Friday, April 16, 2010

Letters, Diaries and Memoirs--the best sort of history

If only Jane Austen had kept a diary, what a wonder it would be. At least we have her letters, or such of her letters as Cassandra allowed us to inherit. Those letters bring Jane Austen and her world to life as no other sort of writing can. That's why I love to read the letters, the memoirs and the diaries of people of the past--both people of note, and the very most ordinary sort of people.

There are Regency people whose memoirs are very well known to those who love the period--Captain Gronow, Parson Woodforde, and the delightful village accounts of Mary Russell Mitford. (right)

Then there is the familiar but less widely read Richard Rush and his "Residence at the Court of London". His writings are full of political commentary and remarkable details of the people and places he encountered. For example, "Prince Lieven expressed to me his hope, that the late appointment by the emperor of Mr. Poletticca as Minister Plenipotentiary to the U. S. would improve the friendship between our two countries."

The "Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay" [Fanny Burney] are full of the most enchanting minutiae of life from 1789 to 1840. Like this snippet from a Tuesday in 1781: "I passed the whole day at Sir Josua Reynolds's with Miss Palmer, who, in the morning, took me to see some most beautiful fans, painted by Poggi, from designs of Sir Joshua, Angelica, West and Cipriani, on leather; they are, indeed, more delightful than can well be imagined;..."

And then one can seek out the lesser, and indeed un-known, writers of memoirs. Captain Sir William Hoste, a naval protege of Lord Nelson, wrote of his history of service along with multifarious details of his life. Sir N. William Wraxall wrote "Historical Memoirs of My Own Time" with extensive details of his European travels and political experiences.

The "Autobiography of Miss Cornelia Knight, Lady Companion to the Princess Charlotte of Wales" is packed with historical, political and social details. It is a dense research read full of information. "In the beginning of July the Bishop of Salisbury had a conference with Princess Charlotte...she said it was to induce her to write a submissive letter to the Regent expressing her concern for having offended him..." Volume II is currently available at Google Books; one can only hope that Volume I will eventually turn up.

Contrastingly, the "Letters of Anna Seward" which encompass six volumes and the years between 1784 and 1807, speak of little besides her ills and cloying sentiments. Nevertheless they illustrate how some women of the era spoke and thought. "I am indebted to dear Mrs. Hayley's obliging punctuality for a kind letter--a charming trio, and a tender air, which, first heard through the sweet notes of her voice, will always present me with her image."

The journals of two Regency governesses, Agnes Porter and Ellen Weeton, are diametrically opposed in their tone and memories. Agnes Porter, unfailingly cheerful and positive, lived a relatively comfortable and safe life with a wealthy family and her notes reflect this. Ellen Weeton lived a precarious existence with little money and less support and her history makes painful reading.

Other Regency women had more notorious lives: Harriette Wilson wrote her scandalous memoir, and it appears that Mary Ann Clarke did also. The title alone of that memoir make one wonder about their verity: "Authentic Memoirs of Mrs. Clarke, in which is pourtrayed The Secret History and Intrigues of many characters in the First Circles of Fashion and High Life; and consisting the whole of Her Correspondence During the Time she lived under the Protection of His Royal Highness The Duke of York, the gallant Duke's Love Letters , and other interesting Papers never before Published."

I have always taken the term 'memoir' to be the "person's written account of his life" as in an early definition of the word. However, Mrs. Clarke's memoir is written by a third person and so is a memoir of Queen Caroline with the following title (no less intriguing than Mrs. Clarke's): "Memoirs of her Late Majesty Caroline, Queen of Great Britain; embracing every circumstance illustrative of the most memorable scenes of her eventful life, from Infancy to the Period of her Decease, interspersed with Original Letters and Other Documents, hitherto unpublished."

Personal accounts of relatively ordinary lives abound. In my book, The Beggarmaid, the hero Wessington writes an account of his travels in the Middle East. In a similar manner, one Henry Matthews, Esq. published "The Diary of an Invalid: Being the journal of a tour in pursuit of health in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and France in the yearrs 1817, 1818 and 1819". Likewise, Mrs. Charles Stothard published "Letters Written During a tour through Normany, Britanny, and other parts of France, in 1818", and the family of Richard Tully, a British Consul published his "Letters written during a Ten Years' Residence at the Court of Tripoli;..."

There is no finer source of historical information than the diaries and letters and memoirs of our forebears; they are authentic facts about real history--real places and real people. Unfortunately, one has to put up with quantities of inconsequential information, uneven writing techniques, archaic usages and inexpert editing to uncover the gems of historical fact. Very few writers have the skill of Jane Austen in presenting their histories and their opinions. Nevertheless it is remarkably rewarding to glimpse the lives of those long gone, through their own words.

'Til next time,


N.B. Most of the books noted above are available from Google Books, or can be purchased in a print edition. A web search or a Google Books search will bring them to hand quicker than my recounting of web addresses! Please contact me if you have trouble locating any of these items. 


Janet said...

Fascinating, Lesley! I love journals, memoirs, diaries - and set in a time gone by, perfect.

Some of these titles are amazing. Wonder if an agent or editor would like any books submitted with titles as long and precise as these?

It'll be interesting to see what survives in forms of memoir/diary style writing in the future (considering memoir is so huge right now).

Phoebe's Sisters said...

I'm also very fond of reading memoirs and letters and I was also very much surprised when I realized that some of the memoirs were written by someone else. It was kind of disappointing. I have previously downloaded many of the books you mention, but I haven't read them yet, apart from Harriet Wilson's memoirs that I didn't find as shocking as everyone speaks of them. But I guess, they would be pretty revealing at the time:)) Have you read all of these books? I've read 1st volume of "Memoirs of the court of England during Regency" and I'm on the 2nd one now.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Hi Janet--I think the written output of our era will overwhelm the readers of history in the future. They will be spoiled for choice because we are ensuring that everything will still be available in the future!

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

No, I haven't read them all yet, Farida, but I have browsed through the ones I haven't read. I will never get everything read that I want to read! It's great to discover other people enjoying these historical documents!