Additions and Ornaments to the Bare Grant of a Living: Elizabeth Gaskell, the ‘Manchester Guardian’ and Cultural Value in 1914

When doing some research for a small project I am involved in, I came across this wonderful passage on the value of the arts in the Manchester Guardian, written in the context of a campaign to purchase Mrs Gaskell’s house for the city after her daughter, Meta, had died in 1913. It is quite long, but speaks for itself:

Projects of this kind cannot be forced. If a city does not care about such things they must be left to cities that do. But it is a pity. It means a real loss, the “scrapping” of a rare and irreplaceable commodity. Almost everyone who knows how to read has delighted in some book of Mrs. GASKELL’S, and most of those who have done so would find a keen, curious pleasure in seeing the rooms where she lived and handling the things that used to be everyday in her hands. One always feels this way towards a great artist whose work has really found its way into our minds. For our relation to any great artist whom we can understand is one of the most intimate of human relations; in some ways we know more about the inmost mind of CHARLOTTE BRONTE or of SHELLEY than we know of our closest living friends. And so our minds have good reason to be delighted and touched by little material relics and surroundings of these intense intimates of our own …

Some people say this is not “practical”. They feel it is “practical” to spend money out of the rates in order to give our trade the help of the Ship Canal. They feel it is practical, too, for the city to help its men of business get to town in the morning. But what do they go into town for, and what is the aim of our trade? Is it not mainly to  get the means to live some parts of our lives, other than the business parts, in the way which seems to us happiest? And, by civilised people, a good part of happiness is sought in some such stir of the heart and the mind as they can obtain from music, from books, from pictures, from the play and sparkle of the human spirit when it is animated above itself, as it is in all great art, as it was in MRS. GASKELL … contact with work like hers, or even the place where she did it, sets light to our faculties too. We are kindled; we get the best hours, perhaps, of our days; we are, while the charm holds, the beings that we would wish always to be. To open the way to these moments of release and vision, to gain these additions and ornaments to the bare grant of a living, we catch early trains and dig ship canals; we spend half of our lives in taking means to that end; and then, when there comes a chance to grasp at the end directly, someone is sure to say that this is not “practical,” and that the only thing to do is to stick to the means and pooh-pooh the end. Probably such counsels will prevail in the City Council to-morrow, and in a few years, when MRS. GASKELL’S house has been pulled down, some inferior substitute for it will be expensively acquired and made a memorial of.

(Manchester Guardian, 3.2.1914, p. 8)

It may be a little Arnoldian for some tastes, but isn’t it beautiful? While the author was correct that practicality would prevail and that the Council would not buy the house, they were thankfully wrong about it being pulled down. By the hard work of many volunteers and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, Elizabeth Gaskell’s house at Plymouth Grove is currently being restored and will open to the public next year. Then Mancunians will get the chance to ‘gain these additions and ornaments to the bare grant of a living’ at last.

For more information on the Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, visit this website: http://www.elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/

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Probably there are many different explanations as to what love really is …

Lyn and I have had two years of married life together – we married at a very difficult time, yet I would not change the life for any other – it gives me a sense of security, one feels with a partner to look to nothing is too big to accomplish … our main consideration is one another. A desire to see the other happy – and in that Lyn and I have so far succeeded – my most earnest wish is that I can continue to live with her in happiness.

Probably there are many different explanations as to what love really is … I should say that the most important factor is concern over the partner – an anxiety as to what she is doing and how she is faring …

I thank her for giving me this happiness, thank her with so deep a gratitude – never have I felt so contented with life yet never so full of confidence, as now.

 

Frank Forster, autodidact and Communist, attempts to define love in 1943. I was reminded of this quote by this great little film by Claire Langhamer about her forthcoming book about the history of love. I should probably also declare that Forster’s words have their own special significance in my own history of love and marriage, as they were read at my wedding …

For more about Frank Forster, see these posts:

https://misplacedhabits.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/diaries-archives-and-value/

https://misplacedhabits.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/the-greatly-varied-procession-of-phenomena-reflecting-on-history-and-the-everyday/

And do check out Claire Langhamer’s book, which will be excellent.

