Would we have a better understanding of our favorite historical figures if they’d lived in the time of social media?
PARIS — Last night, while I waited impatiently for my husband to stop commenting on his Napoleonic battle reenactment group’s online forum and come sit down at the dinner table, an idea struck me.
His reenactment group is one of the most hardcore out there. They don’t even cheat when no one’s watching, like most groups do. For example, after a day of historically-accurate military maneuvers, they don’t just slip away to a hotel or tuck into a comfy modern sleeping bag; instead, these staunch realists spend the night in period-accurate canvass tents or makeshift shelters, huddled together in piles of hay for warmth.
When participating in reenactments, they don’t regularly use their smartphones; if a member needs to get in touch with someone, they can only do it far from the campsite, in an area they dub “the 21st century zone.” And yet, I thought, as I watched my husband typing, in their everyday lives, they still use technology quite a lot. And suddenly the question came to me: Would Napoleon have used the internet? Not just for the occasional search or maybe to order a book or something; would he have used social media? Would Napoleon have had a Facebook account, say, or tweeted about upcoming battles?
When I asked my husband, he gave a heavy sigh and said, “Stop bothering me. I’ll be there in a minute.” But I wasn’t trying to bother him. Well, that wasn’t my main goal. The question stuck in my mind. We all have historical figures we’re inspired, fascinated, and/or disgusted by. But how well do we really think we know them?
For example, I’ve read a lot of biographies of Vincent Van Gogh, and have seen many of his paintings in person. A well-worn copy of Letters to Theo sits on my bookshelf. But while fans like me may know a good deal about how Vincent (his preferred moniker) lived and even thought in his lifetime, how would he have handled this major aspect of our own era? Would Vincent have any kind of online presence? On the one hand, he wasn’t the kind of person to do what others typically did, and you’d think he’d be too involved in painting to bother with something like Facebook – but, in addition to his friendships with other artists and his failed attempt to set up an artists’ colony in the South of France, there are those letters to his brother. In our day, would he have emailed them? Maybe not, because they often contained sketches and he probably liked making those personal touches by hand; sending them as scanned attachments or digital art probably wouldn’t do. But I could see Vincent being on Tumblr or something like that.
Or what about Marie Antoinette? The easy answer is, “This is the woman who said ‘Let them eat cake’ – she’d be sharing more selfies online than Kim Kardashian!” But the doomed queen’s infamous phrase is actually a myth. And just as that part of the Marie Antoinette legend isn’t exactly what it seems, neither was her personality: She loved to spend money on clothes and enjoyed indulging in pastries and other comforts (Did you know she had an early version of the flush toilet installed in her private rooms in Versailles, at a time when other nobles seemed not to care about just peeing and shitting in the palace hallways?). But she also craved privacy, and was apparently an excellent and devoted mother. So maybe instead of posting pictures on Instagram she would have preferred life in the real world…or in the village that was built for her on the grounds of Versailles where she would go with her closest friends and pretend to be a shepherdess.
But the “devoted mother” thing does make me wonder if she’d have a Facebook account to at least share pictures of her beloved children. And she did love fashion, and was a fashion icon of her time, which is making me re-think the Instagram thing. Maybe she would even have been like a late-eighteenth century Gwyneth Paltrow, with her own somewhat out-of-touch lifestyle blog? Then again, public sentiment was really against her in France (hence her reputation for being merely frivolous, which continues today), so would she have put herself out there so much? Today, people like Paltrow can say “Haters gonna hate”, but when you’re the ruler of an increasingly dissatisfied populace, you may have to be more careful.
Oscar Wilde would probably have had a Twitter account. Could you imagine that? So many awesome aphorisms sent over the ether, right to your phone or tablet or computer screen.
And what about people like Charlotte Corday, who murdered French Revolutionary extremist (yes, extreme even for a French Revolutionary) Marat in his bathtub? Would historic figures who committed violent acts in the name of an ideal or in the belief that they would save others be like those members of ISIS who have Twitter accounts and such? Not that I’m implying Charlotte Corday is the equivalent of someone in ISIS….
This isn’t just a game you can play with distant historic figures. either: what about someone like Marilyn Monroe, or Kurt Cobain?
A quick Google search shows I’m not the only one who’s ever wondered about all this. And I’m not surprised. I am surprised, though, that more people don’t bring it up in social situations. I mean, what a great conversation-starter, especially if you’re in the company of people who like hypothesizing about the past. Or if you’ve run out of things to say at a book club meeting where you’re discussing a historical fiction book or a classic or something.
You could even do it with fictional characters who live in a world without the internet. Would Madame Bovary have left troubling Facebook messages before her suicide? Despite what this delightful book would have you believe, Jane Eyre, I think, would have eschewed social media, as would Mr. Rochester. Romeo and Juliet, though? I feel like they’d be posting couples selfies and over-the-top messages of love all the time. Maybe even one of those after-sex selfies?
No matter how interested a person might seem to be in musing over a historical figure or fictional character’s use of social media, there’s no guarantee the question will get them to pay attention and share their thoughts. My husband, for example, just kept typing away, and finally my cat and I went ahead and got started on our dinner. Still, the next time you’re with someone you think would be intrigued by the question, why not give it a shot?