Doing history across time

This post forms the second of three related posts on questions about historical methodologies arising from conferences I have recently attended.  The first of these can be found here.

I hadn’t intended to start this post this way.  This was (and eventually will be) a reflection on the Passions of War workshops I attended in February.  But, in a lovely example of the utility of blogging to academic practice, my previous post on interdisciplinarity has sparked a fascinating and detailed response from Jeanne de Montbaston, making the case for the value of reading sexual subtexts in historic literature from a contemporary perspective.  And it is a strong case (although I’m afraid Dr Allen and I are going to have to agree to disagree about finding Sir Impey a convincing object of Wimsey’s desire).  Reading ‘against the grain’ in this way can be an intellectually valid, not to say illuminating, exercise when done rigorously [1] and with the awareness that such readings tell us as much if not more about the reader and their cultural context than about the text itself.

What concerns me about such readings is not that they are amateur or uninformed but that their perfectly defined ’21st-century strobe lighting’, while illuminating particular facets of the text will, in turn, obscure others. Because I worry that in defining Peter Wimsey as bisexual we run the risk of losing the full historical complexity of same-sex desires and relationships in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain, complexity which historian such as John Tosh, Joanna Bourke and, most recently, Helen Smith have all addressed. [2]  The contemporary category of bisexuality appears to me (and I am very willing to be corrected on this) to limit rather than expand our perceptions of relationships, both physical and emotional, that were, in reality fluid and multi-faceted.  Tosh might argue that ‘Emotionally intense and physically demonstrative friendship between men was not new [to the Victorian era] – in fact in most historical periods it has been taken for granted.’ [3]  He goes on, however, to discuss the historical contingency of interpretations of such friendships in the late nineteenth century, a historical contingency which surely equally effects our own more legally tolerant age.

Which brings me, in a rather roundabout way, to the original point of this post, the consideration of the problems, as well as the benefits, of doing gender history across time.  This was sparked, as I say, by discussions at the Passions of War workshops held at the University of Leicester on 19th-20th February this year.  Part of an on-going series of AHRC-funded workshops, the Passions of War network is interdisciplinary, including scholars of literature, history, sociology and political science, and international, being organised by the University of Leicester, Ghent University, Dr. Guislain Museum and the National Army Museum, as well spanning a time frame from the 17th to the 21st centuries.

I have written previously about how inspiring the diversity of this workshop series has been to me.  My primary reflection on this occasion, however, was the ways in which scholars of a range of historical periods spoke to and with each other.  On several occasions I found myself mentioning the women, gender and sexuality reading group run by two enterprising postgraduates here at Leeds which deliberately selects an article by a medievalist and one by a modern historian for discussion at each session.  Just as at Leicester, where the panel on ‘Tender Encounters’ during the Napoleonic, American Civil and Crimean Wars had me revising and reevaluating my arguments about medical intimacy in the First World War, these groups have been illuminating for the historical continuities in understandings of gender they have uncovered. And yet, that question of historical contingency and specificity haunted our discussions as well.  As Rachel Bates demonstrated, our readings of Victorian images of wounded servicemen need to made in light of our knowledge of technological limitations and the social import of the fact that they were made for Queen Victoria’s private collection.  Their fundamental differences from, say, newspaper photographs of cheerful First World War limbless soldiers may tell us as much about their significance as their superficial similarities.

How, then, do we do history effectively across time?  Can we make comparisons between a medieval world shaped by religious and social understandings of sex, gender and the body which may see alien to us, and a Victorian world in which some forms of (particularly female) sexuality and bodily experience were so taboo that they could not be spoken of openly?  Is it simply a matter of applying similar tools of analysis across periods to uncover or fill in the archival silences? Or are there wider experiential truths which transcend our contemporary attempts at periodisation? How do we balance the insight that the probing if narrow brilliance of the strobe of light of contemporary perspective with the the wider, more shadowy world uncovered by historical context?

When people ask me what I do professionally, I tend to provide an answer that defines my work periodically – I am a First World War historian.  And yet, the joy of attending workshops like the Passions of War, of participating in the women, gender and sexuality reading group, of engaging with those such as Jeanne de Montbaston who are grappling with related questions in provocative and interesting ways, is the realization that the questions I am dealing with cannot and must not be confined by period.  As John Arnold and Sean Brady argued in their defense of long durée histories of masculinity, we need to ‘look beyond the confines of historical periodization, context, evidence and discipline, to provide new insights and challenges in questions of the relational qualities of gender’. [4] Doing so is not always comfortable or easy, but it can be immensely stimulating.  I look forward to more such discussions, on line, in reading groups and in the final Passions of War workshop, due to take place in September.

