Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In darkness and fear

The Undaunted Women of Nanking: The Wartime Diaries of Minnie Vautrin and Tsen Shui-Fang is being published today in the UK. It tells the story of the Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese soldiers killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and raped many tens of thousands of women. The diaries kept by Vautrin, an American missionary, have already been published and are available online, but this is the first time those of Tsen Shui-Fang, her Chinese assistant, have been made public as well.

The Nanking Massacre or Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, was a six-week period following the Japanese capture of the city, the former capital of the Republic of China, on 13 December 1937. During this period, hundreds of thousands of civilians were murdered and an estimated 20,000-80,000 women were raped by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army. The massacre has been, and remains, an extremely contentious political issue between China and Japan, with some Japanese historians trying to downplay the extent of the massacre.

Yale University hosts The Nanking Massacre Project website which provides a digital archive of documents and photographs from American missionaries and others who witnessed the Rape of Nanking. One of these was John Rabe, a German businessman, who helped establish a safety zone in the city, protecting upwards of 200,000 people. He died in 1950, and his diaries were first published in the 1990s - see also The Diary Junction.

Another of the Project’s ‘witnesses’ was Minnie Vautrin. Born in Illinois in 1886, she studied education at the city university, and was then sent to China by the United Christian Missionary Society as a missionary, where she helped build and found Ginling Girls College in Nanking, eventually taking over as Master of Studies. In late 1937, with the Japanese army pressing on Nanking, and most of the faculty having fled, she was left in charge of the college campus

Earlier the same year, Vautrin had begun to write summary notes on her life and work in order to circulate them to friends (reducing the number of letters she needed to send) but, within a few weeks, these notes had become detailed daily diary entries. She kept writing a diary through to April 1940, and the last entry reads: ‘I’m about at the end of my energy. Can no longer forge ahead and make plans for the work, for on every hand there seems to be obstacles of some kind. I wish I could go on furlough at once, but who will do the thinking for the Exp Course?’ Two weeks later, she suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to the US, and a year to the day after she left Nanking, she ended her own life. See Wikipedia, as well as the Yale site, for a little more biographical information.

Vautrin’s diaries, like those written by Rabe, were discovered (or rediscovered) by Iris Chang when writing The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War, a book which became a best selller, but which also attracted some historical criticism - see Wikipedia. Subsequently, Southern Illinois University Press published American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking: The Courage of Minnie Vautrin by Hua-ling Hu, which was heavily based on Vautrin’s diaries. In 2008, the University of Illinois Press published Terror in Minnie Vautrin’s Nanjing: Diaries and Correspondence, 1937-38 (available for preview on Googlebooks).

Now, Southern Illinois University Press has published (early June in the US, and today, 30 June, in the UK - see and The Undaunted Women of Nanking: The Wartime Diaries of Minnie Vautrin and Tsen Shui-fang. The publisher says: ‘Tsen Shui-fang’s diary is the only known daily account by a Chinese national written during the crisis and not retrospectively. As such, it records a unique perspective: that of a woman grappling with feelings of anger, sorrow, and compassion as she witnesses the atrocities being committed in her war-torn country. Tsen Shui-fang’s diary has never before been published in English, and this is its first translation.’

The publisher’s blurb also explains that the editors - Hua-ling Hu and Zhang Lian-hong - have added informative annotations to the diary entries from sources including the proceedings of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial of 1946, Vautrin’s correspondence, John Rabe’s diary, and other historical documents. Also included are biographical sketches of the two women, a note on the diaries, and information about the aftermath of the tragedy, as well as maps and photos - some of which appear in print here for the first time.

The typed manuscript of Vautrin’s diary is freely available for view at the Nanking Massacre Project website. Here are two extracts:

Wednesday 15 December
‘It is so difficult to keep track of the days - there is no rhythm in the weeks any more.

From 8:50 this morning until 6 this evening, excepting for the noon meal, I have stood at the front gate while the refugees poured in. There is terror in the face of many of the women - last night was a terrible night in the city and many young women were taken from their houses by the Japanese soldiers. Mr Sane came over this morning and told us about the condition in the Hansimen section, and from that time on we have allowed women and children to come in freely; but always imploring the older women to stay home, if possible, in order to leave a place for younger ones. Many begged for just a place to sit out on the lawn. I think there must be more than 3,000 in tonight. Several groups of soldiers have come but they have not caused trouble, nor insisted on coming in. . .

The Japanese have looted widely yesterday and today, have destroyed schools, killed citizens, and raped women. One thousand disarmed Chinese soldiers, whom the International Committee hoped to save, were taken from them and by this time are probably shot or bayoneted. . .’

Thursday 16 December
‘Tonight I asked George Fitch [a Chinese-born American missionary head of the YMCA in Nanking] how the day went, and what progress they had made toward restoring peace in the city. His reply was ‘It was hell today. The blackest day of my life.’ Certainly it was that for me too.

Last night was quiet, and our three foreign men were undisturbed, but the day was anything but peaceful. . .

There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today. Thirty girls were taken from Language School last night, and today I have heard scores of heartbreaking stories of girls who were taken from their homes last night - one of the girls was but 12 years old. Food, bedding and money have been taken from people - Mr Li had $55 taken from him. I suspect every house in the city has been opened, again and yet again, and robbed. Tonight a truck passed, in which there were 8 or 10 girls, and as it passed they called out ‘Giu ming’ ‘Giu ming’ - save our lives. The occasional shots that we hear out on the hills, or on the street, make us realize the sad fate of some man - very probably not a soldier. . .

Mr John Rabe told the Japanese commander that he could help them get lights, water and telephones service but he would do nothing until order was restored in the city. Nanking is but a pitiful broken shell tonight - the streets are deserted and all houses in darkness and fear.’

Miracle of happiness

‘The only adorable thing I can imagine is for my Grandmother to put me to bed and bring me a bowl of hot bread and milk, and, standing with her hands folded, the left thumb over the right, say in her adorable voice: ‘There darling, isn’t that nice?’ Oh, what a miracle of happiness that would be.’ This is part of the earliest extant diary entry - written one hundred years ago, or was it? - by the much-feted New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfied who died of TB aged only 34.

Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1888, but when only 15 went to study at Queen’s College, London. After returning to New Zealand in 1906, she took up the cello, but her father, a banker, refused to allow her to turn professional. Instead, she studied typing and bookkeeping at Wellington Technical College. A friend of the family eventually persuaded Kathleen’s father to allow her an allowance of £100 a year, so she could return to London.

There, in 1908, she embarked on a Bohemian lifestyle, and a relationship with Garnett Trowell, a musician. When that broke down, despite her being pregnant, she married George Brown more than 10 years her senior. After resuming with Garnett for a short while, her mother arrived from New Zealand and sent her to Germany, where she suffered a miscarriage. Mansfield’s time in Bavaria was to have a significant effect on her literary outlook, partly because she was introduced to the works of Anton Chekhov, and partly because her experiences there formed the foundation of her first published collection of stories, In a German Pension, a work that brought her much literary attention.

