"Little Isabel- Her Sayings and Doings"
"A marked day of insubordination full of aggravated circumstances- very characteristic altogether"
The most intimate and touching portrayals of Isabel Sieveking's passionate, perverse, and sweet-natured personality emerge in her mother's daily account of her childhood. From their house in Tunbridge Wells, Maria Giberne meticulously wrote in her leather-bound journal of "Little Isabel- Her Sayings and Doings- she having now in this present year of grace 1865 completed her 8th year." The short anecdotal vignettes Maria supplies, along with impossibly small pencil sketches of a sleeping Isabel, paint effective portraits of a Victorian girlhood, marked by heavily monitored yet seemingly heartfelt prayers, "stolen pleasures" such as sneaking into forbidden fields and climbing up haystacks, and an intellectual curiosity that chafed against "instructive reading."
In one particularly poignant episode on June 29th, towards the journal's end, Maria describes "a sort of crisis." It involved Isabel's "impudent contempt of authority" upon being caught pursuing these "stolen pleasures." From "all proud defiance not in word but in manner," to the waning perversity of "the voice" which had "tears in it though there were none in the eyes," Isabel, for several pages, maintains the dignified anger of the wrongfully punished. Angry at not being allowed to play cricket with her brother, she retreats to her room where "the last expiring gleam of naughtiness" yields to penitence. After a nurse took away "her bird," to whom she had turned for "solace," however, Maria observes "traces of tears" and notes that "this last feather in the scale broke down the proud little spirit." The entry provides both a richly rendered scene of daily life for a Victorian girl and a specifically significant vision of Isabel's early characteristics of maverick pride and intense love for living things, traits that would only develop as she grew older.
The practice of keeping daily journals was a widely accepted and respectable one for Victorian mothers. Maria's tiny notebook illuminates her extensive personal reading and highly refined reflections on the nature of memory, record, and loss. Keenly aware of high infant mortality rates throughout, she characterizes these written thoughts and observations of her daughter, on the volume's front endpaper, as her "winter store-- for those graver days when the quick pattering feet and the merry childish voice shall have ceased out of the nursery." Likewise, on the back endpaper, she quotes Charlotte Brontë in referring to the previous record as her "lived honey of joyous memories." The detailed journal entries between those covers at once affirm motherhood as Maria's sole vocation and subversively reveal the immensely creative and articulate possibilities of even a relatively untrained female intellect.