Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Historical Voyeurism

When I was in the sixth grade, a well-intentioned relative gave me a diary, bound in red faux leather and furnished with a brass lock and tiny key. The space for each day's entry was about half the size of an average business card, encouraging brevity but not wit.  I was sick and unhappy that year and filled about a third of the pages with entries like "Fell asleep in class" before losing momentum.

Twenty years later a friend gave me an abridged version of the diary of Samuel Pepys that showed me what a journal could be.  That gift started for me a fascination with the diaries and letters of historical figures that probably qualifies as literary voyeurism.

People like Pepys wrote for themselves; he used a code to keep busybodies from snooping in his diary.  Others, like the Marquise de Sevigne, sent voluminous uncensored letters to their friends and relatives.  These journals and correspondence are often funny, malicious, and oddly touching, windows on the little-known minutiae of their time.

My favorite body of correspondence is collected in A Women's Life in the Court of the Sun King: Letters of Liselotte von der Pfalz, Elisabeth Charlotte, Duchess d'Orleans, 1652-1722 (translated by Elborg Forster).  Liselotte was the German princess married to "Monsieur," the younger brother of Louis XIV of France.  Monsieur's mother dressed him as a girl when he was a child and deliberately kept from him all knowledge of military matters and diplomacy so he couldn't pose any threat to Louis' rule.  (I've often wondered what would have happened to France - and the world - had Louis met with an untimely end; what a great subject for an alternative history novel!)  Monsieur and Liselotte were totally unsuited to one another, and her acerbic remarks about his scheming relatives, Louis' rapacious mistresses, and the general decadence of what she saw as her country of exile are fascinating reading.

My little red diary is long gone - I decided I didn't need to revisit that year's pain - but re-reading Liselotte's letters always makes me wish that I had equally amazing people and events to chronicle.  She would have made one heck of a blogger.
image of a reader with a book

"In Hollywood now when people die they don't say, 'Did he leave a will?' but 'Did he leave a diary?'" - Liza Minnelli

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