My current chapter examines the Readers & Correspondents column of the Northern Star, a sadly overlooked aspect of Victorian journalism. The readers and correspondents column is a space for both the public and private conversation: it is here that we see what readers think of content. Of course, not all correspondence from readers will be published: the editors would decide which letters appeared (and anyone who has lost an afternoon to reading horrendous comments on Youtube videos and news articles will probably lament this change). What interests me, however, is that this is also a space for us to see how readers see themselves: the pseudonyms give an insight into how these correspondents wished their fellow readers to see them.
Take, for example, the ‘Hater of Tyranny,' and ‘Lover of Fair Play,' both of whom identify themselves with an ideological standpoint to do with fairness, justice, and equality. Thier pseudonyms are gender-neutral and not indicative of any location or occupation. While this does not help us identify the demographics of the Star’s readers, it does illuminate what they stood for, and why they read the Star.
‘Two Ultra Radical Ladies,' on the other hand, does give us some information. These are ‘Ladies,’ not ‘Women,’ indicating either formality or alignment with the middle classes, ‘Ladies’ being a privileged term applied to middle-class women rather than their working-class sisters. They are, however, ‘Ultra Radical,’ in their politics: though we do not see the contents of their letter they are met with ‘our best thanks,’ and very flattering response by editor William Hill, who thanks his ‘fair friends.’ Unlike other Chartist depictions of women as attachments to men in the movement, these two ‘Ladies’ are responded to in a chivalrous tone: ‘We shall be very happy to receive further favours, light, gay, or grave, from the same fair contributors,’ with a promise to publish their submitted songs in the next issue. Compared with the ‘jackass load of poetry’ Hill complains of receiving, these ladies are treated rather more favourably than the bulk of correspondents.
In the spirit of the Two Ultra Radical Ladies, the Hater of Tyranny, and the many ‘Constant Readers’ and ‘[location] Chartist’s, you can generate your own Chartist pen name with the guide below! What was yours? Share, as the Star’s readers did, in the comments.
James Mussell, Northern Star (2013) Web [http://www.ncse.ac.uk/headnotes/nss.html]
Hater of Tyranny (NS 02/12/1843 p. 4)
Lover of Fair Play (NS 11/04/1840 p. 4.)
Two Ultra Radical Ladies (NS 06/7/1839 p. 4.)
Mike Sanders, ‘”A Jackass Load of Poetry”: The Northern Star ‘s Poetry Column 1838-1852,’ Victorian Periodicals Review, 39.1 (2006) 46-66.
Aside from a little tutoring here and there, I’ve never taught in my life and the prospect of guiding the new generation of thinkers through a poetry course (wildly unrelated to my own expertise) seemed rather daunting. It was, for the first two weeks or so. Armed with the encouragement of friends who had looked over my lesson plans and the lovely Sèan Richardson’s Beginner’s Guide to Teaching, off I went. Here’s my take on the experience, and what you can learn from it.
1. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail (but don’t overdo it).
As Sèan writes, lesson planning is a difficult beast: some days you’ll get through several activities in a flash, others you’ll spend the whole session on one task. I certainly found that a rough plan was better than a more detailed one, with approximate timeframes to get through each activity. My module, ‘Poetry: Reading & Interpretation’ was designed for first year undergraduate students for the introductory study of poetry. And, unusually for PhD teaching, seminar tutors were given free reign to choose our own texts for each week’s assigned reading. I found assigning more poems to read gave us choice over what to respond to in class – in my two groups opinions on each text varied wildly and it gave us the option to discuss things that everyone found enjoyable during the sessions.
2. Silence isn’t golden, it’s horrendous.
When I was a wee undergrad, I was very shy and would only participate in class because I found the deafening silence so incredibly uncomfortable I had to break it. Having now been on the other side of that awkward silence, I can tell you that it’s 100% worse when your question has brought it about. Time is one thing that makes your students more comfortable with each other, but one life hack I would recommend is playing background noises. While playing birdsong in the background as my students, in pairs, discussed Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ at the halfway point, I discovered the discussion came thicker and faster than ever before. As soon as the birdsong stopped, so did they. It turns out they were all just scared of having a potentially pants idea overheard by everyone.
