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by Caroline Parry, writer, performer, teacher
Ours is an age of cellphones, chat rooms, blogs, and instant messaging. To read the words on this website, you -- and your computer -- have performed some very fast operations. In such a high-speed world, old-fashioned pen-and-ink diaries may seem hopelessly slow and tedious, but they were how countless people from the past, such as a girl named Eleanora Hallen, left a record of their thoughts and lives. Now, thanks to 21st-century technology, you can go online and take a close look at the fragile pages of a real girl's diary from the 19th century.
Not only can you decipher Eleanora's handwriting for yourself, you can also puzzle out cross-written family letters. You can examine sketch books and paintings, and compare Eleanora's cartoon-like drawings and notebook doodles with your own. You'll discover funny rhymes and comic poems about members of the Hallen family and about "who loves who." Does this sound similar to notes you send, teasing your own friends?
As well, you'll discover the writings and artwork by all of the family members -- and there were 11 children! How many people do you know today with 10 siblings? All of these materials come from the Hallen family who moved to Canada in 1835 during a major period of British emigration. Luckily, family descendants saved Eleanora's journals and sketchbooks, as well as those of her parents and siblings.
Coming to Canada
Eleanora Hallen and her family left Rushock, Worcestershire, a tiny village in central England, in April 1835. Over the summer and fall, they journeyed from New York to a new life in what was then called Upper Canada and is Ontario today. Eleanora's diary includes vivid descriptions of the Hallens' adventures. At times, she gets tired or bored and says so.
After seven weeks sailing from Liverpool to the city of New York, the Hallens sojourned in Sandy Hill, on the Hudson River. Reverend Hallen travelled on, taking the Erie Canal route westward. He contacted one Captain John Steele, who sold the Hallens their new home: a log cabin in Medonte Township, north of Toronto, west of Lake Simcoe, near the village of Coldwater. (This arrangement was likely made because Captain Steele wanted Hallen to help build a church on his land.) Since Reverend Hallen wasn't as busy parenting as Mrs. Hallen, he wrote more in his own journal, and his comments often provide an interesting contrast to his daughters' views.This is something researchers struggle with quite often -- how to decide which viewpoint is more "true."
In late October, when Hallen returned and more funds arrived from England, the family set off again. This time, they traveled to Oswego, New York, on a train. Eleanora barely noticed the significance of their change in transportation, but this was the beginning of the Steam Era, when the passenger railroad was still quite new. The Hallens also crossed Lake Ontario by steam. From Toronto, they went by stagecoach, steamboat, ox cart and foot, arriving at last in early November. That whole first year was hard but exciting, and Eleanora wrote often. Later, possibly because she had more responsibilities, she wrote less.
Life in Penetanguishene, Ontario
In 1840, Sarah, the eldest, married another English emigrant named John Drinkwater, and settled near Orillia, just north of Toronto. Eleanora -- perhaps feeling envious -- made fun of their romance. Most of the family soon moved to Penetanguishene, where Reverend Hallen found better-paid work as a military chaplain. His son George continued to farm their cabin lands, which they named "Rushock" after their home in England.
In "Penetang," a little fur-trading settlement on Lake Huron, the Hallens' life was more like that in England. They had a better house and there were many social events. Eleanora and her siblings (especially Mary, the most artistic sister) spent hours drawing and painting, leaving us additional views of the period.
The Hallen children were home-schooled. Their governess and parents taught them until they emigrated, and gradually the older siblings became tutors for the younger ones. These lessons seem less formal -- or frequent -- than in England. Nonetheless, they all learned plenty in the "school of experience"!
Eleanora begins her journals
The Hallen children probably kept journals because they served as good composition lessons. Eleanora herself began one on April Fool's Day, 1833. She scribbled away, recording her daily activities on both sides -- and in the middle -- of the ocean. She wrote with many an ink blob and scratched-out mistake, as she tried to capture her thoughts. You may write similarly today, just trying to express yourself. Do you worry about misspelled words? Check out pages where Eleanora practised her spelling.
Eleanora's diary voice is usually cheerful and often cheeky. Her journals read more like a factual report of domestic activities than a mirror of her feelings. Historians won't find much evidence of external events in Eleanora's writing -- she barely mentions current news. For instance, the 1837 Mackenzie Rebellion gets five sentences right after Eleanora's report on recent fashions. Yet the dry facts of that time are amplified by hearing that the Hallens "were very glad to see the people come home again."
Tragedy strikes -- Remembering Eleanora
After 10 years in Canada, the Hallen parents traveled back to England to visit relatives. They sent diary-like daily notes home as letters. Tragically, during their absence Eleanora, then only 23 years old, got sick and died. She had often had spells of bad health, but this was "consumption" (tuberculosis), which was fatal in the 1840s. Sarah Hallen's adult journal tells the sad story. Because Eleanora died so young, the family kept more of her journals than of others, simply to remember her.
Of course, our thoughts -- if not our fingers -- have always moved at something like the rate of electronic communication. Today we can share them faster and farther but, no matter how speedily humans communicate, our inner selves still take time to understand. When Eleanora tries to explain the "facts" of three-year-old Grace's death, she is grieving underneath, trying to put her feelings into words and then crossing them out. Such a moment in the diary helps us feel -- over a gap of almost two centuries -- how sad the family was to lose their little sister.
Even with high-tech tools, we still need to understood how what we find out about fits with what we already know. A journal or a diary is a great place for that. Nowadays your writing might be on a screen, not paper. Your responses to your life may be shared on email or in a chat room, with your friends chipping in. Or you might share your thoughts publicly as a weblog, or "blog." Either way, like Eleanora, you are thinking about yourself and your life, and recording it -- possibly creating history! She tells us how much she hates her cousin ("That great Bela!") or how bored or jealous she is. Her father wrote full pages when another daughter, Edith, died before the Hallens left England. They may not have realized how writing helped them find some inner balance -- do you? Do you think people are more frank about their emotions today than they were in Eleanora's day?
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) was able to acquire the Hallen family's papers in 2003. Since then, LAC staff have been working hard to catalogue and preserve this precious material. The Hallen family records form an extraordinarily large and unusual collection called a "fonds." This term (which comes from French) has been adopted to replace the terms "records" and "archives." A fonds is basically a group of many related documents, which may be stored in more than one institution.
LAC staff have now photographed most of the Hallen watercolour paintings and digitized selected pages from the diaries of Eleanora, her sibling Mary, and her father, the Reverend George Hallen. As necessary conservation work is completed, the diaries -- and other documents in the Hallen family fonds -- will be microfilmed.
This will protect the fonds and make them more available to researchers. Unfortunately, Eleanora's earliest journals are now missing. Researchers have to rely on a 1950s transcription to see what her actual first pages contained. However, LAC holds all her original surviving volumes, from May 1834 to 1846, with some exceptions.
It is rare to find historic materials preserving the voices of children. Eleanora, as a girl, a teen, and a young woman, wrote about her daily world -- almost 200 years ago. Reading her words allows you to travel back in time. As you investigate the Hallen family fonds, you'll gain more insights into immigrant lives during pioneer times -- especially children's lives. You'll discover more puzzles to solve and questions to answer, as well. It's all the stuff of research. Keep clicking, keep exploring!