- Personal Effects: Reading the Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff
The name of Marie Bashkirtseff is recognized by few people today, even in France (unless they are diary specialists), but Sonia Wilson’s study of her journal from the point of view of its many past readers reminds us why it is still remembered by some and deserves to be better known. Born in the Ukraine in 1858, Bashkirtseff began keeping a diary at age twelve when she was living [End Page 343] with her mother in Nice, and it remained her constant companion until a few days before her untimely death of tuberculosis in 1884 at the age of twentysix. As an adolescent she already had dreams of fame and social success, but her early attempts to become a singer were thwarted by illness. Although she exerted considerable powers of seduction on a series of possible suitors, they were daunted by the unsavory reputation of some members of her extended family. Thwarted in her first attempts to shine, she threw herself into art as a means to make her name. Her painting was skilled though conventional, and she experienced some success. Until shortly before her death she continued to believe that she would become a celebrity in her lifetime, and it was only when faced with the reality of an early end that she conceived a new idea: that the diary itself might constitute her claim to attention from posterity.
Marie had time to express her wish that her journal be published, and her hope that readers would admire rather than pity her. When a heavily abridged and edited version appeared in 1887, three years after she died, it was only the second diary by a woman to be published in France. It created a sensation by diverging conspicuously from the pious, solitary, nature-loving model established by Eugénie de Guérin, whose diaries had appeared in 1862. Readers avidly devoured Bashkirtseff’s much livelier and apparently unaffected account of the true thoughts and experiences of an unabashedly narcissistic, ambitious, cosmopolitan young socialite. The way the text was presented turned the first half into a Künstlerroman and the second into a heroic battle with illness.
Three years later the journal was already translated into English, and went on to become famous in North and South America as well as across Europe. It remained popular reading for young men as well as women until the 1930s, and spawned a series of plays and a film based on her life. It also provided a model frequently referred to by other diarists who went on to become well known, including Pierre Louÿs, Catherine Pozzi, Katherine Mansfield, and Anais Nin. After a lull in enthusiasm from the 1930s to the 1970s, a biography by Colette Cosnier (1985) and attention from feminist scholars led to a revival of interest. In recent years two competing teams worked on establishing a complete version, based on the original notebooks held by the Bibliothèque Nationale. The Cercle des Amis de Marie Bashkirtseff has now produced the whole diary (of which the first volume has been translated into English), and the first tome of an even more ample annotated edition has been published by L’Age d’Homme. The diary still exercises a powerful fascination, as new fans communicate through websites and leave flowers at her tomb.
Wilson’s study concentrates on the source of this charm, as she asks what it is about this particular diary and diarist that has provoked such intense interest and loyalty among a wide range of readers. Her early admirers ranged [End Page 344] from Barrès to Gladstone and George Bernard Shaw, and include numerous male novelists and dramatists who created characters based on her. These men seem to have succumbed to the art of seduction that she exercised in describing her lithe body and fashionable dress, as well as her flirtations. While some segments of the journal seem to imply a male reader/voyeur, thousands of young women were...