3. Exhaustion is to be expected.
Particularly if you’re ambi- or introverted, speaking in front of a group of people is very draining, both physically and mentally. If you are used to giving conference papers you at least have your paper or notes in front of you: in a seminar format, this is far less likely. I’m usually stood in front of the whiteboard, drawing spider diagrams of my students’ discussions and prompting them further on their ideas. The unfortunate combination of this and scheduling a session for 10.00 on Tuesday mornings turned out to be unexpectedly draining for me this semester. Although I find teaching fun and rewarding, it does use up a lot of my brainpower, adrenaline, and social interaction quotas for the day. Having a good dinner, drinking lots of water, and exercising a bit can help physically, but don’t forget to give your brain a rest too – my teaching hours are usually followed by errands, housework, and life admin that I otherwise put off.
Finally, if there’s one thing about teaching that I’ve carried through from my undergrad days, it is this: don’t do morning classes.
Hello again! After a long hiatus, I’m writing again. Since February 2017 I’ve been a right busy bee preparing my first chapter for my MPhil/PhD upgrade submission (thankfully passed), researching, working in and out of the academy, and generally spinning more plates than I have limbs.
Now in the second year of my PhD studies, I’ve re-titled my thesis, and have been reading more widely and working on my second chapter. During the winter of last year I also had an unfortunate dip in my mental health which massively impacted my ability to research, write, or generally do anything. I’m now, for the most part, coping much better with the aid of medication.
I’ve been thinking about what I’d like this blog to be and I have some ideas: bits on research, bits on culture (both current and Victorian), and bits on life as a PhD student. With any luck, this will be a more regularly updated website!
This time last week I was merrily sat on the train home, head full of knowledge from the C19 Matters Public Engagement Training day at the beautiful Chawton House Library, Hampshire.
Designed for PhDs and ECRs and generously sponsored by BAVS and BARS, the event aimed to give an introduction to the practical points of public engagement for researchers of C19 studies.
After a very welcome cup of coffee, AHRC Director of Research Mark Llewllyn kicked off the day with a talk on ‘Living (in) the Library,’ recounting the highs and lows of his post-doc days living in and working on William Gladstone’s personal library. Public engagement can mean many things, Llewellyn said, not in the least justifying publicly funded research as academics as being of public interest. He noted that historical myths can be a fantastic bridge on which to meet the public as a point of interest, to retell a historical narrative together according to both parties’ interests. Above all, he said, public engagement is a two-way dialogue, not merely lecturing the public but listening to them. Both must meet halfway – a point best illustrated by his demonstration of William Gladstone’s bookplates for a television crew only after they had extensively filmed him donning the white gloves in traditional ‘let’s look at a manuscript’ fashion, although they were unnecessary.
Following a short break, the next panel of the morning looked at case studies of public engagement projects.
Claire Wood of the National Co-Ordinating Centre for Public Engagement opened with a talk on ‘The 3 Ps of Public Engagement,’ outlining the practical points of organising events. The audience is absolutely key in any public engagement event, so every attempt must be made to create an accessible and enjoyable format for all, being mindful of the purpose of the event. She also pointed us to some great resources available from the National Co-Ordinating Centre for Public Engagement for event planning, as well as their ‘Research For All’ journal in which to share experiences and results of collaborative research.
Next up was Gillian Dow of Southampton University and Chawton House Library on ‘The Dangers of Public Engagement.’ Dow recounted her experiences of designing the ‘Emma 200‘ exhibition at the Library, noting first of all how brilliantly centenaries can become a selling point for making research relevant to the modern day. ‘Emma 200’ had various intersections with Jane Austen’s companions in the literary canon, including Shakespeare and Charlotte Brontë, who last year celebrated their 400th and 200th anniversaries, respectively. A great opportunity to use literary studies in public engagement, Dow used intertextuality between the three writers to show them off to their existing fans, as well as to widen access to the community and the media. That said, media coverage has its pitfalls: Dow emphasised the importance of clarity in communicating research to the public, as her own research interests in the international book trade meant that journalists confused the preface to the French edition of Emma with another artefact. Beware also, she said, that not everyone will be thrilled with looking at manuscripts, as ITV coverage of clips from film and television adaptations received more airtime than the texts themselves. She concluded, “you can lead the public to your research, but you can’t make them read it.”
