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Meditatio 5: To All the Old Souls

Published on 26/06/2021
26/06/2021

The other day I received a book in the mail from my mother. The title: An Adventure. My first impression was that the subtitle, A True Story of Time Travel, seemed rather dubious. Nevertheless, I devoured the volume in one sitting. An Adventure recounts a famous 1901 incident involving two female scholars from Oxford. The women, Eleanor Jourdain and Charlotte Anne Moberly, were visiting the grounds of the Petit Trianon near the palace of Versailles on a hot August day when they began feeling oddly oppressed. Moments later, they experienced what the book’s editor calls a “time slip” [1] during which they supposedly “slipped” into Queen Marie-Antoinette’s memory of the afternoon of August 10, 1792. This is the day the monarchy fell and also the last day the queen would have visited her beloved Petit Trianon.

“It has taken us nine years to work out all the details which bear witness to the strangeness of what we saw and did”[2] at Versailles in August 1901, the two women wrote. My mother also sent me a link to a doctoral thesis with a chapter examining Jourdain and Moberly’s story. It is titled Phenomenal Bodies and Temporality in the Fin de Siècle, and I smile as I think of the curiosity that has been her saving grace. It occurs to me that, doubtful as the time travel “adventure” of these two women surely is, my mother’s and my fascination with this tale and, in fact, with anything to do with France is evidence of a preoccupation with details that bear witness to our own haunted family history. Like Jourdain and Moberly, we needed many years to come to terms with the strangeness of a present haunted by people long gone, by things and events which are no more. But what is the link to Versailles? Why the particular fascination with this place?

 As a young girl growing up in a fractious household in working-class Brooklyn, my mother dreamt of learning French, of living in France, of experiencing “civilization.” My own childhood, relatively quiet, was shaped by the gloomy obsessions of the adults around me, and I sought escape and refuge in a Japanese anime[3] and its story of a woman forced into the role of military officer for the royal guard at Versailles. Years later, I would seek to examine my childhood interest in Lady Oscar and the context that nurtured it.

In doing so, I’ve come to see the parallels between Jourdain and Moberly’s account of their visit with the “ghosts of the Trianon” and our own “adventure.” In the glittering past and terrifying fate of the inhabitants of Versailles, we hear, writ small, echoes of the rise and disintegration of a family. And perhaps of a country as well. My essay A Bloody Song is a first attempt to examine the enduring mystery of “time travel”, in this case, an adult’s voyage to the enchanted world of childhood and back again. The aim is to uncover the adult narrative within the Lady Oscar storyline. I realize that one of my reasons for revisiting the series’ dark fairy tale realm is to save a beloved animated character from feeling abandoned. As I once did. And as we all sometimes do. 

... To hear the rest of this article, please tune in to episode 1 of my podcast.