Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Old Family Letters – Keep, Publish, or Destroy

I don’t often give my opinion about controversial subjects that make the rounds on genealogy blogs or related forums, but I thought I would today.

Every now and then, I think about whether I should publish on my blog the family correspondence that’s come into my possession, like family letters (from Dad to Mom) and correspondence from relatives (from my grandmother’s nieces to her). So far, I haven’t done so, because of the amount of time it takes to read and transcribe the letters and to choose which portions would be interesting for the public.

I’m also mindful of the ethics and etiquette involved in making my decision. Denise Levenick makes good points about this very subject in her article Ethics, Etiquette and Old Family Letters. Her thoughts on the matter reminded me of two famous authors whose letters and written material were edited before they were published: Queen Victoria and Anne Frank.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was a prolific writer. She wrote daily in her private journal, in letters to her far-flung family across Europe, and in messages and communications to her household staff, like her Private Secretary. According to one estimate, Queen Victoria wrote “an average of two and a half thousand words each day of her adult life [… and possibly] written sixty million words in the course of her reign”. [1]

Queen Victoria

With the help of an editor, Victoria published Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands in 1868. These “homely accounts of excursions near home” shared with the public were a rare occurrence. [2] The Queen was determined, however, to ensure that written material that was truly private would remain unseen by others. Accordingly, she instructed her daughter Princess Beatrice, her literary executor, to “destroy anything liable to ‘affect any of the family painfully’”. [3] The monumental task took thirty years, but Beatrice followed her mother’s wishes explicitly: she recopied her mother’s journal (122 volumes), censored and altered passages, and burned the originals. [4]

Anne Frank (1929-1945) kept a diary from June 1942, a few weeks before her family went into hiding, until three days before her and her family and their hiding companions were discovered and arrested in August 1944. Her diary was left behind in the ‘secret annexe’, unnoticed, until one of the family’s helpers discovered it and held on to it for safekeeping. Later, the diary was given to Anne’s father, Otto, who survived the war.

Anne Frank

Anne first wrote in a diary-type book, and later re-wrote her diary on loose paper. [5] She intended for this second version to be the basis for a book about her experiences of the war. [6] After the war, Otto Frank published a transcribed version of his daughter’s diary for a limited group of people, but eventually edited versions appeared for the general public. Those early editions were excerpts, because Otto felt that “Anne's candor about her emerging sexuality might offend certain conservative quarters”. [7]

I recognize that we must all decide how to approach what we do with old family letters and similar correspondence. If I ever publish selections from letters in my possession, I know that I don’t see myself rephrasing or modifying parts of them. Instead, I would just omit those parts. On the other hand, I’m not sure what I would do about passages that illustrates someone’s openness and truthfulness about a sensitive, personal topic. Again, I would probably omit than share.


1. Yvonne M. Ward, Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentleman Edited a Queen and Created an Icon 
(London: Oneworld Publications, 2014), 9.

2. Arthur Helps, editor, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1868), vii.

3. Ward, Censoring Queen Victoria, 10.

4. Ward, Censoring Queen Victoria, 10-11.

5. Wikipedia contributors, "The Diary of a Young Girl", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Diary_of_a_Young_Girl : accessed 22 March 2016).

6. “Anne Frank’s diary is published”, The Diary of Anne Frank (http://www.annefrank.org/en/Anne-Frank/The-diary-of-Anne-Frank/Anne-Franks-diary-is-published/ : accessed 22 March 2016).

7. Wikipedia contributors, "The Diary of a Young Girl", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Diary_of_a_Young_Girl : accessed 22 March 2016). 

Copyright © 2016, Yvonne Demoskoff.

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