The Wood for the Trees

The Wood for the Trees

 

And what, you may well ask, has been happening with my official research project in between watching Parade’s End and musical tributes to Richard III?  Quite a lot as it happens, mainly involving list making.

 

The terrifying and exhilarating part of being at this early stage of a research project is the sheer number of potential sources and useful books that emerge as you start to delve into the subject.  No one, and I really mean no one, has written about the RAMC Other Ranks.  There is plenty of stuff about doctors and nurses but stretcher bearers and orderlies and ambulance drivers get a passing mention by academics or are completely subsumed in discussions of conscientious objectors.  Which isn’t to say that they didn’t write about themselves.  Many did, most notably Ernest Hemingway and Ward Muir, as well as many, many others whose letters and memoirs were never published but are now accessible in various archives.  All of which leaves me with a book and sources list that is now running to seven single-spaced pages and counting.

 

Even more excitingly my list making has uncovered the pleasing fact that the Special Collections at the Brotherton Library now includes the recently donated Bamji Collection of medical books relating to the First World War.  Having applied for my grant on the basis of the well-known Liddle Collection of First World War documents and artefacts, to suddenly have all this directly related material at my fingertips feels like serendipity.  Part of me is aching to get into the archive to start uncovering what it there.  Part of me is also scared.  How much of this mass of material will actually be useful remains unknown and it will take a lot of very hard work to properly investigate, assimilate and understand it all.  As I say, terrifying and exhilarating.

 

So I have been procrastinating on actually digging into the archive by making other lists: lists of speakers for a seminar I am helping to organise (although one of my co-organisers has proved to be list-maker extraordinary and put my efforts shame), lists of potential contributors to a special issue of a journal that I am trying to put together, lists of related projects and the bodies that might help fund them, lists of potential topics to be included in a call for papers for a conference I want to run.  At some point I am going to have to start actually doing something about these lists – reading books, sending e-mails, writing articles and reviews.  But that will have to wait for next week.  In the meantime I am revelling in all the exciting possibilities that my lovely lists represent.

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A musical interlude

My mother has just sent me this:

She thought I would be interested as I am a mild Ricardian, having been introduced to Josephine Tey’s The  Daughter of Time, as read  by Derek Jacobi, when I was about 14.  To be honest, Jacobi’s voice was, and still is, the primary appeal, but I do enjoy the book and I still find myself excited about the idea of history as a detective story, an investigation and uncovering of the ‘truth’.

What interested me most about the clip, however, was the fact that it is a Horrible Histories production.  Now, my two are still too young to watch the television show, although I have read some of the Horrible History books and several interviews with Terry Deary, who is depressingly rude about historians and history teachers.  But I was recently discussing the television programme with a friend whose older children apparently love it, and she herself finds it witty and amusing, so I was interested to see something of what I have been missing.

I have to admit that this clip does not allay any of my concerns about the programme as a teaching tool.  Yes, it does point out that Thomas More and Shakespeare (who based his play on More’s history) are biased sources.  But significantly it completely fails to present any sort of evidence, in however an amusing form, as to why the story we think we know about Richard is wrong.  Instead, it just asserts that he is not all the things that history has portrayed him as.

Having spent far too long commenting on undergraduate essays (and even the occasional professional monograph) about the problem of asserting rather than proving statements about the past, this worries me.  History as a discipline rests on the skill of marshalling sources to prove an argument.  Those sources may be suspect or biased.  They may appear mutually contradictory, particularly when they are personal narratives.  They are often problematic, which is why historians can carry on arguing about the same thing (Was Richard a good king or a monster? Was the First World War a futile waste of a generation or a principled defence of democracy?) generation after generation, as new evidence is uncovered or a new perspective is put forward.  Used properly historical evidence can change minds.  I have read very good arguments as to why Richard probably was a usurper who killed his nephews, based on evidence of his other actions prior their disappearance, which have moderated my earlier belief in his absolute innocence.  But if evidence does not form part of the discussion then what you get isn’t so much historical debate as something more like this:

This isn’t history so much as children squabbling in the playground.

So, I will continue to approach Horrible Histories with a certain amount of circumspection and make sure that when my children are old enough to watch it that we discuss how we know what we think we know about the past, as well as what that past actually may have been.

Parade’s End Again

Well, Downton Abbey is back on our screens. No, I haven’t watched the opening episode yet. My daughter has taken to waking up at 5:45 in the morning so I am currently retiring no later than 10 pm in self-defence. (You will probably start to notice a pattern in the interface between my home life and work revolving around the theme of sleep. Ah, the joys of motherhood!) Anyway, a review of the new season will have to wait until tomorrow at the earliest. In the meantime, I thought I would write a bit more about why I think Parade’s End is such a superb representation of the First World War.

