What Do a Napoleonic Diary and its Cover Reveal about the Author?

Portrait of Larrey by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trison, 1804 (Musée du Louvre)

You may not be able to judge a published book by its cover, but can you judge a diarist by his notebook? Sandrine Lacorie looks at the journal of battlefield physician Dominique Jean Larrey (1766–1842)

Tennessee Williams confided his torments to a “little blue book” with a cover of white polka dots on a blue background, and the appearance of today’s blogs can be customized to suit the taste of the blogger. So what can the casing (or physical container) of a diary reveal about its owner beyond the experiences related in the text of the diary itself? A look at the diary of Dominique Jean Larrey, celebrated surgeon of the nineteenth century, may give us a clue.

As Larrey made his first journal entry on March 17, 1812, he had just been ordered to join Napoleon’s Grand Army as Surgeon-in-Chief on an out-and-return journey from Paris to Moscow. In a small, green paper notebook kept preciously wrapped in a majestic red leather portfolio, he recorded his experience in one of the greatest military disasters in history—the Russian campaign of 1812–13, which would trigger Napoleon’s downfall.

Journal of Larrey

Larrey’s original manuscript diary reveals him to be a strong, sensible, and impartial man. His crimson leather portfolio (shown at right) was common at the beginning of the nineteenth century—one can see a similar covering for German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s diary (below left) in the Morgan’s exhibition The Diary —but Larrey’s case is unique. Worn and beaten, its leather skin is heavily wrinkled, and its flap is damaged, symbolic of the events its content describes. Larrey repaired the broken thong used to hold the flap at least once by sewing a beige doeskin strap to ensure that the diary would remain safely wrapped inside the portfolio. This testifies to the tremendous importance Larrey placed on his diary and on the preservation of his experience, despite his modest means.

Journal of Schopenhauer

Journal of Schopenhauer (The Morgan Library & Museum)

“Surgeon-in-Chief of the Grand Army” may sound like a glorious title to us today, but it was not necessarily an enviable position at the time, especially financially. In fact, the Russian campaign, as Larrey knew, would likely leave him in debt. So even though he had a prominent position, he did not necessarily have the money to buy a new casing or repair it with luxury materials. Despite the financial burden he endured, Larrey filled his diary with testimonials to his men and accounts of his experiences. His only resentment was reserved for the generals and administrators in Napoleon’s army who made themselves rich at the expense of their comrades-in-arms. These passages would later be cautiously removed from Larrey’s published memoir. This original manuscript copy of his diary never alludes to his reluctant presence in the army; nor does he express any grievance about his commission—but his 1817 published memoir discloses that his “fear that a far-off land expedition was in the works” had been realized.

Like the fragility and sturdiness of his little green notebook and its red portfolio, Larrey’s narration of the events, places, battles, and medical procedures is sensitive and sensible. Grave and gruesome at times, his diary is always gripping but never depressing. His pages are filled with realistic and compassionate accounts of people he encounters: civilians, colleagues, or wounded soldiers from both sides of the battlefield. In fact, he earned a reputation for his selflessness and solidarity, operating on anyone, anywhere, and under any circumstances.

There are many examples of his consistent respect and empathy for the extraordinary circumstances his fellow men were faced with. On the retreat from Moscow (out of 600,000, fewer than 40,000 returned), he writes: “A greater disaster than this has never been seen. . . . Cold and hunger were the leading cause of death. . . . Hunger did not know its brother . . . nature no longer knew its rights.”

Like his modest notebook, Larrey also reveals humility and vulnerability, conceding graciously that he owes his life to the men of the Grand Army, especially during his crossing of the Berezina: “I had twice re-crossed these ill-fated bridges to save part of my equipment, which I had been vainly searching for, and to send across some cases of surgical instruments of which we had the greatest need. These journeys nearly cost me my life. If my name and person had not been known in the army, I should never have cleared these obstacles, but I was passed from soldier to soldier and successively I rejoined the headquarters.”

Reading page after page, we develop a deep kinship for Dominique Jean Larrey, who emerges as an honest and endearing man, a romantic hero like those of the nineteenth century. Reading Larrey’s diary, it is easy to see why even Napoleon would, in his will, call him “the finest man I’ve known.”

Like his diary and its casing, Larrey is at times sensitive and physically fragile, but never psychologically weak. Published book designs often sacrifice the integrity of the authors’ creation to appeal to modern sensibilities of readers and buyers, but diarists are free to choose the protective casings for their precious memories. Larrey’s journal exterior is not merely an illustration of his inmost sensibilities—it provides an insight into his character and circumstance at the moment of creation, and a visual and palpable clue of particular moments of this great man’s journey through life.

Sandrine Lacorie is an art historian and research assistant for the Morgan’s Literary and Historical Manuscripts department.

Images: portrait of Larrey by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trison, 1804 (Musée du Louvre); journals of Larrey and Schopenhauer (The Morgan Library & Museum)

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