 

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Reading Historical Literature Critically: Tips For Success

I’ve had a few lecturers ask me if they can use the reading advice that I posted on twitter a few weeks ago in workshops with students, so I have decided to put it on my blog to make it easier to share. Not only I am happy for people to use this material with their students, I’d like to encourage it, because I think it is very difficult for students when they are told to ‘think critically’. It’s quite a vague and abstract instruction. What practical steps can you take to make it easier to do this? The below was my attempt to lay this out for my students. It’s not exhaustive, of course, and should be adapted to your own working methods, but it least gives some practical ideas. Please do add your own tips in the comments.

Reading: Approaching Historical Literature Critically

Students occasionally can be overwhelmed by their reading and try to cram every fact that they have come across into their essay. Sometimes students think that they should keep on reading and reading and reading until everything becomes absolutely clear in their head … In my experience, this rarely helps and can sometimes become a form of procrastination in itself (even if well-meaning procrastination!). You need to be more focused in your reading to get the most out of it. Here are some tips gleaned both from my own experience of writing history and those of my students.

Feely’s Five Point Plan to Reading Success

1. Start with broad texts on your chosen subject, paying particular attention to the introduction, conclusion, tables of contents, etc. You can read more carefully for detail later; at this point you should be thinking about what the key arguments of the book/article are and how they relate to other reading and your own developing thoughts about the topic. Reading a few reviews of a book can also help you to see the ‘big picture’.

2. At this relatively early stage, sit down and write a couple of bullet points (or a mind map, if you’re that way inclined) about the overall picture of the topic you are starting to form and the key questions you have identified. This can be – should be – very rough and little of it will make it into your finished essay, but the key thing to remember is that writing actually helps you to develop your ideas. Research and writing are not separate activities; you should see them as part of one and the same process.

3. When you have a clearer idea of your own thoughts, you can now start reading in more detail, making notes that particularly relate to the questions you want to answer. To ensure that you engage with your reading critically, don’t just write down ‘the facts’ you come across: always think about why certain examples are used over others, how they relate to the author’s overall argument, cross reference with other texts, etc. It’s a good idea to perhaps jot down these thoughts in a different coloured pen, to differentiate your own words from direct quotation. A student of mine has recently started following every note she makes with a note explaining why she’s written it down. It’s a wonderfully simple idea but one that really helps to prevent you making irrelevant notes and getting overwhelmed by ‘stuff’.

4. When you’ve finished a book/article, it’s a really good idea to write a sentence or two, in your own words, that sum up the main argument you think the author is trying to make. Do this NOW, while the material is fresh in your mind. You will thank yourself later when you have at least a few sentences to use as the basis for parts of your essay.

5. Now go back to your original bullet points/mind map and see if your ideas have changed, or if you can refine them. Start to make a more detailed plan, drawing from the notes you have made. This plan is now the basic first draft of your essay. Writers sometimes call this their ‘zero draft’. It might be messy, and you will probably still need to do more reading, but the key point is that it exists. You’re no longer staring at a blank screen and the anxiety that entails.

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‘The greatly varied procession of phenomena’: reflecting on history and the everyday

A short post just because I want to note something that came to mind today while gatecrashing a wonderful workshop led by Amber Regis on the ‘everyday’ for Storying Sheffield. As Amber talked about how Henri Lefebvre claimed that, despite only leaving a ‘scanty residue’, everyday life should be considered a ‘complex totality’, I was reminded – as I all too often am – of Frank Forster’s diaries. (You can read more about Forster’s diaries in this earlier blog post and by following the link to a longer article from this page.)

