A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Imagine yourself back in 1911. You keep an eye on the goings on of society. And that means that you’ll be transfixed by the tale going around of C.A.E. Moberly and E.F. Jourdain – albeit under the names Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamont – and their trip to Versailles in 1901. Which was also, apparently, a trip to 1792.
I’ve had An Adventure on my shelves for quite a while – I first came across it because Edith Olivier wrote the introduction, and I wrote part of my DPhil on Olivier. I got as far as reading about the book, and reading Olivier’s introduction, and then shelves it for a few years – until recently, I was inspired to see what was in it. How convincing would Moberly and Jourdain be at narrating what they believed to be inadvertent time travel? As the author’s preface starts…
Many years have passed since the incidents occurred which were recorded in An Adventure, but our interest in them has not diminished; on the contrary, it has increased. Our view that we had witnessed something unusual yet in accordance with historical fact, generally unknown and quite unknown to us at the time, has been corroborated by fresh evidence.
So, what happened? The two women were wandering through the Palace of Versailles, in 1901, and got lost – whereupon they saw various figures (a woman leaning out a window; some gardeners; some officials in three-cornered hats, etc.) and various bridges and buildings and whatnot. They felt a bit oppressed and dreary – but didn’t talk about it much with each other until rather later…
Over the ensuing decade, discussing it more between themselves, talking to others, and consulting plans of Versailles at various times (three of which are fold-out maps in my edition), they came to believe that they had witnessed Marie Antoinette in the days before she was killed.
Both Moberly and Jourdain were intelligent, academic women – well-respected and much-liked. They convinced many others, and got noted time-theorist J.W. Dunne to write a note, along with Edith Olivier. And I think they also believed it themselves.
This book is nothing if not earnest. The account of the day is quite short – it is seen from both perspectives, and covers much the same ground. After this, the rest of the book (which is itself pretty short, and bulked out by the notes of others) comprises accounts of their researches afterwards – explaining how certain elements would have dated their visions precisely to 1792; how various explanations that have been proffered – such as it being a film set, or a costume party – can’t be true. It reads rather like a legal case – not dry, but heaping evidence upon evidence, for the anticipated sceptic.
I remain sceptical, I’ll admit, and I can’t imagine this book taking hold of the nation now in the way it did then. But, then again, plenty of people today watch TV shows about hauntings etc., so who knows? What’s more surprising is that a book which makes almost no effort to be entertaining – indeed, has the tone of authors who eschew entertainment in the name of information – became such a talking point. I certainly enjoyed reading it, as a historical curio – but I remain rather at a loss to understand how it became so widely popular. But if you’d like to find, I can recommend the intrigue of visiting a largely-forgotten corner of culture from a century ago. (Or, of course, you can read about it on Wikipedia instead.)