4. The Diary of Sophia Macnab

The Diary of Sophia Macnab written at Dundurn Castle, Hamilton, 1846, Age 13 (Canada) - (US)
Edited by Charles Ambrose Carter & Thomas Melville Bailey
Foreword by The Earl of Albemarle, M.C.
Illustrated by Alice Daisy Holland, Age 13, 1904

Pages: 72
Ages: 18+
Finished: Jan. 9, 2010
First Published: 1968, W.L. Griffin, Limited (revised 2nd edition 1974)
Genre: nonfiction, diary
Rating: 3.5/5

First sentence:

Tuesday Janry 20th 1846 --
....Mamma told me to note down what we were all about on the 4th of January 1846 --- We were all standing round dear Mammas bed talking to her about her being so sick.

Acquired: I bought and own this copy.

Reason for Reading: I enjoy reading memoirs and diaries, plus this is local history for me and I've visited Dundurn Castle many times.

Comments: Sophia Macnab (pronounced with a long i) was the daughter of Sir Allan Napier Macnab, a politician who eventually became Prime Minister of Canada West in the days before Canada became a Dominion. Macnab had his home built in an Italian Regency villa style which was one of the finest estates in the province. Named Dundurn, it was nicknamed Castle by the locals, has been fully restored and is a popular tourist attraction where guided tours are given year round.

Sophia's diary details her daily day to day life which was spent mostly at home with occasional visits to neighbours or nearby relations, though more often than not they were the ones who were visited. 1846 was the year that Sophia's mother died from an unknown lung ailment and for 3/4s of the diary Sophia lovingly reports on "Dearest Mamma's" health. A day in the life of young Miss Macnab would usually include lessons with the tutor, sitting with Mamma, sewing, lessons with the music teacher, learning her catechism and in the evenings depending on Mamma's health gathering around her bed with her sisters and aunt or taking turns with them sitting while otherwise occupying herself sewing or writing in the diary.

While her daily life may sound drab and dull even Sophia says at one point that she shall not tell the same things over and over any more but simply put down she followed the usual "rutine", it is an amazing look into the daily workings of an affluent family in Southern Ontario. The Macnabs were a very religious family and quite unusually were able to pleasantly bring the children up in two religions at the same time. Lady Macnab was a devout Catholic, while Sir Allan was Anglican. The children went to church regularly receiving their Catholic Sacraments, but were quite at home in an Anglican church as well as also studying at home and listening to sermons when Sir Allen was at home.

Two things struck me as quite interesting. One being the amount of illness, of course Dearest Mamma's illness is continuously on Sophia's mind, but almost every other page some other member of the family is ill or it is mentioned that so-and-so they know is sick. And when a person was ill, someone must always sit with them. Ague seemed to be quite common sending people to bed all the time. Of course I had to look that up and found it to mean either a fever or a chill. The other thing I found interesting was that Sophia never, ever mentions the household servants. I've been in the kitchens and servant's floor and this house must have had quite a lot of servants about. Sophia does on occasion mention rushing to the kitchen to get something but mentions no people. Was she exposed to the servants so seldom that she barely thought of them or was she so used to them that they barely seemed like people to her, just part of the background?

I love reading this type of diary as one can get such an intimate look inside the social history of the time period, really see how people lived and thought. Plus the little innocent details tell us so much such as the era's medical practices, dietary standards, hygiene, turns of phrase, social decorum, and so much more. There are quite a few eye openers here such as Mamma's prescribed diet of oysters and four eggs a day, the inhalation of ether whenever you felt unwell, and Mamma's insistence that Sophia promise she will never dance the waltz.

Recommended for those interested in the local history, those who visit Dundurn Castle and anyone who enjoys reading children's diaries of long ago.


  1. I think this book would be great.
    I will definitely put in on my
    wish list.
    I grew up in Hamilton and remember
    going to Dundurn Castle on field
    trips as a child.
    I was surprised to see this book.
    Thank you for the review.

    cenya2 at hotmail dot com

  2. Cool! It's rather an obscure topic I wondered whether it would interest anyone. The last time I was at Dundurn Castle was only a few years ago but I'd like to again now that I've read the diary. I think I'll be able to imagine the place through Sophia's eyes next visit.

  3. I also have a copy of Sophia Mcnab's Diary which I really enjoyed reading. I also visited Dundurn Castle several times. The last time I went with my husband and son. My son was very interested in hearing about how young the servant children were when they had to start working in the home for very little money. My son really appreciated how easy things are for him in modern times.


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