- Hanna Spencer (Author)
Hanna's Diary, 1938-1941. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Amy Wink (Author)
She Left Nothing in Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of Nineteenth-Century Women's Diaries. University of Tennessee Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Laurie McNeill
Hanna’s Diary and She Left Nothing in Particular turn the spotlight on women’s diaries, the narratives they construct and the functions they perform for their writers. Spencer’s text, a self-edited edition of her diary, chronicles the diarist’s journey from Czechoslovakia to Canada in 1939. Spencer, a Jewish woman, began the diary as a record for her lover Hans Feiertag, a Christian Austrian who was unable to date her openly after Hitler began to gain power in Europe. Feiertag, an up-and-coming composer, feared the consequences of being linked romantically to a Jew. Spencer understood this fear, and the two lovers agreed to "go underground," with the hopes of reuniting "later on." Spencer’s diary, a "one-sided dialogue," was intended to substitute for personal contact until that time, but for these lovers, "later on" never came. Hanna married a Canadian, Elvins Spencer, in 1941; she learned decades later that Hans, who perished in Russia during the siege of Stalingrad, had also married and had fathered a child during his last leave. I wonder if the publication of the diary is an act of penance for Spencer, meant to fulfill and celebrate a commitment that could not, in the end, be honoured. For Hanna’s Diary is in many ways as much about Hans Feiertag, whose musical compositions Spencer is still trying to promote, as it is about the diarist. A professor emerita of modern languages, Spencer has designed her text to suit both a scholarly and popular reading audience. Unobtrusive endnotes, along with the preface, introduction, epilogue, and appendix provide much-needed context for this story that inevitably interweaves public and personal history. The diary format allows Spencer to illustrate how incremental and insidious were the changes and restrictions Hitler’s reign imposed. Her friendship with Erna Menta, a fellow teacher in Olmutz, provides one example of the inhumanity that Nazism unleashed in former friends and colleagues.
The love story between Hanna and Hans, the central purpose for the original diary and, in many ways, for the published version, is one of the more unsettling elements of this text, and may affect how it is received and employed. Contemporary readers may find repugnant Hanna’s agreement to make her relationship with Hans clandestine, after eight years together, in order to save his promising musical career. Spencer tries to explain in her introduction why he had such a hold over her that she would support rather than resist the inherent anti-Semitism—not to mention sexism—of such an arrangement. The diary form provides context for such attitudes, with daily entries that record the moment and therefore highlight the volatility of situations, loyalties, and beliefs. For its daily record of life in Europe under Nazi occupation, for its tale of life as an immigrant in Canada, for its chronicle of kindnesses, hopes, loves lost and found, Hanna’s Diary makes rich reading.
She Left Nothing in Particular argues precisely for the value of this kind of daily, personal narrative from ordinary citizens. An examination of six diaries by American women in times of crisis, Wink’s text analyzes how these diarists used writing to structure and interpret their experiences, including abusive marriages, Overland migration, and domestic upheaval during the Civil War. Reading these diaries as important acts of resistance and self-inscription, Wink argues that keeping a diary allowed these women to "maintain and adapt their sense of their own identity to particular situations," giving them a sense of personal control in the face of "overwhelming external experiences." In discussing these diaries as literary texts, and in taking their authors seriously as writers, Wink contributes to the recovery of women’s writing and challenges the enduring idea that "private" genres are "nothing in particular."
Wink adopts what she calls a "personal critical approach" in the hope of extending the intimate relationship she feels with her diarists to her own readers. This methodology results in a spotty theoretical framework that, for studies in life writing at least, leaves out several vital players. While the value of Leigh Gilmore’s Autobiographies is undeniable, her latest book, Autobiography: The Limits of Trauma and Testimony, would have been even more relevant to the discussion of battered wives’ narratives. Similarly, Sidonie Smith’s foundational Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body would enrich Wink’s concept of gender and subjectivity. With the majority of her critical materials coming from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Wink’s theoretical model of is out of date.
Although each chapter points to such larger issues as the relationship between place and identity and the intersection of the public and the private, Wink’s exclusive focus on textual analysis means that she consistently fails to acknowledge the context of textual production. Her celebratory reading of two Southern women who must take on "public" roles while their husbands fight for the Confederate army, for instance, would benefit from acknowledging that these women’s personal liberation took place while they were still slave-owners. Textual analysis is certainly appropriate, especially for unpublished manuscripts or out-of-print sources, provided that these readings situate texts within their social, historical, and cultural moment. This is particularly true for diaries that lie so ambiguously on the axis of public and private experience and history.
- Discovering North/Self by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: From Barrow to Boothia : The Arctic Journal of Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease, 1836-1839 by William Barr, Alone in Silence: European Women in the Canadian North before 1940 by Barbara Kelcey, and The Snow Geese: : A Story of Home by William Fiennes
- Auto/Bio/Ethno/Graphe? by Sophie McCall
Books reviewed: Riska: Memories of a Dayak Girlhood by Riska Orpa Sari
- Two Life Stories by Colin Hill
Books reviewed: Typing: A Life in 26 Keys by Matt Cohen and The Child of Someone by David Helwig
- Faith or Doubt? by Kate Douglas
Books reviewed: Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography by Kate Douglas
- Vigour and Voice by Tanis Macdonald
Books reviewed: From Old Woman to Older Woman: Contemporary Culture and Women's Narratives by Sally Chivers and Voices Made Flesh: Performing Women's Autobiography by M. Heather Carver, Lynn C. Miller, and Jacqueline Taylor
MLA: McNeill, Laurie. Life Recordings. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 176 - 177)
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