It was reading Forster’s diaries, I think, that convinced me that even the most momentous historical events have to be considered as part of what Virginia Woolf called ‘the cotton wool of daily life’. A very short entry from 1939 (Forster was experimenting with brevity; it did not last) is a stark and poetic illustration of this:

Belgrave Avenue Thurs 16.3.39
Another rough day
Still at Sealand
Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia

In his diary, Forster brings together the seemingly mundane and the momentous, and ponders the relationship between them. This was no accident, but something that he was clearly aware of and that motivated his writing. Indeed, in an earlier entry Forster writes about this relationship more clearly than any theorist on everyday life I’ve ever read, so I shall give him the last word (by the ‘study of thinking’ Forster is referring to his recent interest in the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism):

(Wednesday October 9, 1935) Although outwardly and indeed to a greater degree there does not seem to be any change in me since I have begun in the study of thinking, I feel, in myself, greatly different from what I did previous to beginning to study … Because of this I feel much more confident, confident in at least knowing of a way of interpreting the greatly varied procession of phenomena which forms the activity of everyday life as well as being part of the activity of greater events.

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Making Students Jump: Materiality, Movement and Embodiment

Yesterday, I took part in an excellent History Lab Plus event on ‘Starting Out in Social History’ at the University of Edinburgh, which particularly focused on designing research-led teaching, inheriting modules and making them your own and how to build networks, both within and beyond your department. There was a lot of great discussion and Lucie Matthews-Jones’ comments on blogging, in particular, made me think about starting this blog up again. I think I’m going to use this blog as a digital notebook, as and when a thought comes to me that I want to record, much like one of my favourite history blogs The Trickster Prince. I’m not going to follow the rules about posting regular posts and obsess about building my audience. If you like what I write, great. But I’m just here to record moments that I want to remember.

In Ronnie Scott’s excellent talk on research-led teaching and engaging learners in later life, he explained the importance of getting out of the classroom. In Ronnie’s courses on all manner of aspects of the history of Glasgow, he uses the visual and material culture of the city to inspire deep learning in his students. Often, he explained, this kind of experiential learning can be an emotional experience and one that motivates students to learn more. Ronnie’s talk really chimed with me and how much I had learned about teaching history, just this very week, in just a couple of seconds watching some of my students at the Kelham Island Industrial Museum in Sheffield.

The special subject that I am teaching this semester is Britain’s Social Revolution: Welfare, State and Society, c. 1870-1914. The course is based on primary documents, and we have looked at parliamentary papers, newspapers, autobiographies, photographs and film, amongst many other sources. But last Monday, I saw the most incredible thing happen: I saw a ‘source’ make my students jump.

Kelham Island houses the River Don Steam Engine, the most powerful working steam engine remaining in Europe (you can watch a video of it working here). Before the engine started up, the students dutifully read the panels on the walls explaining its dimensions and asked me a few questions about steam power. It was clear that steam power was something that was very abstract for most of them and I could see a few looks of confusion on their faces. Three of them made their way to the very front to get closer to the engine as it slowly cranked into life. Suddenly, after this gentle build-up, the machine went into full pelt and I watched as the three of them, in unison, all jumped back from the engine in fright. They had felt its power in their bodies and been enveloped by its noise and rhythms. In just a few seconds, they had learned something that could never have been conveyed in a lecture or a seminar discussion. Although the museum, of course, is a curated environment and removes the engine from its original context and purpose, the experience of feeling its vibrations coursing through you is deep and – literally – moving. As they jumped, my students were making a mental as well as a physical leap as, one of them told me afterwards, it made what they had been studying in the classroom ‘feel real’.

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Diaries, Archives and ‘Value’

Last night, I stumbled upon a wonderful Radio 4 programme called ‘The Man Who Saves Life Stories’. This was about the ‘diary rescuer’ Irving Finkel and his attempt to find a home for his manuscript diary collection (Update: this is now available on youtube and is as delightful the second time around). One word which kept recurring throughout the programme was ‘value’; various participants talked about the value of diaries to archivists, historians or book dealers, and this was distinct from the ‘value’ of the diaries in themselves.

Irving talked about the case of a friend – a dealer in odds and ends – who tried to sell a lifetime of diaries of one man (a man called Godfrey) to a museum. He explained that the museum was only interested in the volumes that concerned the world wars and this meant that the collection, spanning decades, would have been split up and ‘less interesting volumes’ perhaps thrown away. This chimed with my experience of researching Frank Forster’s diaries, which are split across two repositories (that we know about; I refuse – because it would make me cry – to think about if some diaries may have been thrown away because the period or events depicted were not considered significant). The diaries spanning from 1939-1944 are kept by the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum, while diaries dating from 1934 to 1938 are at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick.

