Miss Palmer's Diary
The Secret Journals of a Victorian Lady
I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd
In 1989, while moving furniture in the billiard room at the family’s old estate in Cefn Park, Dame Gillian Wagner’s relatives discovered, among old game boxes and household ledgers, three locked journals. They were diaries, it turned out, the work of Miss Ellen Palmer, Wagner’s great-grandmother. Though they had lay hidden from family view for nearly 150 years, Wagner began transcribing them, revealing a remarkable record of her ancestor’s life in high society Victorian England, now chronicled in Miss Palmer’s Diary: The Secret Journals of a Victorian Lady.
The entries begin in 1847, when seventeen-year-old Ellen had the world at her feet. A debutante at the start of her first London season, Ellen was beautiful, rich, and accomplished - and about to experience the world of dances, opera visits, and dinner parties, a rite-of-passage for young women of her class. To record the glittering whirl of activity, Ellen started a diary, which she would then write in, daily, for more than 8 years. She must have been known around the house for this effort; included in the book’s section of photos and illustrations is a pencil sketch of the diarist at her table, hunched over, documenting her thoughts.
For Ellen, her debut and the path to true love in society circles did not run smooth. After a scandalous encounter with a duplicitous Swedish count, her marriage prospects suffered. The family also struggled to hide a terrible secret in that era: Miss Palmer’s father was mentally ill, and had epilepsy. There were snubs. In 1852, her mother died, and her father’s inability to manage the estate left the duties to Ellen, now in her early 20s. But still, she kept at her diary, recording her fate and thoughts on it all.
Undeterred by her increasing social isolation - and the expectations of the era - Miss Palmer next packed up family and servants, and set off on a treacherous trip across Europe, in pursuit of her beloved brother, Roger, an officer in the Crimean War. After astonishing the Embassy upon arrival, she became the first woman to visit the Crimean front, touring several battlefields, including Balaclava, the site of the tragic battle made famous in The Charge of the Light Brigade. Throughout, she records the incredible scenes and events of the war, and there meets Archie Peel, an officer who would become her husband (if he promised not to boss her around) after their move back to Britain. Family life meant her writing would become less frequent, and she would die in 1862 from childbirth, at age 33, after she and Archie had 4 children.
Despite her tragic and early end, Miss Palmer’s vow at age 18 to “one day astonish the world” is in a way made true by this important social history that reveals the incredible voice of a woman who was both ahead of her time, and part of it. Includes extensive notes, a bibliography, index, and 34 color and duotone plates.
Dame Gillian Wagner has been chair of Barnardo's and Carnegie UK. She is the author of Thomas Coram, Gent; The Chocolate Conscience; Barnardo; and Children of the Empire. She is the great-granddaughter of Ellen Palmer.