Born in 1880 in the mining town of Diamantina, Alice Dayrell Caldeira Brant was in her sixties when she found fame, for it was then that her teenage diary was published to wide acclaim. Written under the pseudonym Helena Morley between the ages of 12 and 15, the diary tells the story of a half-Brazilian, half-English daughter of a diamond miner in 19th-century provincial Brazil—an endearing and often witty account populated with tales of familial bonds, the rhythms of a mining community, local festivals, and the complexities of growing up. The following entry was written in 1893, weeks before Brant became a teenager.
The Diary Entry
Saturday, August 12th
If there’s one house where I don’t like to sleep it’s Aunt Aurélia’s. I can’t stand Uncle Conrado’s being so orderly and methodical, with a set time for doing everything. It may work all right for my cousins’ studying, but for everything else it makes me sick!
Yesterday the cousins insisted that I and Luizinha go there for the night. With the four of us together like that, it’s impossible to go to sleep; we only wanted to play, and with all our talking Uncle Conrado wasn’t asleep, either, and he kept calling to us all the time to watch out. I’m the oldest of the four and I minded his scolding the most. His own daughters didn’t mind at all and kept right on laughing and talking. At one point, because we’d put the mattresses on the floor, a flea got into Beatriz’s ear, and she jumped out of bed completely wild, and ran into Uncle Conrado’s room, screaming, “There’s something in my ear! I’m going crazy! Help! Help!” Uncle Conrado got out of bed and said, “It’s nothing, child, nothing! Just a flea!” He tried to get it out, without any result and Beatriz kept screaming, “Help me! I’m going crazy!” He got even more excited than she was and begged us, “For the love of God, give me a flea! Find me a flea to put in my ear to show this girl that it doesn’t amount to anything!” But nobody could find a flea. It was impossible. I hunted with might and main, just so he could put it in his ear and not keep saying such silly things. I never was so eager to do something disagreeable. But at the sight of the two of them, Beatriz screaming with her flea and Uncle Conrado wanting one, too, to put in his ear, I couldn’t contain myself, I wanted to laugh so hard.
It’s never happened to me but I imagine it must be horrible. Fortunately the flea came out, and we went to sleep in peace.
Alice Dayrell Caldeira Brant’s diary, written under the pseudonym Helena Morley, was first published in Brazil in 1942 as Minha Vida de Menina (“My Life as a Little Girl”), a PDF of which can be found here. Fifteen years later, it was published in English, translated by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop, with the title The Diary of “Helena Morley.” Bishop explains in her introduction:
When I first came to Brazil, in 1952, I asked my Brazilian friends which Brazilian books I should begin reading. After naming some of Machado de Assis’s novels or short stories, or Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões, they frequently recommended this little book. Two or three even said it was the best thing that had appeared in Brazilian letters since Machado de Assis, and then they were apt to launch into animated exchanges of their favorite stories from it.
Five years later, her translation was in print.