[1] On this point I will continue quibbling about Sir Impey’s flushed face which, in my copy of the novel occurs a page before Wimsey enters the witness box and three pages before his poetic mockery of ‘Biggy and Wiggy’.  The text itself, rather than a literal reading of it, would seem to preclude association, innuendo-laden or otherwise, between the two instances.

[2] John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 185; Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion, 1996), Chapter 3; Helen Smith, Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[3] Tosh, A Man’s Place, 185.

[4] John H. Arnold and Sean Brady, ‘Introduction’ in John H. Arnold and Sean Brady (eds.), What is Masculinity: Historical Dynamics from Antiquity to the Contemporary World (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 14.

An importunate post

A little unusually, I am writing this post not as a wife, mother or historian, but rather as a daughter.

Last year I wrote a post about the medical issues facing members of my family in which I did not identify the actual people involved or their relationship to me.  Since then, things have moved on and I now feel it is right to make public the fact that two of the three people mentioned in that post are, in fact, my parents.  My father suffers from Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), with a number of related and exacerbated physical conditions.  My mother recently found out that the ampullary cancer for which she received treatment for most of last year has returned to her lungs.  These illnesses are very different but share two similarities: 1) they are rare (in my mother’s case extremely rare) forms of wider conditions (dementia and cancer respectively and 2) while they can be controlled to a greater or lesser extent, neither is now curable.

So why go public now?  Because in this post I am asking for your help.  In this difficult period, where these illnesses, and my distance from my parents who both live in the US, have added to a number of other stresses affecting my life, one of the few things that have kept me sane is running.  I started running seriously two years ago.  Last year I ran the Leeds 10k to prove to myself that I could do it.  This year I am running the Leeds Half Marathon in aid of Cancer Research UK and Alzheimer’s Research UK.  While there is nothing that can be done at this stage to cure either of my parents, I hope the money I raise for research will, in some small way, contribute to better understanding and treatments to alleviate these devastating conditions.  Turning the relative calm I have found in my morning runs to practical purpose is the very least I can do in the circumstances.

I know we all have many claims on our purses, and many calls from charities for support.  If you can spare even a very little to support my fundraising efforts by clicking on the link below, I will be enormously grateful.

Thank you.


A question to which the answer is no

This is the first of three interrelated posts about doing history across disciplines, time and space.  These reflections were inspired by two events I have attended in the past couple of months, the second of the Passions of War workshop series, held at the University of Leicester on 19-20 February, and the Globalising and Localising the Great War Graduate Conference on Spaces, Stories and Societies, which took place in Oxford on 17-18 March.  Both were interdisciplinary and both took place either coinciding with or within a week of other academic events I was either attending or wanted to attend. In this first post, I want consider the how interdisciplinarity can inform understandings of historical sexuality.

Recently the blogger Jeanne de Montbaston published a post asking ‘Is Peter Wimsey Bisexual?‘ de Montbaston is the pen name of Lucy Allen, a medievalist examining the relationships between popular culture and medieval literature, particularly in relation to gender.  It is a little unclear, but the post suggests that Allen has only begun reading the eleven novels by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring her aristocratic detective fairly recently.  As someone who has some small pretensions as a Wimsey (if not exactly a Sayers) scholar, in that an entire chapter of my PhD thesis analysed the construction of Wimsey as a post-war heroic figure, I would answer the question in the posts title with an emphatic ‘no’.  This is for two reasons: firstly, the weakness of the evidence deployed by Allen in her post; secondly, the wider problem of the relationship between effeminacy and deviant sexualities in the period under discussion.

Clouds of Witness  To begin with the actual evidence deployed by Allen which is drawn from the second novel in the series, Clouds of Witness, and relies entirely on the relationship between Wimsey and the barrister Sir Impey Biggs, QC.  There can be little doubt that, as a character, Sir Impey is coded as gay for all the reasons that Allen lays out.  What is more problematic is the reading of Sir Impey as Wimsey’s ‘good friend and oftentimes colleague’.  There may be a friendship between the two men to be read in their episodic encounters but, in the two novels and one short story where Sir Impey actually appears (rather than simply being referred to in conversation) their professional relationship is not that of colleagues.  In both Clouds of Witness and Strong Poison Wimsey is in the position of a pseudo-client, with deep emotional attachments to the accused whom Sir Impey is defending as well as that of detective.  But Sir Impey is not a fellow detective, or even a legal detective in the mould of Anthony Gilbert’s Arthur G. Crook or, later, John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole.  Indeed, in both novels, Wimsey’s detective work actively conflicts with Biggs’s legal interests, leading to professional, if not necessarily personal breaches between the two men. If Wimsey does have a good male friend and colleague in the novels, it is not Biggs, but Detective Inspector Charles Parker, with whom he gets incapably, childishly drunk at the end of Clouds of Witness. But Parker is a figure of such rigid petit-bourgeois social and sexual respectability that he ends up marrying Peter’s sister – after a long struggle with whether even asking her to marry him is a socially appropriate thing to do.[1]

