Parallel tracks? Diaries, letters, absences

Parallel tracks? Diaries, letters, absences

Detailed work on the Forbes diary to produce a conference paper for the Brussels conference on the work of Norbert Elias (mentioned in quite a few previous blogs) confirmed, if confirmation was needed, that diaries and letters are different ways of writing and represent aspects of the world and people in it in different ways, and that regarding both forms of representation there is a complicated shifting relationship to the things that actually happened. This latter aspect has arisen again regarding the journals of Sophia Pigot (1804-1881), an 1820 Settler in the Eastern Cape who married Donald Moodie the first. The originals are archived in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown; a typescript is in the Killie Campbell Library in Durban; and a version has been published edited by Margaret Rainier (reference at the end of this blog). There are a few letters as well, although at the time that the published version appeared these were not in the public domain and over 40 years on still do not seem to be in an archival location.

These journals were briefly discussed in an earlier blog, and rather than repeating that discussion, which can be accessed here, the focus now is the relationship between diaries and journals and letter-writing and between both of them and the world of events that they are ‘of’. Diaries and journals are often described as being for the author themselves, with letter-writing being addressed to others, although any familiarity with the genres shows that the separation frequently breaks down. For instance, the David Forbes 1871 diary is not concerned with what is ‘personal‘ at all but with the fabric of his life at the diamond fields, and was almost certainly written to be read by other people at home. And the letters he and folks at home wrote are about different matters concerning business life and sometimes have a ‘note to self’ aspect. Of course these are different representational modes and represent things in different ways, and of course that representation is at the heart of all writing can surely be no surprise to anyone now. Of more import, because far less frequently emphasised now in spite of earlier debates, is that they have a complicated non-referential relationship to the things that actually happened.

But how does this connect with the Sophia Pigot journals? These are concerned with her daily doings, those of a well brought up young woman born into a family belonging to the gentry which had migrated to South Africa as the chief element in one of the 1820 settler parties. Even when she first arrived in South Africa, the journal focuses on such interpersonal matters, the small world, in effect a kind of bubble, that she and her family inhabited. The reader would hardly be able to tell that the people of South Africa looked any different in skin colour terms from Britain. Perhaps this is partly because colonial policy of the day was to keep white settlers and indigenous African groups separate by establishing a ‘no go’ area between their habitations; but mostly it was not, because there are small hints here and there about her meetings with Khoi and Khoisan people, and there are known events in which violent encounters occurred which she would certainly have known about but neither recorded directly nor hinted at.

A clear example is that David Hobson, an English boy who was a cattle herder just outside Grahamstown, was murdered by cattle-raiders in later September 1821. This is not mentioned in her journal entries even though the Pigots were in this area at the time and she would certainly have known about it as it was a major talking point for people as a possible harbinger of further and greater violence. Oh to have Sophia Pigot letters of the same dates or just after! But although comparison between the different writing genres about this is not possible, the absence from her journals of major events that significantly impinged on the lives of people around her related to race matters is certain. What is in effect a silence prevails. The key question is, should this be seen as an exclusion, or is it that different conventions for inclusion prevailed in how she understood what it was to write a journal and what it was to write letters? The referentiality/representation issue is key. But it seems we may never know.

Margaret Rainier, ed 1974. The Journals of Sophia Pigot Cape Town: AA Balkema.


Last updated:  31 January 2019