Ouch! or, when your source material doesn’t exist

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April 29, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

The Guardian has a story about a biography of Louis XIV’s mistress. One of author Veronica Buckley’s sources was the diary of Louis XIV. Except it wasn’t.

(I love the way the journalist pipes up with ‘Or if he did [keep a secret diary], no one has yet found it.’ Because you never actually KNOW that someone never kept a secret diary, right?)

Some professor at Queen Mary, U of London, haughtily sniffs that Back In His Day this never would have happened. (Handy of the Guardian to quote the person they note as the one reviewer who disliked her previous biography. Real chance for balance there.) I was about to make a snotty remark that began ‘well, Back In Your Day, which probably included cholera and hansom cabs,’ but I’m not certain what actually happened. I mean, if an academic writes a ‘secret journal’ based on historical sources, then publishes it, and you pick up the book, isn’t it really obvious that this isn’t an actual diary? Wasn’t there any kind of introduction, or even a back cover blurb, noting this rather essential fact? If no other biographical work on Louis XIV cited this as a primary text, doesn’t that set off alarm bells?

And even if not…well, there’s absolutely nothing more fascinating than reading original documents. This can also be extremely annoying, as those of Times Past do not always have the best handwriting. Or indeed, the best equipment; it’s really funny reading 19th-century letters where the writer is complaining about the pen, or paper, or ink, or all three. We don’t tend to think about these things.

If I were writing a biography and I learned that there were “a packet of yellowed papers, wrapped in string and sealed with faded red wax” hidden “inside a heavy old chest in a Loire valley manor house” I’d be e-mailing the French National Archives toot sweet to find out where these were kept and whether I could read them. Maybe that’s just me. But surely that’s half the fun of biography!

Hard to tell from the internet version, but it looks as though the squibs about publishing fakes were a sidebar to that main story, and look, it’s my ex-editor Helen Pidd.

In happier news, the movie version of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a great hit.


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Photo credit: Rahima Subhan

Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.


CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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