This is a book I requested a review copy of, as I was so intrigued by its premise. (Review copies don’t count in the not buying books thing, by the way). It purports to be the true diary of Idilia Dubb, a 17 year old Scottish girl who went missing whilst on holiday in the Rhineland in the 1850s. Despite an extensive search, no trace of the girl was ever found, and her heartbroken family returned to Scotland without her. A few years later, a half ruined castle near where the Dubbs had been staying was in the process of being restored, when, to the shock of the men working on it, they found a recent skeleton, with clothes, jewellery, etc, near it, at the top of one of the turrets. A doctor examined the bones and said they were of a 17 year old girl, there or thereabouts, and Idilia’s mother and brother travelled to Germany to identify the belongings. They confirmed that the effects found with the skeleton had indeed belonged to Idilia, but the mystery had only deepened; how had Idilia got up to the top of the tower, and why had she gone there in the first place? Then, during the restoration of the castle, an intact diary was found, tucked into the stonework in the tower, detailing Idilia’s last days, as well as her family’s trip to the Rhineland. The diary was given to Idilia’s best childhood friend, Genevieve Hill, to decipher and edit, and this edited work is what this book claims to be, published in full and in English for the very first time last month by Short Books.
Well, after reading this, I have to say that I don’t believe a word of it. Idilia Dubb’s disappearance and discovery is a true story; she definitely existed and she did die at the top of Lahneck Castle (pictured), near Koblenz, in Germany, when the ladder she used to climb the tower collapsed after she reached the top, leaving her with no way down. Whether her diary was really found or not, I don’t know, but this book certainly isn’t it if it did exist. While I was reading it, I did initially think that Idilia Dubb might have had a fanciful imagination, and as the diary was written to be sent to her friend Genevieve, as was apparently the girls’ practice (they sent each other their diaries in lieu of letters), I assumed much of the stories told in it were an elaborate attempt to incite envy and admiration. Every man she comes across falls in love with her and is willing to fight duels for her hand; she is the most beautiful woman everyone has ever seen; she sleeps around; she gets separated from her family when their ship leaves port without her, and she then has a series of adventures and near misses with her new love, whom she met aboard the said ship and who is also stuck behind with her – they are mistaken for thieving gypsies and hauled into jail, they stay in fancy hotels and run away without paying, they pay a ship’s captain to race alongside their boat so they can jump onto it across the water, and so on and so forth. None of these things are activities a well bred middle class Victorian teenager would ever do. Idilia is also incredibly sexually aware for someone who would never have been in a position to learn about or experience such things, and the portrayal of her parents is very negative, with her mother having an affair with a bearded wine salesman in front of an entire boat load of people and her own family. Not convincing at all, considering the social standing of the family and the period this is set in. Also, the amount of Ominous Signs that Something Bad was going to happen was laughable! Idilia got her palm read and the woman reading it recoiled in terror, Idilia read and saw and dreamt lots of things about people having early and tragic deaths; if this was real, poor Idilia would have been a quivering wreck by the time she’d got to the tower, and I should think she would have avoided doing anything so dangerous with such a black mark over her head! So, by about half way through, I’d come to the conclusion that Genevieve Hill, a failed authoress, must have created the whole diary herself and pretended it was Idilia’s true words. I also suspect it has been more recently embellished, as some phrases definitely do not sound Victorian – I picked up at least one reference to someone being a ‘loser’, which I doubt was in popular use in the 19th century!
Whoever did write it, whether it was Genevieve or not, didn’t even try that hard to make it tragic; I was expecting a harrowing last few pages depicting Idilia’s entrapment at the top of the tower, which is mainly why I wanted to read this book (yes, yes, I’m an awful person). However, her last days seem an afterthought to the main body of the ‘diary’, with a bit of overblown lamentation about her heartbroken family who she never seemed to care for that much anyway tacked on, and then ending in a few trite phrases about God having mercy. No real anguish, no real terror. What a wasted opportunity! If you’re going to make up a diary about such an experience, you’d give the majority of your attention to the most dramatic part, surely?!
I presume the writer wanted to dwell on Idilia’s adventures before she climbed the tower, and depict her as a high spirited, lively, beautiful and adventurous young girl whose life was unfairly cut short, making her memorable and so ensuring the survival of her tragic story. After all, if Idilia’s real diary, if it ever existed, was just the chronicle of an average seventeen year old girl’s life, it would have most likely been rather pedestrian and largely forgettable. However, in refashioning Idilia Dubb’s life into something from a Girl’s Own adventure story, and making her into somebody she never was, the writer of her ‘diary’ has done Idilia no favours, for what is the point in being remembered, if who you’re remembered as being is a lie?
I thought this ‘diary’ was very interesting, despite it being false. It was fascinating to consider what the writer thought the readers of this would want Idilia to be like; what he or she clearly thought would make the reader find her memorable, sympathetic, admirable, and so on. I was surprised to find out that this ‘diary’ has been considered watertight for over one hundred years; it has been available for a good while in other European languages and has, from what I can find out, been largely accepted as fact. I love how myths and legends can so easily be created from a grain of truth and a lot of waffle, and this is clearly what has happened here. Even so, it was still a very enjoyable read; it is mostly written in the vocabulary of a Victorian adolescent, with the odd modern lapse, which gives it a fun, What Katy Did sort of feel, and there are also plenty of ripping adventures and enough action to keep the pages turning at speed. It might not be what it says on the tin, but it’s still worth a read to discover why the story of Idilia Dubb has captured the imaginations of many for a century.
As I’m not planning on reading it again, I’m happy to pass this on to someone else. If you’d like it, say so in the comments and I’ll do a draw in a few days if there’s more than one person who fancies giving it a go. I’m happy to post anywhere, so don’t worry if you’re not in the UK, you’re still welcome to ask for it!