Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
In the spring of 1922 Edith Thompson wrote to her lover Freddy Bywaters, then away at sea in the merchant ship Morea. Thanking Freddy for the gift of pearls she had just received, Edith wondered whether to ‘Wear them now? Or Wait?’ As often happened, her thoughts soon turned to the novels she had been reading. ‘Aren’t books a consolation and a solace?’ she asked. ‘We ourselves die & live in the books we read while we are reading them & then when we have finished, the books die and we live…’
I wrote about Edith’s lives, loves and letters a few years ago in an essay published in Past and Present. Then I was interested in the ways in which her absorption in romantic fiction shaped her emotional life. Rather than just a source of “escapism” (which is what most historians of reading have suggested) I argued that cheap fiction offered a way to make sense of her feelings, explore psychological dilemmas and fashion a sense of self in what were often harrowing personal circumstances. In the past few months I have thought more and more about my personal investments in the archives and individuals that comprise my current research project. Now it seems increasingly obvious that history has been a consolation and a solace in my own life.
Part of this might just be seen as escapism. When I was a kid I could spend hours wrapped up in my own world with a book like Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth or an assortment of Playmobil cavalryman. Leaving the distractions of family life behind, here I found vehicles for the imaginative exercises that would eventually made me want to become a historian. It is almost a quarter of a century ago now, but I can still remember the sense of living in a book that Edith Thompson captured so beautifully. As an adult, I have found that sense of immersion in literature much harder to catch hold of. Ironically, perhaps, the one exception has been through the research and reading and writing on which my professional life rests. The prison letters of the adventuress Josephine O’Dare or the police files tracing the crime reporter Netley Lucas’s attempts to sell ‘bogus information’ to the Sunday News draw me in—and do so in ways that I still find surprising. More importantly still, thinking with and through these lives and stories closes the door on the ‘real world’ outside for at least a short space of time. Escape never lasts forever, but it offers a respite that is often welcome.
I have been thinking about my personal investments in the past in part, I guess, because I have finally found time and space to focus on writing and thinking about my current book. Yet it has also been because over the past few months much of the world outside has been an unsettling and uncertain place. For me, at least, there is some consolation and solace to be had in history when other parts of my life are less certain—and I consider myself lucky that the past has always been there when I needed it the most. Just as Edith Thompson’s reading offered more than escape, so I also wonder about the capacity of our historical research to sustain the everyday yet pressing work of making sense of our emotions, relationships and dilemmas. Elsewhere I have written about the ways in which research can prompt profound affective responses. More than this, identifying with the dilemmas facing the men and women whose lives we are so privileged to witness (or, at least, projecting our dilemmas onto them) is so often informed by the questions pressing upon us. When I talk to Netley Lucas—when I ask him who the fuck he really was—I articulate both the problems of working on a confidence trickster who changes names constantly and the sense of uncertainty that marks my own life at time. Lucas cannot talk back, but thinking about his lives gives me a way to articulate the questions I need to address. Here, perhaps, is one way in which historical work ‘lives on’ when we have finished and returned to life.