Website Review

Louisa’s World

Louisa's World is a website that presents, in full text, the extant fragments of a diary written by Louisa Collins, a girl of about 18 who lived near Nova Scotia during the Regency period [1811-1820]. Hosted by Brook House Press, a Canadian publisher, Louisa's World is based on a manuscript donated to the Public Archives of Nova Scotia by a descendant of Louisa Collins' family.

The site's main page offers a menu of six sections: People, Intro, Diary, Gallery, Colin Grove, and Afterword. Of these, it is the diary itself—covering a one year period from 1815 to 1816—that provides the best material for a class on the history of youth generally and female adolescence specifically.

Louisa's entries are full of rich detail about the daily activities of an 18 to 19 year old woman in a rather isolated rural environment. Through Louisa's descriptions of such tasks as carding wool and churning butter, the reader glimpses a stark world in which manual labor abounds, but excitements are few and far between. Louisa loves reading, and the webpages offer hypertext links to the poems of Edward Young, some of whose phrasings and metaphors seem to be mimicked in Louisa’s writing.

Indeed, the whole text of Louisa's diary is full of such links, which lead to brief explanations of context and background data. For example, Louisa's reference to a neighbor's "black girl" is linked to a paragraph about the probable status of that unnamed girl as a maid-servant rather than a slave, given the emancipationist sentiments that prevailed in Nova Scotia at the time.

Louisa seems to have delighted above all in the companionship of her female friends, although her opportunities for visiting with them were limited by bad weather. Many entries voice plaintive regret at having to bear the tedium of long, dark days without the company of friends. On October 24, she wrote of one such day: "I don't think I shall git the rheumatism in my fingers for want of exercise, for I have been in my spinning room all day. No one intrudes on my solitude; my mind has free scope for thinking. – If it were not for hope and anticipation, time indeed would pass heavily on. – It has been very unpleasant all day; no one has been here."

In the "Intro" section the text's editor, Dale McLare, summarizes and interprets Louisa's entries. McLare comments upon the detailed descriptions of daily chores, noting that Louisa seemed to glean satisfaction from a job well done, and that she had "the attitude of one who has never doubted [work's] importance nor her responsibility for carrying it out. At the same time, it is very clear that Louisa has no urban-romantic nostalagia [sic] about the things she has to do. The work is just something that has to be done not the be-all and end-all of her life." (Before directing students to this site, a teacher would have to caution them about the numerous lapses of spelling and punctuation in the editor's prose—an unfortunate oversight of proofreading that somewhat compromises the site's value.)

McLare's introduction provides yet another body of material for history students to analyze: the impact of an editor's world-view on the production of knowledge. The editorial comments are historically specific: they suggest a current-day sensibility, one that finds it noteworthy when a teenager approaches hard work with a sense of duty, and one that knows all about "urban-romantic nostalgia" as a social construct.

McLare also takes several opportunities to note similarities between Louisa and Anne Shirley, fictional heroine of the Canadian classic, Anne of Green Gables. Although Louisa Collin's childhood occurred a century before Anne Shirley’s, McLare finds similarities (e.g., sentiments) between the real-life girl and the later fictional one, and clearly wants to link Louisa’s diary to a famous Canadian text. This is just one of several elements of Louisa's World that cater to a sense of nationalism and "pride of place" among the site's imagined readers, who seem to be comprised mainly of local historians and genealogists. The "People" section—the first one listed in the menu—is tailored for genealogists, in its cross-indexed listing of all the people named in Louisa's diary.

The "Gallery" section provides some excellent visual aids for readers of the diary, featuring maps, paintings, sketches, and survey-plans of locations near Louisa's home. Some of these images date from the relevant period, including a watercolor painting of a Micmac Indian encampment near Halifax in 1790.

The section on "Colin Grove" provides a detailed time-line of events in the history of the 5,000 acre estate owned by Louisa's family. The "Afterword" uses data from local histories and census records to provide information on the events in Louisa's family (marriages, deaths, etc.) in the years after the diary ends.

All in all, Louisa's World is very limited in scope, but broad in its historical information. It provides a good example of the sort of historiography that resembles miniature paintings: it focuses intensely on the fine details of a small primary document. The site's organization, with numerous hyperlinks and cross-indexing, make it very user-friendly. Most importantly for historians of youth, it impresses upon readers the feeling or tone and the quotidian realities or details of life in a rural town 200 years ago, as lived by a teenaged young woman.

How to Cite This Source

Ilana Nash, "Louisa’s World," in Children and Youth in History, Item #231, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/website-reviews/231 (accessed October 20, 2014).

Louisa’s World is a website that presents, in full text, the extant fragments of a diary written by Louisa Collins, a girl of about 18 who lived near Nova Scotia during the Regency period [1811-1820].