Mary Guyatt of the Jane Austen House museum followed, exploring the benefits of collaboration between universities and museums. In short, neither have much funding: why not collaborate? There is a joint need between both HE and heritage sectors for public engagement, and collaboration allows staff to bring all their skills to the table. Using a dual exhibition and conference as an example, Guyatt showed how museums could offer accessible box offices and wider marketing audiences, while universities can attract fantastic speakers from across academic networks. Academics could enjoy lectures at an exhibition/conference, while film screenings could be made available at a cheaper rate to the public. Even the seemingly smallest tasks can benefit from inter-sector collaboration, Guyatt noted, with label-writing as a great example of where detailed research needs to be made accessible. Her top tip for organisers of future events was to keep the audience firmly in mind: not everyone will think like you.
In the final talk of the panel, Holly Furneaux, of Cardiff University and the National Army Museum, shared her experience of the ‘Military Men of Feeling’ in the Crimean War project, delivered in local primary schools. Not quite sure what to expect from allowing the children to handle objects from the museum and discuss the feelings they evoked, she found the responses generated by the children extremely nuanced and fruitful. From a handling session in which the children discussed the feelings (emotional, physical, sensory) associated with each object, a trip to the record office to enthusiastically transcribe letters from the collections, these ‘fact finding’ trips evoked complex discussions by the children, who used them to compose their own military ballads which were performed at a church concert and recorded. The final audience for the project included not just Furneaux, the primary school teachers, and the classes, but parents, local press, and future visitors to the record office.
Contentedly full of both food and food for thought after lunch, we broke into small groups for a brainstorming workshop. After we each attempted to summarise our current research onto a postcard (no easy feat!) We were given cards to shuffle to create a table of different settings and audiences with whom to engage our research and pleasingly enough, found an idea for everything! Building upon each others’ experiences of different events we constructed some great ideas, happy to find that there was seemingly nothing that wouldn’t work – even with unexpected combinations, such as research on mental health stigma engaging with families with young children. I’ve since had the wheels turning in my own mind for an event on print culture – watch this space.
Overall, it was a fantastic day with lots to think about, one I would heartily recommend to any other PhDs thinking ahead to public engagement. Massive congratulations are due to organiser Catherine Han for a fantastic day of lively discussion.
I was able to attend this event thanks to small award funding from WRoCAH.
Update: This has been edited to correct some small details – the NCCPE is part of the University of the West of England, not separate as previously stated, and the director research at the AHRC is Mark Llewllyn.
February is here and spring is on its way (I hope). While January has been an absolute dumpster fire for politics, we have been blessed with some absolutely cracking telly. Enjoy some recommendations for occupying oneself through this horrible cold weather below:
Progress (2016) – Johan Norberg. Starting 2017 off with an attempt at cheering myself up, economist Norberg’s book encourages readers to take stock of the positive changes in human history up to and including our lifetimes. I can’t deny that it’s a well-researched book, although it does, at times, read like a love letter to Capitalism. Nonetheless, it works both as an uplifting read, as well as a cautionary tale about romanticising the past. Life was short and shit, Norberg concludes.
Warleggan (1953) – Winston Graham. I’m an unashamed lover of the Poldark series, and the fourth book does not disappoint. The female characters in particular are fantastically complex and sympathetic, and often much wiser than their male counterparts – in many respects, Demelza Carne is a woman well ahead of her time.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1934) – George Orwell. Preceding many English Literature graduates, protagonist Gordon Comstock doesn’t want to waste his poetic talents selling out in marketing – but all he shows is promise. Orwell examines the possibilities of rebellion against lower middle class success with his characteristic dark humour.
Rad Women Worldwide (2016) – Kate Schatz. Schatz and illustrator Mirium Klein Stahl team up to showcase a variety of Rad Women who have undeniably contributed to global history, including pirates, punks, polar explorers, and winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. A great book for all ages.
