- Family, Culture and Society in the Diary of Constantijn Huygens Jr, Secretary to Stadholder-King William of Orange by Rudolf Dekker
The Dutch historian Rudolf Dekker has had a keen eye for popular culture and eyewitness accounts of history throughout his career. Having published on, among other things, popular risings, cross-dressing, humor, childhood, and education in the early modern period, Dekker now presents us with an introduction to an extraordinary and extensive seventeenth-century diary, written by Constantijn Huygens (1628–1697), secretary to stadholder-king William of Orange, between 1649 and 1696 in Dutch and French (unfortunately an English translation is not available). Even though they did not belong to the nobility, the Huygens family was well known at the time: Constantijn’s father, Constantijn Huygens Sr., was secretary to Frederik Hendrik, prince of Orange, stadholder of the Dutch Republic, as well as serving as a diplomat. A connoisseur of paintings and a great poet, he corresponded with many influential men in Europe and was a friend of Descartes and Spinoza. His brother Christiaan Huygens was a famous scientist, whom Constantijn Jr. assisted with his astronomical research. Christiaan invented a new type of clock that made use of a pendulum to regulate the mechanism and movement of the indicators, instead of the older, inaccurate, system of pulling weights. As a member of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, Christiaan there probably met that other famous seventeenth-century diarist, the Englishman Samuel Pepys.
Keeping a diary, and autobiographical writing in general, has been connected to the rise of the modern, introspective, individual. Dekker as well interprets the diary of Constantijn Huygens Jr. as a modern diary since it reflected a new, modern concept of time: instead of traditional conceptions of time as cyclical, attuned to the four seasons and to the return of day and night, this modern idea regarded time as linear, a constant speed. Writing a diary, in this view, became a means to capture and fix this constantly flowing time. Both Pepys and Huygens kept private diaries that testified to this new awareness of linear time, which was also expressed in Constantijn’s brother Christiaan’s ambition to fix time more precisely with his new clocks. Dekker [End Page 857] argues: “There was no causal relationship between the invention of the pendulum clock and the development of the modern diary, but they sprang from the same source: the wish to know, measure and describe the world” (16). This argument, however, is partly discredited by another book written by Dekker: his 2005 study, cowritten with Arianne Baggerman, of the diary of a late eighteenth-century child, the Dutch boy Otto van Eck (Child of the Enlightenment. Revolutionary Europe Reflected in a Boyhood Diary). In this wonderful and award-winning book, Dekker and Baggerman also interpret this diary as a reflection of a new, modern way of keeping time. However, a similar claim made for Huygens’s diary, dating from a century earlier, does raise the question about the origins of this new view on time. Of course, these diaries may be part of a slow, more structural change, but it still seems a bit too easy to make this major claim for both texts without any critical interrogation.
In another respect, Dekker’s rendering of this seventeenth-century diary has some shortcomings. His book hardly takes account of historiographical developments in regard to (theories of) autobiographical writing. This is strange since Dekker himself has contributed to this field of history. For instance, an often-used concept like Stephen Greenblatt’s “self-fashioning” could have served to illuminate the functions of Huygens’s diary, in particular the ways he presented himself by means of this text. Dekker, however, reflects very little on the position of this diary and its interpretation in relation to recent theories of the genre of autobiographical and diary writing. Neither does it become clear in which ways this particular text changes our view on...