Philobiblon: Don't believe everything you read ...

Friday, November 11, 2005

Don't believe everything you read ...

... even in the archives.

That was the message of an excellent "masterclass" I went to at the Centre for Lives and Letters this week.

(I've never heard of the format, but it involved the teacher, the biographer Stella Tillyard, giving the tutorial class to a small group of students, while about 50 of us watched. (Rather hard on the students, but they loosened up by the end.)

We started with a handwritten letter, read it out and deduced what it was about. It was a pleading letter in which a queen begs her husband, the king, to allow her to defend herself against calumnies, and the charges she is obviously facing.

We were given the background - this is Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark, the younger sister of George III, who'd gone there to be married at the age of 16 to Christian VII, who was already suffering a severe mental illness. The scandalous eventual results, which fascinated Europe of the time, are recorded here.

But years later, when her son at the age of just 16 seized the throne, he ordered all papers about his mother (he'd last seen her at the age of three) gathered together into a secret archive, Papers Concerning the King's Mother. Which was where this letter came in.

We then looked at a contemporary memoir published in London within a year or two of her death, actually an epistolary novel whipped up by some Fleet Street hack. (As they say, there's nothing new in the world.) It was very successful, and went into several editions.

But what was surprising is that here was the letter, very nearly identical letter, yet how could the hack have got hold of it? The answer was he (I guess it was a he, although of course it might not have been) , of course made it up.

But when the young king was ordering papers about his mother collected, some Danish diplomat, whether honestly or desperately, had collected this "letter", written it out in his own hand, and hence, there it was in the archive.

It was a powerful lesson not to believe everything you read, even in a handwritten archive of the right age.

(The theoretical background was Carolyn Steedman's Dust, which I keep encountering in various areas; it has now leapt up the "must read" list.)



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3/06/2006 10:39:00 pm  

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