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  • Aux Origines du journal personnel: France, 1750–1815 by Philippe Lejeune
  • Sam Ferguson (bio)
Philippe Lejeune. Aux Origines du journal personnel: France, 1750–1815. Honoré Champion, 2016. 648 pp. ISBN 978-2745330376; 99,00€.

In France, private practices of diary-writing (the journal personnel or journal intime) emerged at some point toward the end of the eighteenth century, despite the fact that similar practices had existed much earlier in neighboring Britain and Germany. On this point scholars are largely in agreement, but still very little else is yet known about the reasons for this emergence, or the ways in which these writing practices developed from more public modes of writing such as the chronicle or the travel account. One reason for our relative ignorance is the paucity of primary texts available, since we can assume that many of the earliest journaux intimes were lost or destroyed, and those that were kept have generally sat neglected in archives. The previous major studies of the history of the journal intime, Alain Girard’s Le Journal intime (1963) and Pierre Pachet’s Les Baromètres de l’ âme (1990), were both content to trace this history from the point of the first published examples from known writers, notably Benjamin Constant (writing diaries from 1804 onwards) and Maine de Biran (writing from 1814). This lacuna in the early history of the journal intime has now been addressed in a far-reaching study by Philippe Lejeune, whose long career devoted almost exclusively to life writing has seen his interests turn from autobiography to diary-writing.

Aux Origines du journal personnel is conceived as a work of archaeology, in which each chapter is an excavation of new material from the largely unknown strata of the archives, and where at any moment a new discovery might overturn what we thought we knew. In practice, most of the chapters offer a thorough presentation of the social, intellectual, and material circumstances of an unknown or little-known diarist, an overview of their writing practices, and an indication of how these texts contribute to our historical understanding. This content is always accompanied by extensive citations, and occasionally an image from the manuscript itself. A smaller number of chapters are devoted to more specific questions, such as diarists’ use of secret codes. [End Page 825]

Several of these studies have already been published separately, and some are included in English translation in the collection On Diary (2009), but even this material takes on a new significance in the present volume. The chapters are now organized, not in the chronological order of the texts involved, but grouped instead into a number of sections with either a broadly formal focus (“le destinataire,” “le temps,” “l’écriture”) or a more thematic one (“l’éducation,” “la santé,” “l’amour”). These categories inevitably lead to some repetition of material, and it can be difficult to keep track of any chronological reference points, but this structure does serve to convey the particularly complex texture of the historical phenomena at hand, which consists of “des transitions, des mélanges, des discordances entre des pratiques contemporaines, des retards, des innovations” (198).

The book’s opening section offers two distinct lines of attack on the historical problem. First, Lejeune examines a well-established, almost mythological story of the diary’s history, which seems to grant the journal intime its “lettres de noblesse” as a genre by tracing its lineage back to certain comments by Rousseau (who did not in fact write anything resembling a journal intime). Secondly, he offers a rapid survey of the diverse forms of diary-writing that were being practiced at the precise reference point of 14 July 1789 (including that of Louis XVI, who notoriously summarized the events of this momentous day as “rien”).

The section on “le destinataire” explores the crucial issue of the circulation or privacy of diary texts, and the many different permutations of addressees that are to be found within them (such as a spouse or children, posterity, God, one’s notebook, or oneself). The chapters in this section also offer a series of historical reference points in the development of daily writing practices from the public, objective records of...


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