On returning to London in 1910, she devoted herself to writing short stories, contributing to The New Age, and publications such as Rhythm/The Blue Review edited by John Middleton Murry. She also began a relationship with Murry, one that would go through many ups and downs, some of them caused by Mansfield’s affairs, the death of her brother in 1915, and illness (she was diagnosed with TB in 1917). They married in 1918, but separated weeks after the wedding, before getting back together again the following year.

That year - 1919 - Murry became editor of Athenaeum, a prestigious weekly journal, for which Mansfield would contribute many reviews. Mansfield also became more prolific with her fiction in the last years of her life, writing many short stories. According to Wikipedia’s biography, Miss Brill, the bittersweet story of a fragile woman living an ephemeral life of observation and simple pleasures in Paris, established Mansfield as one of the preeminent writers of the Modernist period. The title story from that 1920 collection, Bliss, was also praised. And her subsequent collection, The Garden Party, published in 1922, received widespread critical acclaim. However, Mansfield’s TB was also taking hold, and in October 1922 she moved to Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, France, seeking a cure, but died the following January. New Zealand Edge has more biographical information.

After her death, in 1927, Murry edited his wife’s diary (as well as many other manuscripts), and a collection of extracts were published - as Journal Of Katherine Mansfield - by Constable in London and Alfred A Knopf in New York. This compilation has since been reprinted many times, and has contributed hugely to a romantic view of Mansfield. Murry, for example, in his introduction says this: ‘[There is] a peculiar quality of her work I can only describe as a kind of purity. It is as though the glass through which she looked upon life were crystal-clear. And this quality of her work corresponds to a quality in her life. Katherine Mansfield was natural and spontaneous as was no other human being I have ever met. She seemed to adjust herself to life as a flower adjusts itself to the earth and to the sun. She suffered greatly, she delighted greatly; but her suffering and her delight were never partial, they filled the whole of her.’

But see Hermione Lee’s review for The Guardian of the most recent republishing (by Persephone) of Murry’s original version. She says: ‘this reissued Journal is a historical document which requires wary reading. Murry’s proprietary introduction plays up his part in his wife’s writing (“I believed in it, published it ... and printed it with my own hands”) and presents her as a creature of simple spontaneity (“She seemed to adjust herself to life as a flower adjusts itself to the earth and to the sun”). Any check of his extracts against the complete journals shows up his protectiveness of her - and of himself. A long, dramatic account of her journey to the French front in February 1915, for instance, bafflingly omits the reason for her going, to see her lover Francis Carco - their sensually described love-making, of course, all cut out. The Murrys’ stormy, intense friendship with the Lawrences is played down and chastened here (unlike in Mansfield’s brutally and brilliantly explicit letters about them) . . .

But although the Journal is a compromised document, it is still very well worth having this reprint. After so many versions of her, we probably no longer think of Mansfield as a “terribly sensitive mind” (her own phrase, picked up by Virginia Woolf in her ambivalent review of the Journal, reprinted here). She may seem to us now no longer Murry’s romantic, solitary, tragic heroine, but more sexually reckless and socially excitable, temperamentally damaged by illness, and as malicious and chilling as she could be appealing and vulnerable. But for all Murry’s tidying up, her startling, vivid, intimate voice still comes pouring off these pages.’

According to Murry’s introduction to the 1927 version of the Journal, ‘Mansfield ruthlessly destroyed all record of the time between her return from New Zealand to England in 1909, and 1914’, except for the following fragment. This, therefore, is the first of Mansfield’s extant diary entries. As edited by Murry, it appears Mansfield has provided the month, ‘June’, but that Murry himself gives the year by saying this fragment ‘belongs to 1910, to that stay in Bavaria . . .’ and by inserting ‘1910’ in square brackets at the start of the fragment. All the biographical information I can find, though, seems to point to ‘that stay in Bavaria’ as being in 19o9!

‘June [1910]
It is at last over, this wearisome day, and dusk is beginning to sift in among the branches of the drenched chestnut tree. I think I must have caught cold in my beautiful exultant walk yesterday, for to-day I am ill. I began to work but could not. Fancy wearing two pairs of stockings and two coats and a hot-water bottle in June, and shivering . . . I think it is the pain that makes me shiver and feel dizzy. To be alone all day, in a house whose every sound seems foreign to you, and to feel a terrible confusion in your body which affects you mentally, suddenly pictures for you detestable incidents, revolting personalities, which you only shake off to find recurring again as the pain seems to grow worse again. Alas! I shall not walk with bare feet in wild woods again. Not until I have grown accustomed to the climate . . .

The only adorable thing I can imagine is for my Grandmother to put me to bed and bring me a bowl of hot bread and milk, and, standing with her hands folded, the left thumb over the right, say in her adorable voice: ‘There darling, isn’t that nice?’ Oh, what a miracle of happiness that would be. To wake later to find her turning down the bedclothes to see if my feet were cold, and wrapping them up in a little pink singlet, softer than cat’s fur. . . Alas!

Sunday morning
Yet another Sunday. . . It is raining again to-day - just a steady persistent rain that seems to drift one from one morning to the other. When I had finished writing I went down to supper, drank a little soup, and the old Doctor next me suddenly said: ‘Please go to bed now,’ and I went like a lamb and drank some hot milk. It was a night of agony. When I felt morning was at last come, I lighted a candle, looked at the watch, and found it was just a quarter to twelve! Now I know what it is to fight a drug. Veronal was on the table by my bed. Oblivion - deep sleep - think of it! But I didn’t take any. Now I am up and dressed. . .’

See The Diary Junction for links to some extracts available online.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Peter Pears centenary

Today is the centenary of Peter Pears’s birth, one of Britain’s great 20th century tenors, and the lifelong partner of the composer Benjamin Britten. Though Britten was a more committed diarist, Pears too kept a journal, when on holiday or abroad rehearsing. Over the years, these were often reproduced for fans in Aldeburgh Festival publications, but they were not published as a collection until the 1990s. They provide an engaging picture of Pears’s and Britten’s professional and private lives together.

Pears was born in Farnham a century ago today on 22 June 1910. He was schooled at Lancing College, Sussex, and then studied music at Keble College, Oxford, for a year before dropping out. He also studied voice at the Royal College of Music for two terms. His professional career began with the BBC Singers in 1934. By 1937, he had met the composer Benjamin Britten with whom he formed a lifelong partnership, both professionally and personally. During the war, they spent three years in the US, returning in 1942 when Pears began to develop his career as a soloist.

Pears made his operatic debut in The Tales of Hoffman before, in 1945, singing the title role in Britten’s famous opera Peter Grimes. Thereafter, Britten wrote many tenor roles into his operas, specifically for Pears. According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, Britten regarded Pears as the ‘greatest artist that ever was’, and dedicated several works to him, including Death in Venice, his operatic swansong, in which Pears took the role of Aschenbach.

Pears also made a name for himself singing Lieder, English song and oratorio. Otherwise, he taught, commissioned new music, and collaborated with Britten and others in the founding of the English Opera Group, the Aldeburgh Festival, and the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. He died in Aldeburgh in 1986. Wikipedia and the Britten-Pears Foundation have more biographical information.

