After a full academic year working at the Special Collections Research Center, I came to reflect on why my experience as an Archives and Manuscript Collections apprentice has meant so much to me. It may sound trite but this assistantship has not only stimulated my professional interest in archives management, it also gave me the opportunity to learn so much about a variety of peoples and topics through the collections I processed. Indeed, the diversity of projects and materials is among my favorite aspects of the job. For instance, after organizing the papers of individuals ranging from a Virginia anti-suffragette to a 20th century potter, I was assigned a singular task: describing the fascinating and quite surprising travel diary of a fourteen year-old American girl who visited fascist Italy in 1935.
Travel diaries represent one of the William & Mary Special Collections’ many areas of strength. The recently-acquired handwritten diary kept by Victoria Brown (1921-2005), daughter of famous architect Arthur Brown Jr., while the family travelling in Europe at a time of great upheaval, constitutes an important document in the history of youth travel literature, tourism in France and Italy, as well as the political events unfolding in the decade before World War II.
Spanning 429 pages, Victoria’s vivacious entries, punctuated by sketches and hand-drawn maps, narrate her journey from her home in California to New York City, the sea journey to Paris on the S.S. Champlain, and her travels in Italy. Victoria detailed her visits to museums and historic sites in France and Italy, occasionally even drawing maps of the neighborhoods she toured. A methodical writer, she divided her diary into three parts, numbered the pages, and added an index of places. Daughter of a renowned architect, Victoria confidently voiced her interest in, and opinions about, art and architecture. “Modernistic” buildings appear to have been her pet peeve. Her reaction to the new university city commanded by Mussolini in Rome, “all modernistic stuff, terrible,” echoes her criticism of New York’s Rockefeller Center as “all modernistic stuff, most of it horrible”!
What first caught my attention when browsing the diary were a few statements like “Viva Il Duce!!” and “Viva Il Fascisimo” written in color above the main text. What she experienced in Italy seems to have made quite an impression on young Victoria. She transcribed and drew things she heard and saw around her, like soldiers’ uniforms and flags. In one of her entries preceding the outbreak of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War by just a few days, she wrote of seeing “a regiment of bersaglieri running over a hill carrying their guns.” “We wondered if they were getting ready for Abyssinia. The people don’t seem to be worrying about war though. We find it very thrilling to be here at such an exciting period.” (part II, page 8) A few days later, Victoria recounted attending a major fascist gathering in Piazza Venezia during which Mussolini gave a speech: “I could hardly see him because they don’t dare put a spot-light on him for fear someone will take a shot at him.” (part II, page 57) A unique document, Victoria’s diary combines cheerful retellings of her touristic visits to recognizable landmarks, with reports of unforgettable events she witnessed during a troubling period of modern history.
Eve Bourbeau-Allard is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2014-2015 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.