Beginning January 1, 2013

Stop by the new site and take a look around.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Thursday Spotlight: Lesley-Anne McLeod

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.

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;..."

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..."

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.


Sherry Gloag said...

I always wonder why their diaries were saved if they were not well known public figures. but how fortunate that so many have survived down the centuries. :-)
It must be a little bit like a treasure hunt. You are looking for one thing and come up with another gem entirely! Awesome inspirations for plots and characters. Thanks for sharing.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

It must be that families are loath to discard the memories of their ancestors. We have a scrapbook from my husband's family from the 1850s. It holds nothing particularly significant but it is that association with past generations that is so meaningful.

Pat Cochran said...

Though often not persons of note,
the writers of these diaries bring
their own visions & histories which
we would never otherwise know. Every person is a historian, including you and I. Every word we leave behind may not be of great consequence, but those words are part of history.

Pat Cochran

Sherry Gloag said...

Pat I agree with you completely. We are all 'walking history'. It's fortunate that there are families out there who keep the diaries so we get to peek into the past.