Not a committed diarist like Britten (see Britten’s firecrack crits and The Diary Junction), Pears nevertheless did keep diaries when abroad. Some of these were published or partly published in various ways during his lifetime, but twelve of them were first put together as a collection in 1995 and published by The Boydell Press in conjunction with the Britten-Pears Foundation - Travels Diaries 1936-1978, edited by Philip Reed.

The first diary dates from 1936, the year before his friendship with Britten began, when he went on tour to North America with the New English Singers. Other diaries record a long tour to the Far East and encounters with the gamelan music of Bali and the Japanese Noh theatre; visits to Russia as guests of Rostropovich; and attendance at the Ansbach Bach Festival when Pears was at the height of his career. Also recorded are holidays in Armenia, the Caribbean and Italy, a concert tour through the north of England, and accounts of the rehearsals and performances of the New York premieres of Billy Budd and Death in Venice.

Here are two extracts from the Armenia journal. This first appeared in the 1966 Aldeburgh Festival Programme Book. Later the same year, Pears had a 1,000 copies of the journal printed privately, and distributed them as Christmas gifts.

18 August 1965
‘After our expedition to Pushkin’s memorial, Ben spent 24 hours in bed with tummy in extremis. Every imaginable remedy was proferred and taken, Alka-Seltzer, Enterobioform, manganese in solution and stewed pomegranate leaves. All of which, in ensemble, proved effective and Ben was OK in 48 hours. Well enough, yesterday, to go for a gentle drive down the river past Dilidjan to Idjevan, through high mountains of bare rock on the west side and craggy bristling rocky precipices all covered over with forest on the east side. Superb trees of all sorts, and willows in the rushing, clear pebbly water. Our driver has been chastened and we went seldom more than 30 mph. It was, of course, much more pleasant and we could really look at this superb and ‘horrid’ country.

Ben’s two days’ hors de combat, one in bed and one on the sofa, produced, as it so often does, intense creative energy. He has now just written his 5th Pushkin song, and Galya, who is to sing them, heard them for the first time this afternoon. She was deeply affected, as I knew she would be, and wants to get at them at once. Slava, too, was highly excited. I am pegging on at the translations.

Last night after dinner we had heard a record of Edik Mirzoyan’s Symphony for Strings and Timps on a very bad gramophone which didn’t give the work much chance, to his distress. It has some nice sounds and is felt and tense, though the last movement was played too slow and sounded ineffective. Tonight another leading residing composer is going to play a piece of his to us.’

28 August 1965
‘Saturday, the day of our departure. Our three weeks in this lovely and - now - sunny valley, where we have been spoiled by everyone, had to exact one boring duty before we left, and instead of spending our last morning with Gilbars and her puppies, or baking on the balcony, or finding a new wild-flower (I found an orchid, but not a very beautiful one, I thought), we had to listen to an endless tape of an Armenian composer, Edgar Oganessian, the director of the theatre in Erevan. Pretentious, bombastic, rhetorical, with minimal ideas and a maximal display of pseudo-energy, listening to it in a fairly comfortable chair paralysed one’s hind-quarters and made every muscle contract with bored fury. We got quickly away and solaced ourselves at an early lunch with what we call Moscow-mineral-water, i.e. vodka (water in Russian is voda, without the k). Farewell kisses to all, the chauffeur, the manager (Marcel), our superb cook, Hadjik, who had cried with indignation at the idea of a tip, our little nut brown cleaner who had not been kissed by a man for 25 years, I think, and off we had to go to Yrevan and the Britten Festival.’

And here is one extract from the diary Pears kept while in New York preparing for his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Death in Venice. This too was first published in an Aldeburgh Festival Programme Book, of 1975.

5 October 1974
‘Ben called early, very clear to hear.

I did go to the rehearsal at 10:30 of Act I, and I started well and got most of it right. Then suddenly at about 11:45, I lost memory, courage and all, and left the rehearsal in despair. However, before doing so I made a date with Richard Voitach, the understudy for Steuart Bedford and a junior conductor on the Met staff, to work with him on D in V at 4 o’clock. We spent a MOST VALUABLE 1 3/4 hours on the opera, which restored my confidence and made me feel much BETTER. A nice helpful man. The Met’s acoustics are so good that a small voice like mine well-protected will sound perfectly clear and good! Let’s hope so. . .

Was stopped by a boy with a beard as I left Met who had heard D in V at Aldeburgh. Madly enthusiastic. Had just seen Don Giovanni matinee. ‘How was it?’ ‘Well, it was was well conducted.’

6:30. Home to a gin and my view over Central Park. The trees darken, the lights go on, the other side (East) looks like a chalk cliff, with a pale glow above. Reminded me of the olive trees below Delphi!!

Still taking ANTIBIOTICS. Back to Milton. Paradise Lost: splendid scene of Lucifer massing his forces, who move ‘in perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood of flutes and soft recorders’. Poor instruments! Do they belong the devil?’

The Highland manners

‘The family, servants and all, sat round it, and eat, the mistress looking on and waiting. She brought us a piggin of cream, and drank to me, and we drank it round. The dairy is in a building apart. This was contrived that I might see the Highland manners.’ So wrote Richard Pococke while travelling in the north of Scotland exactly 250 years ago today. Although a man of the church by profession he was far more interested in travel, being an early and scholarly explorer of the Middle East, and of the remoter parts of his own country.

Pococke was born in Southampton in 1704 and studied law at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, before entering into the priesthood. However, his main claim to fame is that he travelled extensively, particularly in Egypt, where he was one of the first Englishmen to voyage up the Nile, and to visit the Valley of the Kings. He published a two-volume account of the journey which was celebrated at the time, and translated into other languages. He also toured widely in England, Scotland and Ireland, carefully noting what he saw.

Later in life, Pococke was appointed Bishop of Ossory and Meath in Ireland. He is said to have founded a weaving school, which became known as The Pococke College. He died in 1765. A little more biographical information online is available from Wikipedia.

The diaries of Pococke’s tours of England and Scotland were not published until more than a century after his death, in the late 19th century. First the Scottish History Society published his Tours in Scotland 1747, 1750, 1760, and then the Camden Society published The travels through England of Dr Richard Pococke in several editions. Although Hodges & Figgis published Pococke’s Tour in Ireland in 1752 around the same time, it was not until 1995 that a full edition of his Irish travels was published - by Irish Academic Press. Many of these works are freely available online at Internet Archive.

Elizabeth Baigent, in her biography of Pococke for the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography, says: ‘The publication and scholarly editing of all of these tours reveal that Pococke was not only a pioneer mountaineer and one of the earliest scholarly explorers in Egypt, but was also among the very earliest systematic explorers of the remoter parts of Britain and Ireland.’

Here are two extracts from the The Tour of Dr Richard Pococke through Sutherland and Caithness in 1760 published by The Sutherland Association, Edinburgh 1888.

