And so made significant . . .

around the world, and through the centuries

22 September

1814
Henry Crabb Robinson,
lawyer

‘I was in the grand gallery at the Louvre when I heard some one say, “Mrs. Siddons is below.” I instantly left the Raphaels and Titians, and went in search of her, and my Journal says: “I am almost ashamed to confess that the sight of her gave me a delight beyond almost any I have received in Paris.” I had never seen her so near. She was walking with Horace Twiss’s mother. I kept as near her as I could with decorum, and without appearing to be watching her; yet there was something about her that disturbed me. So glorious a head ought not to have been covered with a small chip hat. She knit her brows, too, on looking at the pictures, as if to assist a failing sight. But I recognized her fascinating smile with delight, though there was a line or two about her mouth which I thought coarse.’

Her genius triumphed

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1839
William Charles Macready,
actor

‘Received a most kind letter from Dickens with the proof sheet of the dedication of Nickleby to me. Surely this is something to gratify me. . . Answered Dickens‘s letter, thanking him, as well as I could, for the high compliment conferred on me.’

A surprising man

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1846
Edward Hodges Cree,
surgeon

‘Returned to Honiton, and next day went on to Bridport. Stay at Mr John Hounsell’s, the dear old master [Cree’s tutor during his apprenticeship]. The same changes in the children here: Eliza, the eldest, grown into a pretty, clever girl of nineteen, well read and accomplished; Henry, the eldest boy, commenced medical studies at London University, and so nothing remains stationary. I had hosts of old friends to see at Bridport, which was a great pleasure, but some dear ones had gone to their last rest.’

Pirate hunting expedition

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1849
Henry Cockburn,
lawyer

‘The Aberdeen criminal business exhausted four days, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and yesterday. There were not more cases than usual; but they happened to be of a worse description. In particular, there were four capital cases, viz. two murders, one murder combined with raptus, and one raptus alone. One of the murders ended in an acquittal, and very properly, because though the guilt was certain and savage, the evidence was not satisfactory. In another murder, a plea of culpable homicide produced twenty years’ transportation. The simple raptus ended in a conviction, and in transportation for life. The murder and raptus combined caused a sentence of death. This last was a horrid case.

The prisoner was James Robb, a country labourer of about twenty-five, a known reprobate, and stout. His victim was Mary Smith, a quiet woman of sixty-two, never married, or a mother, who lived by herself in a lonely house by the wayside. There was a fair held at a village in Aberdeenshire called Badenscoth, which sometimes, though in no eminent degree, produced some of the disorderly scenes natural to fairs.

Mary Smith, though not the least alarmed, happened to observe casually that “she was not afraid of anybody, except that lad Jamie Robb.” That very night Robb left the fair (9th April 1849) about ten, avowing that he was determined to gratify his passion on somebody before he slept. He had then no thought of this old woman; but, unfortunately, her house lay in his way. He asked admittance, upon pretence of lighting his pipe. She refused. On this he got upon the roof and went down the chimney, which consisted of a square wooden box about 5 feet long by 2 and a half wide, placed about 8 feet above the fire. Its soot was streaked by his corduroy dress, which helped to identify him. Having got in, the beast fell upon its prey. She was thought in good health, but after death was discovered to have an incipient disease in the heart, which agitation made dangerous, but which might have lain long dormant. The violence of the brute, and the alarm, proved fatal. She was found dead in the morning, and the bed broken, and in the utmost confusion. A remarkable composite metal button, broken from its eye, was found twisted in what the witness called “a lurk,” or fold, of the sheet. Buttons of exactly the same kind, and with the same words and figures engraved on them, were found on his jacket, all complete except that one was awanting. But its eye remained; and this eye, with its bright recent fracture, exactly fitted the part of the button that had been found. These circumstances would have been sufficient to have established his having been in the house. But his declaration admitted the fact. Consent was excluded by its being obvious that it was the energy of her resistance that had killed her.

It is difficult to drive the horrors of that scene out of one’s imagination. The solitary old woman in the solitary house, the descent through the chimney, the beastly attack, the death struggle, all that was ‘going on within this lonely room, amidst silent fields, and under a still, dark sky. It is a fragment of hell, which it is both difficult to endure and to quit.

Yet a jury, though clear of both crimes, recommended the brute to mercy! because he did not intend to commit the murder! Neither does the highwayman, who only means to wound, in order to get the purse, but kills.

Within a few hours after he was convicted he confessed, and explained that the poor woman had died in his very grip. (He was executed, solemnly denying his guilt, quoad raptus!) [. . .]

The Queen is living at Balmoral, and therefore I expected to be obstructed by some of the usual bustle of royalty. But it is reputable for the royalty of this nation that, except by a paltry flag set up before his door by the inn-keeper of Ballater, there was not a vestige of Majesty in any part of the strath. We did not encounter a single carriage, nor a single rider, nor one soldier, nor a police officer, nor anything to mark a distinguished presence. The inns were rather less crowded than usual, the post-horses as fresh, the strath as natural. The sheep, the stots, and even the barelegged children, all went off exactly as before. Balmoral itself was silent; flagless; apparently un-guarded; calm; beautiful. I think this very respectable in her Majesty and family. It seems to show sense and taste. And the fact that such enjoyment of such virtuous pleasures is not merely possible, but easy and habitual, demonstrates how deep the monarchical principle is in the mind of the country, and how much better it is promoted by rational conduct, than by the common follies of royalty.’

Of murder and raptus

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2005
Dannie Abse,
doctor and writer

‘The past survives however much one tries to drive it down and away from one’s consciousness. It rears up provoked by something overheard or a scene, a place, an object, a tune, a scent even. It is inescapable. But I think how I must count my blessings, though it would have been better if Joan not I had been the one who had crawled out of that capsized car. She would have been much more self-sufficient. Count your blessings, son, my mother used to say. A cliché. At times of stress, clichés, family sayings, proverbs, are drawn to the mind like a magnet. I do count my blessings: at night, though I don’t sleep well, I am unable to lie on my right side now that the stress-fractures of the right thoracic cage have healed; the scar on my chin and neck are hardly visible; my left thumb, though oddly angled, is less troublesome and it is no bad thing that I’ve lost a stone in weight. Presumably the latter is due as much to my increased metabolic rate as it is to the lack of Joan’s tempting and nutritious cooking. At least I hope I haven’t developed an over-active thyroid. I take my pulse and note it is raised though not alarmingly so. Do I write all this down as an aide-mémoire for my future self?’

Autobiographical items

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In general, these diary extracts are quoted as given in the published (book or online) source referred to in the reference articles. Each extract may be all, a large part of, or a small part of the complete entry for that day. I have tried to indicate where text has been removed from within a quote by the use of trailing dots in square bracket.

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