The Diary of Miss Idilia by ?

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!

35 comments

  1. Sounds intriguing and slightly bizarre – how could I not want to be entered in the draw? Also, as always, anything with a Scottish-connection is interesting to me. Koblenz is also one of my favourite places, so clearly I’ll need to read this eventually.

    1. Yes it is bizarre! I’ve never been to Koblenz but the way it’s described in this diary, whether it’s based on fact or no, makes it sound delightful and I’d love to visit.

  2. I don’t need to be entered for the drawing, but this sounds like a fun read! I have a weakness for Victorian literature that is a bit didactic (like What Katy Did). 😛

  3. I do like the real life story behind the book and it does sound utterly bonkers and highly dramatic so I might like it. It has sensationalist slight tinges and that might be worth a try so I say why not hahaha.

    1. Slight sensationalist tinges indeed! It’s the crumbling tower that captured my imagination, plus the hint of a doomed love affair! Worth checking out one day Simon, though I’m sure you have plenty to read in the meantime!

  4. You are absolutely right about the diary being fictitious. Even if a well-bred Victorian teenage girl did “sleep around,” she certainly wouldn’t commit her activities to a diary–the cost of being discovered would be too great. And what did she do for birth control in those days before the pill, etc.? No matter how fanciful and imaginatively written, I don’t like anachronisms in my historical fiction–so I don’t think this would be my cup of tea at all.

    1. Well exactly – writing down your indiscretions isn’t the best way to keep them a secret! No, usually anachronisms drive me up the wall too, though somehow I was willing to go along with this one more than I would be usually!

  5. When I read the premise in your review I thought it sounded fascinating too! But then I think I would struggle with it not being very believable… what a shame.

    1. Yes it initially seems fascinating but then if you did very much want it to be true you would be disappointed, as I was. I am still a little bit upset that I didn’t get the dramatic true life tale of tragedy I was expecting!

  6. Oh, what an interesting premise! Though I would be with you- it seems an implausible story what with just finding a diary and that diary being, somehow, really fascinating to read. Hmm… I think I’ll skip this one. But a bizarre chain of events!

    1. Exactly – if someone found my diary they’d be in yawn city – my life is so boring! And I’m a modern day liberated woman – imagine the boredom of the life of a housebound Victorian teenager!

  7. What a shame that the story turns out to be a dud after such a promising and suspenseful premise. I’ll have to enter into the draw! I’m still curious.

    1. I know, it is a real shame – perhaps if it wasn’t marketed as a true story it would be more fun and judged on its merits as fiction rather than on its failure as ‘memoir’. I’m sorry you didn’t win the draw!

  8. Yup, I’m with you, I’m not buying it either. My thinking is that if she went missing while exploring in a certain area then surely people would be looking within that perimeter. Relentless screaming from the tower should echo for miles around I would think. And as for using the term ‘loser’…snort!

    As an army brat and having been born in Germany myself, I should probably acquaint myself with some regional folklore. Being a toddler when we returned to Canada, I know next to nothing about the country (I secretly think I was born to English parents and switched at birth). So throw my name in the hat please, Rachel.

    1. Yes there are some dubious aspects – I’m not entirely sure what’s fact or fiction, though from what I gather the castle was in a secluded location which was why she wasn’t found.

      Oh how interesting that you were born in Germany, Darlene! And that you feel such an affinity with England! You are European by birth, which could explain that! I’m sorry you didn’t win the book, but I have a little something I’m sending you anyway that I picked up on my travels!

  9. I read the first paragraph and thought Oh my goodness, how have I never heard about this? (I’m with you on wanting to know how she suffered in her last few days in the tower, too. lol).

    Although, the inconsistencies and modern slang and unbelievableness (is that a word?) of it, it still sounds right up my street. I love victorian and neo-vic fiction and more more dramatic and sensational the better, I say.

    I’d love to be entered into the draw please.

    Great review!

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only person interested in the tragic demise element! If you like all that sort of stuff you will definitely enjoy this – I’m sorry your name didn’t come out of the hat!

    1. I hope you found out some more information! I couldn’t find a huge amount that was in English – it seems to be a very popular story in Germany in particular.

  10. I know you’ve already given your book away, but I still had to leave a comment–what a strange tale, and though it does sound completely far fetched it is still sort of intriguing. Was this meant to be a fictional account? Your first couple of sentences made me think of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I’ve not read but am the tiniest bit familiar with. I’m not sure I will ever go out of my way to look for the book, but your post was certainly interesting!🙂

    1. I’m sorry you weren’t in the draw, Danielle! I’m glad you found the story interesting! It is a genuinely true story and the diary has been around for years in other languages purporting to be fact. The only real details are that Idilia Dubb’s skeleton was found in the tower, but other than that, this diary is the only vehicle through which her ‘story’ has been told. The diary is, as far as I’m concerned, completely fake, and I am disappointed, because I would be very interested now to know what the real Idilia Dubb was like, and how and why she really did go up into the tower, and I can find absolutely no further information. Frustrating!

  11. reading it it struck me as a fraude, that’s why I looked for further information in a.a. this your review.
    Right from the beginning, the author never was an eyewitness in 1851 in Holland: poor clumsy description, all windmills and clogs, some general tourist -info added. Not even an attempt has been made.
    I do not really object invented stories concerning historical events or persons, but I do object sloppiness.
    Also the fake should have been mentioned some way.

  12. I read that book, being 12 years old. I really loved the book then, and I still do. It’s only been almost two years since i read it, though, but i think it’s an amazing story, true or not.

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