October in Paris. It’s damp and unseasonably cold. I’m wandering back toward my hotel from the Bibliothèque Nationale, where I’ve spent the past few hours working in the Rare Books Room. Perhaps I’ll stop at the next brasserie for a glass of Côtes du Rhone. Life could be worse.

I’m here because I’m studying the French essayist Montaigne–especially the ways he was understood by his earliest English readers. Shakespeare was one of those readers; others included Ben Jonson, Elizabeth Cary, and Sir Francis Bacon. But beyond those who were prominent authors, there were hundreds of ordinary men and women who took a distinct interest in Montaigne and who left traces of that interest in diaries, letters, marginalia, and commonplace books. These are the texts I’m investigating. I’ve read them in libraries all over England and Scotland. Now I’m reading them in France. In essence, I’m rummaging through the private words of the dead.

Montaigne Illustration

Staff illustration


For it’s very unlikely that these long-forgotten readers expected anyone to scrutinize their thoughts–anyone, that is, beyond their own immediate audience, which was often an audience of one. Yes, it’s true that the social construction of privacy varies tremendously from one culture to another, and it may be the case that seventeenth-century English readers felt that they were improving Montaigne when they filled his book with questions, clarifications, and anecdotes drawn from their lives. They may have felt that they were perfecting the Essays for future readers–accepting the author’s implicit challenge to move beyond social convention and explore what lies beneath. Perhaps. Or perhaps they were writing exclusively for themselves, never imagining that four centuries later someone might pore over their words, never condoning such a possibility because never dreaming it might happen.

Should the words of the dead be protected? Do we violate a standard of privacy when we read and publish what was unintended for dissemination? I wonder. Nowadays, of course, such writing reverts to the public domain after a certain period of time–fifty years here, a century there. After all, the dead can’t prevent it. The living always prevail. But the mere existence of public-domain legislation doesn’t answer my question. This is a moral issue, and one that probably doesn’t vex scholars as much as it should.

In her suicide note, Virginia Woolf asked her husband to destroy all her papers. He didn’t. Indeed, many of the letters she wrote to Vita Sackville-West, her long-time lover, were subsequently published in a multi-volume edition of her correspondence. Would Woolf have approved? I have no idea. Perhaps, upon reflection, she would have claimed indifference on the grounds that nothing could affect her once she was gone. Yet what we know is this: that she requested, unambiguously if desperately, that her papers be destroyed.

Still, hers is an extreme case. In my own research on Montaigne I’ve come across a few readers’ comments that made me feel uneasy. In one instance, a copy of the Essays displays a conspicuous ownership signature: “Edward Worseley, his booke, 1646.” In itself, this is unremarkable. What perplexes me is that only two passages in the volume have been underlined, and both deal with the death of a brother. The second is particularly poignant. Montaigne, reminiscing about his deceased friend Étienne de la Boétie, quotes a fragment from the Roman poet Catullus:

O brother, reft from miserable me,
Never more shall I heare thee speake, or speak with thee;
Yet shalt thou ever be belov’d of me.

These lines are scored in the margin, and the name “Jane Worseley” has been inscribed in faint brown ink. Was Jane Edward’s sister? I suspect she was. Did she read these pages in her brother’s book and grieve anew for his death? I think she did. Would she have desired that someone in the distant future might discover and recount her sorrow? I doubt it.

In another copy of the Essays, a man has written a note to a friend. The date is Christmas, 1925. “Dear Charles–Ever since you & I attended the Bierstadt Sale years ago & coveted an early Montaigne we were too poor to buy, I have wanted to give you one–and here it is, with my love.–Neil.” The Bierstadt Sale took place in 1897. Thus, for almost thirty years, Neil cherished the memory of his time there with Charles, ultimately giving him the book they couldn’t afford when they were young. His note, of course, is not a reader’s annotation, but it’s no less private for that. The love of Charles and Neil was never my business.

People will object that the two men may not have cared who knew of their love. And maybe this is true. People will say that the vast majority of what humans write is hopelessly banal–that protecting such writing serves no purpose. There’s much sense in this; I’d rather lose a cargo ship full of diaries than a single poem by George Herbert or W. H. Auden. People will argue that Virginia Woolf’s papers were far too valuable to destroy. If Shakespeare, for instance, had kept a private journal, and if this journal had been discovered yesterday, you can be certain that its words would be in print tomorrow–on paper and throughout all cyberspace. The dead can’t enforce wishes they once held, whatever those wishes were.

A more fundamental objection, however, is that we simply can’t say with confidence how privacy was construed by men and women at different earlier times. Montaigne himself was acutely aware of this. He observed that communal living was valued by some cultures, abhorred by others. He noted that marriage was frequently seen as a strictly public affair; deep emotional intimacy was sought outside its boundaries. Occasionally, though, the two were merged. As for verbal privacy, perhaps the ideal outlook would be that which Montaigne described: we’re hypocrites if we’re not willing to write for others what we’re willing to think for ourselves. But I’m not aware of any society that’s prepared for this. And even if such a place existed, few people would have the independence of mind to live there happily.

So: do we violate the privacy of the dead when we read what they wrote for themselves? Maybe it depends on our purposes. Maybe such writing should be fair game for scholars who wish to preserve the voices of the past, but off-limits to those who merely exploit such voices–or who seek the subtle thrill of exposure to long-dormant interiorities. But how will we tell the difference? And do we want to?

Ultimately, I don’t know the answer to my question. I know that I myself have a legal right to study the words of the dead, and I’ve done so for much of my life. In most cases I don’t think the dead would mind. But now and then, when I stumble upon words that are unmistakably private–inchoate, impassioned, thoughts-in-the-making rather than public prose–am I transgressing? I think I am. I think I’m intruding into a realm where I was never invited, never imagined. I’m an interloper. And it’s not because I’m discovering lurid opinions or fiercely-guarded secrets. It’s because individual human intention takes precedence over fluctuating social practice. It’s because someone always understood this particular act of composition as barred from public scrutiny, and therefore inviolable. Forever. It doesn’t matter how we construe death: as the entry to an eternal afterlife, as a transition to radically-altered consciousness, as the onset of oblivion. What matters is solely that a certain person had a certain understanding, and that if we fail to honor that understanding, we fail to respect ourselves and our own forms of inwardness. We diminish the concept of an enduring selfhood–an amalgam of will and spirit that outlives the body’s demise.

It’s impossible, broadly speaking, to retrieve the desires of the dead. But when we contemplate historical writing that entails a verbal resuscitation of t
heir lives, should we err on the side of their privacy? That would seem the most honorable choice. Will we do so? Not a chance. The desires of the living always prevail.


Will Hamlin teaches English at WSU. His work on Montaigne is supported by a research fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.