In the introduction to her translation of The Diary of "Helena Morley," the distinguished poet Elizabeth Bishop recalls a comment that Gerard Manley Hopkins made about Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast: "and it happened - ah, that is the charm and the main point." Such, she says, is also "the charm and the main point" of this diary kept by a young Brazilian girl shortly before the turn of the century; yet I think it wouldn't matter whether it were fact or fiction - its charms lies in the exuberance and high spirits, the keeness of observation and sense of felt life that comes from its young author.
Bishop, who lived in Brazil for many years, first discovered The Diary in 1952. Published there in a limited edition in 1942 as Minha Vida de Menina ("My Life as a Little Girl"), its reputation spread by word of mouth; and it soon became a literary classic, receiving equal praise when Bishop's excellent translation was first published here in 1957.
The author of the diary was actually Alice Dayrell, the half-Brazilian, half-English daughter of a diamond miner in the impoverished little town of Diamantina, the highest town in Brazil. She began the diary in 1893, when she was 12, to meet the daily composition requirement at the Normal School she attended, and the published diary continues through 1895.
"Helena" was a child of extraordinary intelligence and awareness, but her most striking characteristics were perhaps her irrepressible delight in living and her iconoclastic, witty sensibility (which Bishop tells us were undiminished when she met the charming Dona Alice at 76). In one amusing passage she tells how Sia Ritinha, "the chicken thief from Cavalhada," warns Helena's mother that her daughter is going to be poisoned by the cucumbers she eats every day for breakfast. Helena's unspoken reply "I wanted to ask Dona Ritinha, 'And isn't it dangerous to steal your neighbor's chickens?'" She was never a saint, nor did she pretend to be: full of mischief, she stole fruit and teased the grown-ups, was sometimes lazy in school, and worried unendingly about her freckles and her English complexion. Her classmates nicknamed her "Stormy," a name she agreed was probably fitting.
This young diarist's ability to recreate the characters and scenes of her remote world with a childlike simplicity and freshness and yet an unerringly perceptive intelligence is remarkable indeed and shows a true writer's gift (though that gift was confined in later life to a steady stream of letters sent to family and friends). And we are fortunate indeed that Ecco Press has made "Helena Morley" and her gift available to us again. (Ecco paperback, $4.95)