21 June 1760
‘. . . We went three miles to Milcraig (mr Cuthbert’s), a fine situation at the foot of the hill, commanding a view of the river and the country below. Near it is a deep glyn in which there runs a mountain torrent. The banks of it are green and most beautifully adorned with woods. We saw three or four kerns as belonging anciently to the heads of several villages, for their burial places, but on seeing the Picts’ houses since, I doubt whether they might not be the habitations of those people. In three miles from Milcraig, going very disagreeable heathy mountains, we came to a rivulet, and continued on about two miles, passed another mountain torrent, and came into the fine country which is on the Frith of Dornock. I saw a small Druid temple with two or three stones in the middle near the rivulet, and a little further some remains of another. Here I observed grey granite in large spots of white and darker colour.
We came to Ardmore, Mr Bailey’s, near the river, where we stayed two hours, the family being at Rosehall. In these parts they find beds of shells at a little distance from the sea, but not petrified, and they are used for manure. We went westward and soon came to a large kern, the entrance to which about half-way up is visible with a large stone over it. If the entrances are not on a level with the ground I look on it as a mark that they were burial-places; if they are great ruins, that they were castles; and if covered over with green sod, that they were Picts’ houses. . .

They have no miles here different from the English in measure, but the acre is five perches more than than the English. (I think the Highland miles are not above the proportion of 2 to 3 as in England.)’

22 June 1760
‘. . . We went into a Highland cabbin, in which there were five apartments, one at the entrance seemed to be for the cows, another beyond it for the sheep, and a third, to which there was only at the end of the house, for other cattle; to the left was the principal room, with a fire in the middle, and beyond that the bed-chamber, and a closet built to it for a pantry; and at the end of the bed-chamber, and of the house, a round window to let out the smoak, there being no chimney. The partitions all of hurdle-work, so one sees through the whole. A great pot of whey was over the fire, of which they were making Frau. They have a machine like that which they put into a churn, with stiff hairs round it, this they work round and up and down to raise a froth, which they eat of the pot with spoons, and it had the taste of new milk; then the family, servants and all, sat round it, and eat, the mistress looking on and waiting. She brought us a piggin of cream, and drank to me, and we drank it round. The dairy is in a building apart. This was contrived that I might see the Highland manners. They have here a great number of foxes and hares, the skins of which are very fine; the hares are of a light colour on the backs, and the bellies are quite white. I was told there are some all over white in the winter. A few swans come here every year in the hard weather; and a great number came in the year 1738, when the winter was very cold, but it is difficult to shoot them. They have plenty of red deer, and of the roe deer. Mr Monroe shot in the upper part of the Kyle of Dornock an extraordinary sea-bird, which dived very readily. It is as big as a goose, and much like it, except that the bill, about four inches long, is pointed . . .’

Monday, June 21, 2010

Diary briefs

Mussolini said to have hidden diaries secretly - The Daily Telegraph

Publication of Li Peng’s diary halted - Wall Street Journal

Henry Bowers diary of Scott expedition on show at SPRI - The Daily Mail

Evidence in case of student suicide after caning - The Times of India

Dear Diary: Secrets and Struggles from Kenya to the UK - The Independent

Sunday, June 20, 2010

For the love of Marie

One of the bravest and most dashing of heroes, the very flesh and blood of 18th century adventures, died two centuries ago today. But Axel von Fersen, a high-born and well-educated Swede, was not only noble and courageous, especially with regard to his love for the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, but he was a decent diarist too, recording his own emotions as lightly as his feats of daring-do.

Axel Fersen was born in 1755 into a rich and powerful family - his father Frederik was a leading Swedish politician - and he was well educated. At 15, he went abroad on a tour lasting four years. During this period he attended the Brunswick Military Academy and the University of Turin, and while in Paris he met Marie Antoinette, only months before her husband Louis XVI became King and she Queen. He joined the French army and went to fight with the colonists in the US during the War of Independence, distinguishing himself at the Siege of Yorktown.

On returning to Paris as a diplomat, von Fersen’s friendship with Marie Antoinette flourished - though whether they were actual lovers is still hotly debated by historians. When the Revolution broke out, he tried - but failed - to organise for the King and Queen to escape. Later, he also served in Vienna and Brussels for a European coalition against the Revolution. After Marie Antoinette’s death, he returned to Sweden.

When Sweden’s King Gustav IV was overthrown in the 1809 revolution, von Fersen supported the king’s son rather than the populist Carl August. The latter died suddenly in 1810, and it was rumoured that von Fersen had conspired in the murder, and this led to an unruly mob seeking revenge and killing him - on 20 June 1810, two hundred years ago today. A few months after his death, though, he was cleared of any suspicion connected with the death of Carl August and received a ceremonial state burial. See Wikipedia for more biographical information.

For most of his life, starting when he was still in his teens, von Fersen kept diaries - though those from 1780 to early 1791 were destroyed. A first collection was first published in English as Diary and Correspondence of Count Axel Fersen Grand-Marshal of Sweden relating to the Court of France by Hardy, Pratt & Company, Boston, in 1902. This is freely available at Internet Archive. Here is the very first diary entry found in that book.

17 October 1771
‘I find here all sorts of extraordinary customs which divert me much. For instance, the town clock is always one hour in advance of the clocks of other countries. This difference, they tell me, goes back to a remote period when the inhabitants resolved to kill their chief magistrate, who, warned of the plot, foiled the conspirators by putting on the hands of the clock. It is not permissible to dance in Basle unless the master of the house plays the violin himself; and you can drive in a carriage only up to ten o’clock at night, without servants behind, and in a plain carriage of one colour only and no gilding. It is forbidden to have silk fringes in the carriage or on the harness when you drive to church, and the ladies must wear black, not gowns but dishabilles. Diamonds, pearls, laces, and pretty things of all kinds are forbidden. It is good taste not to go out before five o’clock; at that hour visits are made to family circles.

One of my acquaintances offered to take me to the Assemblee du Printemps; he presented me first to his sister and she introduced me to this assembly, which is entirely composed of young girls. What surprised me extremely was to see these young ladies arriving alone, or with a gentleman, and no maid or man-servant. They played cards and talked with foreigners or with the young men of the town who had the honour to be admitted. They go to walk in the promenades all alone.’

More recently, in 1971, G Bell & Sons, London published Rescue the Queen: A Diary of the French Revolution 1789-1793. Here are some extracts.

From the prologue:
‘The diaries in this book describe how Fersen made the only serious attempt to save the French royal family, and of its tense tragic failure; but they make light of Fersen’s personal courage and energy. The failure seemed to break him, although he sought in vain to rally help among the emigres and from Marie Antoinette’s own brother, the Emperor Joseph in Vienna.’

From the epilogue:
‘Even these diaries have had a romantic history. For almost a hundred years they lay forgotten among the family papers in a Swedish castle. Then in 1878 they appeared in French by Fersen’s great-nephew, Baron R M Klinkowstrom; but he deliberately omitted many of the more intimate details of Fersen’s relationship with the Queen, claiming that the passages had been deleted . . . Historians waited excitedly for the chance to examine the whole correspondence; only to be cruelly deceived. Klinkowstrom was a gentleman of the old school, and a woman’s love-letters are not for public reading; so before his death he burnt the most important ones. What you read in this book is taken from the edition of 1925 by Alma Söderhjelm, who published the complete diaries and letters . . .’

18 June 1791
‘Very nice weather. With her from 2:30 to 6pm. Opera Comique. Good letter form the Emperor. The British fleet is said to have left port.’

