Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Newspapers, which treat the writers of books with all the mingled envy and resentment of a richer but cruder younger sibling, adore stories that uncover hoaxes, frauds and follies in the publishing trade. Hence the revelation that biographer Veronica Buckley had – ineptly, but innocently – taken a recent pastiche of Louis XIV's journal for the non-existent real thing prompted a spring shower of schadenfreude.

Yes, Buckley blundered big-time in her life of the Sun King's governess-cum-mistress, Madame de Maintenon, which Bloomsbury has now called in for emergency repairs. But the error hardly warrants (as duly happened) the po-faced quest for an outraged rent-a-don who would damn collapsing standards among authors who dare to take on historical subjects without any academic seal of approval.

Translation: get orf our land, you peasants. When the grandee dons of Britain begin to breed biographical virtuosi of the calibre of Jenny Uglow, Claire Tomalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Charles Nicholl, we can take their whingeing seriously. After all, half a century of archival prowess failed to stop Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper from mistaking a tea-stained bundle of baloney for the "Hitler Diaries". Besides, the trap that snared Buckley, François Bluche's Le journal secret de Louis XIV, was a teasing jeu d'esprit by a veteran Sorbonne historian with a shelf-ful of fine scholarship on the Ancien Regime behind him.

It would be wonderful, if improbable, to read a genuine memoir from the big-wigged but small-minded Roi Soleil. As we can't, someone should edit a new one-volume selection of the (absolutely real) memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon: a pricelessly catty and entertaining chronicle of lies, lust and loathing behind the tapestries at Versailles. Saint-Simon the super-bitch confirms that the liveliest testaments to life at court often come from disillusioned bit-players who yearned for greater things.

Very rarely, rulers themselves have also written non-forged private diaries. For the greatest of them, though, we have to leave Europe. Between 1493 (when he was ten) and 1529, Zahir Uddin Muhammad Babur kept a journal. Its creation and survival trumps any fiction. The Babur Nama is the first-person memoir, in Turkish, of the Uzbek warlord, descendant of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, whose conquests made him the first emperor of Mughal India. Action-packed, vividly descriptive, amazingly readable, the Babur Nama – finally compiled in the late 1520s – vies for gold in the limited field of "best book ever written by an emperor". Only Marcus Aurelius's Meditations could compete. Dilip Hiro edited a superb selection for Penguin Classics in India (Amazon has it in stock).

Babur kept his eminence among royal diary-keepers until the shrewd and skittish journals of a young woman later crowned as Queen Empress of India herself: Victoria. At one, absurdly symbolic point, their stories even coincide. In 1526, after Babur's son Humayun had taken Agra, a defeated raja showered him with gems – among them, the famous diamond "Mountain of Light": Koh-i-Noor.

In 1849, so many moons and monarchs later, the fall of Punjab to British forces led to a treaty stipulating that "The gem called the Koh-i-Noor... shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England". So the jewel entered the crown. But the Babur Nama shows that real royal autobiography will often take a less romantic view of things than any modern mimic. Dutiful Humayun passed the legendary stone to dad. Matter-of-fact, Babur records: "I just gave it back to him." The actual words of history's star turns are not just stranger, but often quieter, than fiction.

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