(A version of this post was originally published on Nov. 13, 2013 on the Late Last Night Books blog.)
I write journals. Year after year, the stacks of filled notebooks on my closet shelf grow taller, leaning into each other until I’m forced to start another pile. This stash doesn’t even include my high school journals, which I burned before leaving for college. (No regrets. A person can only stand so much embarrassment.)
My journals are a safe place to vent, float ideas, work through issues. They allow me to write honestly about my experiences. But what happens to these volumes when I’m gone? Do I really want anyone reading them when I’m not available to explain myself? At least I’m relatively anonymous; nobody outside my immediate family will care about the words I leave behind, so there’s not much worry about a public airing of my private thoughts.
Other journal writers are not so lucky.
“This book, Momma gave me, that I might write the journal of my journey to Wales in it.” This debut journal entry was penned in 1832 by thirteen-year-old Alexandrina Victoria of Kent. Young Drina found journaling so much to her liking that her last journal entry was written ten days before her death at the age of eighty-one. Drina’s chances of posthumous journal anonymity died the moment she became Queen Victoria of Great Britain.
Queen Victoria wrote prodigiously, her gushy, emotional voice changing little throughout the years. She was a fan of underlining and multiple exclamation points, and many of her entries are illustrated with her own (quite good) sketches. Her journals offer first-hand accounts of historical world events and political figures, but equally fascinating is the intimate view of key moments in a woman’s life. In the privacy of her journal, the queen becomes less Victoria Regina and more Drina, imbuing the flat historical data of her life with a strong dose of humanity. Meeting Albert, the first cousin who became the love of her life, inspires a paragraph that might be describing a minor deity. (Poor Prince Alexander of the Netherlands, another suitor, has to settle for “very plain.”) The infatuation with Albert is still going strong in October 1839: “It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert – who is beautiful! my [sic] heart is quite going.” One feels like an intruder reading Victoria’s account of the evening following her wedding: “10 February 1840. I never, never spent such an evening! My dearest, dearest, dear Albert!” The next morning’s entry offers yet another opportunity for a reader to feel like a clumsy interloper: “11 February 1840. When day dawned (for we did not sleep much) and I beheld that beautiful angelic face by my side, it was more than I can express! He does look so beautiful in his shirt, only, with his beautiful throat seen.” Victoria’s journals give us a chance to glimpse the personality behind the icon, which introduces a whole new facet to historical perspective.
Victoria’s journals span sixty-nine years. But even more intriguing than what’s contained in the journals is what is not. Victoria, too, questioned the fate of her journals after her death. She appointed her youngest child, Beatrice, as literary executor, instructing her to remove anything from the journals that might offend or embarrass the royal family. Beatrice took the job seriously, copying a verbatim draft of each journal page in longhand, then copying a redacted version of her new draft and finally destroying both the original and the first copied draft as she went along. It took thirty years to whittle Victoria’s original 122 volumes to 111, which really does make one wonder what exactly Beatrice read that made her demolish such large passages of her mother’s writing, especially considering the spicy bits left behind.
Redacted or not, leaving journals behind with no way to discuss them is an act of bravery. And I really do need to figure out what exactly to do with the nearly forty-seven volumes of my own …
There’s a new stack of handwritten notebooks sitting in my home office. My mother passed away at the end of September, and these are her memoirs, waiting to be read. Did she mean for us to read them all? Did she ever worry about what we’d think?
I will read with an open heart.
NOTE: In 2012, in conjunction with Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, Queen Victoria’s personal journals were scanned and made available online in a collaborative project between the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford, ProQuest, and the Royal Archives. More information is available here.