20 June 1791
‘Both said to me that they must leave at all costs. We arranged the hour of day etc. In the event of their arrest I was to go to Brussels and try to do something for them. On taking leave of me the King said: ‘M de Fersen, whatever may happen, I shall never forget all you have done for me.’ The Queen wept a great deal. At six I left her and then she went for her customary walk with the children without any special safety precautions. I went home to get ready . . .’

21 June 1791
‘Fine, everything went well. Some delay between Maretz and Le Cateau. The Commander of the militia asked for my name; I was afraid. Drove through Le Quesnoy and crossed the frontier near Saint-Vast.’

22 June 1791
‘Fine, very cold at night. Reached Mons at six o’clock. . . In the street I was asked by a monk whether the King was safe. Left there at eleven o’clock; flat country as far as Namur, then hilly. All are happy about the King’s rescue.’

23 June 1791
‘Fine but cold. Reached Arlon at eleven pm. There found Bouillé; learnt that the King had been caught. No details were known; the troops were unreliable. The King was lacking in firmness and presence of mind. Stayed there overnight.’

24 June 1791
‘Departed at 4:30 in the morning. Everybody greatly upset about the King’s arrest. Desperately depressed. The whole of Luxembourg in despair about the King’s capture. How everything has changed!’

3 February 1792
‘Letter from her, saying that my visit is impossible because of the new regulations which make personal passports compulsory; it would mean abandoning the idea. Things look bad for me and for politics . . . The matter concerning passports is designed to prevent any possible escape by the King; quite clever of them.’

6 February 1792
‘A letter from the Queen telling me that the King would not agree to the new passport regulations; Frenchmen also write to say that they have crossed the frontier without trouble. I therefore decided to go to Paris. Wrote to inform her.’

10 February 1792
‘Prepared everything for my journey.’

11 February 1792
‘Left at 9:30 without my servant and with Reutersvard in the courier’s coach. We carried couriers’ passports for Portugal issued in fictitious names as well as letters addressed to the Queen of Portugal and the Memorandum from the King (of Sweden) to the King of France. I had put everything together with a false code key into an envelope of the Swedish Embassy in Paris and had also forged the King’s signature; a further envelope was addressed to our chargé d’affairs Bergstedt and everything was sealed with the Swedish great seal manufactured here. For the sake of safety I also carried credentials appointing me Ambassador to the Queen of Portugal. At eight o’clock we reached Tournay where we stayed overnight.’

12 February 1792
‘Fine and mild. Left at 3:30 in the morning. Reutersvard visited the Commander M d’Aponcourt in the evening to obtain post horses; d’Aponcourt took him to be a Swedish courier and thought it would take fourteen days to reach Paris and that he would be stopped everywhere. . . Arrived in Gournay at 1:30 in the morning. I concealed myself as far as possible; wore a wig. Everywhere, especially in Péronne, people were very courteous, even the National Guardsmen.’

13 February 1792
‘. . . Reached Paris without any further incident at 5:30 in the evening . . . went to see her by the usual route, for fear of the National Guardsmen; she lives in magnificent surroundings; did not see the King. Stayed there.’

14 February 1792
‘Very fine and mild. Saw the King at six o’clock in the evening. He does not want to leave and because of the extremely strict guard he would be unable to do so; but the real reason is that he has scruples since he has promised so often to stay, because he is a man of honour. He has, however, agreed to go through the woods with the smugglers after the arrival of the Allied Armies, accompanied by a detachment of light troops.’

18 November 1793
‘The Queen always slept fully dressed in black because she expected to be killed or guillotined at any moment and she wanted to go to the scaffold dressed in mourning. . . I shall love the proud, unhappy princess as long as I live . . . Oh, how my life is changed - how small are the prospects for happiness - to think that once upon a time my life was among the most beautiful and enviable in the world.’

Sunday, June 13, 2010

El Senor de las Lettras

Today is the centenary of the birth of Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, an icon of Spanish literature but one whose novels have never been translated into English, and who is more or less unknown in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless, the University of Albany, New York, where Torrente taught for a few years in the 1960s having been ostracised by Franco’s regime, is planning to publish his diaries.

Torrente was born on 13 June 1910, in Ferrol, Galicia, and studied at the universities of Santiago de Compostela and Oviedo. After travelling in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including a sojourn in Paris, he aligned himself with Franco’s Falange party. In 1932, he married Josephine Malvido (with whom he had four children), and in 1939 he took up a university post in Santiago. His first novel, Javier Mariño, was published in 1943. A few novels - often steeped in the myths and witchcraft lore of his native Galicia - followed but it was his talent for theatrical criticism that brought more praise.

In time, Torrente distanced himself from the Falange, leaving the party in 1942, but not directly opposing it until 1962 (by which time he had married Guisande Caamaño Fernanda Sanchez with whom he had five children) when he was expelled from teaching for having sided with striking workers in the Asturias mines. As a consequence, in 1966, he moved to the US, with his large family, to accept a specially-created chair of literature at the University of Albany, New York. From 1970, he began to revisit Spain, and by 1975 (the year of Franco’s death), he had moved back permanently - to Salamanca where he remained until his death in 1997.

This last twenty years of Torrente’s life were the most fertile in terms of novels. His fame certainly increased in the 1980s when Spanish television serialised his trilogy Los Gozos y Las Sombras (The Delights and the Shadows) which had been written 20 years earlier. Thereafter, his fame increased to the point where he was considered an icon of Spanish literature, and was known as ‘El Senor de las Lettras’. In 1985, he was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the most important literary prize in Spain. None of his novels, it seems, have been translated into English, nor is there much biographical information about him in English on the internet. Spanish Wikipedia has a much longer article than English Wikipedia, and there are useful obituaries on The Independent and New York Times websites.

Earlier this year, the University of Albany, where Torrente had taught, announced that it would publish, later this year, the first of a series of Torrente’s diaries. The author, it said, had donated the diaries in 1967 but only under the condition that the writings would not be published or even consulted until 10 years after his death. That moment was reached in January last year. The documents held by the university were written between the late 1940s and 1950s and contain ‘reflections of a political character’. They also provide a view of Torrente that, according to his son Álvaro Torrente, is ‘little known and that, without doubt, will be revelatory for many people.’

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Butcher of Beijing

A diary allegedly written by Li Peng during the Tiananmen protests in Beijing, June 1989, is about to be published in Hong Kong. Li Peng was China’s premier at the time of the massacre, thus earning himself the nickname ‘Butcher of Beijing’. Excerpts of the publication have been circulating on the internet and have led commentators to suggest the diary will do little to help Li Peng, currently very ill, shed that moniker.

When student-led protests threatened to escalate out of control in central Beijing in late May and early June 1989, the Chinese government was divided as to how to respond. The premier Li Peng favoured military force. He had taken over the premiership from Zhao Ziyang in 1987 (and continued in office until 1998). The still powerful General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, however, took a more dovish approach and showed some support for the demonstrators. Li Peng’s view prevailed, Zhao Ziyang’s political stock sank further, and upwards of 3,000 people may have been killed.

