in South Africa.

3.3   It continues to page 26, with Mary Moffat’s own comment about the voyage being that ‘Nothing very particular transpired on it’. The contents are concerned with the small events of weather, wind, relationships between the crew and also between passengers, and many comments addressed to her parents. Its most momentous events comes on the last page, when land is sighted. A JPEG is shown here and its final paragraph is:

‘December 6 Land. Land: was sounded through the ship about 4 in the Morning, when every breast was filled with joy & some with agitation, for instance mine until the Lord set me in some degree at rest by the appearance of our dear Mr Melville the first thing I enquired is all well? The answer was satisfactory to my heart’s warmest wishes. About 12 o’clock I went ashore & clasped my Robert in my arms I was tolerably composed, at least was kept so by endeavouring to sooth his feelings – which were very strongly manifested – It was a Day never to be forgotten by us. Mary Moffat.’

3.4   After this, there is a line drawn across the page, clearly signifying an end-point had been reached.

4. Pages 27 to 31

4.1   Page 27 is headed ‘Conclusion of Mrs Moffat’s Journal’ and is shown in the JPEG here. This second part of the document continues in a fairer handwriting than the first, and it is throughout in the first person authorial voice. It is a top copy and contains in effect no mistakes or additions or deletions.

4.2   It begins ‘I dare say my friends often wonder how we fared in our domestic concerns‘, indicating it was probably written for a wider readership than her parents alone, perhaps for members of the chapel circles she had belonged to and with whom she kept in close contact throughout her life:

‘I daresay my friends often wonder how we fared in our domestic concerns. In some of them we are extremely awkward & and in others pretty well. For instance in this part of the country it is the custom to have the kitchen separate from the house – a thing which few English Women can reconcile to their minds – four when this is the case the kitchen of the Missionary is the place of common resort & if one turns one’s back, perhaps half of the food is gone & spoon, knife, Fork or whatever lies in the way… there is such a propensity in all the natives of this country to assist each other to food, when they have it in their power that you cannot keep them from it whilst the kitchen is out of your sight…’

4.3   There is no internal dating within this second section and it is without any of the attributes of a journal or diary. There is also no addressee, so it lacks this attribute of a letter. However, it does have a signature at the end, this time a spare ‘M. Moffat’, rather than the first section’s ‘Mary Moffat’. All of these things give some support to the conjecture that a wider but still contained readership was envisaged than her parents alone.

4.4 The second section is quite short, just five pages long, and it reads as a statement for interested parties. It deals with cooking, kitchen arrangements, washing, servants and related matters. It seems to be in fact addressed to the friends referred to in its opening line, and is a kind of faux letter, perhaps a statement rather than a letter that was intended for collective or public reading.

4.5   Its final page is shown in the JPEG here. Its concluding paragraph comments on ‘blunders’ and being ‘written all off hand’. Given this, it is unlikely to have been intended for an LMS and so more public context. The last two paragraphs are:

‘…You will perhaps think it curious when I tell you that I smear all our room floor’s [sic] with Cow-dung once a Week… Writing about this curious article puts me in mind of a custom of the Botchuanas. If his Majesty ?Matabee is with us he sends his servant for a piece of this article & rubs his hands with it till every particle of dust is gone – however curious it may appear to you. I would rather see him eat after this ?process than before it, as his hands get a share of the nasty fat & red ochre with which they smear them-selves –

I must now close as my time is short & I do not think of any thing at present, you must excuse all blunders as I have written all off hand, without any previous thought & in a great hurry – – M. Moffat.

Griqua Town August 11th 1820′

4.6   The curiosity that Mary Moffat picks out here might come under the heading of ‘African exotica’, and is the practice of using a cow dung mixture hardened and polished to produce dust-proof floors. At the point she wrote this it was still out of the ordinary for her, although it was commonplace for local peoples and is still sometimes found in country areas even now. It seems directed at a readership that was expecting Mary Moffat’s life in South Africa to include many exotic aspects, something that her account of ‘domestic concerns’ both highlights and also considerably domesticates.