A photo posted by Vic C (@victory_jc) on Jan 23, 2017 at 9:48am PST
Call The Midwife: The Casebook (2017), BBC. Actor Stephen McGann (Dr. Patrick Turner to CTM fans) explores the real life cases that inspire Call the Midwife, from Jennifer Worth’s original memoirs to interviews with former midwives from the 1950s and ’60s. The programme also stops to consider what is arguably the biggest benefactor to the baby boom generation: the NHS, which saved thousands of mothers.
The West Was Built on Racism (2017), The Guardian. Professor Kehinde Andrews explains in two minutes that “the dead white men we are trained to revere created the knowledge that justified” the atrocities committed by Anglo-European intellectuals against people of colour, on which our current global economic and social inequalities are still based.
T2: Trainspotting (2017). “But this isn’t Victorian!” I hear you cry. It isn’t, and it’s bloody good. While parts differ substantially from its novel incarnation Porno (Irvine Welsh, 2002), its exploration of Renton, Simon, Spud, and Begbie’s nostalgia for their lifelong friendship marred by addiction and revenge ensures that it remains a fantastic sequel to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Rest assured, Renton’s famous ‘Choose Life’ speech has been updated for 2017 too.
Taboo (2017), BBC. It’s 1812 and the mysterious James Delaney returns from Africa to London to organise his late father’s legacy: he’s in battle over land ownership with the villainous East India Company, his confusing feelings for his half-sister, and the unexpected arrival of his unknown stepmother. Tom Hardy is fantastic as the anti-hero in this original, slow-burning drama – think Ripper Street, but darker and earlier in the 19th Century.
After a few weeks of gently easing myself out of the Christmas slump, I was sprung back into action by waking up at silly o’clock in the morning to head to British Library.
Every year the British Library hold a range of Doctoral Open Days, targeted at early stage PhD candidates looking for sources of data. Different days are based on different collections, from Nineteenth Century to Early Modern to Asian and African. If in doubt, get in touch with organiser Robin Saklatvala, who was incredibly helpful in deciding which would be most relevant to my research. 🙂 I ended up attending the News & Media day, which upon reflection, was definitely a wise choice. I’ll be discussing the News & Media specifics here, but some of the material is used across the open days.
After a slightly difficult start (not being a morning person) and a large mug of tea, the first talk began. Maja Mericevic, head of HE, started things off by outlining the history of the library – bringing together the resources of the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, and the British Museum reading rooms as late as 1976! Given the immense quantity of holdings I had always assumed the BL to be a much older institution, but here we are. She made a quick point about EThOS (E-Theses Online), which currently has 80% of UK PhD Theses freely available to read. Whether you’re looking for the work of a particular researcher or simply want to see what a completed PhD thesis looks like, it’s a great resource to know.
The rest of the day was devoted to exploring the specific News & Media collections, and specifically, the issues of access that pertain to these materials. Newspapers, being designed to be disposable, are tricky to preserve due to the paper, and consequently all of the Library’s paper copies are kept in a dark, low-oxygen, temperature and humidity controlled vault in Boston Spa, Yorkshire. Because of this, paper copies are extremely hard to access, although most of the collection has been backed up onto microfilm, and approximately 3% is digitised on the British Newspaper Archive (although that 3% is still about 18 million issues!). These include complete runs of The Times, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, and the Guardian, with Scottish editions having recently been aded. They also collect one of every regional newspaper published in the UK.
The Sound archives are another of the Library’s strengths, with a greater focus over the last few years on collecting oral histories, separated by subjects including food, early spoken word recordings, conversations between people and folk music. There’s also a very interesting section for accents & dialects, including dialect maps of the UK, and wildlife recordings from all over the world.
Since 2013 the Library has begun to archive all public UK web content – anything that ends in a .uk web address, or is uploaded from UK-based servers, with different frequencies according to subject matters. They’re now backing up approximately 60TB worth of data every year, and compiled it all into a searchable database on the webarchive.org. Periods including general elections and the run-up to the EU referendum last year were archived more regularly, in order to give the most potential data to sociologists, media researchers, and historians.
Finally, the day concluded with a note from the Digital Research Support group, whose job it is to support researchers in using computational methods to get the most out of the Library’s holdings. Digital Curator Nora McGregor shared a couple of examples of their annual British Library Labs projects, including fellow Chartist (Historian) Katrina Navickas, on the potential uses for the library’s data to get us thinking.