There was international outrage at the time; and a scar still remains today in the sense that many people round the world only know the name Tiananmen Square because of the massacre. (The outrage in 1989, however, did not last long enough to stop China being awarded the 2008 Olympic Games in 2001.) See Wikipedia for more on Li Peng and the Tiananmen Square protests.

The Hong Kong-based New Century Press is set to publish, later in June, a diary kept by Li Peng at the time of the protests. Excerpts of the diary, which most commentators believe is genuine, have been circulating on the internet, and were picked up by the press agency AFP (as reported by On 1 June, Li Peng writes: ‘The unrest now in Beijing is the biggest chaos since the nation was established’; and ‘The loss of control in this situation has gone beyond the Great Cultural Revolution’. While attempting to mediate a political solution to end the protests, Li Peng reveals in the diary, he is massing 25,000 troops in buildings around the square - ‘a force surrounding Tiananmen on all four sides’.

A BBC article also provides some quotes: ‘From the beginning of the turmoil, I have prepared for the worst, . . . I would rather sacrifice my own life and that of my family to prevent China from going through a tragedy like the Cultural Revolution.’

The man behind the publishing project, Bao Pu, of New Century Press, is a prominent human rights activist, and the son of Bao Tong, a senior advisor to the head of the Chinese Communist Party at the time of the Tiananmen protests. He told AFP that the diaries show ‘Li participated in the decision-making throughout the process and he was also the one who carried out these decisions. This all came out very, very clear in details that we previously did not know.’

The BBC quotes Bao Pu as saying the diary ‘provides amazing details of how decisions were made and how the order was carried out, and how the leaders reached internal consensus’; and that ‘these are the kind of things that are not in official records’.

According to the South China Morning Post, Li Peng’s diary (15 April to 24 June 1989) was ready for publication in 2004, but the move was blocked by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Originally entitled The Critical Moment, it has now been renamed Li Peng’s June 4 Diary, and will be released on 22 June.

Postscript: Three days before publication in Hong Kong the book was blocked; however, subsequently it was published in the US under the title, The Critical Moment. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Schumann and Clara

Today is the bicentenary of the birth of Robert Schumann, a great German composer in the Romantic tradition, but one who led a much troubled life. As a young man, he seemed torn between literature and music, and then between playing and composing; and, as he grew older, he was often troubled by mental problems. Also, his life was inextricably bound up with that of Clara Wieck, a young concert pianist, whose father bitterly opposed their union. Schumann left behind many journals, but only those he wrote with Clara in the first years of their marriage have been translated into English.

Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony, two hundred years ago today on 8 June 1810. His father, a bookseller and writer, encouraged him to pursue both music and literary interests, but he died when his son was only 16. Schumann moved to Leipzig, and then Heidleberg to study law. However, by the end of 1830 he had returned to music and was training under the renowned teacher Friedrich Wieck to become a concert pianist. Before long, though, a weakness in the fingers of one hand led him towards composing, and to studying music theory with Heinrich Dorn.

Many of Schumann’s most famous works - considered alongside the best of German Romantic music - were composed in the mid-late 1830s. They are noted for their originality and daring, as much as for their links to literature. Carnaval, one of his most genial and characteristic piano works, contains various musical cryptograms; Kinderszenen depicts the innocence and playfulness of childhood; and Kreisleriana, one of Schumann’s best works, is a dramatic piece for solo piano composed to represent a famous character from the German fiction of E T A Hoffmann.

Schumann was also a working journalist who founded Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and influential music magazine, in 1835, and remained its editor until 1844. In 1840, he married Clara Wieck despite a bitter struggle with her father who tried to block the marriage. Schumann had known Clara since when as a young girl she had performed many of his early compositions. Their affair almost certainly began when she was still in her teens. They had eight children, although one of them died in infancy. Clara would go on to outlive Schumann by four decades, and her own career as a concert pianist would straddle six decades.

Having written mostly for the piano hitherto, Schumann widened his repertoire in the 1940s with song cycles, symphonies, one opera, and settings of Goethe’s Faust. He was well acquainted with other composers of the age - Mendelssohn, Liszt, Wagner, and the younger Brahms (with whom Clara would become romantically involved later). He also travelled often, including a long tour of Russia with Clara in 1844, but his health was unreliable and declining. In 1950, he was appointed municipal director of music in Düsseldorf, but resigned in 1853. The following year, he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine, and was then confined to an asylum where he remained until his death in 1856. Classical Net and Wikipedia have more biographical information.

Schumann kept journals for much of his life, though most of them have not been translated into English. According to Peter Ostwald, a Schumann biographer, this is because of their incredible bulk, the overabundance of routine facts, and Schumann’s use of a telegraphic style without any explanatory narrative. However, Ostwald considers there are two ‘remarkable exceptions’ to this pattern: the diaries of Schumann’s youth when he was thinking of himself as a literary writer, and the marriage diaries written with his wife Clara. These latter were first edited by Gerd Nauhaus and published in German in 1987. The book was then translated by Ostwald and published in English by Robson Books in 1994 - The Marriage Diaries of Robert & Clara Schumann.

The author Janice Galloway who has fictionalised Clara’s life in her book, (cleverly!) titled, Clara, wrote about it in The Guardian, and, in doing so, referred to these marriage diaries: ‘Famously, she also kept a diary of her relationship in tandem with her husband for the first four years of their marriage. Lots of ink, lots of detail - and not really very much at all. Even reading her written words, the silences are unavoidable, the white, unspoken space between the lines seeming to grow wider with each passing year, each hellish domestic crisis. Discover Robert’s ‘corrections’ to her entries scribbled like teachers’ comments in their shared diary, discover her ruthless cheerfulness in praising his work when he is at his least healthy, his least confident, discover her relief when a suspected fresh pregnancy proves false, and it’s not hard to see why.’

Here are some extracts from The Marriage Diaries of Robert & Clara Schumann:

June 1841
‘This month seems to want to be a beautiful one as well; only one day, the 1st, allowed the sun to be pushed aside, but now it asserts its full privilege.

Robert is composing constantly, has already finished 3 movements and I hope he will be ready in time for his birthday. In my opinion, he can look back on the past year and himself with joy! - so often they say it might kill the spirit, rob it of youthful freshness! but my Robert certainly demonstrates the clearest evidence to the contrary!

On the 2nd the singer Schmidt visited me with the music director Seydelmann from Breslau. He is a dried-up, insignificant man, Schmidt the same, although he thinks of himself as a great genius and displays this often enough, with the greatest arrogance.

My piano playing again falls completely by the wayside, as is always the case when Robert composes. Not a single little hour can be found for me the entire day! if only I don’t regress too much! The score reading has also stopped again for now, but I hope not for too long!

The composing doesn’t want to go at all right now - sometimes I want to beat myself over the stupid head!-’

June 1841
‘On the 3rd Mendelssohn visited us. He is reluctant to leave here, and it is really to be hoped that he will return, since he spoke much about the establishment of a music conservatory here, which seems a good idea to me.

This week I sat down a lot to compose, and finally succeeded with four poems by Rückert for my dear Robert. May they satisfy him just a little, then my wish will be fulfilled.

