Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Journal Of Mistress Joan Martyn 1906

Image taken from this website about Blo Norton Hall.

The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn was written in August 1906 at Blo Norton Hall, East Harling, Norfolk.

I love the beginning of this story as I too am a bit of a geek when it comes to other peoples family histories. The story begins with a woman in her 40’s, Miss Rosamond Merridew, travelling around Norfolk looking for documents relating to 13th, 14th and 15th century land tenure. She stumbles across a run down manor house and after having dinner with the owners is shown their collection of family documents which include a diary, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” after which the story is named.

The first half of the book is written from Miss Merridew’s perspective, describing the finding of Joan Martyn’s diary and the second half takes you back to the 15th century with extracts from this diary written by Joan herself.

After her discovery of the house, Miss Merridew is shown round by the lady of the house and very little is given away as to it’s history and whether it contains the treasures of papers that Miss Merridew is looking for. When the man of the house returns for dinner, Miss Merridew is delighted by his interest in his family history. He leads her around the house, showing her his family paintings. At the end of this tour Miss Merridew thinks it is a good time to leave, but a surprise is in store. It is at this point that she is shown Joan’s diary and is allowed to take it away with her to read. It is at this point that the narrator then switches from Miss Merridew in the 20th century to Joan Martyn in the 15th century.*

At the beginning of the story, Miss Merridew explains that when writing about land tenure, she likes to digress into the details about what life might have been like at the time periods that she was studying.

“My researches into the system of land tenure in the 13th (,) 14th and 15th centuries have been made doubly valuable, I am assured, by the remarkable gift I have for presenting them in relation to the life of the time” (p34)


“here I knock at the serf’s door, and find him roasting rabbits he has poached; I show you the Lord of the manor setting out on some journey, or calling his dogs to him for a walk in the fields, or sitting in the high backed chair inscribing laborious figures upon a glassy sheet of parchment. In another room I show you Dame Elinor, at work with her needle; and by her on a lower stool sits her daughter stitching too, but less assiduously.” (p34)

She, goes on to comment that she is criticised for doing this because it is not relevant to the study of land tenure, the main subject of investigation but also that

“It is well known that the period I have chosen in more bare than any other of private records.” (p35)

meaning that the details that she is referring to are not based on factual documents, but from her imagination. This sets the scene nicely for her later discovery of Mistress Joan’s journal, as this provides her with a detailed account of a year in the life of the 15th century. The dialogue is sparse, but filled in with descriptions of how the characters speak, their accents and the tone of their words.

There is a marked contrast between the fist half of the story, written from the perspective of the narrator and the second half, which is extracts of Joan Martyn’s journal. I like the distinct styles of each section and the fact that the narrator hands over entirely from Miss Merridew to Joan allows two very different atmospheres to be created.

Joan’s diary is divided into 7 sections which each look at a different time of the year and a different aspect of her life; a description of her house; the journey her father makes to London; contemplating marrying a neighbour; encountering local people whom she will one day rule over; a meeting with a poet with romantic ideas about love; a pilgrimage to a shrine and acceptance that her life will not be a fairytale of princes and princesses.

Virginia Woolf takes her time to set the scene for the story, describing who the narrator is, what her inertest are and the way that she writes. In fact, the first paragraph is made up of only four sentences.

Once again it is women who are the focus of this story, from the roving narrator Miss Merridew at the beginning, to a year in the life of Joan Martyn. Furthermore, in the diary of Joan it is just an account of her daily life, nothing very out of the ordinary happens but this is what is interesting. As in Phyllis and Rosamond, Joan is also contemplating her marriage and what life with her future husband will be like.
There may also be autobiographical elements to the story, it was written when Virginia was staying in Norfolk so she may well have taken inspiration from her surroundings.

I enjoyed reading this but finishing it left me wanting more. I wanted to go back to Miss Merridew and read about her thoughts on the diary. This is the problem with reading some of Virginia Woolf’s earlier, unpublished work, it was not written as a complete piece to be read so is not perhaps as she would have intended it to be.

*There are some discrepancies here with the dates, the diary is said to be for the year 1480 but Joan’s date of birth is given as 1495. Susan Dick (editor) suggests that this us an unrevised story and that Virginia Woolf would have amended the dates if she had revised the work.


  1. I greatly enjoyed her use of two different voices, as it made the writing seem like it was from two different people. The one in the diary was easier to understand and somehow more compelling, perhaps because of the danger the family lived in during the medieval times. Many warring factions were passing their gate at odd hours of the night, and life was lived with the hope of peace to come. The women did their sewing and also managed the workers on the land, the crops and the animals when their men went away to fight, so they had to be quite strong and capable of doing many types of work independently of their husbands in order to live off the land, keep order within their fences and maintain a small island of peace and safety. What a different way of life that was! For me the first part about touring the home was about gaining the trust of the owner by listening with interest and respect to what he was willing to tell her, a complete stranger. And her silence paid off in spades. She got more than she could have wished for in the diary of Joan Martyn.

  2. I am intrigued and would like to read this story. Where can I get a copy of it? doesn't have it, nor does Project Gutenberg.

    1. It is from a book of short stories, details of which can be found here