- Child of the Enlightenment: Revolutionary Europe Reflected in a Boyhood Diary
What can you say about a seventeen-year-old boy who died? That he was surly and thoughtful. That he loved his horse and his books. And he wrote a diary. From this diary, the authors of Child of Enlightenment have produced a most unusual biography, indeed a biography that breaks with the conventional rules of the genre. The astounding little fact beneath Baggerman and Dekker's hefty tome is that their subject did not accomplish much in his short life. When he died, he had yet to vote or fall in love, compose a symphony, paint a picture, or see the world; he was not even much of a diarist. Yet the narrative of this unfortunate youth, Otto van Eck, captivates the reader. Or rather, Child of Enlightenment captivates the reader, because the life of little Otto provides more of a conduit than an endpoint to this book, whose real subject is the politico-cultural history of Holland in the 1790s and the Batavian Revolution of 1795.
The reason that this biography works as well as it does is that Otto van Eck was born into an illustrious family that did make an enormous impact. His uncle, Pieter Paulus, a high-ranking diplomat, chairman of the National Assembly, and charismatic leader, wrote a manifesto in 1793 which laid the foundation for the Verklaring van de rechten van de mensch en de burger (Declaration of the rights of man and the citizen), which the Dutch revolutionaries proclaimed when Stadholder Willem V and his followers fled to England and the Batavian Republic was established. It also became the basis of the first constitution of the Netherlands, ratified in 1798 (3). His father, Lambert van Eck, was elected chairman of the National Assembly in 1797, and was later imprisoned following the French-supported purge in 1798. Both men were intellectual firebrands, courageous patriots, champions of a free [End Page 403] press, and members of the enlightened avant-garde of their day. Both would ultimately be broken by the vicissitudes of political life. Pieter Paulus died of pneumonia at the apex of his career in 1796, victim of his own exhausting devotion to the cause; Lambert van Eck died on 5 October 1803, disillusioned but resigned to his bitter fate (480-81). The story of these two men's rise and fall is fascinating, dramatic, and ultimately provides a sad commentary on human nature. As the authors note, commenting on Lambert van Eck's imprisonment, "The ideal democracy presupposes an intellectually schooled and discerning reading public seeking detailed information on all aspects of any argument. This was not the case in Lambert's day, nor is it ever likely to be" (394). The challenge for the biographers, then, is to maintain their chosen focus on Otto and his narrow horizons during the six years that this diary records, all the while avoiding the temptation to plunge headlong into the considerable drama swirling around the lad through study of his illustrious, and more interesting, parents.
On the one hand, one must acknowledge that Child of Enlightenment does succeed in its pledge to make Otto's horizons determine the research agenda; on the other hand, one sometimes wishes the book were not so circumscribed. Otto's life unfolded within the narrow but privileged boundaries of his parents' two homes; as the authors note, it was "bounded in the summer by the ditches and fences enclosing the garden of DeRuit, the Van Ecks' country estate near Delft, and in the winter by the walls of their large house in the center of The Hague" (40). This miniature world may interest scholars of eighteenth-century Dutch manners, but Otto himself proves somewhat dull. Indeed, the authors admit that "because his daily schedule changed little over the years, his diary betrays a certain monotony," yet they do their utmost to unpack each line of this homespun document to reveal...