The Diary as Teaching Resource
The Madeleine Blaess diary is used as a teaching resource on a number of courses in the French Department at the University of Sheffield. The diary is a fantastic historical resource. To the best of my knowledge this is the only diary in existence written by a British non-combatant at liberty in occupied France. The writer’s status is not the only reason why it is unique. Madeleine begins the diary as a letter to her parents in October 1940 because she intends, in the beginning at least, to use it to replace the letters she is now unable to send to them. The epistolary style of the diary is particularly pronounced in the first months of writing and whilst it adopts a more personal private tone over the next four years it never entirely departs from that. Madeleine wrote letters home during the Phoney War (Nov 1939 – June 1940) and the diary adopts the same meticulous attention to everyday detail as the letters which with Madeleine intended to give her parents as fuller picture as possible of what her day-to-day life consisted of in Paris. The more detail Madeleine included in her letters the greater the likelihood of her maintaining the strong affective bond with her mother who was still able to engage intimately with Madeleine through the sharing of a ‘conversation’ in which she could perform a maternal role advising and supporting. The consequence of this is that we have a diary which is primarily focussed not on abstract ruminations of the writer which might tell us little about the time but, rather, on what is happening in her life and in the lives of her entourage accompanied by a meticulous log of everyday detail like what she eats, the weather, how she gets from A to B. At the time, friends who read sections of the diary mocked her for its preoccupation with what they termed ‘domestic trivia’. It was more usual for the educated classes to use diaries as a place for intellectual reflection. However, Madeleine’s determination to describe what she terms ‘the exterior’ has left us with at the time but which to us as 21st century historians represents an unprecedented and unique record of the Nazi Occupation of France.
The diary also has fantastic possibilities for the teaching of the French language. Until recently the diary only existed in the form of a PDF scan of the original diary manuscript which is written in very small longhand and peppered with Madeleine’s bespoke abbreviations and truncations is practically impenetrable to the untrained eye. It is fair to say that students struggled to decipher it and language work proved too much of a time-consuming challenge. Now, however, the translation of the diary from French to English is nearly complete and an annotated, translated edition of the diary will shortly be published. The availability of a French transcription and English translation mean that we can use the diary in language exercises. Of course, given that this is a richly detailed text which stands as a contemporaneous account of a (albeit protracted) historical event, any successful translation would, in my view, aim to reproduce the phraseology and tone particular to the epoch together with accurate historical and cultural annotation where required.