How one historian’s research has brought a 16-year-old girl’s diary of Belle Epoque Paris back to life, exactly one hundred years to the day since it was first written
This article first appeared here on the historical website Historical Honey. Thanks to the lovely people at HH for publishing it and creating these brilliant images to go with it.
Twitter might fulfil many functions, but bringing people back to life isn’t usually one of them. And yet, in the case of Olive Higgins, a 16-year-old girl from Margate, Kent, that’s exactly what’s happened.
Every day since 1 January 2014, excerpts from her diary have been tweeted, with links to the full version on a blog. The diary talks about Paris, the city to which Olive has recently moved, to attend school and learn French. She talks about the food, the language, shopping, the people, and how she’s feeling. So far, so normal.
Except Olive died in 1914, from a sudden illness, just eight weeks after beginning her diary.
Her Twitter account comes not from her iPhone or laptop, but from a London-based journalist-turned-historian, Rob McGibbon, whose research on Olive’s 1914 diary has led him to “bring her back to life”, exactly 100 years after she started writing.
“Diaries are utterly unique in terms of publishing,” he tells me. “They remain frozen in time. You can read the most beautifully-written, historically-researched biography or novel, but it will never ever have that authenticity of a diary. It has a truth. You’re not hiding anything from anyone.”
Belle Epoque Paris, 100 years later
A bright young girl from a well-off family, Olive had moved to Paris in the new year of 1914 to attend school, a result of her father’s forward-thinking attitude to educating his children.
Every day, she wrote about her experiences, in an endearingly-honest and humorous way. The resulting diary is an eight-week snapshot into the bright lights of the French capital, as it teetered between the glorious days of the Belle Epoque and the threat of war.
After over five years of research, including two three-month stints in Paris, McGibbon found himself unable to get a book deal publishing his work, and realised, late in 2013, that it was now or never.
“I’d spent so many years trying to get a publishing deal and nothing came to fruition,” he says. “Suddenly, it dawned on me that [this year] would be the 100th anniversary. And I just thought, I’ve got to do something now. So I thought I’ll use Twitter and the blog, and I’ll let the diary speak for itself.”
Olive lives again
He adds: “It feels very fitting, that after all that time and all that research, it comes back to Olive’s words. There’s a sort of purity to them. I’m letting Olive speak for herself.”
Every day, a new entry appears on the @OlivesDiary1914 Twitter account and the accompanying blog, bringing the young girl’s words back to life exactly a century on from when they were first set down on the page.
“At the moment, she’s living again,” McGibbon tells me, declining even to tell me how or why she died. “I won’t go into the specifics of how she died because that’s coming up in the diary! What I can tell you,” he says, “Is that she became gravely ill, and there was quite a lot of drama trying to save her.”
As someone interested in history, and having moved to France myself as a teenager (where I would stay for nearly ten years), and as a journalist whose day job involves writing about hotels – Olive’s dad was famous hotelier Thomas Higgins, of the then-pioneering “Hydro” spa hotel in Margate – I found myself incredibly drawn to Olive’s story, and McGibbon’s journey to find her.
But what makes an established and successful celebrity journalist like McGibbon drop everything to follow the words of a long-dead young student?
It’s not as random as it may seem. Having first received the diary as a gift from an acquaintance in 2001, McGibbon discovered a newspaper clipping that showed Olive had been buried in a churchyard on the same road as his own childhood home.
It was an incredible coincidence that left McGibbon certain he needed to find out more. What started as a passing interest became a kind of historical obsession, and the successful freelance journalist even gave up his “day” job for five years to dedicate more time to the project.
“This is a story that came to me at the right time of my life,” he says. “It totally inspired me. It’s just lovely that her voice is finally being read.”
After years of research, dead ends and challenging hours deciphering newspaper records with only O-level French as his guide, McGibbon is armed with more facts and records and knowledge on Paris and Olive than he ever imagined.
And yet, for now, he has chosen to let Olive’s words speak for themselves. He’s taken her tragic, poignant but ultimately youthful story, and updated it for the blog-friendly, Twitter-happy age.
Like any young 16-year-old, Olive is now online, the mistress of her own words, letting us into her world and that of early 20th-century Paris.
Like many a teenager, she is candid, and forthright: upon seeing the Mona Lisa, McGibbon tells me, she basically wrote:
““That old thing with the eternal smile…I saw nothing much in her!”
He laughs: “An art expert could write 1500 words and not come up with anything more poignant than that!” Sadly, “poignant” is right ‒ we in the 21st century know that these were, ultimately, among some of Olive’s final ever words.
Most important, though, is that McGibbon’s work has made Olive’s experiences accessible to hundreds who otherwise wouldn’t have ever seen it (her Twitter account has, at the time of writing, 1,448 followers, and growing). He has also written about the project for that most modern of titles, the Huffington Post, as well as having been interviewed on the BBC about it. As is so common in the online age, Olive’s words are spreading.
The short, pithy entries look startling similar to the 140-character missives so many of us are used to sending without a thought, and the regularly-updated blog, with a new post published each and every day, is something to which many of us online-addicted writers aspire (alas, so often in vain!).
It’s through this that Olive’s story and McGibbon’s research triumphs.
If Olive were alive today, I like to imagine that she’d have replaced her pen with a smartphone, a diary with a laptop, and sat, huddled in her Parisian bedroom, as straightforward, candid and articulate now as she was then.
Like all the best history projects, McGibbon has taken something old, foreign, and otherwise forgotten, and shown us its relevance, beauty and candour.
France may be another country, but thanks to McGibbon, Olive’s past most definitely is not.
All images courtesy of Rob McGibbon’s own research or HistoricalHoney.com.