After a great deal of thought, my primary conclusion is that the drama has had the good sense to stay out of the trenches for so long. Other than the glimpse at the end of the second episode (and arguably the brief scene in the slightly too quiet Casualty Clearing Station), all the action has been set firmly behind the lines, whether in England or Rouen. This is not to say that the war hasn’t been evident, but it has been beautifully subtle – the presence of a lorry of soldiers in the background, uniforms mingling with civilian dress, the female railway porter. Yes, the clichés are there – the clueless civilians for whom horses matter more than the lives of men, the general in his chateau behind the lines (although all the men are behind the lines as well at this point), the dangers of bombardment (with air raids substituting for artillery) – but shown in such a way as to demonstrate why they have become clichés. The myth of the war has its basis in reality. By allowing the mythic elements of the war narrative to emerge organically as the background to the story, rather than bludgeoning us over the head with them, this dramatization of a work of fiction demonstrates the complexity of the historical truth that First World War historians have been uncovering for a while now. Yes, there is a strong sense of disenchantment with the pettifogging rules and obsessions of the military with cleanliness (a theme that is very familiar from the numerous letters and memoirs that have formed the bulk of my research to date). And there is horror and pity and fear, particularly in evidence in the death of Oh Nine Morgan, but such emotions are only part of Christopher’s story. There is no disillusionment, at least not disillusionment with why he is fighting. Groby and Michael and above all Valentine, even the formal propriety of his marriage are still implicitly worth fighting for. And if they are not it is because they have already been undermined by social hypocrisy that predates the war, not simply because of his experience of warfare.

Much of this, of course, is inherent to the narrative. In my Everyman copy of the tetralogy the entire time in the trenches takes up 110 pages out of a total of 906. The focus of the novels is on the sense of continuity that Christopher embodies and the stresses that modern life place on his seventeenth-century rectitude. It is in choosing to remain loyal to this theme rather than attempting to shoe-horn the books into a more familiar understanding of what makes a First World War novel that this production is such a triumph.

All of which made me think of the BBC’s other big First World War adaptation this year. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulk’s 1993 novel about the war, was adapted by Abi Morgan and broadcast in January to a good deal of acclaim. As with any television adaptation, some aspects of the book had to be sacrificed to the time scale, here two hour-and-a-half long episodes. Morgan removed an entire subplot concerning a young woman researching her family history, an editorial decision that worked well in creating narrative coherence. However, she also chose to seriously underplay another subplot concerning the relationship between the sapper Jack Firebrace and his son, John, who dies of diphtheria during the course of the novel. It does get a brief mention but has nowhere near the emotional impact that it has in the novel where it beautifully illustrates the continuing relationship between home and fighting fronts that was so powerful a motivation for men to fight and continue fighting. Instead, the television play’s narrative chooses to focus on the disjunction between a golden idyll of passion in prewar France and the mud, blood and horror of the trenches in the same geographic area six years later. The war is a space solely of horror and disillusion and the only motive for fighting is the sense that the protagonist has nothing left to live for. This is the more traditional view of the war dramatized by many modern war novels, yet as a narrative it is much less powerful than that of Parade’s End. So while I enjoyed Birdsong (and thought that Joseph Mawle was excellent as Firebrace), it had nothing like the effect on me that Parade’s End is having. Whether that will continue to be true next week, when Tietjens actually enters the trenches, remains to be seen.

(I do realise that I got a little ahead of myself in my last post in saying that this past week’s episode dramatises A Man Could Stand Up -. It was, of course the second half of No More Parades, which means we are going to get very little, or a highly truncated version, of Last Post, which is a pity. As I say, there are always sacrifices to be made in adapting for television.)

