The Diary of "Helena Morley," a review

Monday, May 25, 2009

(I am double-posting this review as a way to inaugurate my new blog, Back Lit. Here at Capers with Carroll, I post more frequently, but with shorter posts on a wider variety of timely topics. There, I will have fewer pictures, but longer essays, more focused on literature, and less tied to current happenings. I hope to begin writing reviews of whatever I am reading. Some will be new publications. Others will come from the pile of books I collected but was too busy to read during my masters program. Still more will be from the old and out-of-print treasures I enjoy finding at used book stores or saving from boxes of discards destined for the dumpster. I also plan to resurrect papers I wrote for classes, for some of which I put in far too much effort to only have them read by one professor.)

The Diary of "Helena Morley"
translated and introduced by Elizabeth Bishop
Paperback, 282 pages, Farrar, 1995
Film adaptation (2004) by Helena Solberg, as Vida de Menina.

For a bibliophile like myself, one of the lasting blessings from sending my children to college is that the books they bought for now-forgotten classes still occupy bookshelves here at the house. Thus, when I finished reading the last assigned novel of my own masters’ degree program and turned to the shelves for my first, guilt-free, frivolous reading in five years, my eyes fell on this diary, penned by a teenaged girl in a backwater-Brazilian mining town in the 1890s, published in Portuguese (Minha Vida de Menina) in the 1940s, translated into English in the 1950s, purchased by my daughter in the 1990s for a History of Latin America class at Westmont College, and left behind seven years ago when that daughter made Brazil her home. I now have my own cache of Brazilian memories, but I don’t think they are necessary to appreciate this book. In Brazilian literature it is considered a classic, but its appeal should be far broader.

Helena Morley (pseudonym for Alice Dayrell Caldeira Brant, 1880-1970) had a British-physician grandfather who migrated to Brazil and grew wealthy and a father who bought and managed marginal diamond mines and grew poor. At thirteen, attending a four-year normal school that would qualify her to teach primary school, a teacher assigned her to keep a diary. By her own description, Helena was mischievous, intelligent but lazy in her studies, and more fond of house work than homework (the diary being an exception). She was her grandmother’s favorite, but burdened by a godmother, her aunt, whose ‘love’ seemed to be expressed diabolically. Readers see her alert to both her own inner thought life, and her context in the larger community.

That community, Diamantina, Minas Gerais, some three hundred miles inland from Rio de Janeiro, is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an example of Brazilian Baroque Architecture, but the population still hasn’t reached 50,000. Her neighbors were poor families with both adults and children sorting through piles of gravel, picking out tiny diamonds or flecks of gold. Helena was there to witness the arrival of the first post office, and discussion about a possible railroad line. She thought the train money could be better spent bringing the town clean drinking water, and worried that the post office was replacing the lame delivery man who had to be lifted each day onto his donkey.

Brazil outlawed slavery in the years just before this diary began (newborns in 1871, and older slaves in 1885), and one of the interesting dynamics in Helena’s community involved the relationship between those who had once been masters or slaves. Her grandparents had owned slaves. Upon emancipation, most of the males moved to the big cities to find work and most of the females (more than available work required) stayed on to enjoy economic security with grandma. Helena’s daily entrees offer a wealth of material on the interaction between these two groups. There were resentments in both directions, yet honest affection, as well. There was also a pattern of white women with empty nests taking in orphaned black babies and raising them almost as pets.

Throughout, Helena describes her own conflict over Catholicism. She asks her mother to stay on her knees while Helena takes tests she hasn't sufficiently studied for, and catalogues saints by distinguishing which ones offer effective returns on prayer, and which ones don’t. She suffers under an aunt who, after the family has already offered sufficient prayers for the evening, then launches into long prayers to move the souls of nearly-forgotten relatives from Purgatory to Heaven. Helena also struggles with the belief it is a sin to consider her priest homely, and then wonders how she can confess that to him.

The story is full of rich characterizations; the neighbor lady who steals chickens, but then offers heroic help when Helena’s mother is sick; the father who reinvests all of his income in buying new mines, leaving his family in poverty; the grandmother who holds the family (and servants) together. There are also delightful vignettes; the women-folk carrying laundry to the river and Helena interrupting her bath and hair-washing to catch a dinner’s worth of the crawdads nibbling at her feet; the monkey who would toss Helena the ripest fruit from the top of the tree; the disaster when—at age 14, against her will and with no orientation or instructions—the crazy godmother arranges for Helena to substitute teach one month in a classroom of hellions.

In my day job, I teach junior high. Some things never change. The day after I read Helena’s account of being caught with a crib-sheet during a test (a footnote tells us they are called concertinas in the Portuguese), I saw one of my better students awkwardly trying to use one during the test I was administering. Helena’s teacher walked around and stood beside her for most of the test period, enabling the other students to use their own concertinas unnoticed. I walked around and stood next to my student. She sweated under the pressure, and after a while, handed me her test. Across the top, I wrote, “Would you like to start over, without the cheat-sheet?” With downcast eyes, she nodded agreement. In her diary, Helena lamented her poor luck.

Separated by 115 years, different languages, and all the changes of our modern age, a fourteen-year-old is still a fourteen-year-old. That a junior-high-aged girl produced this finely-layered story reminds us how observant this age-group can be. My own students can ignore the lesson I’m teaching, but will notice if I wear a new shirt. Helena has that same capacity. She carried me back three generations, across 6,000 miles, to another culture, and showed me the students in my classroom today.

Posted by Brian at 2:18 PM  


Nice! I know the pleasure of end of the semester novel reading. I'm doing some of that now, but guiltily as I've got a summer class and should be reading for it.
Last semester I read about slavery in a Brazilian gold mining region called "Licentious Liberty." This sounds more fun.

Lomagirl said...
June 20, 2009 at 7:40 PM  

And while you should be reading for your class, you're reading my blog! If you're trying to share the guilt, it won't work. All I feel is flattered.

Brian said...
June 20, 2009 at 8:00 PM  

Nice review. I'm reading the book and am not thrilled with Bishop's translation, especially for some of the expressions and turns of language, although I know she took pains to ensure accuracy. I am looking for it in the original Portuguese.

Dee said...
July 9, 2011 at 2:50 AM  

I just found it! To purchase in Rio it's 52 reis (around $30) but it's published in Portuguese on line!

Dee said...
July 9, 2011 at 2:59 AM  

Dee, my Sitemeter tells me you are visiting my blog from India, and the fact that you can read Portuguese makes me wonder if you are in Goa. I am fascinated by languages and dialects. Once you have finished reading the diary in it's original form, I would be curious to hear your evaluation of the differences between Morley's Portuguese and Indian Portuguese. I am just beginning to understand Brazilian Portuguese. I can read it because it is so similar to Spanish, but my ear has a great deal of trouble with it. I was in Goiania and Brasilia these last two weeks, so my Portuguese is better now than it was a month ago, but it still has a long way to go. I'm glad you enjoyed my review. I would love to hear from you again after you finish it in Portuguese.

Brian said...
July 9, 2011 at 8:26 AM  

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