The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Interiority and Jane Porter’s pocket diary

A guest post by Julie Park

It’s been a critical commonplace after Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel to view the novel as the first literary form to represent psychological individuality in the context of everyday life. My research, however, examines how the spaces and objects of daily life in eighteenth-century England worked as vehicles of interior experiences in their own right. Working from this angle might change our conceptions of the novel, not only its historical relationship to how selfhood is defined, but also its relationship to the material culture of the greater society around it.

By using my Folger long-term fellowship to look at written documents of daily life from real eighteenth-century lives, I thought I might complicate claims about the early novel’s method of representing interior or psychological experience through diurnal structures. 1 One line of my exploration was how a form of portable interiority surfaced in the small books that were designed for carrying in one’s pocket. The novel itself, in its eighteenth-century print manifestation, was pocket-sized, conveying not only its affordability and portability, but also its ability to be held in the hand and worn against the body. Just as the novel conveyed its own interior worlds to readers, the experience of reading the physical book created an interior world between the novel and its reader, even when carried into exterior settings, from pleasure gardens to carriages for travel. 2

Among the holdings of eighteenth-century pocket-sized books I found at the Folger is The Ladies Memorandum Book, for the Year 1796 (M.a.17), a green leather book with gold tooling around its edges. At 12×7.5 cm, it can easily be held in the palm of one’s hand. Its fore-edge is covered by a flap that extends from the front cover and is attached to the back by a gold clasp. Flipped to its back, with its diagonal seamed flap, the book resembles a modern day envelope. Yet its sides are left open, and there is a thickness to its body created by the stack of pages sewn into its spine. Further examination of the book will reveal it indeed functions as much of an envelope and a pocket as a book.

The front cover (left) and back (right) of the pocket diary
The front cover (left) and back (right) of the pocket diary

Releasing the clasp to lift the flap and open the book, the flyleaf shows the book owner marked her possession of it by writing on the upper right corner, “Jane Rosamond Porter.  London. January 1st 1796.”

owner inscription
owner inscription

Jane Porter (bap. 1776-1850) was a British writer whose two historical novels, Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and The Scottish Chiefs (1810), were popular novels in her time. She is distinguished for being the first bestselling female author of historical fiction who wrote under her own name. 3

The Ladies Memorandum Book, a diary for keeping track of daily observations and cash expenditures, is an example of what Margaret Ezell calls an “invisible book”—one that does not appear in electronic databases or library collections, unless owned by a prominent figure. A hybrid text object, its printed pages function essentially as paratextual material while its pre-formatted blank pages form the book’s main purpose. 4

Porter’s diary exemplifies the kind that was created specifically for women. Engraved illustrations of “Fashionable Head Dress of the Year 1795” and of a Frogmore celebration honoring the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales, as well as the list of new country dances and the miscellany of popular poetry, prose, and song, designate the diary as one befitting “Ladies.”

engravings included as part of the diary
engravings included as part of the diary

The remaining paratextual material, however, appears standard for diaries of the time period for both sexes. This includes its tables for holidays and “remarkable days,” the phases of the moon, calculation of wages, and lists of members of the royal family of Great Britain and of public office holidays.

table of contents
table of contents

The format of the interior page openings of Porter’s memorandum book is more or less standard for pocket diaries of the period. The left-hand page is formatted with spaces for each day of the week inside a rectangular box. Within the space for each day, the user can record what happened or what she did that day. On the right-hand page is a blank table for recording the week’s cash expenditures, with separate columns for expenses “received” and “paid or lent.” That the spaces are meant for recording events that took place already as opposed to future appointments—as we might do today in our daily planners on paper or online—is confirmed not only by Porter’s own entries, but also by the definition for “memorandum” in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language: “note[s] to help the memory.”

a typical page opening, here for the week of June 30, 1796
a typical page opening, here for the week of June 30, 1796

Despite the apparently uniform nature of the pocket diaries from the period, with their pre-formatted blank pages, printed tables of standard measurements and dates of communal importance, the manner in which they were used reveals the individual personalities and social and economic standings of their owners. Porter, at the age of 20, did not appear to be troubled by financial responsibilities yet. Throughout her 1796 memorandum book, she leaves the spaces meant for recording expenses blank and frequently lets her writing run over to the accounting section for extra space when she wishes to expand her description of a particular happening. But in her 1835 diary (M.a.18), the 59-year-old Porter takes care to record her spending on such everyday items as washing, a pencil, paper, soap, and hair oil. Such diligence reflects her struggles at this point in her life to support herself after her writing had lost its popularity.

Studying the 1796 diary and reflecting on the way Porter both followed and resisted its pre-determined format, I realized the diary was more critical to her as a space than as an object. I also realized the extent to which the diary’s lines—and their arrangements—create the spaces for defining Porter’s selfhood.

The diary’s format, allowing about 1.5×6 cm of space for each day, requires the diary user to be as terse as possible in what she records. For the most part, Porter complied with the diary’s formal strictures, writing about her social activities, such as the visits she receives at home (“Wade called”), the letters she writes (“wrote to John and George”) and receives (“received a letter from Stockdale”), and sometimes, what she reads (“read Caleb Williams—a strange book—”) and writes (“wrote a sonnet on the unkindness of Wade”). On one of the days, Tuesday, May 31, she registered her surprise over the passing of time, even as she has kept her diary to take note of how she has passed that time: “Five months are past!—What does this mean?—I dare not answer.”