The day was an informative, but by no means exhaustive guide to what the Library has to offer doctoral candidates. What it offered was a bouncy springboard from which to jump off and explore according to our own research, offering contacts and guides for different sections to seek specific support as and when I need it while working on the Library’s collections. I’ve already been in touch with the Digital Research team to help with my own Digital Humanities work. All in all, a useful day for beginners.
I was able to attend this event thanks to small award funding from WRoCAH.
Fifteen years after the publication of Lucasta Miller’s acclaimed biography The Brontë Myth, Sally Wainright’s To Walk Invisible is a welcome sight to Brontë fans and scholars alike.
Wainright’s biopic explores some of the most turbulent years of the Brontë sisters’ lives at home in Haworth parsonage during their brother Branwell’s descent into depression, alcoholism, and laudanum addiction in his last years of life. If Miller’s biography was an attempt to uncover the realities of the Brontë sisters’ upbringing and home lives masked by Elizabeth Gaskell in an attempt to save her friend’s respectable reputation in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Wainright’s aim was to bring it to life. Indeed, Branwell Brontë until recently has remained something of a myth in Brontë scholarship. Although he appears in literal shadows in the portrait of his sisters on display at Haworth Parsonage (he painted himself out) and figuratively in the form of abusive alcoholic Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), he is largely absent from the historiography of the parsonage. Thanks to Wainright’s beautiful script, a strong performance by Adam Nagaitis puts this to right.
I’d studied the Brontës as part of my MA degree (it was, in fact, the reason I came to Leeds), but Wainright’s drama illustrated the struggle the sisters faced trying to publish their writing, alongside a very disruptive home life. The sisters, as Wainright shows, were most concerned about their art being real, and deflected accusations of ‘coarseness’ and ‘vulgarity’ in their writing because of this: life is coarse and vulgar. Reading Jane Eyre,Wuthering Heights, or Agnes Gray remains a powerful experience because of their liminality between fantasy and reality, their varied narration devices maintaining some secrets for the plot, while remaining unapologetically frank about the unpleasant realities of Victorian society. Apparently the 21st Century public has yet to learn anything, amid complaints of “quite inappropriate obscenities” in the script. It is this realness that Wainright represents best in To Walk Invisible. From the loud screaming matches between Branwell and his ailing father Patrick, to the filthy streets of 1840s Haworth (where the average life expectancy was just 25 years), the film put struggle at its centre, the daughters’ strive for financial self-sufficiency and creative autonomy at a time when they were advised that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.” Where Elizabeth Gaskell represented Haworth as a small country town with a “lawless, but not unkindly population” (p. 8), and the Brontë sisters as wallflowers with overactive imaginations; Lucasta Miller moves some way to correcting this through use of population statistics, and Wainright by literally reconstructing Haworth as it was: a small industrial town, whose population were well known to the sisters through their father’s work as parish curate.What makes To Walk Invisible a welcome part of Brontë historiography and outreach is that it is actually biographical, refusing to sex it up or shy away from the dirt (physical, linguistic, and moral) that plagued Victorian industrial life, as other period dramas often do. In dramatising the unseemly, Wainright’s tale of three skilled women reaching unprecedented literary success in secrecy, silencing their ambitions so as to further upset and upstage their brother demonstrates their personal sacrifices and strengths. Like the sisters’ work, To Walk Invisible‘s devotion to realism ensures that it will endure.
Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth(London: Vintage, 2001).
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (Leipzig: Bernaud Tauchnitz, 1857) [Google Books].
‘[Letters] To Walk Invisible: Withering Heights of Gloom and Mizak,’ The Guardian, Monday 2nd Jan 2017.
Benjamin Hershel Babbage, ‘Public Health Act, (11 & 12 Vict., cap. 63.) Report to the General Board of Health on a preliminary inquiry into the sewerage, drainage, and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the hamlet of Haworth,’ (London: Clowes & Sons, 1850) British Library [C.T.159.(6.)].
