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Monday, February 29, 2016

What a Difference a Date Makes

And here's the rest of the story:

Shortly after posting my evaluations of the last two diary sources, I made a small, but amazingly significant, discovery. I was leafing through the handwritten copy of Laura Towne’s diary, looking for a particular comment, when a date discrepancy caught my eye. One entry was dated “July 19th 1862.” The next one was “July 20th 1901” Then came “July 21st 1901” and then “July 22d 1862”.
I recognize an obvious explanation here. The person making the copy simply wrote down the current year instead of 1862. I’ve made the same mistake myself. When you are writing dates, it is all too easy to write down the current year instead of the appropriate one. History students do it on exams all the time, and their professors get a chuckle out of reading that Attila the Hun died in 1998. We’ve all misdated checks, particularly at the beginning of a new year. I’ve seen a Jeopardy contestant or two make the same mistake—one that cost them hundreds of dollars.
Now a history student may simply not know the right answer. And a Jeopardy contestant may be guessing. But this is not the same sort of wrong answer. When the wrong date slips out for something you know well, it almost always is a date that has some other significance. In this case, I think it is pretty conclusive evidence that the diary was being copied in 1901. That makes this version the earliest copy of the four, the only one of the four known to the two people who were most involved with it—Laura and Ellen.
But 1901! That’s the year that Laura died—on February 20th, if I remember correctly. And that makes it even more important. Here’s what I think happened. When the twentieth century dawned, Laura Towne was 75 years old. She was undoubtedly already ill, and, because of her extensive medical training, I am equally sure that she knew she was suffering from a potentially fatal illness. She would have begun putting her affairs in order, and one of the things she wanted to do was make a copy of the diary for her dear friend, Ellen Murray, to keep.
She shortened some of the entries and omitted others. She corrected her intemperate judgments as she went along. She was, in fact, composing her own obituary—writing out the story of her life as she wanted it to be known. And she may not have been able to finish the task. The handwritten copy ends on May 28, 1864. The original diary could have continued much longer.
Does this simple mistaken date prove that Laura herself wrote the copy? No, probably not. Ellen could have done it in the months after Laura died. But it increases the probability that the handwriting is, indeed, Laura’s. Once again, I am brought back to Paul Hyams’ bit of advice: “Saying ‘There is no evidence’ is a historian’s excuse, not a defense for a novelist. A novelist must bring imagination to the mix, hoping to come up with the hidden solution.”
A good friend suggested to me that this whole problem might make a good presentation at a history conference. It would not. Historians do not accept what they cannot prove. But a novelist? A novelist must listen to all those little voices that suggest “what might have been.” To my own surprise, I was now hearing the voice of Laura Towne in a way I had not heard her in all the months I had been reading about her. This handwritten copy of her diary now sits on my desk as a personal message, and her words guide and color the story I am trying to tell.


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