Apart from the fact that some of these diaries happen to have been produced during the Second World War, there is no intrinsic reason why these diaries should have been split up. They are written by the same man, deal with similar issues and the first volume at the IWM starts a short period after the last at the MRC concludes. There is no natural break between them in terms of Forster’s life; the break is an external one, the fact that war is on the immediate horizon. The diaries were therefore thought of as having ‘value’ by an archive that, quite understandably, concentrates on war experience.

The IWM finding aid, however, is very revealing about the supposed ‘value’ of Forster’s diaries. Neither the IWM nor the MRC catalogue explain the whereabouts of the other diaries – I found the IWM diaries in a Google search – but there is a reference to other diaries in the summary:

The ten diaries not held by this Museum concentrate on Forster’s disillusion with the Capitalist system and his support for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936). They are quite turgid and dull, and reflect the hopelessness of his situation … In contrast the eight diaries catalogued here are more palatable, although still weighed down by ponderous views on Communism and society. (Private papers of F P Forster, Imperial War Museum, 88/37/1)

This is very problematic. The other diaries are roundly dismissed as ‘turgid and dull’, not only because they do not deal with war, but in their style and content. The cataloguer (writing in the mid-1990s) also laments that the IWM diaries have a significant gap between November 1939 and December 1942 and ‘[u]nfortunately the main events of the Blitz on England occurred within these dates’. Even Forster’s war diaries, then, have limited value for the cataloguer, because they do not cover the larger events that they are most interested in.

This is not to criticise the IWM, which is one of the best archives I have ever visited and still the only archive to have sent me an actual proper letter (from the Head Keeper himself) to say thank you for an offprint and to wish me well in my doctoral studies. Rather it is to talk about the various value judgements about personal documents made by a whole chain of people before they get anywhere near the historian, who then gets to make a whole set of value judgements of his or her own: the relative or friend who helps clear out a house; the dealer in ephemera who tries to find a buyer; the archivist who scans lists of items in search of something that fits their remit. As Irving Finkel says, these are frail documents, frail because there are so many stages at which they can be dismissed as having little or no value.

Forster actually had his own ideas about the possible value of his diaries and, actually, the more I ponder them, the more I think that they are not as far removed from those of the IWM archivist as I initially thought:

The more I think of the idea the more I like the sound of it- I mean that of keeping a diary as an account of the life and happenings in the Army when I am called up – I am now very  expert as a diarist and with the stuff which will be recorded having a direct bearing on events which loom so large in the eyes of people, all this will go to making the diary a thing of value – its publication will be an event. (IWM 88/37/1, 22.10.39)

For Forster, the value of the diaries is connected to ‘events which loom so large in the eyes of people’, in this case the war. But, of course, the ‘eyes of people’ change. Historians are not as interested in ‘events’ as much as they once were, but more in the very creation of self, the self that considers that he is ‘now very expert as a diarist’. Finkel articulated it very well when he said that nobody can anticipate what people will find ‘valuable’ several decades hence. And archivists, too, have changed, as Stef Dickers of the Bishopsgate Institute, which is going to give a home to Irving Finkel’s collection, showed.

Dickers ended the programme with a rousing call to arms: ‘Let’s rock!’

I, for one, can hardly wait.

UPDATE: Irving Finkel is giving a talk about the Great Diary Project at the Bishopsgate Institute on November 10th for the Public History discussion group. More details here: http://oralhistorynoticeboard.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/the-public-history-discussion-group-2012-2013-bishopsgate-institute-london/

For more on Irving Finkel’s collection see: http://www.thegreatdiaryproject.co.uk/public_html/

The Bishopsgate Institute can be found here: http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/

For more by me on Frank Forster’s diaries see : http://hwj.oxfordjournals.org/content/69/1/90.abstract (this is behind a paywall; please contact me if you do not have access but would like to read it)

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Blogs, Social Media and the Conference Experience

Despite the title of this blog, writing in it hasn’t become a habit at all. Reading Lucinda Matthews-Jones’ write up of a roundtable on blogging at a recent conference, I began to think about why my blog was so badly neglected. I think it is because I let it become academic work: ‘another thing that needed to be added to the list’, as Lucie puts it.  In thinking that my blog posts had to be profound mini-articles, I felt a bit inhibited. I was reminded of one of my subjects, Frank Forster, and his attempt to make his diary ‘a literary work’ rather than a record of his daily life. This was a decision that he almost immediately reversed, and I’m tempted to do the same.

