Public and Private Lives

Public and Private Lives

History often comes down to the written word. Most of what we know of Jane Austen is derived from her letters to her sister, diary accounts of those close to her, her own written word, and the public and private written opinion of those who knew her or knew of her.

Allow me to amend: history often comes down to the discovered written word. A fact never so obvious as when new discoveries occur.

My family suffered an unfortunate tragedy this weekend – the kind that every family suffers, and in the aftermath we were inevitably led to root through the house left behind.

We discovered the usual things: clothes, bills, teacups, old magazines. Digging deeper still there were seasonal holiday decorations, tax documents. But deeper still we found something unexpected. A locked chest and within, dozens of old ledgers.


At first glance, the items appeared ordinary. Each page allowed for a list of entries with a column style ledger. Each page was numbered in the upper corner. A study of the items, first appearing in the year 1919, revealed the sort of purchases one might expect. The ledger itself. Fruit. Materials. Clothing. (Do feel free to gasp at the reasonable prices!)


There are a few mystery items. Defined mainly by their vague nature. For example, “For Hannah” or “For Jacob” and a slightly less mysterious but incredibly high value “For My Teeth.”


The first half of this ledger is filled with the minutiae of year-by-year purchases one might expect only to be followed by blank page after blank page after blank page…until the pages were no longer blank. Towards the end of the book are lines upon lines of script, diary entries. Most in a foreign language that I’ve been told is likely Scandinavian, but also one in English.


The text of which goes:

My Dear, Good Billie:

Please do believe me when I tell you that I do care a whole lot for you, and that you have been just the dearest pal a girl ever had! I can never forget our good times together; but Bill, dear, where a girl gives herself to a man utterly, she has so many things to consider. Life is not all golf, you know, nor every meal a picnic! I have eloped with P- H-. He is mad about me, and of course I love him, too, or I should not be writing this. If only you had been a little more serious, Billie! But somehow I cannot help feeling that when a man of your age never has settled down, but still plays tennis, and the ukelele, and fox-trots and does coin tricks, and never thinks about anything but play even if he is the dearest, jolliest pal in the whole world, I’m afraid to give my poor silly little self into his keeping! I need someone just my opposite. P- H- says so. You and I are too much alike. But promise me that we can always be friends or I shall be heartbroken.

Your foolish little summer playmate,


C- is not my family member in question, but her Aunt. No one alive has ever heard of Billie. All we know of C- is she had a son and died thereafter. We are unsure if P- H- was already dead at this point or merely absent, as C-‘s son came to live with the family.

A short life, even for the times, which I hope was still filled with joy and love despite its brevity and the sensibility of her choices.

C- has always been a footnote in our family musings, a distant something-or-other, but with this discovery, it is clear she always has been, and has now to us, become, so much more.

14 Responses to Public and Private Lives

  1. I have one letter from my great grandfather (from Alabama) which my mother saved in my baby album. In this letter he praises me up and says I am going to be great. I was about 6 months old the only time he met me and he died not long after that. We lived in Pennsylvania so getting together in the 40’s was not easy. But I do treasure that one letter.

    Finding diaries, letters or journals must be so interesting. I used to write a “Christmas Letter” every year and it continues a history of what we and the kids did during the year so I made copies for each child to keep. They found them interesting…especially when they were all of a sudden included in the history. I also wrote some chapters about my life growing up with chapters, i.e., vacations we took, rather than day-to-day events. I hope it is interesting to someone in the family down the line. Or maybe not? LOL

  2. I love these kind of findings. We found things similar when we went through my husband’s parents belongings….including my father in law’s pilot’s license. Post cards in french and letters to family members whom we have no idea who they are. Poignant and interesting.

    • thank you, brenda. we have a huge pile of more stuff to sort through that we’ve set aside to do over Thanksgiving and Christmas – a sort of nice way to spend the holidays with family.

  3. What a wonderful find. As I am a genealogist and author such finds are, to me, a great treasure! It is with some great worry I fear the new technology will over time reduce the discovery of such great documents to nothing! I enjoy my iPad and iPhone like many but still keep hand written diaries (35 years worth) and send hand written letters. Where would we be without the letters that did survive of Jane Austen’s? Lucky for us not all were lost or destroyed!

    Thank you for sharing your ledger.

    • A geneologist!!! That sounds like such a cool job. I was just thinking the same thing – in that all my diaries and stuff are on documents on my computer – just doesn’t have the same feel to it.

  4. Someone in my family found letters between my grandparents from before they were married. It gives you an insight to what they were like before marriage, the “dirty thirties”, and before kids and grandkids. You see their hopes and dreams and it makes you wonder if they were happy in their 60 years of marriage. Just seeing my grandfather’s name in the 1910 Census list as a child makes you stop and wonder what life was like for him.

    It is always interesting to see a glimpse into someone’s life. Thank you for sharing.

Your thoughts are precious!