Introducing … Men, Women and Care

It has been nearly five months, I realise, since I started my new project, and I have yet to formally introduce it to the public.  There are reasons for this.  Much of the past five months has involved rather more administrative work discussing the project than actual research.  And even then there doesn’t seem to be a great deal to show for it.  The website is still being built, I am still working out the nuts and bolts of the project’s centrepiece, the team is still being recruited.  But last week we made the first formal appointment to that team, a skeleton website should be up and running soon, and we are on the cusp of the new teaching semester, so now seemed a propitious moment for slightly more formal introductions. So here goes.

Star and Garter poster

Fundraising Poster for the British Red Cross Star & Garter Home

Men, Women and Care: The gendering of formal and informal care in interwar Britain is a European Research Council Starting Grant funded research project based in the School of History at the University of Leeds.  Over five years, it will explore the ways in which the State, charities and, above all, the family provided medical and social care to disabled ex-servicemen in the aftermath of the First World War, particularly the relationships which developed between these three groups in the course of care provision.  It asks how State, medical and charitable institutions, often dominated by men, interacted with the wives, mothers and sisters who found themselves caring for men who had suffered life-altering wounds and illnesses as a result of their war experiences and how these interactions shaped social and cultural understandings of care-giving as a gendered practice.

At the heart of the project is the creation of a database of the material held in PIN 26, the section of The National Archives which contains nearly 23,000 First World War pension award files.  This is not a digitisation project; many files contain medical records which it would not be ethical to digitise.  Rather, the database will collect demographic information and give an indication of what supplementary material the files contain.  This will allow for both quantitative analysis of the entire sample, as well as helping researchers identify relevant files for further qualitative analysis.  The project will work closely with The National Archives to enable the database to be made freely and publicly accessible upon completion.

In addition to working with the National Archives, the project is looking to build relationships with local, national and international partners to explore how this research might shape and be shaped by contemporary understandings of medical and social care provision, particularly in relation to the role of the family.  The project itself is a central element of the Medicine and War strand of the Legacies of War research and engagement hub based at the University of Leeds, and we are looking forward to building on the strong relationships and innovative work that Legacies of War has developed since its inception.

The Men, Women and Care team, at present, is made up of me as principal investigator and Alexia Moncrieff, who will join as postdoctoral researcher fellow over the summer.  Currently completing her PhD on the Australian Army Medical Services in the First World War at the University of Adelaide, Alexia’s research for the project will focus on the ‘Overseas’ subsection of PIN 26, to explore how ideas of distance shaped the provision of care by different institutions.  We are also in the process of recruiting two PhD candidates who will start their research on related questions in October.  Given the richness of the PIN 26 archive, as well as the range of related material in the archives of local government, charitable institutions and personal narratives, I am very interested in hearing from anyone who would like to collaborate or contribute.

As I say, there will be, in the near future, a project website and Twitter feed (@WW1PensionsCare – as soon as Twitter allows me to register it).  Please bookmark and follow us to see how we develop and do get in touch if you want to find out more.

 

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Easing into the new year

Due to a teacher training day at my son’s school, today is my first day back at my desk since the Christmas holidays.  After two and a half weeks of combined childcare and hosting family, this comes as something of a relief, despite the fact that a misremembered date has left me with a book chapter to complete in less than a month.  In fact, January is going to be pretty writing intensive, with a couple of book reviews due at the same time, as well as my sole New Year’s resolution, to draft or redraft a chapter a month until I get my book completed and sent to a publisher.

SherlockOn the theory that writing breeds writing, I am going to embark on this rigorous schedule with a blog post about … the New Year’s Day episode of Sherlock (BBC1). (Beware spoilers from here on in.) I don’t even really have the excuse of doing this with my historian’s hat on.  I make no pretensions to being a proper Victorianist, but I am, alongside my First World War expertise, a historian of popular culture with a specialism in detective fiction and it is as such that am going to make so bold as to comment.

I am also, of course, a gender historian so let me start off by saying that, as far as the ‘mansplaining’ debate which convulsed portions of Twitter in the wake of this episode, I agree entirely with Camilla Ulleland Hoel, who articulates why this is not an example of men silencing women far more eloquently than I can.  I do, however, take one slight issue with her reading of the episode, and that is in her comments on the ‘the pointy hats of Ku Klux Klan (in order to create an echo, I assume, to the orange pips story)’.  Because I am fairly sure that the entire set up to the scene was not a gratuitous KKK reference, but rather one to the 1985 film The Young Sherlock Holmes, directed by Barry Levinson, a film which, aged 12, frightened me into nightmares for months (no, I was not very sophisticated and rather too imaginative for my own good).

And that is what I loved about the episode.  Yes, there were the many, many references to the Sherlock canon.  But there were also the references to the much wider field of Sherlockiana, including Watson’s suggestion for ‘The Monstrous Regiment’ as a potential title for the episode, one that has already been used by Laurie R. King as the title for one of her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, an explicitly feminist reworking of the tradition.  And then there was the plot, not simply a metafictional phantasmagoria but also a spoof on Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth (1970), itself part of a long line of spoofs on the detective fiction tradition, which Conan Doyle arguable founded, stretching back through the entire 20th century.

I picked up three references, but I am sure there were many, many more which I missed, given that it is some years since I have been properly involved with Sherlockiana and the field has developed hugely since then (a couple more can be found here).  My guess is that most of these conceits were the contribution of Mark Gatiss rather than Steven Moffat.  Gatiss’s writing, whether on Sherlock, Dr Who or the ridiculously clever clever and very funny Lucifer Box series, always gives me the disquieting if rather pleasing sense that here is a man who shares my somewhat obscure frame of reference when it comes to popular culture.  Which probably just means that my very limited and specialised frame of reference also happens to be a very small subset of his far, far larger one.  This is a man, after all, who, as Hoel points out, is as happy incorporating a Victorian music hall stage trick into his plots as he is with referencing semi-obscure mid-to-late 20th century plays and novels.

The delight of all this to me, beyond the comfortable smugness that comes from feeling that I am getting the joke, is the reinforcement it gives to my own belief in the importance of the history of popular culture, including low- and middle-brow material that is all to often dismissed as culturally worthless.  This is in part because it tells us something about the time in which such cultural production was created, always useful for a historian, but also, often, because if forms part of a much longer tradition, allowing us to read change and continuity across time.  Sherlock itself embodies this duality and, in this episode, made it the very conceit on which the plot was built. Itself a hugely popular element of contemporary popular culture, it nonetheless lays explicit claim to the timelessness of Conan Doyle’s creation.  By tipping its hat to the long tradition in Anglo-American culture of riffing on that creation in ways which illuminate different historical moments, it located itself within that linear tradition and made its own bid for immortality. Now there is metafiction and self-referentiality for you!