It has been over 3 weeks that I have been waiting for news from my mother, and I suspect that she was not satisfied with our birthday presents - who knows! perhaps she counted on a significant sum of money. But I believe she cannot expect more than we have done - it was beyond our means. As soon as one is married it is a different story in terms of giving money, then one has himself to worry about, and there are so many things that burden a poor father of the family, which soon is what my Robert will ultimately end up being!!!!-’

June 1841
‘The weather was horrible on June 8, but our souls lived in the most magnificent sunshine, and thus all went well. Oh, we were very blissful that day, and I devoutly thank God for letting us live so happily through this first June 8 of our marriage, and above all that he created such a dear, excellent human being for me and the world. Don’t laugh at me, dear Robert - that would mean pouring cold water on my heart filled with love! - There was little I could give my Robert, but he always kept smiling so amicably because he knew so well how affectionately they were given. Four lieder by Rückert gave him much pleasure, and he also treated them so tolerantly that he will even publish them together with several of his own, which makes me very happy.’

June 1842
‘Our little one gives us indescribable pleasure; she grows daily and shows a good-natured personality with great vitality. Now the first tooth is in place. Clara’s happiness about this and about the whole child is mine as well. The entire June was a kind month except for some days and nights of revelry.

Yet I was also industrious, in a new sort of way, and have almost completely finished making and also writing down two quartets for violins, etc. in A minor and F major. Also working a great deal on my journal.

Clara is playing little, except from quartets by Haydn and Mozart that we took up consecutively at the piano, and has also composed two lieder for my birthday, the most successful she has ever written up to now. On this day, the 8th of June, she gave me as always a large number of beautiful things, and above all [gave] the little one a wreath. But I was melancholy and unwell on that day. In the evening, we cheered ourselves up; several acquaintances were there, and much wine flowed into grateful throats. Yet the best thing after that was music, which Clara gave us as yet.’

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Happy birthday Chantal

Happy birthday Chantal Akerman - 60 today. Having been much influenced from an early age by Jean-Luc Godard, she’s been a maker of films, often experimental, for most of her life. In the mid-1990s, though, she began creating installations for art galleries as well. One of her more recent works, one that has been installed in galleries round the world, is called To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge, and was developed around a diary Akerman found in her house - the diary of her grandmother who had died at Auschwitz - and a conversation she had about it with her mother.

Akerman was born on 6 June 1950 in Brussels, Belgium, to Jewish parents from Poland. Her grandparents and her mother had been sent to Auschwitz, but only her mother survived. Akerman says that she decided to be a film maker aged 15 after viewing Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou. At 18 she started to study at a Belgian film school, but soon left choosing to focus on making her first (short) film, Saute ma ville (Blow up my town), which premiered at a film festival in 1971. That same year she moved to New York, where she stayed until 1973, and in 1974 her feature film Je tu il elle, starring herself, received critical recognition.

Akerman has made over 40 works - from 35mm features to video essays to experimental documentaries - many of them considered to be ‘hyperrealist’, the most famous of which is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. According to the European Graduate School, where she is professor of film, Akerman began experimenting with video installations in 1995 and exhibiting her work in museums and galleries as well as in art-house cinemas. These installations, it says, ‘display an intensive personal gaze’. There is a biography of Akerman on the EGS website, but it’s mostly about her films, as is Wikipedia’s article. A community Facebook page also has some information.

One of Akerman’s more recent and widely toured installations - To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge - was focused on a diary written by her maternal grandmother who died at Auschwitz. It was developed in 2004, and installed at the Galerie Marian Goodman in Paris before being shown in, among other places, the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Camden Arts Centre in London, and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The website of the latter has two photographs of the installation.

Scott Macaulay described the work as it appeared in New York for the FilmMaker blog. At its heart, he said, this is a ‘tremendously moving and unexpectedly funny piece in which Akerman uses her artmaking tools to journey back through her family history to trace the desires and ambitions of three generations of women’. One main part of the installation is a film in which Akerman and her mother, Nelly, discuss the contents of a diary found in their house - her grandmother’s diary. ‘I am a woman!’ the diary begins. ‘Therefore I can’t express all my feelings, my sorrows and my thoughts . . . dear diary, onto your sheets I will write them. And you will be my only confidante.’

The conversation then leads to a discussion of the Second World War, Nelly’s experience in the concentration camps, her feeling thereafter that she never regained her life, and her support of Chantal’s early career as an artist.

Saul Austerlitz, writing for the Jewish daily, Forward, described the installation in Tel Aviv as follows: ‘The exhibit includes a spiral wrapped in tulle, covered with quotes from Akerman about her work as a filmmaker, and a short film of her mother reading from her grandmother’s Holocaust-era diary and talking about her own wartime experiences - a conversation, Akerman says in the show’s catalog, that brought a sense of closure to her work for the past 30 years.’

Adrian Searle wrote about the work as it appeared at the Camden Arts Centre for The Guardian as follows: ‘In a large space, a text in French, by Akerman, is projected on two large arcs of white material. We wander through while a mournful violin plays. The text is an autobiographical gloss on the footage projected in a second room, a conversation between Akerman and her mother, who she presents with the diary of her maternal grandmother: along with the rest of the Akerman family, she perished in Auschwitz. Nelly Akerman struggles with her mother’s precise handwriting, and with the Polish, which she fears she can no longer read. Together, she and Chantal go through the diary entries of a young girl who proclaims on the first page ‘I am a woman!’, and who writes for a diary she imagines no one shall read. She writes that she cannot tell her secrets and her hopes aloud; they would otherwise have died with her. Sometime after the war, finding the journal in a drawer, Nelly added a few words to the mother she had lost; later, Chantal wrote in the diary, too.’

Friday, June 4, 2010

Windham’s love of Johnson

It’s two centuries to the day since the death of William Windham, a British statesman. He was a good friend of Edmund Burke, one of the 18th century’s leading political thinkers, and of Dr Samuel Johnson, who was probably responsible for Windham keeping a diary. Indeed, his diary entries at the time of Johnson’s death show a great affection for the man - and a love of ice skating!

Windham was born in 1750 at Felbrigg, near Cromer in Norfolk, an estate owned by his family for centuries, and he was educated at Eton and University College, Oxford. During the 1770s, he made several tours of European countries. In the first half of the 1780s, he went to Ireland as chief secretary to Lord Northington, and entered Parliament as MP for Norwich. He stood for the Whigs, and was one of those involved (along with his friend Edmund Burke) in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, a Governor of India. On the outbreak of the French Revolution, Windham sided with William Pitt.

In 1794, Windham was appointed Secretary-at-War, and a privy councillor. In 1798, he married Cecelia Forest, but they had no children. The same year, he resigned with Pitt when the King prevented Catholic emancipation, and, in 1802, he lost his seat because of his opposition to peace with France. He was again returned to Parliament as member for St Mawes, Cornwall, in 1804, and again served as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies between 1806 and 1807. He died on 4 June 1810, two hundred years ago today. More biographical information is available from Wikipedia or History Home.

