Thursday, August 14, 2008

Volatile history

I have just finished reading Amanda Foreman's Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, a well-researched biography of one of England's most vibrant late-18th-century personalities, a beautiful and vivacious celebrity who was vigorously active in Whig politics at a time when government was assumed to be an exclusively male domain. I gained a new perspective on why the American colonies won their War of Independence: The British ruling class was so busy shagging and gambling that no one was paying attention.

Georgiana lived at a time when upper-class people were generally prolific letter-writers and diarists. It seems she was scribbling pretty much constantly. She was also very much in the public eye, with the newspapers of the day following her every move. Her many famous friends noted her comings and goings in their own letters and diaries. Foreman had a wealth of archival material to draw upon in reconstructing Georgiana's life.

Will future historians have the same access to the intimate lives of today's movers and shakers? So much of our correspondence -- public and private -- is electronic, and diaries and journals have been replaced by blogs. Will all of that information be archived in a readable format 200 years from now? Or will it evaporate into a meaningless gas of ones and zeroes?

And what, pray, of the ink blots, tear drops, and coffee stains that make history come alive?