Historian or voyeur?

For the past few weeks I’ve been working in the papers of one particular woman whose journals and letters span a period of about 50 years. She wrote nearly everyday, with meticulous detail. I now know about her fickle friends, her bitter feelings towards her maiden aunts, and her continued money troubles. I also know of a few love affairs, that she frequently re-made her clothes to reflect current fashions, and have even found a certain monthly crochety-ness that I suspect coincides with her menstrual cycle.

Yet I remain fascinated by her, diving deeper into her life each day, mapping the various places she traveled, making lists of her associates, creating a timeline of her life. A part of me feels as if I’m smitten with my subject–she is endlessly fascinating to me. A another part of me wonders if I’m simply indulging in some rather creepy voyeuristic tendencies. Certainly none of her papers were written with the audience of a 21st century historian in mind. And while I don’t feel that I am exploiting her memory or her experiences, I’m also a bit uncomfortable with how my own life is now revolving around hers. My past research projects never led me to dive so deeply into one person’s story before, and while this is a fascinating experience, it’s also starting to make me just a bit unsure of my relationship to my subject and her papers.

Do you have any experience in this vein to share? Have you ever found yourself a historical ‘voyeur’ in the life of your research subjects? And, perhaps most importantly, did you feel a discomfort with using their life stories to serve your own ends?

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