Letter from Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë (12 March 1837), Letter, Brontë Parsonage Museum [BSIXSou.1837-03-12].
Happy New Year, lovely readers! The last month of 2016 has been an absolute whirlwind: I graduated from my Master’s with Merit, ate three Christmas dinners in a week, drank an astonishing amount of beer, and set myself a rather ambitious amount of homework over the Christmas holidays which is slowly but surely being finished. December was rather exhausting but as I make a slightly bigger dent in my reading I’m feeling a little more positive about my PhD.
Of course, it wasn’t all Chartism and mince pies! Here are some of the other delights I’ve been feasting my eyes, ears, and eyes and ears on of late:
Rohan McWilliam, ‘On Reviewing,’ Taylor & Francis (2016). As someone who has yet to write a book review, it made sense to get the lowdown from the grandaddy of reviews at the Journal of Victorian Culture, and it’s an excellent checklist for how to critically evaluate a colleague’s work for publication – least of all, ‘read the book.’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Americanah (2014). It took me a couple of attempts to finish this before, but Adiche’s writing is so rich and welcoming that once I’d finished volume 1, I felt sad when I wasn’t reading it. Adiche’s third novel explores two high school sweethearts as they individually leave Nigeria and experience, for the first time, racial tensions in their respective journeys through the United States and England, before returning home.
‘To Walk Invisible,‘ BBC (2016). Sally Wainright’s much-anticipated biopic of the Brontë sisters aired on the 29th December and my little nerd heart wept. Incredible casting and a well-researched script made for wonderful viewing as the sisters began to prepare their writing for publication, living in secrecy while caring for their alcoholic brother Branwell during the last years of his life. I’ll share a review soon, but the tl;dr version is ‘stop reading this and watch the thing.’
‘Victorian Bakers at Christmas,‘ BBC (2016). My two favourite things are Victorian studies and food, so I was enthralled by the initial run of Victorian Bakers. The Christmas Special brought to light how strongly the Victorians changed Christmas into the commercial event we are familiar with now, including the different incarnations of Santa Claus (from an American pronunciation of St. Nicholas) and the disparity between aristocratic Christmas feasts and the scanty fare that would have been eaten by Bob Cratchit and his contemporaries. Most importantly of all, it showed that life as a baker and citizen of Victorian Britain was hard for most people, a rather unsubtle nod to present ‘austerity Britain.’
Stuff Mom Never Told You, ‘The Cost of Fast Fashion‘ (2016). I’ve been a huge fan of SMNTY for a couple of years now and was heartbroken to hear that Cristen and Caroline have now left the series, and this episode was one of their best. ‘Fast Fashion’ dates back to the Industrial Revolution and although finding new + cheap clothes is a recipe for a great dopamine high, it’s one tainted by the industry’s continued exploitation of women of colour in manufacturing, as well as the negative environmental impact of disposable fashion. It’s made me confront my own shopping behaviours and encouraged me to attempt to not buy new clothes in 2017.
In Our Time, ‘The Gin Craze’ (2016). Melvyn Bragg is joined by historians Angela McShane, Judith Hawley, and Emma Major to examine the origin of the ‘gin craze’ that swept eighteenth century Britain, from its origins in protestant loyalism (as opposed to supporting Catholic French Brandy) to attempts to control the problem, and the satire behind Hogarth’s famous illustration.
Today it’s the first day of December, and I’m now officially two months into my PhD. Here are some things that have happened in November:
I’m getting the hang of managing my own time (i.e. finding a happy middle between my hedonistic jazz pianist boyfriend’s absurdly late bedtimes and the fact that the university is only open 9-6 on weekdays).
Started making my lit review and critically evaluating secondary works (written by people much, much cleverer and more practiced in history than I).
Onwards and upwards! Here’s what my eyes, and ears have feasted upon this month:
Jennifer Worth, Call The Midwife (2002). Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of her time as a young midwife in London’s East End is beautifully written and wonderfully inviting, offering snapshots of cases she worked on and the families and lives she was, for professional purposes, sharing. Fans of the BBC adaptation will enjoy the book – my only complaint is that it was too short.
