I’m sending you my dirty laundry writes Courbet to his parents in 1839. Courbet is only twenty years old, a student at Besançon, and looks like the self-assured young man in this self-portrait (not the larger-than-life painter who once bragged that he drank two bottles of Burgundy, three bottles of Bordeaux, one bottle of local wine, coffee laced with Cognac, followed by dessert, and then threw it all up Roman-style while staying at a friend’s estate in Saintonge). After giving his parents the heads up about the laundry Courbet says that one, he would like his parents to send him more cotton stockings (he doesn’t wear the woolen ones) and that two, he has blood in his stool, but contrary to the hemorrhoid diagnosis of his doctor, he believes he is simply suffering from a case of échauffement, or constipation. One of the reasons I like to read letters of the famous is for details just like these. Wow. Courbet had trouble pinching off a loaf now and then. Just like me.
It isn’t only to find out that the famous are just like us (US magazine’s attempt to assure us that stars’ lives are not that different from ours) that I read letters. Reading the daily bric-a-brac of people’s lives, where Manet bought his shoes before his duel with Duranty, who met Courbet for dinner at the Café Andler; these small curios of information plunge me into their world in a way that a biography cannot do: I feel as if I know them when I finish reading their letters. When Manet complains in a letter to Zachary Astruc that he hasn’t heard from Baudelaire lately, Baudelaire sounds less like the unattainable poet-god on the pedestal where I keep him and more like a guy I might run into in a diner. (I recently found Charles Baudelaire on Facebook and asked him to be my friend; he hasn’t confirmed yet.) And what about the delicious innocence of Manet’s question to his friend Théodore Duret: “Who is this Monet whose name sounds like mine and who is taking advantage of my notoriety?”
Another reason to read letters? You become your own historian. Letters, along with church records, public records, maps, and treatises (to name just a few) constitute the flotsam of primary sources that historians pick up from puddles, lakes, and oceans of conserved, sometimes intentionally (sometimes not) debris. With them a version of a story is patched together to enlighten (or, when used as propaganda, to persuade) an audience. Delving into letters means that you can create your story.
A good example of the slippery nature of building a story occurred when I recently read Manet’s letters. I’ve read several books about Manet and the one I like for sheer readability is Beth Archer Brombert’s Rebel in a Frock Coat. Brombert constructs a tight, solid narrative of Manet’s life and work: saucy stories of the Belle Epoque, penetrating, but not overly academic, analysis of his paintings, investigative ferreting into Manet’s family life, and, like a good tour leader with a bright orange stick waving in the air, Brombert deftly guides us through the labyrinth of 19th century politics; the Empires, Republics, Monarchies, and insurrections.
According to Brombert, Manet endured a loveless marriage with a Dutch woman named Suzanne Leenhoff. Manet, only twenty, got her pregnant while she was working as his music instructor and later married her out of honor (claiming, to save face, that his illegitimate son Léon was in fact Suzanne’s brother). Suzanne was beneath the Manets socially, rather homely, and fairly simple by all accounts. Berthe Morisot nicknamed her “la grosse Suzanne” – “fat Susan”. Brombert points out that Manet stayed married and led the kind of life the haute bougeoisie demanded of him; in the book there is no reference to love or tenderness between the two.
Enter primary sources! While reading Manet’s letters during the Franco-Prussian war (Manet stayed in the capital as a volunteer and sent his family south for safety) one can’t help but notice that Manet wrote to Suzanne practically everyday and not just to say “Wassup, fat Susan”? Here are a few samples that were delivered by hot air balloons and pigeons from the besieged capital:
October 23, 1870: I spent a long time, my dear Suzanne, looking for your photograph – I eventually found the album in the table in the drawing room, so I can look at your comforting face from time to time. I woke up last night thinking I heard you calling me…
November 23, 1870: Goodbye my dear Suzanne, I embrace you lovingly and would give Alsace and Lorraine to be with you.
December 23, 1870: Goodbye my dear Suzanne, your portraits are hanging in every corner of the bedroom, so I see you first and last thing…
And so on and so on.
Brombert does mention the letters. She says that earlier biographies (citing one from 1947 by Adolphe Tabarant) used the letters to intimate “a vague picture of domestic bliss” and that “no attention has been paid to the probable dissatisfactions of both spouses.” Brombert read all the letters, but combined with other documentation and research, put together a new version of the Manet/Suzanne relationship, one based on her own reading of primary sources (a reading which is in all probability closer to reality than Tabarant’s “vague picture of domestic bliss”).
Reading other people’s letters is not for everyone. I’m still reading Courbet’s (632 pages and causing me a bit of tendonitis in my right arm from holding it upright in bed). My husband winces when he sees me reading them; he is appalled by my lack of discretion. He’s right in a way: pinching a letter from a postman’s cart is a criminal offense and reading someone else’s mail (such as when a friend of mine and I steamed upon an envelope addressed to her mother from her estranged father and then resealed it) is dishonest, disrespectful, and downright wrong. Yet, when someone famous dies letters become a free-for-all: the desk drawers are opened, spilled out, and we get to rummage through.
Luc Sante, writing about the recent publication of Susan Sontag’s journals (Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963) says that “the complicated, somewhat voyeuristic thrill the reader might derive from seemingly prying open the author’s desk drawer is […] to a certain extent, a fiction in which both parties are complicit”. Ah, another post-modern dilemma, and it may be true for modern writers: French philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault famously burned and destroyed every shred of personal writing before he died. Sante’s statement implies that in the end we only read what the foresighted author wanted us to read. Will all published letters begin then to fall into the self-aware, post-modern complicity that Sante writes about?
As for me, give me the age of innocence and the “voyeuristic thrill” I have when I read about bloody stool, passion (or lack of it), and dirty laundry. In a letter dated August 23, 1865, Manet writes to his friend Zacharie Astruc: “I should be going with Champfleury and Stevens, but they keep putting it off. Anyway, they are bloody bores. Excuse the unseeming language, but since my letter is not for publication, I can say what I please.” Touché.
Manet by himself, edited by Juliette Bareau-Wilson
Letters of Gustave Courbet, edited by Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu
The Writing of History, Michel de Certeau : “The discourse designed to make the other speak remains the speaker’s discourse and the mirror of his undertaking.” – “Le discours destiné à dire l’autre reste son discours et le miroir de son opération.”