Windham wrote a diary for much of his adult life. It was passed down through the generations to another William Windham, who, shortly before his death, gave the manuscript to his sister Cecilia Anne Baring, nee Windham, the second wife of the founder of Barings Bank. She edited the manuscript and it was published in 1866 by Longmans, Green and Co as The Diary of the Right Hon. William Windham, 1784 to 1810. There have been many editions since then (see Amazon for recent prints), but the original is freely available at Internet Archive.

Mrs Henry Baring (the editor’s name as given on the book) writes in the preface that the diary ‘is in truth chiefly a record of Mr Windham’s health and feelings, made for himself alone, which can hardly be supposed to possess much general interest; but there are many passages interspersed in it, strongly indicative of his character, which I trust I shall be forgiven for wishing to rescue from oblivion. . . If therefore, after much consideration, I determine to submit these pages to the press, it is not with a view to enhance the fame of the writer, but to preserve some portions of a relic consigned to me, before time shall have obliterated all names and traces of the former possessors of Felbrigg [family home, now a National Trust property], and whilst there are still living those who cling with fondness to its memories. . . [Moreover,] it is possible that, by a comparison with other memoirs of the time, these papers may contribute to elucidate some of the important transactions of the age in which Mr Windham lived.’

She also quotes Earl Grey speaking about Windham in the House of Lords after his death: ‘He was a man of a great, original, and commanding genius, with a mind cultivated with the richest stores of intellectual wealth, and a fancy winged to the highest flights of a most captivating imagery, of sound and spotless integrity, with a warm spirit but a generous heart, and of a courage and determination so characteristic as to hold him forward as the strong example of what the old English heart could effect and endure. He had, indeed, his faults, but they seemed, like the skilful disposition of shade in works of art, to make the impression of his virtues more striking, and gave additional grandeur to the outline of his character.’

The book contains a second preface, one written much earlier by George Ellis who never finished a biography of Windham. In this preface, Ellis writes about how he believes Windham was encouraged to write a diary by his friend Samuel Johnson. The great thing to be recorded (said Johnson, according to Ellis) is ‘the state of your own mind, and you should write down everything that you remember; for you cannot judge at first what is good or bad: and write immediately, while the impression is fresh, for it will not be the same a week afterwards.’ He further quotes (from Boswell’s Life of Johnson) a conversation between Windham and Johnson, which concluded with Johnson’s advice: ‘Every day will improve another. Dies diem docet, by observing at night where you failed in the day and by resolving to fail so no more!’ This conversation took place in June 1783, and Windham began keeping his diary in July that year.

Moreover, Ellis argues, the diary itself is exactly conformable to Dr Johnson’s advice in being devoted to the purpose of self-examination: ‘the employment of time is punctually brought to account, and severely scrutinised; and many pages are filled with expressions of regret for the valuable hours unprofitably wasted; with lamentations over those habits of indolence from which neither the bustle of business nor the tranquillity of solitude was found to be a sufficient preservative; and with resolutions of future amendment; resolutions, however, which, when recorded, only served to awaken new remorse, because they were constantly succeeded by fresh avowals of repeated negligence.’

Here are several extracts from the diary, the first few largely concerning the death of Samuel Johnson, and the last two being the final entries in the diary before Windham’s own death.

7 December 1784
‘Ten minutes past two PM. After waiting some short time in the adjoining room, I was admitted to Dr Johnson in his bedchamber, where, after placing me next him on the chair, he sitting in his usual place on the east side of the room (and I on his right hand), he put into my hands two small volumes (an edition of the New Testament), as he afterwards told me, saying, ‘Extremum hoc munus morientis habeto.’ He then proceeded to observe that I was entering upon a life which would lead me deeply into all the business of the world; that he did not condemn civil employment, but that it was a state of great danger; and that he had therefore one piece of advice earnestly to impress upon me that I would set apart every seventh day for the care, of my soul; that one day, the seventh, should be employed in repenting what was amiss in the six preceding, and for fortifying my virtue for the six to come; that such a portion of time was surely little enough for the meditation of eternity. . . I then took occasion to say how much I felt, what I had long foreseen that I should feel, regret at having spent so little of my life in his company. I stated this as an instance where resolutions are deferred till the occasions are past. For some time past I had determined that such an occasion of self-reproach should no longer subsist, and had built upon the hope of passing in his society the chief part of my time, at the moment when it was to be apprehended we were about to lose him for ever! I had no difficulty of speaking to him thus of my apprehensions; I could not help, on the other hand, entertaining hopes; but with these I did not like to trouble him, lest he should conceive that I thought it necessary to flatter him. He answered hastily that he was sure I would not; and proceeded to make a compliment to the manliness of my mind, which, whether deserved or not, ought to be remembered that it may be deserved. . .’

11 December 1784
‘First day of skating; ice fine. Find I have lost nothing since last year. Between nine and ten went to Sir Joshua, whom I took up by the way to see Dr Johnson - Strachan and Langton there; no hopes, though a great discharge had taken place from the legs.’

13 December 1784
‘. . . While I was writing . . , received the fatal account, so long dreaded, that Dr Johnson was no more! May those prayers which he incessantly poured from a heart fraught with the deepest devotion, find that acceptance with Him to whom they were addressed, which piety so humble and so fervent may seem to promise!’

15 December 1784
‘The two days passed . . . afford a strong example how much more is sometimes done on supposed occasions of idleness than in times professedly devoted to study. Stopping at shop and looking into some things in Simson’s Algebra, I felt at that moment what an amazing difference would take place in my mind had I employed the years of leisure which had lapsed through my life in making myself master of the subjects then before me. To these reflections my practice so far conformed, that, after going home about eleven o’clock, I sat up till past two employed very diligently in reducing the formula which I had given in the morning. The work since that time has never been resumed; neither that nor any other kind of work has been done. I cannot, indeed, say that all the time has been misspent; much of it has been employed in performing the last duties of respect and affection to the great man [Johnson] that is gone. But two entire mornings have been taken up, I fear, with little utility of any sort, certainly with none to myself, in attendance on Indian business, and much the greater part of the time dissipated in such avocations as I fear will be for ever incident to a life in London.’

7 November 1790
‘On Thursday I conceive it was, that a material incident happened the arrival of Mr Burke’s pamphlet [Considerations on the French Revolution]. Never was there, I suppose, a work so valuable in its kind, or that displayed powers of so extraordinary a nature. It is a work that may seem capable of overturning the National Assembly, and turning the stream of opinion throughout Europe. One would think, that the author of such a work, would be called to the government of his country, by the combined voice of every man in it. What shall be said of the state of things when it is remembered that the writer is a man decried, persecuted and proscribed; not being much valued, even by his own party, and by half the nation considered as little better than an ingenious madman!’

12 May 1810
‘Walked out. Omitted foolishly to enquire at St James’s Church, otherwise should have learnt that there was to be an administration of the Sacrament at seven, which would just have suited me, as besides the privacy, I could have gone then before I took any physic.’

13 May 1810
‘Sorry that, for want of earlier enquiry, I had missed the Sacrament at St James’s at seven o’clock. Remedied the loss by writing to Fisher, and afterwards going, when I received it in his room in company only with Mrs Fisher. Blane in evening, and Wilson; which last dissuaded me the operation; Elliot afterwards. Not convinced by Wilson, as he has no hopes to give of evil stopping or being removed.’