Statement of Intent 1

Well, I ended up not watching Who Do You Think You Are? After a two-hour struggle with my daughter, whose molars are making their presence felt, followed by three hours of insomnia, by 9 pm the following day I was in no fit state to do anything more than collapse into bed.
In my long dark teatime of the soul, however, it did occur to me that following my comments on mud, blood and futility, a brief overview of my position as a First World War historian might not come amiss. Let me say first of all that I am not a military historian. I am first and foremost a social and cultural historian (emphasis generally on the cultural), a gender historian and, increasingly, a historian of medicine. My time period happens to be the First World War, so while I might call myself a First World War historian I am less interested in the specifics of strategy, tactics, arms or logistics except in as much as they are vital to questions of discipline, morale and what is generally referred to as ‘war experience’. Most ‘proper’ military historians would certainly not classify me among their number, and I have had my work sneered upon at least one occasion as not even being proper history, let alone military history. I am, however, from the generation of First World War historians that hopes to be learning from the previous generation, one which too often divided itself into ‘military’ and ‘cultural’ strands and then refused to speak to each other. Thankfully, major historians such as Adrian Gregory, Brian Bond and John Horne has striven to bridge the divide and those of us who have had the privilege of learning from them are increasingly demonstrating that integrating the two approaches to First World War history is incredibly fruitful. Thus military historians are widening their scope of understanding to include facets of war experience that extend beyond the confines of the battlefield, while cultural historians are honing their arguments through a more rigorous understanding of strategy, tactics, logistics and the like.
So, although, as I say, I would never classify myself as a military historian, I am a historian of war and, to the best of my ability, I attempt to underpin my cultural analyses with a solid understanding of the technical and strategic realities of warfare. As far as my current project is concerned, this means that, in addition to asking questions about what medical service meant to the individuals who served and how they constructed masculine identity, I am interested in recruitment, training and the practicalities of life serving in a Field Ambulance as opposed to a Base Hospital as opposed to a Home Hospital. Questions of military organization (which is turning out to be remarkably political when it comes to the medical services) and logistics are of particular importance.
The other way in which this desire to fuse military and cultural history influences my work is in my status as part of the ‘revisionist’ school of First World War historians. And here we get back to mud, blood and futility, the more traditional and popular view of the war. This argues that the war was the slaughter of a generation of young men by the elders, that all the generals were donkeys sending their lion-hearted men to the slaughter in pointless battles, that all soldiers suffered throughout the four years and that those who survived refused to talk about it when they got back because it was all so horrible. The revisionist position is that the war was neither futile nor a complete disaster. It was fought for a purpose, to stop German hegemony in Europe which would have been the hegemony of an autocracy, and while there were disastrous aspects and individual battles, lessons were learned over the course of the four plus years, the so-called ‘learning curve’. Nor was the experience for all and without exception entirely and unremittingly horrible, as my own work has shown. For many men who fought it was a formative experience in their lives, often terrifying, uncomfortable and sad, but also (and for many of the same men) exhilarating, exciting and fascinating. Morale in the British Army remained remarkably strong throughout, something which could not have happened if the experience was as consistently bleak as some portrayals would make it appear. And the huge number of memoirs, published and unpublished, of First World War experience seem to indicate that men were willing, even eager, to talk about their experiences. Whether British society, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the war when bereavement dominated cultural discourse, was willing to listen to them is another question.  None of this is said to imply that no one had horrific experiences or refused to talk or to denigrate those individual perspectives.  Disillusionment and horror were common and valid reactions to war experience, and grief was pretty much universal.  But they were not the only reactions to the war, and for some men not even the dominant ones.  And many of those who did experience the war in part as muddy, bloody and futile also found compensations in the comradeship and strength, both physical and emotional, that they discovered in others and themselves.
As far as my current project is concerned, the revisionist arguments about the learning curve seem to be applicable to military medicine as well as strategy and tactics. Certainly Mark Harrison argues that from 1916 both the logistics of evacuation and the medical treatments of various types of illness and wounds developed rapidly on the Western Front, although he points out that other fronts were much less successful in applying lessons learned. It will be interesting to see if this argument holds true for the training and employment of support staff and what influence it had on their level of expertise and morale as the war progressed.

Do I dare?

I don’t normally watch Who Do You Think You Are? unless I have a particular interest in the person investigating their past (so Nigella Lawson, Jeremy Irons, Patrick Stewart and not many more).  But tomorrow night’s show features Hugh Dennis (the Dennis of Punt and Dennis and one of the creators of Radio 4’s The Now Show, a weekly favourite in our household.)  According to the previews, he will exploring the First World War experience of his grandfathers, one a former miner who was commissioned, the other a survivor of an attack that decimated his battalion.  A clip of the programme can be found here.

Normally I would be very interested in watching this, but at least one preview I have read quotes Dennis as saying ‘It was just a sort of muddy, bloody, horrifying mess.  I’m glad now understand the landscape.  I have a better feeling for what it was like and how awful it was.  I now understand entirely why neither of my grandfathers wanted to talk about the war.  It was unremitting in its awfulness.’  This is as clear a description of ‘mud, blood and futility’ view of the war as you could hope to find.  As someone who has spent most of her career arguing that this view of the war is a very limited one and that most men who fought had a more complex and nuanced view of their experiences, just reading this is enough to send my blood pressure up.  At the same time, one quotation from one preview is probably not enough evidence to go on (although I do also have the evidence of popular British television’s previous form in its portrayal of war experience).

So the question is, do I watch the programme and risk annoying my husband by shouting at the television by doing so?  Or do I give it a miss for the sake of domestic harmony and potentially fail to challenge my own prejudices about programmes about the war? What to do?

