The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764 – 1765 by Cleone Knox (Magdalen King-Hall)

Remember that really cheesy bookstore at the North Bend outlet mall? Well, maybe not. I was about twelve when I came across this book in the young adult section of that cheap bookstore. Turns out, it has a really interesting history.

It was published in London in the year 1925. The book was thought to be a recent discovery by a man who claimed to be Cleone Knox’s descendant. It was great success in England and the US, becoming a bestseller, and everyone was intrigued with the eighteenth century girl’s private diary and her detailed descriptions of famous places and people and events. Alexander Blacker Kerr was the editor and self-proclaimed descendant. He makes a lot of interesting footnotes to the diary and even writes a forward where he details the history of the family and his discovery of the diary.

One year later, the truth came out. The book was a hoax, written by a nineteen year old girl named Magdalen King-Hall. Both Alexander Blacker Kerr and Cleone Knox were pure invention. The public was outraged and the secret made headlines.

King-Hall writes a new Author’s Forward in 1966 and comments that “what halcyon days the Roaring Twenties must have been, one feels, seeing it all now as though through the wrong end of a telescope, when such a small mystery could make headlines!”

Outraged they might have been, but eighty years later, I am impressed with King-Hall’s careful research of the 1700’s, the language and the liveliness of her main character, who you instantly like because of her smarts, her spunk, and her determination to be happy and have a good time despite her domineering father, her self-absorbed brother and the frustration of not being able to marry who she wants – for a little while anyway.

The book covers the Grand Tour of a genteel Irish lady, Cleone, her father and her brother. From Ireland to England to France and then on to Switzerland and Italy; a Grand Tour was considered a necessity for the young and the wealthy. In this case, the father takes his children on a long trip around Europe, hoping that his spirited daughter will forget her attachment to the charming and roguish Mr. Ancaster. Of course, she doesn’t. But her wonderful descriptions of her travels help make life without ‘Mr. A’ (as she calls him) tolerable and diverting.

King-Hall’s fantastic sense of history is my favorite thing about this book. I don’t know if anyone reading this is a history buff, but I am. Although I know the diary is all made up, it is a historically accurate piece of work. The description of clothes (and Cleone is a teenage girl so there’s a lot about new bonnets and dresses and jewels and things) the witty language, the little things (like having her hair washed and done only once a week (yuck) and bathing and diet, staying in inns that were dirty and the difficulties of traveling by coach, and shopping) the famous people and well-known royalty referred to, the politics of each country and cultural differences – just everything.

Imagine being in London and meeting the famous painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Imagine your father discussing him doing a painting of you. Think of being in Paris in 1764. The city is on fire with talk of new ideas and revolution. Nothing has happened yet, but the energy is there. Cleone writes of Venice, which was one of the most lively and scandalous cities in Europe at the time: “I heard things I could scarcely write down. This is indeed a gallant and loose city.”

It’s an interesting little book, and I have read it many times. Cleone goes from one adventure and/or mishap to the next and writes of it with great humor and fun. In the end she elopes with the persistent Mr. A and settles in Ireland. Her father finally comes round to forgiving her when she gives him his first grandchild and Cleone and Mr. A live a long and happy life.

Here is a bit from the very beginning. The style of writing breaks every grammatical law in the books, but it is amusing and gives you a sense of Cleone’s personality, which is the major draw to this story. The words that are capitalized are meant to be so.

“March 3rd
This morning had a vastly unpleasant interview with my Father. Last night, Mr. Ancaster, who is the indiscreetest young man alive, was seized suddenly while riding home along the shore with the desire to say goodnight to me. He climbed the wall, the postern gate being locked at that late hour, and had the Boldness to attempt to climb the ivy below my window; while but halfway up the Poor Impudent young man fell. (If he hadn’t Lord knows what would have happened for I am terribly catched by the Handsome Wretch.) As ill luck would have it Papa and Ned, who were conversing in the library, looked out at that moment and saw him lying Prostrate on the ground!
No need to describe the scene that followed. My father it seems thinks me guilty of Indiscretion and Immodesty, though why I don’t know, for I was sound asleep the whole time and never heard so much as an Oath (and I dare swear there were plenty flying round!) My father said some mighty unkind things to me this morning and I wept loudly for more than Half an Hour.
Poor Mr.A. from all accounts is a Scoundrel, a Libertine and a Blackguard, and I have been forbidden ever to see, speak or indeed think of him again. Well, we shall see.”

She does see. And so does the reader, as she embarks on a year long adventure on the Continent. Incidentally, this book is out of print, so it might be difficult to find. I did manage to find a few copies by googling it. I found one that is the original 1926 version! But it was 60.00 and I am not that in love with it.


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Filed under Children, Coming-of-Age Books, Girly Books

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