In publishing the diary of Michel Edmond de Selys Longchamps, Nicole Haesenne-Peremans and Nicole Caulier-Mathy offer historians – but also the curious – an incredible testimony to local life in Liège throughout the nineteenth century. In it one can see unfolding the life of provincial polite society in a Belgium which was at first emerging but then did not cease asserting itself at the expense of principality slanted tropisms.
When the University of Liège came into possession of the works preserved in the Halloy château’s library, close to Ciney, the legacy at first proved disappointing, the finest books having been sold. But the collection also contained many handwritten documents which would rapidly turn out to be of great interest. ‘We discovered documents which resembled parts of a diary,’ remembers Nicole Haesenne-Peremans, co-editor of the Journal (1) with Nicole Caulier-Mathy. ‘We started by gathering together these pages, which were scattered amongst other documents. Very quickly the two historians realized that they had in their hands an exceptional document. ‘It was the diary kept by Michel Edmond de Selys Longchamps,’ makes clear Nicole Caulier-Mathy, ‘a diary which is doubtless without any equivalent because the author began it when he was ten years old, in 1823, and continued with it up to a few days before his death, in 1900, practically without interruption. It is thus a testimony which covers nearly the whole of the nineteenth century! Moreover, it is not a private diary. Edmond de Selys was a scientist, and recounts his life a little as if it was a stranger who was observing him.’
It can easily be imagined: the work which led about to the publication of the Journal was very long – of such proportion that the two historians could only complete it once they had retired! An imposing and meticulous task. It was first of all necessary to decipher the thousands of pages of hand written pages. For the everyday text, that didn’t pose too much of a problem. ‘All the more so,’ adds Nicole Haesenne, ‘in that it becomes clear, in comparing them to the author’s other manuscripts, that Edmond de Selys applied himself, took pains over the calligraphy. Very clearly he wrote with the aim of being read.’ On the other hand, the innumerable proper names, of people and places, and the scientific terms presented more problems. Often, a reading of them could only be established after much thankless research work. As the progression of their reading went along, the two Liègois historians themselves prepared the electronic version of the text. They then set about the task in which the value of their enterprise doubtless lies: establishing the different tables which provide the work with its interest. The onomastic table of course identifies the actors but each one of them, whenever it proved possible, is accompanied by a short biographical note: a single reading of it enables an understanding of the family, political and scientific relationships of a member of the provincial gentry in the 19th century. The table of the names of places restores these networks in their spatial dimension. But it is above all the analytical table which allows the society of the era to be defined. As, in leaving the automatic table exclusively alphabetical, the authors have turned it into a kind of digest of the Journal which allows a rapid reading according to the major themes whose relevance quickly leap to the eye. In this way, the aspects of the scientific and intellectual life of the 19th century are to be read under the rubric of the microcosm of scientific societies; a consultation of the items under the rubric of leisure allow the reader to see how the epoch’s polite society occupied its spare time; the politics category leads the reader along the meanders of local politics at first, regional next, then national, and so on. A genuine goldmine for the historians who would want to make use of this document.
(1) Une vie au fil des jours. Journal d’un notable
naturaliste Michel Edmond de Selys Longchamps (1823-1900),
Commission royale d’Histoire, 2008, 2 vol., LXII-1745 pp.