Dr. Susannah Lipscomb, ‘On and Off Script,’ History Today. Having seen Lipscomb speak briefly on public history at Senate House’s History Day workshop this year, I very much enjoyed her article about the day to day realities of television consultancy work. Given that historical dramas and documentaries are the main point of entry for non-specialists in history, it pays to be sure that they are as accurate as possible while remaining engaging and entertaining. I spent my first PhD supervision discussing the historical inaccuracies of ITV’s Victoria – what Lipscomb asks is how do we balance these facts while ensuring good telly? At the end of the day, it’s a dialogue between historians and the public, which, Lipscomb argues, is worth the work.
Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016), BBC. I’d never heard of David Olusoga before, and what a wonderful presenter he is! This series is a timely (i.e.extremely delayed) consideration of Black British identities, stretching right back to the Roman empire. Each episode is comprised of many case studies of both remarkable individuals and group adversities faced by Black people in Britain, each ending with celebrations and memorialisations in the local communities today. Watching this made me angry that I’d never heard of most of these figures before, and exposes the sheer extent of whitewashing in the British school history curriculum.
‘San Junipero,’ Black Mirror (2016), Netflix. Part of the latest of Charlie Brooker’s technological dystopias, San Junipero was wonderfully optimistic for a change, enabling two queer women to meet in a cloud-based shared memory and live the lives denied to them by ‘real life’ circumstances. Furthermore, it’s a wonderful story about two femme women which both explores and rejects the ‘dead lesbian’ trope of contemporary television. TL;DR: I cried with joy.
The Victorian Slum (2016), BBC. A recent example of the ‘living history’ trend of recent years, the Slum shows several 21st century families tracing their family histories and taking stock of how times have changed. My boyfriend described it as a ‘historical privilege check,’ and what better way to draw our attention to the importance and necessity of the welfare state than to experience life without it? Still, one wonders at the participants’ shock and awe that a recreated slum was filthy – they didn’t even live that accurately. None of them were prostitutes…
Virago: Changing the World One Page At A Time (2016), BBC. Interviews with current and former Virago staff and authors trace the history of this revolutionary publisher, and explores its future. I particularly enjoyed the discussion on Virago Modern Classics, a project to re-release works by women ‘lost’ throughout history, making a case for their popularity today.
Back in Time for Brixton (2016), BBC. The most recent of the BBC’s living histories, this time the Irwin family are invited to live through forty years of Black migration to Britain, experiencing first hand some of the hardships of their ancestors who arrived on the Windrush in 1954. It’s an engaging and accessible part of the #BlackandBritish series, and a welcome change from the previously very white, middle class ‘Back in time for…’ series.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016), Netflix. As an avid Gilmorean (last week I got a respectable 65/78 on a GG pub quiz), this has been the television event of the year. Though parts of it felt gimmicky and several favourite characters were absent (looking at you, Sookie), it felt like being welcomed home. I laughed, I cried. The whole series really did feel like a tribute to the cast and writers who worked so hard during the original run, not least the sadly missed Edward Herrman, following his death in 2014.
See you next month for another round up of things I’ve been doing that aren’t my PhD!
A week ago I went along to Senate House’s annual History Day extravaganza: a workshop with talks about doing history, with representatives from archives offering advice on how they can help do history.
As a fresh-faced PGR and new historian, this was the first event of its kind I’d ever attended. I very much enjoyed the day, chatting to representatives from archives all over the country about their particular holdings and what could be beneficial for my own research. Consequently, I hope to make some trips to Kew in the new year to examine the Home Office material held in the National Archives, as well as the upcoming Radicals exhibition at Senate House.
The main focus of the event, however, were the three panels. Led by historians, archivists, and librarians, the talks on the practicalities of doing history were both engaging and accessible. Coming from a background of Linguistics and English Literature, I feel as though I’m going undercover when attending history events – although the material I use is centuries old and thus, by necessity, ‘historical’, when it comes to some history methodology I feel like a child trying on her mum’s shoes and finding that they’re far too big.