Yet in 10 of the 32 weeks she accounted for her life, Porter exceeded the limits of the small rectangles and writes the remainder of what she wants to say in a direction perpendicular to her writing on the facing page. Some of the occasions for these unrestrained moments are masquerade balls, which arguably disrupt the everyday order of things and warrant extra space. On February 4, Thursday, she wrote “Bob wrote to Wade—I, with my Mother, went to the masquerade—I was much”… The rest of this entry continues on the facing page in the accounting section: “pleased with the whole—particularly, with a lively, elegant Pink domino—a perfect stranger.—the characters were few, but spirited—Wade entred as a little Mummer—and looked divine.—”

It is hard not to detect in light of such entries that Porter was romantically drawn to family friend Wade Caulfield, and he to her, although there is no room in the diary for self-reflection on what her heart was feeling. The only guide is the number of times his name appears, as well as the way in which she finds fit to mention only his visit for a given day’s events and activities. Even the limited surfaces revealed of this relationship—the parts that can be accounted for in list form—tell a story.

Perhaps the most suggestive entry of excess feeling running over the diary lines is for Wednesday July 20, shown below: “wrote to John, about J. Caulfield. Wade called in the evening—he was so affected by the”—continues on the accounts page—“sight of poor Weston’s picture that he burst into tears—and finding it impossible to shake of [sic] his melancholy remained with me, instead of going out with the boys—so much sensibility in one so young, has impressed me with the strongest interest in the future fate of so fine a heart—O, I would to God, that George was returned to receive so pure a soul to his bosom.”

entry for the week of July 28, 1796
entry for the week of July 28, 1796

In such an entry, the straight, geometrical lines of the diary pages are overtaken not only spatially by the lines of this entry, which exceed the space given for its expression, but also the emerging lines of the story the entry is attempting to tell. Porter appropriates and repurposes the spaces of the diary to accommodate the vicissitudes of individual experience.

At the same time, the diary presents a three-dimensional version of this spatial function of providing a dwelling for the materials of experience. In the case of Porter’s diary—and pocket diaries of the period in general—the book also functions as a pocket, a three-dimensional space for keeping sentimental objects.

the pocket within the front cover
the pocket within the front cover


the contents of the pocket
the contents of the pocket

Inside the diary’s pocket is a small folded piece of paper with a list of members of the Dragoons printed on each side, including her deceased father, Will. Porter, Surg. (listed as being a member of the VI. Inniskilling Dragoons), and her father’s friend Ld. Rob. Ker, a Major Captain after whom her brother was named. Another small folded piece of paper is stored next to the Dragoons roster, a handwritten poem that appears to be a companion to a now missing lock of hair:

Ye sacred ringlet of my Brothers hair!
Which is, and ought to be my fondest care,
Ah!  Could I tell the pride that swells my soul
When recollections thro my bosom roll’s
And memory recalls the tale of Truth,
Who painted each, the prince of other youth
Ah!  Let me print on ye a fervent kiss,
And in my fancy, feel a truer bliss!

Yet more interiors are revealed when opening the book to week 34. Pressed into the gutter is a sprig of evergreen. Its significance is unknown, but considering how much walking she reports in her diary as having done that summer—almost every day during week 24 (June 7-12) and 2 days a week for the rest of June—perhaps it was picked up during one of those walks.

the evergreen spring pressed into Porter's diary
the evergreen spring pressed into Porter’s diary

The evergreen spring marks Porter’s last week writing in the diary; the rest of the diary section of the book is left blank, from late August to the end of December. Unlike a novel, there is no conclusion to this book, nor an explanation for why she stops writing before the year is finished. But like a novel, it represents and even carries the details of everyday life while overrunning predetermined formal constraints. As portable as it is transporting, it functions not so much as a book object, but as a book space for housing individual memories, inner life’s most familiar yet invisible tenants.


JULIE PARK is an assistant professor at Vassar College and the author of The Self and It: Novel Objects in Eighteenth-Century England (Stanford University Press, 2010). As a 2013-214 Long-term Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, she researched her current book project on interior life and the novel in eighteenth-century England, Dark Rooms and Moving Objects. She will continue to work on this project as a 2014-215 long-term fellow in the Materialities, Texts and Images Program at Caltech and the Huntington Library.  

  1. Stuart Sherman has done important work in showing how eighteenth-century literature registered breakthroughs in time-measurement technologies by incorporating new diurnal patterns in different prose forms; see Telling Time (University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  2. See William Warner, Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684-1750 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 131-139.
  3. I am grateful to Devoney Looser for verifying factual information about Porter’s life.
  4. Robert Dodsley is credited with having published in 1748 the first book of this kind with Memorandum-Book. Several imitations from different printers followed, including R. Baldwin, the publisher of Jane Porter’s diary. See Sherman, 171-172 and Harry M. Solomon, The Rise of Robert Dodsley: Creating the New Age of Print (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996); see also Molly McCarthy, The Accidental Diarist.


  • Oh, this is an exciting post, indeed! I’ve worked on pocketbooks as precursors to the 19th-C literary annual (and have a large section on them with images in my forthcoming book). The pocketbooks in my personal collection have very little writing in them and absolutely nothing left in the pockets! I’ve even got the men’s version of this pocketbook. There’s tale of a pocketbook that was intended to be stowed in a man’s hat, but I’ve never found or seen one.

    Please keep up the good work and post again about your findings.

  • This is excellent. You’ll probably be interested to learn that there is a similarly “invisible” cache of Jane Porter’s correspondence at the Pforzheimer collection at the New York Public Library, which I believe is still not fully cataloged.

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