I love a good memoir. I find them so much more interesting than biographies, which are often written by an academic in a dry, dusty tone. Biographies are usually more concerned with getting all the details right, whereas memoirs tend to give you insight into what it was like to be a different person. People are notorious for shading their own life story, but memoirs provide fascinating insight into what makes people tick.
An example: I read an old memoir written by Princess Ileana of Romania (pictured at the left). She lived a life of immense privilege during the twilight years of European royalty, but also one of great turmoil. As a young girl she lived through World War I, then as a married woman she endured World War II. Romania had an uneasy alliance with Hitler, a man known to despise royalty, so she was in a precarious position for more than a decade. During the war Princess Ileana turned her castle into a hospital and did her best to treat wounded soldiers, but it was a dangerous time to be a princess. Romania fell to the communists shortly after the war, and although she tried to reach some sort of compromise with the country’s new leaders, she ultimately fled Romania with her children and built a new life for herself in Newton, Massachusetts. Her marriage had been a political alliance and did not survive her emigration. Princess Ileana ultimately decided to take holy vows, and lived the rest of her days as an abbess in a Pennsylvania convent.
Well! Quite the story there! She wrote her memoir, I Live Again, in 1952. Frankly, the princess could have used a good editor. The book is a long-winded slog and almost unreadable by contemporary standards, but the memoir is loaded with fascinating insight about what her life was like. She writes about what it is like to live in a castle (drafty and uncomfortable) how to make friends with communists (watch out for the charming ones) and what to do when your brother is a king but also a national embarrassment (help his son stage a takeover.)
Naturally, Ileana lead an immensely controversial life. Literary critics would classify her as an “unreliable narrator.” Her husband flew for the Luftwaffe and she spent a number of years trying to forge shifting alliances with both the Nazis and the Communists. She paints herself in a highly sympathetic light, and from this side of the Atlantic it is almost impossible to peer through past the walls of her castle to know what was really going on all those years.
So why am I rambling on and on about a memoir? As a writer, it is through devouring memoirs that I glean insight into what it is like to be somebody else. Perhaps because I write about the late 19th century, I prefer memoirs written during that era. I also enjoy contemporary memoirs, but they tend to dwell on psychological issues more than those of earlier days. Here are a few other juicy old memoirs I have recently enjoyed:
My Four Years in Germany, by James Gerard (the U.S. ambassador to Germany during WWI)
Memoirs of a Publisher, by George Putnam (a real gadfly who knew absolutely everyone in the literary world of the late 19th century)
Why not Try God, by Mary Pickford (you know who she is!)