Parade’s End

OK, hands up, who is loving Parade’s End on the BBC?  Yes, that would be me, and not only because of the presence of not just the amazing Benedict Cumberbatch but, for two glorious episodes, Rufus Sewell as well.  All the acting is excellent, especially Cumberbatch (as I knew he would be from the moment the casting was announced) and the luminous Adelaide Clemens as Valentine. The visuals are also superb, especially the use of Vorticist fracturing and mirroring to portray movement and multiple perspectives. But what I am really loving is how brilliantly the production is evoking all the emotions I felt when reading the books – fury at the hypocrisy of society, the humour of the golf course scene, the huge affection that Tietjens and Valentine engender, despite him being, on the surface, an extremely irritating individual, the pity and horror of Tietjen’s father’s suicide.  I haven’t read the books in years, not since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on them, but it is testament to the power of both the original source and the adaptation that I am feeling such vivid sensations of recognition with every episode.

At the moment, my only quibble, and it has the potential to be quite a serious one, is with the characterization of Rebecca Hall’s Sylvia Tietjens.  I initially thought that it didn’t work because of the need to focus so much on Sylvia’s back story in the first half hour of the first episode, a section not lifted directly from the book’s fractured narrative.  To me this was the weakest part of the production so far, although the introduction of Tietjen’s love for Michael was beautifully done.  Reading an interview with the director, Susanna White, however, I have discovered that she has chosen deliberately to portray Sylvia as more vulnerable and sympathetic than in the book, a decision that I am not sure works.  In the books, Sylvia is a first class bitch with no redeeming features and is recognized as such.  Any inconsistencies in attitudes and behaviours can be attributed to her personality.  By making her more sympathetic, White and Hall have also made Sylvia harder to understand and have undermined her ability to power the narrative.  When set alongside the fabulously hypocritical and vicious Edith Duchemin (now MacMasters), she fades as a character, which makes it that much harder to understand the hold she has over both Tietjens and the rest of her male attendants.  Next week, however, we have A Man Could Stand Up – where her relationship with Tietjens takes precedence over his with Valentine, so maybe my doubts will be laid to rest.  I do hope so, because there are so many reasons why this is the best dramatization of British society in the First World I have ever seen, which I will be discussing in a future post.

Amanda Vickery on … Men

I have been listening to this BBC Radio 4 programme on iPlayer for the past few weeks and more or less enjoying it.  The premise is that the historian Amanda Vickery examines six archetypes of masculinity, the knight, the gentleman, the lover, the sailor, the explorer and the suits, through a combination of historical experts and readings from primary sources.  This past week, the explorer, was especially fun for me as it included contributions from Max Jones, my former PhD supervisor, and John Tosh, with whom I have worked.

In general, the programme works well, although the conclusion at the end of episode two, that men defined themselves as much in relation to other men as to women was something of a ‘duh’ moment for me, although that is me talking as an historian of masculinty.  There are, however, some bigger problems with I am having with the programme.  The first of these is the association of each archetype with a particular period in history: the knight with the middle ages, the gentleman with the Renaissance, the lover with the eighteenth century, the sailor with the early nineteenth century, the explorer with the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and the suit with the mid-twentieth century.  Archetype does, of course, refer to the prototype, the original pattern on which all subsequent types are based, so examining the period of emergence is what the programme sets out to do.  But surely to understand the significance of any one archetype to our current view of masculinity we need to see how the pattern developed over time?  In other words we should probably think about the reimagining of the knight and courtly love in the nineteenth century to grasp the full significance of the twelfth century model to our ideas about masculinity and its cultural significance.

My second gripe is about the archetypes chosen for discussion.  All of them are archetypes of public masculinity, with the possible exception of the lover, the discussion of which included the most fabulous diary of a Manchester wigmaker who noted down every time (and position) he had sex with his wives (there were four in total).  Given the argument that men have, over time, defined themselves as much in relation to other men as to women, it seems odd not to have looked at what those other types of masculinity might be.  Especially in light of John Tosh’s contribution this past week, where he argues that the explorer was a form of escape from the domestic, why have we not heard about the archetype of the husband and father or patriarch?  For that matter, after the knight and the sailor, where are the scholar, the craftsman or engineer, the administrator?  Above all, if you are going to discuss the lover as a masculine archetype that is defined against woman, why is there nothing on the householder, the ultimate archetype of mature masculinity that separates the man from the boy throughout modern history? As far as I can see, the archetypes have been chosen to illustrate the thesis that men define themselves primarily within all-male hierarchies, a reasonable argument but definitely not the whole story.  So, here is to the return of an interesting series with an expanded cast of men (and their others) in the future.