What I learned about dating from my badass great-great grandmother's diary
You would probably think that dating was simpler in the nineteenth century than it is in 2016. But then I found my great-great grandmother Anita’s diary from 1889, and I discovered that her anxieties, triumphs, and failures were just as complicated — if not more so — as any dating troubles I’ve had lately.
Reading Anita’s diary is like reading a romance novel. In 1889, she fended off two over enthusiastic suitors, turned 27, and unexpectedly found her soulmate. Oh, and she traveled on a boat from her childhood home of Valparaíso, Chile to New York City to start a new, independent life in the US.
As a 24-year-old just figuring out my career and love life — among other things — my great-great grandmother’s determination to remain fiercely true to herself and her goals, while still allowing herself to fall in love really resonated with me.
Sea air (or traveling) brings the sweet-talking.
When Anita’s journey to NYC began on September 7th, 1889 aboard a posh boat called the Imperial, her friend, Baron von Erlinger — “a man of some experience and quite entertaining” — kept her company, but she made sure to keep him firmly in the friend zone. Apparently, one of her travel mates had told her that “he made some speech to her about me.” But “it meant little on board, as it was the effect of the sea air. If a man does not get sea-sick, he invariably gets soft.” She didn’t fall for his sweet talking.
Defend your independence.
During a particularly difficult part of the journey, the boat was caught in a storm and everyone was shaken up. Before going to bed, Anita had a difficult time falling asleep and wrote:
“Sleep is about the only thing more capricious than a woman’s love; will it and it comes not. Repel it and then you will see.”
I’m pretty sure that Anita was talking more about sleep than her current love life, but it ended up being an accurate prophecy of how her relationships with men played out over the following year: the man discreetly waiting in the wings ended up being the one that she fell for.
Although I would argue that Anita was much more heart-free than Baron, making sure he knew he was nothing more than a friend — I like her concept of being “heart-free.” I think she was referring to that feeling when you’ve never opened your heart up enough to actually get hurt. Life seems easier when you’re “heart-free,” doesn’t it? But then you fall in love and discover that despite the trials it entails, being heart-bound — or however Anita would choose to word it — can be just as beautiful.
You don’t have to say yes to the first person that asks.
The drama continued when Anita arrived in New York and met with Eric, who had proposed to her in Chile before she left.
“All through the meal he spoke of his love for me. Implored me to engage myself and try to love him. He said he would be willing to visit any time if I would only promise some hope… Funny man! He kept saying: ‘You would have to be happy because of my joy in possessing you.’ My own joy seemed to be of little consequence.” He closes by saying “Anita, I am to have this hand some day.”
Here she was, being aggressively proposed to, and she managed to reject him firmly but gracefully. Anita’s goal during her first year in New York was not to find a boyfriend. Instead, she aimed to prove her independence.
She lived alone in a boarding house on Madison Avenue in New York City, and when she wasn’t chasing off boys, Anita liked to spend her free time playing guitar, singing in front of small audiences, and going on 4 mile walks with her girlfriends.
Love doesn’t have to be the only goal.
Two days later, a new character appeared in her life — although not romantically (yet). Fred Van Lennep, the brother of her two closest girlfriends, offered to walk Anita home after a dinner with his family. “I like him more and more and I hope we shall be good friends.” Oh Anita, putting all these poor boys in the friend zone.
While Baron invited Anita to fancy dinners, opera shows, and bought her expensive gifts, Fred went the simple route. She consistently went on long walks with him, and they talked “very interestingly… He is a pleasant companion and I enjoy conversing with him.”
They didn’t always agree on Anita’s independence. While Anita was determined to walk in her parents footsteps and pursue philanthropic work, “‘Men’ would be my ob-stacle [Fred] says. They would fall in love. I do not agree.”
She valued her relationship with Fred, but was hyper conscious of maintaining a friendship only. That night, she wrote, “In the evening Fred called and remained until eleven – discussing Platonic Friendship.” The capitalization is hers–she clearly felt strongly about this platonic friendship.
She stressed about her relationship with Fred, and was afraid of becoming anything more than friends. “The truth is matters are looking too serious and it would be better to stop now while it is possible… It would not be fair on account of his sisters.”
I’m a fan of Fred. Although he originally pushed Anita to abandon her plans and stifle her independent nature, he learned to really listen to her more and more.
Love doesn’t (always) have to be complicated
My favorite part of her diary is during one week in April 1890.
On Monday, she was “determined to finish this affair and shall speak frankly to him.” but then on Thursday, Fred came over to go for yet another walk, and “before he left we were engaged.” Such simplicity.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing: the next few days were filled with Anita’s worries.
She wrote a long letter to Fred, explaining how miserable she was. The next day she wrote in her diary. “In the evening, F came and now all is clear. I told him of my fears… I am becoming very fond of him and am happy in this love… Oh, I hope I shall have no more misgivings. How wonderful life is.”
As if part of a soap opera, her first suitor Eric intervened that Thursday and begged her to reconsider her marriage plans. She rejected him again, saying “I have promised myself to a man whom I love.’ I cannot write all that transpired. He wept and so did I, for until that moment I had never appreciated his true character and his good qualities”
The guy had been asking for her to marry him for months, and all of the sudden — days after she became engaged — she recognized his good side? She refused a kiss from him, and said goodbye.
Once the drama passed, Anita started enjoying her engagement. “I am not ecstatic, but calmly happy, trusting implicitly in Fred. The family always prophesied that I would be unbearably soft and sentimental. Far from it.” I agree. I’ll never know if she was as confident and strong in person as she was in her diary, but she was no pushover.
There’s hope for happily ever after.
And like a romance novel, the story reached a happy ending. The diary skips weeks, then months, until she wrote, “My love for[Fred] has increased ten fold… How grateful I am for the love of such a man. He seems to have reached the very depths of my heart. I could not have believed it possibly three months ago, for I felt then as if I never could yield. My thoughts follow him constantly.”
The diary ends with a discussion of their planned wedding date.
Throughout the whole diary, she never quite knew how things were going to turn out, but I so appreciated her quiet confidence that things would work out. And they certainly did.