5. The difference a day makes: what is it?

5.1   Even after close reading of ‘the journal of Mary Moffat’, important questions remain unanswered and are perhaps in a final sense unanswerable. The core question is whether it is to be seen as one document (a journal) or two (a personal letter plus a journal) or three (plus a faux letter for wider circulation).

5.2   Focusing on whether it is a journal, if it is then it is clearly not one written when the events it is concerned with actually happened, but was instead produced afterwards. However, the first part has a letter date and also contains internal dates, with these latter provided in the temporal order in which the recorded events occurred. Another way of thinking about this first part is to perhaps see it as a rather odd kind of elongated letter. It starts with a ‘covering letter’, and some of the dated entries that follow lament the absence of a post and so conjure up the epistolary aspects of what was being written and Mary Moffat’s desire to communicate these to her parents.

5.3   One way of responding to the question, then, is that rather than seeing the first part as a letter followed by a journal, or a letter introducing a journal, it is more helpful to focus on the epistolary aspects and to see these running across the differently configured ways of writing that compose it. Relatedly, the difference a day makes if seeing this part in journal terms is to subtract from what has been written because it highlights these days and dates as, if not false, then still manufactured post hoc.

5.4   However, there is also the other way to see this mentioned above. The repetition of dates can be seen less as signalling that this is a journal, and more that it represents thwarted letter-writing. That is, Mary Moffat comments at a number of junctures that she would have liked to have posted letters to her parents but, on board ship, was unable to; and these dates in a way represents the shadows of letters that were never written or sent.

5.5   Focusing now on the second part, on one level this can be seen as a rather brisk and entertaining kind of letter because telling its ‘friends’ addressees about many unfamiliar and exotic things. Given this, it can also perhaps be seen as a rather focused travelogue, in emphasising some of the exotica of Mary Moffat’s experiences. However, in both aspects and in spite of disclaimers at the end it comes across as a set-piece of writing, which it which is why it was earlier referred to as having some of the attributes of a ‘faux’ letter. That is, is has some of the characteristics of letterness but was intended for non-epistolary purposes, or rather epistolary purposes other than those it seemingly signals.

5.6   Clearly, the first and second ‘parts’ should be viewed as two separate documents. They are written in very different ways, they are structured differently, they seem to address different audiences or readers, and to have been written for different purposes. What Mary Moffat’s short introductory letter states is that she promised her parents an account of her voyage, and this is what the first document provides. The second part deals with some specific aspects of life having ‘up country’ some months after her arrival and marriage, something which her covering letter does not touch on or hint at in any way.

5.7   The two documents are interestingly complicated ones, both have epistolary aspects, although both cases these are not dominating, and perhaps it can be left at that. However, how curious it is that these two documents have in the past been put together and seen as constituting one thing, a journal. What this indicates is that the letter was not seen as an important point of reference when this happened, while now epistolary aspects can be seen to underlie both pieces of writing.

5.8   There is something else curious here to comment on in final conclusion. This concerns the blue commemorative plaque shown at the start of this discussion. The plaque mentions Mary Moffat as a missionary and says that she was born at Plantation Farm, where the plaque is affixed. It does not mention her parents or that the farmhouse was the centre of a market garden. And also, curiously, it does not mention Robert Moffat, in his day a missionary of both public fame and also LMS consequence. Perhaps this might be because Mary Moffat, her parents the Smiths and a number of her brothers were all active in local chapel circles, while his sphere of influence was elsewhere.

5.9   Even more curiously, it does connect Mary with her son-in-law David Livingstone. This is most likely because of the fame of Livingstone. However, this is ironic as well as curious because in many respects she disapproved of his approach to missionary work, which she thought suited only to an unmarried man, and she particularly disapproved of his treatment of her daughter and also his child-rearing practices concerning her grandchildren. Some of her letters to him on record make this very clear. And this raises the complications of the missionary approach and experience, that this was not one and single and unseamed, but contains and framed many differences, including the sharp ones that existed theologically and interpersonally.

Last updated: 11 April 2016


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