Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I bought these three scrapbooks online a few years ago. There are three of them, each full of individual photographs and pages cut from magazines and newspapers and laboriously pasted into albums. All of the cuttings are of the stars of silent cinema. Turn the pages and you go behind-the-scenes to witness the discussions between director and actor “before the scene is filmed”; there are the season’s latest fashionable hats,“ posed by the English-born actress Dorothy MacKaill; further on Mary Miles Minter appears in a series of studio portraits and publicity stills – on set and “on the fashionable Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles”; Ronald Colman and Blanche Sweet get up close and personal in The Sporting Venus (1925). Usually cuttings of an actor or actress are collated onto a single page—Richard Dix, Dorothy Gish, or little Jackie Coogan—though some pages focus on a particular film or contain a single striking image. From what I can tell from the films and stars gracing their pages, the albums were put together in the first few years of the 1920s. The stylized art deco fonts and blue tints on many images suggest they were cut from the early fan magazines Picturegoer and Picture Show.
I’ve never done anything with these scrapbooks. I paid over two hundred quid for them, squabbling right to the bitter end in an online auction because I had to have them. They’re one of the most fantastic bits of 1920s ephemera I own. But they’re also one of the most enigmatic and frustrating. Don’t get me wrong: I have at least some idea of what’s going on here. Or, perhaps, I think I do—seeing them as rich material evidence of one young woman’s imaginative engagement with the alluring pleasures of 1920s consumerism. Implicit here is a story about how people spent their leisure time, of the affluence that at least some men and women experienced after the Great War, and the rapid expansion of new forms of commercial leisure embodied by the picture palace and the fan magazine. Implicit, too, is a story about the changing relationship between the local and the global—of vibrant forms of transnational cultural exchange. Here, perhaps, we see how cinemagoing could be incorporated into everyday life and enacted as the desire to be “as glorious as Theda Bara.” Perhaps—and though I can speculate on what is going on here I have no idea where the scrapbooks are from, nor who spent so much time lovingly creating them. No provenance means I’ve never done anything with them, and so they sit on my bookshelves gathering dust.
All of this says something about my practice as a historian and, in particular, the way in which my starting point is so often an individual life or story. As I revised the manuscript that became Queer London I tried to begin each chapter with an individual life—Cyril, who only became queer when he moved to the metropolis, and found both pleasures and perils in the vibrant nightlife represented by the Caravan Club, or Ronald Hutton, who found comradeship and self-knowledge cruising the West End. Their stories were framing devices, setting up the bigger arguments I wanted to make about the relationship between sexual desire and the modern city. That book passed over them quickly—too quickly—and brushed over the complexities of their lives in ways that pain me now. That hasn’t been a mistake I’ve made since, however. Looking back over the essays I have written since then and a pattern emerges. I have explored the relationship between cosmetics, selfhood and the law with a railway porter from the Rhondda Valley; together with Edith Thompson I have tried to understand how reading cheap fiction could be incorporated into the rhythms and struggles of everyday life; chasing Josephine O’Dare through her criminal deceptions and dealings with the tabloids has been my way of considering the shifting relationship between self-fashioning and mass culture; so has introducing O’Dare (metaphorically) to the matricidal conman Sydney Harry Fox. Now, to cap it all off, I am writing a book about the confidence trickster, journalist, and royal biographer known—among many other things—as Netley Lucas. The project didn’t start out like that, I promise, but it has become yet another piece of historical work focused upon an individual life or story. Yes, there is a pattern here: as a historian I am clearly a one-trick pony.
Why? I was trained as a social historian, and in many ways my focus on the individual reflects the emphasis on reinstating the ordinary, the everyday, or the unknown at the centre of historical analysis. I make no claims for the importance of rescuing the gentleman crook from the enormous condescension of posterity; nor would I pretend that many of the figures I have worked on are anything other than extraordinary. Still, I have focused on them often because of the rich sources generated around their lives, and in so doing I have tried to show how those lives have the capacity to enrich our understanding of the past. There are, I hope, an ethics and a politics behind this insistence on the importance of the individual.
Why? I became a cultural historian, and in many ways my focus on the individual reflects my interest in exploring the relationship between self-fashioning, social relations and cultural forms. This has meant I have engaged critically with the assumption that “experience” is an unproblematic category of analysis that can be uncovered (or recovered) through diligent archival research. Instead, in placing Josephine O’Dare or Edith Thompson in the social, economic, cultural and material worlds they inhabited—to say nothing of their interpersonal relationships and social networks—I have tried to understand the dynamic processes through which they were fashioned as individuals who see and be in the world.
Why? In focusing upon a life or story I am not simply interested in questions of identity or on the individual as an atomized unit divorced from collectivities of class, gender, race and ethnicity or sexuality. Following the lives of individual men in Queer London I tried to understand how categories of sexual normality and difference took shape, how those categories were fractured by differences of class or age, and—most importantly—how those processes were lived and understood. Edith Thompson and Netley Lucas are strange flamboyant figures in many ways. In focusing on their lives in context, however, I hope we can learn more about the social and material worlds and commercialized forms of mass culture that reshaped the lives of all Britons in the decade after the Great War. I have never done anything with those three scrapbooks, but that does not mean I won’t stop trying.
This blog is part of my ongoing attempts to share the process of writing a book from behind the scenes. You can find out more about the project here.