"I picked up on the grass a palmer-worm, which is a caterpillar, so named because it travels about like a palmer or pilgrim. It has long, thick tufts of black and red hair, and a very minute gold spot to each ring ; it crawls very quickly. It seems to eat chiefly the leaves of the dock, the vine, and the lilac."
Emily Shore, age 13, June 21, 1832.I was doing some research on the history of science and nature writing when I came across the above quote attributed a 13-year old English girl named Emily Shore. I had never heard of her before. A little further research took me to her journal, which was published by her family in 1891
, over fifty years after her death at the age of 19 in 1839.
Emily, it seems, was quite a prolific writer. The journal starts around her 11th birthday and follows her through her teens. During that time she also authored works she refers to as histories, novels, stories, poetry, and plays. Unfortunately, only the journal survived, but that is enough to give us a taste of her lively mind.
On her first trip to London eleven-year-old Emily describes her impressions of the new London Bridge--"very beautiful, but not yet competed,"--the monument to Lord Nelson--"I find the urn at the top very ugly,"--and St. Paul's Cathedral, where she stood in the Whispering Gallery and noted that from that height, "the people in the church look like dolls or monkeys."
She was thrilled to receive a copy of Charles Babbage's Economy of Manufactures
for her 13th birthday. Babbage, you may recall, is regarded as the father of the modern computer for his invention of the "difference engine" in the 1820s. At first glance, Economy
does not seem to be the kind of book a 13-year old would enjoy. Emily, however, called it "beautiful and interesting." It made her realize how little she knew about how things were made: "It is astonishing how ignorant people are about the method of making the commonest things, and it quite vexes and mortifies me to look round the room and see scarce an article in it of the construction of which I have the least idea. I wish some one would write a book giving a minute account of all the English manufactures."
Her real love, though, was the natural world. During the summer, she rose early and spent nearly all her time outdoors. She wrote detailed descriptions of plants, insects, birds, reptiles, and animals of all kinds. She collected caterpillars, but when they started to die, she decided she would let the survivors go, declaring, "Poor little creatures. I shall never keep caterpillars alive again. While they were in the full enjoyment of health and liberty, I took them prisoners, confined them in a box, and shut them up in a house, far from their homes; by which means almost all have been destroyed. It makes me quite unhappy to think of it. I shall certainly set them all at liberty to-morrow, and put them on one of the plants to which they belong."
In her observations of nature, she noted behavior and speculated on why the world took the form it did. When watching a moth she concluded," It is not perhaps generally known that all kinds of plants have their particular moth or butterfly, and that which feeds on one could not feed on another." And when she went to the shore, she wrote that, "A large space of ground, at some distance from the sea (as much as two miles, indeed), is entirely composed of a bed of round pebbles, whose depth is said to be interminable. It is not that the ground is stony, but there is nothing to be seen except these pebbles. Query: Is it possible that the sea has in ancient times retired and left these stones behind it?"
These were exactly the kinds of observations and questions the greatest scientific minds of her age were engaged in. It is moving and delightful to hear them voiced by youngster, and a girl, no less! When not busy with writing, Emily
tutored local children, attended to her own lessons, made models of ships, bridges, and buildings, and filled sketchbooks with portraits and nature studies. In her late teens she contracted tuberculosis, the scourge of the nineteenth century. Though her family moved to Portugal in hopes that the climate would heal her, she died shorty before her twentieth birthday.
Reading the journal of this gifted young woman, I was reminded a bit by her tone of another girl who made her literary appearance a generation later. This other child, by contrast, was completely imaginary. Lewis Carroll's Alice is also fascinated by plants and animals and filled with wonder for the world. Emily, in her own way, turned her world into a wonderland. Her journal is a wonderful document, and I hope, like Alice, she will someday receive her literary due.If you want to read Emily's journal yourself, you can find on online copy at the Internet Archive
or buy a copy from Amazon.
The library at the University of Delaware included Emily's journal in a fascinating exhibit SELF WORKS:
DIARIES, SCRAPBOOKS, AND OTHER AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL EFFORTS.
Well worth a visit.Photo Credit:Portrait of Emily Shore by herself
from The Journal of Emily Shore, 1898 Edition