Metta Lillie wrote the earliest diary known to be kept by a Swedish woman which is still extant.
Metta Lillie was born in Västergötland in 1709. She was the eldest daughter in a military family – her father was a colonel – and four of her siblings also survived into adulthood. In 1737 she was given a diary by her brother Clas Lillie which she kept until she got married in 1750.
The diary begins like most family histories, noting births, weddings, and deaths in the wider family, as well as inheritances and other financially important events. However, on the death of Metta Lillie’s father, Colonel Jan Abraham Lillie, in October 1738 the writing style changed and the family history book was transformed into a diary primarily expressing the sorrows and worries about what would become of the family. From this point on the text, which had been written in the margin, now flows across the whole page.
There are four dominant themes. The first of these is the main events occurring within her mother’s and father’s extended families. A close second theme is events which are of financial importance. Metta Lillie’s entries recording items such as inheritances, donations, loans, and other material issues are usually as meticulously rendered as though she were a book-keeper. She appears to have been tasked with recording various financial transactions, perhaps in order to keep her brother informed. He had become the head of the family on the death of the colonel and would return home from Stockholm a few times every year. Donations – both those received and those given – are recorded in great detail. Donations amongst family members served to reaffirm and strengthen family ties in the 1700s, at a time when each individual saw themselves as a link within a family chain.
The third theme of the diary is contemporary politics. Metta Lillie took a deep and vibrant interest in politics and the diary combines this with her interest in the doings, military service, appointments, etc., of male family members in particular. She writes: “Praise be to God for his help to our family”. She would obtain news from her brother in Stockholm but she also read and copied out news from newspapers. Her notes reveal the reactions of the ordinary rural folk to various items in the news.
The fourth theme of the diary is spiritual matters. Metta Lillie was deeply religious and these expressions are closely entwined with other aspects of the diary. Her accounts of national and various family events often become prayers. Her view of the world is guided and explained by Christianity, the world as she is presented it in Sunday sermons and through her reading of the Bible and the Psalms. She reveals in May 1747 that she has now “completely through the grace of my, my, my God read the entire holy Bible from cover to cover”. Metta Lillie’s God is a strict father, whose decisions are inscrutable. Jesus tends to be referenced with more tender expressions and is sometimes called “sweet Jesus, my only friend”.
Metta Lillie was 28 years old when she began to write. At that point many of her peers had already been married for several years and had started families. Metta Lillie and her three sisters were not married, however, and began to feel like they were superfluous and unneeded and noticed that people began treating them with less respect. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1749, a suitor arrived at her home named Jan Axelsson Natt och Dag. He was a widower. The couple married the following February. She records her anxiety caused by this important decision in the diary and seeks advice and help from God and Jesus. Her primary comfort comes from having suppressed her own wishes and been an obedient daughter who conforms to her mother’s wishes. Once the newlyweds arrive at Jan Axelsson Natt och Dag’s farm of Tunarp the diary stops and leaves the reader wondering how Metta Lillie’s remaining days played out.
Metta Lillie’s diary is an extraordinarily interesting document and is the earliest known extant diary kept by a Swedish woman. Over time the diary transformed from merely being a record of family history into a space within which Metta Lillie discovered the pleasure of writing and how it could engender better knowledge of oneself. We meet an intelligent and curious individual in the diary, a person who was solidly connected to her family and in her era, and who wonders just what God wanted from her life.