In this light, the first panel on ‘Public History’ with Dr. Alix Green (University of Essex) and Dr. Susannah Lipscomb (New College of the Humanities) was a wonderful discussion on what it means to be a historian of the public and to give historical work public meaning. Green borrowed John Tosh’s definition of the term as “history with a public purpose” and as a “public resource,” and drew upon her background in policy to call for closer collaboration between politicians and historians. Signing a petition, writing for the Guardian or the Conversation is all well and good, she noted, but called for a more direct impact of historical training to contribute to teams of experienced people to help solve policy issues with public concerns in mind, a ‘collective policy’ being the end goal.
Lipscomb continued in a similar vein, turning to the cultural impact of historians’ work. She contrasted the increasing fragmentation and specialisation of ‘professional history’ with the widening output of popular history including books, radio programmes, and television dramas and documentaries that indicate an upsurge of public interest. Lipscomb, who has previously presented several successful history documentaries for the BBC, noted that “a 45 minute television programme has only 30 pages of script” and that these stories are often limited to ‘big name’ figures such as royals and wars, heavily condensing historical debate in order to create a linear narrative perceived to be more engaging to audiences.
While historians have anxieties about ‘dumbing down’ complex analysis, she concluded with Dr. Green that historical research is of no use if it is not shared, both arguing for the historian to accept their place as negotiator between archives and the public.
Libraries Vs. Archives
Panel two engaged more closely with the remainder of the day, pitting archivists Victoria Northwood (Hon. Sec. British Records Association) and Isobel Hunter (The National Archives) against librarians Dr Richard Espley (Senate House Library) and Lesley Ruthven (Goldsmiths) to defend the merits of their relative institutions – and how they can be used together in future research.
Tugging on the heartstrings, archivists Northwood and Hunter argued that archives are totally unique in both their combination of holdings and the materiality of each object, “waiting to be discovered” due to the notorious backlogs of cataloguing plaguing the industry. Hunter noted the emotional power of the archive too – that of bringing researchers to tears when stumbling upon an important artefact. Noting the real-wordliness of archives, Hunter cited the fall of the Berlin Wall as a striking example of the importance of documentation: newly freed East Berliners began to destroy the GDR’s offices in glee, before realising the necessity of the documents as evidence for bringing their injustices to account.
Comparatively, librarian Espley fought this by noting that libraries are also unique, as each collection is ‘curated’ by the librarian, and that these collections are the eventual the homes of work based on discoveries made in archives, or “promiscuously democratic” repositories of learning. Ruthven followed this by noting the range of libraries and their respective workloads, from helping young children to learn to read and share to special collections libraries that enable access to local history and “straddle the exclusivity between archives and libraries” through establishing a theme, citing the example of the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths. This unity, Ruthven argues, brings people together differently to an archive. Although an archive can unite people from across time and space via an object, libraries enable reading groups and discussion, and shared experiences – including the discussions of BME women artists at the Women’s Art Library through a student-organised reading group.
All panellists agreed upon the importance of libraries and archives used in conjunction, and the importance of widening access to all of these collections, following on from the previous panel’s conclusion that historical work must be an open and collective effort. Hunter noted the role of commercial partners in bringing this access to the forefront, through funding digitization projects that enable worldwide access to texts and objects, and Northwood noting the continual work of historians, as each publication of findings represents one individual’s take: “archives are open to interpretation and reinterpretation.” She noted some of the more individual findings and uses from archives, having discovered an extremely dead rat in a desk drawer on her first private archival job, and Hunger shared one output of the extremely varied M&S archive, most recently used to inspire a new design collection by fashionista Alexa Chung.
While I have no regrets in going, and very much enjoyed the day, it still left me with some doubts and questions. Still feeling somewhat of a pretend historian, I would have enjoyed a little about employability: if historical training is so richly varied and transferable, what can I apply it to? How does one apply to work on a BBC programme or offer findings to improve public policy? If we are to eliminate the perception that there are no jobs for arts and humanities graduates, can we not start leading by example and bringing historians to the public eye? (For the record, I have been told four times in two months that there are no jobs in academia. I am aware of this.) Talking about the various ins and outs and defences of libraries and archives is all well and good to a public audience, but for current postgraduate students who have opted to attend an event to find resources for research, it felt a little wasted. While I enjoyed the day, it has made me wonder where it’s all leading to.
I was able to attend this event thanks to small award funding from WRoCAH.