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27 January 2009

The Trouble with Memoirs

Ah, memoirs. So tempting. So flawed. Last week, Mary wrote about some of her research hurdles. My snake in the garden—always offering apples which never quite convey the knowledge they promise—are contemporary memoirs. They always seem like such a great idea. You hear the actual historical figures speaking in their own actual voices! (Assuming that we’re not dealing with the eighteenth or nineteenth century equivalent of ghostwriters). They were there! They experienced the events you want to know about!

Er, yes. But do they remember them twenty years after?

Right now, I’m brushing up on my Bonapartes for a book to be set in Paris in 1804. Fouche, the dreaded Napoleonic Minister of Police, plays a large role in the book, so I happily dusted off my copy of his memoirs along with those of Josephine’s lady in waiting, Mme de Remusat; Napoleon’s secretary, Bourrienne; and Josephine’s daughter, Hortense. The Napoleonic period is particularly rich in memoirs.

Unfortunately, there’s a reason for that. Everyone wanted to justify his own actions twenty years later, with a Bourbon King back on the throne. Everyone wanted to make himself look better—or, in the case of the big-hearted Hortense, make her mother look better. Many of these memoirs are short on details, but long on self-justification. Fouche begins his memoirs with a lengthy apologia in which he disingenuously describes himself as one who “never wielded [power] but to calm the passions, disunite factions, and prevent conspiracies; me, who was never ceasingly employed in moderating and tempering power, in conciliating and amalgamating the jarring elements and conflicting interests which divided France”. To coin a phrase, yeah, right.

Even when they do recount detailed descriptions of events and conversations, how much can one rely on them? Leaving aside the question of deliberate fraud (and there was plenty of that going on—including the made-up story of how Napoleon met Josephine that both her children vigorously perpetuated), memory is faulty. We re-remember things over time, highlighting and embroidering as we see fit, melding memory to fit new circumstances. Mme de Remusat frankly admits that her task is an elusive one, “[going] back in search of a number of impressions which were strong and vivid when [she] received them, but which now, like ruined buildings devastated by fire, have no longer any connection with one another”.

What one does receive, though, aside from the myths people wish to perpetuate in retrospect, is a sense of voice. Sometimes it backfires on the author. The more pious Fouche attempted to sound, the more I disbelieved him and a stronger a sense I received of the crafty opportunist he had been. And I would still be friends with Hortense de Beauharnais tomorrow, even if she did fudge her memoirs to protect her mother—or maybe because she fudged her memoirs to protect her mother.

Sadly, no historical document is ever a hundred per cent without its pitfalls. One letter from Cromwell threw off some crucial dating for ages until people realized it was dated old style (with the calendar year beginning/ending in April) rather than new style (January). Hortense and Eugene Beauharnais edited their mother’s and stepfather’s correspondence, changing dates on letters to try to sanitize the early days of their love affair. But I still find memoirs particularly troublesome—because there is always that hope that the character can tell the story in his or her own voice and it will be true, the historian’s task made simple.

It never does work that way, though.

What are your research bugbears?

13 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Oh, how true, how true, Lauren! When I was researching my Mary Robinson novel, All For Love I had the same problem with first-person memoirs. Mary wrote her own, to justify some of her actions and make sure her version of events got out there. She was one of the first actresses to be masterful when it came to her own p.r. And I loved having the chance to use her real "voice" but realized that what she wrote needed to be taken with a grain of salt, if I intended to tell her true story. On the other hand, it's what she wanted people to know about her, manipulating the way they would see her character and judge her actions, and who better to create a public impression -- but oneself!

This sort of primary source material is marvelous for getting into a "character's" POV.

6:19 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

What a provocative post, Lauren (and I love the portraits -- the visual ones, I mean -- as well).

So much to think about, this notion of a memoir speaking to posterity -- to future political powers, to history, to historians (which I imagine as not being quite the same thing).

I don't image they thought of themselves as writing to fiction writers... especially in a genre which often invites reader identification, addressing itself to the "natural" aristocrat of the reader's positive self-image.

6:52 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth K. Mahon said...

What an interesting topic Lauren. One of the best books that I've read recently was Frances Mossiker's book about Marie Antoinette and the Affair of the Necklace. She allows the protagonists to tell the story in their own words using excerpts from their memoirs. It was fascinating to read how Jeanne de la Motte tried to make herself sound so innocent and naive. The more I read, the more I realized just what a con artist she was!

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Jane O said...

I remember once reading a memoir about his childhood in China by an author who was then in his 60s. He not only described lengthy scenes, but even quoted long dialogues.

I thought of it as a novel with a good sense of period detail.Probably the safest way to treat memoirs.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Interesting, I recently found myself reading the first volume of Susan Sontag's diary (from ages 13 to maybe 27) as a novel -- a fabulously gripping one, of a young genius doing things I understand and things I don't quite approve of (like leaving her child for a year or two) to invent herself as a very major and unique female intellectual.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I love reading memoirs, but they do tend to be "based on a true story". They do serve to give you a feel for the diction and mores of the times though.

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Deb Maher said...

Great post, Lauren! I agree totally about the bias and self-serving aspect of many memoirs and autobiographies.

Like Kalen, my main reason for reading them is to get a feel for the language and "the mores of the time," cultural info and tidbits not always found in more general histories. That's what I need to help understand the everyday people in my stories.

Thank you for your thought provoking post.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Lauren! I have the same ambivalence about memoirs. I prefer collections of letters. Of course even though they weren't writing for public consumption, the letter writers still saw things through their own lens (but then there's really no way to completely remove bias, if nothing else in what details one chooses to include and exclude). And sometimes the Victorian and Edwardian descendents who published the letters edited out certain details. But at least the letters were written closer to the time of the events they describe. I do enjoy memoirs though. And as you know I agree with you about Hortense :-).

2:44 PM  
Anonymous Lauren Willig said...

Kalen, I love the "based on a true story" comment-- that's the perfect way of describing it.

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Lauren Willig said...

Tracy, so true about later editors! Mme de Remusat's memoirs were edited by her grandson, who freely chopped out parts that were no longer acceptable to his late nineteenth century sensibilities, a fact which he confessed in a rather prissy editor's note. It does tell us a great deal, though, about changing mores, and how much freer the start of that century was than the end of it. Mme de R's prim grandson justifies his edits by writing that, "Habits, tastes, customs become modified by time, and much that seemed natural to a clever woman in high life at that period would give scandal in our more punctilious day."

3:12 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It's also fascinating the difference between what Victorian descendants cut out versus editors in the 20s and 30s. Harriet Granville's letters that were published in the late 19th century contain no references (at least that I could find) to her husband's illegitimate children (by her aunt) who they raised. But volumes of her letters edited by a later generation of descendants talk quite frankly about these children in the editor's notes.

4:37 PM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

I have a memoir written by my great grandmother. Turn of the century stuff that was so focused on daily household detail (food spoiling, sugar spoon was lost etc)...it fascinates me!

No real drama (Grandma was VERY religous), but still, just reading what was written on June 11, 1901 puts me right there.

Thanks, Lauren, for such an intersting post!

10:13 AM  
Blogger Evangeline said...

I tend to read memoirs for the Voice as well, and then I turn to biographies for (hopefully) the stuff the autobiographer left out. *g*

1:20 AM  

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