I’ve realised that one of the best things about blogs is about how they can be part of a wider conversation and that, in my attempt to produce little nuggets of individual introspection, I was perhaps missing the point of the medium. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue to talk about sources and theory here, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing that I address. So today’s post is about the last few conferences I’ve spoken at and the ways in which online interaction has transformed my experience of them.

First was the wonderful Unofficial Histories conference, organised by Fiona Cosson and Ian Gwinn and held at the Bishopsgate Institute in London on May 19th. I wasn’t supposed to be presenting at this conference but stepped in at the last minute to fill a gap left by someone who was unable to give their paper. I would have been attending anyway, but I was glad to give a paper on the diaries of Frank Forster again, after some time away from him. Every talk I attended was very thought-provoking, and highlights for me included Rosa Ainley’s talk on the ‘unauthorised biography’ of a suburban semi-detached house (2 Ennerdale Drive), Hilda Kean on public history, Alison Ronan on anti-war women in Manchester during WW1, and Andrew Flinn on workers’ libraries and archives.

What struck me about this conference was how my experience of it was enhanced by social media, particularly twitter, and blogs. Fiona was very successful at promoting the conference hashtag and several attendees were live-tweeting the conference throughout the day. I find it difficult to concentrate on a conference and tweet at the same time, but it was great to find that, after we got home, several of us started following each other on twitter and the conversation continued. Alongside the private e-mail correspondence and personal conversations was a much more public, if unofficial, record of the conference, such as in these blog posts by Hilda Kean and Rosa Ainley.

This was also true of the Writing Lives symposium organised by Hannah Andrews at the University of Warwick on May 25th. This was an excellent and really inspiring day, and a truly interdisciplinary one, with perspectives from history, literature, film and television, education and many more subjects. I spoke in the afternoon session, which allowed for the traditional post-lunch dip in concentration with short and snappy ten minute presentations. I talked about Frank Forster again, but in a much more personal and reflective vein. This was probably my favourite talk I have given to date, because I felt that I was speaking very honestly about what drives me as a historian and about the real anxieties of ‘using’ past lives for my own ends. The round table discussion that followed was lively and stimulating and, because it was recorded, has gone beyond the conference itself. Like the Unofficial Histories conference, this was live-tweeted – you can see all the tweets in a Storify here – and I was delighted to see, after a long and traumatic train journey, that many other speakers and attendees had followed me on twitter, where the connections and conversation continues …

Finally, this Saturday, I presented a paper at ‘The Book Through Time’ conference at Merton College, Oxford, organised by the Book History Research Network and the Merton History of the Book Group. This was, perhaps, less technologically ‘wired’ than the other two conferences but, as BHRN days always are, a very friendly and intellectually stimulating day. There are two things in particular that I love about book history conferences. The first is the vast chronological range you tend to see represented, from medieval manuscripts to e-readers. The second is that, invariably, conference organisers make a real effort to build in a practical workshop or visit into the programme. On this occasion, I attended a printing demonstration at Paul Nash’s Bodleian Printing Workshop, currently housed at the Story Museum. I’ve seen letterpress printing demonstrated a number of times, but Paul is incredible at explaining the process in both a learned and accessible way. As Paul stood in front of the compositing cases, I thought of the poor compositors setting Das Kapital, who were simply not fast or accurate enough to satisfy Marx.

Due to other commitments, these are the last conferences that I will be speaking at this summer. But due to the conversations that started or were continued at these conferences –  and that are still being sparked by further discussions on social media and blogs –  it’s been a very fruitful couple of weeks.

I will try to squeeze the odd blog post in somewhere too, but I can’t (and won’t) promise a ‘literary work’.

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