What of Allen’s other evidence, Wimsey’s ‘husky’ voice when speaking to Biggs, the comparison of Biggs to Greek statuary, and Wimsey’s parody of Mother Goose in court?  The first two are matters of interpretation.  Certainly Wimsey later, particularly in Gaudy Night, speaks huskily on several occasions to his acknowledged love-interest, Harriet Vane.  But I have always read the emotion of that meeting as relating a) to the frustrating interview with the police that Wimsey has just returned from and b) the fact that his brother is in prison on a charge of murder which is referred to in the next line.  Similarly, the Greek beauty of the Charioteer of Delphi may be a hint at Oscar Wilde’s ‘Greek love’, but given the consistent playful use that Sayers makes of classical imagery and quotation throughout the novels, and which is clearly the overt intention of association the Charioteer with the (female) Oracle, I can’t help feeling Allen may be reading too much into this.  As I am sure she is in the case of the ‘Biggy and Wiggy’ rhyme.  There is nothing in the text to suggest, as Allen does, that Sir Impey is ‘blushing’ (or, indeed, ‘surprised’) in this scene, and ‘Wiggy’ is very clearly a reference not Wimsey himself, as Allen implies, but to Sir Wigmore Wrinching, the Attorney-General who is prosecuting the case against the Duke of Denver in opposition to Sir Impey.

Have His CarcaseSo no, I don’t think that even by innuendo can Wimsey’s relationships with Sir Impey or, indeed, any of the other male characters who are presented recurrently as his friends, be read as hinting at bisexual desire.  Which is not to say that Wimsey’s mas culinary and sexuality in the novels is unproblematic. Far from it. Throughout the novels he is characterised by others as sexually and morally dubious. Henry Weldon, in Have His Carcase, for instance, implies that Wimsey is ‘exploiting his mother for my private ends and probably sucking up to her for her money’, or, in other words, behaving in precisely the same way as the gigolo Paul Alexis (and later M. Antoine) behave towards her. [2]

Gaudy NightThe issue of Wimsey’s sexuality is, unsurprisingly, made most explicit in Gaudy Night, a novel whose overarching theme is the question of sex and relationships between the sexes.  It is Reggie Pomfret, an undergraduate infatuated with Harriet Vane, who demands:

‘Who … is this effeminate bounder?’

‘I have been accused of many things,’ said Wimsey, interested; ‘but the charge of effeminacy is new to me.’ [3]

Later, the criminal in the case, when confronted, accuses him of being a

rotten little white-face rat! It’s men like you that make women like this. You don’t know how to do anything but talk.  What do you know about life, with your title and your title and your money and your clothes and motor-cars. You’ve never done a hand’s turn of honest work. You can buy all the women you want. Wives and mothers may rot and die for all you care, while you chatter about duty and honor.’ [4]

On the one hand, both these accusations can be read as charges of (hetero)sexual impotence implied in the accusations of effeminacy and the inability to do anything but talk. But the anxieties which prompt the accusations are, on closer reading, of heterosexual jealousy and fear.  Reggie is outraged that Wimsey appears to be publicly wooing Harriet (and insulting him in the process).  The charge that he can buy all the women he wants is one of sexual profligacy and financial dominance, not of lack of interest in sex.

The sexual deviancy that is implied about Wimsey therefore is not homo or bisexuality but rather sexual exploitation – the man who views sex as transactionary in ways that are solely to his advantage.  These anxieties place Wimsey in a Victorian tradition of gigolos, seducers and flâneurs as much as in the Wilde-ean tradition of coded homosexuality.

Why does this distinction matter? Because the implicit accusations against Wimsey as a sexual character is a form of sexually threatening masculininty that, today, has relatively little social purchase.  Yet it is one that was dominant in late 19th and early 20th century popular and middlebrow fiction.  It is only by placing Sayers’s novels within this historic literary context that we can start unpicking multiple and complex levels on which her critique of sex and sexuality works.  Simply reading her novels through the prism of our contemporary understandings of homosexuality as the dominant form of non-normative (or at least non-hegemonic) male sexuality limits our understanding.

Which brings me to that question of interdisciplinarity.  Because sexuality is both historically contingent and historically unspoken, something beautifully demonstrated by Justin Bengray in his post on the Notches Blog, ‘The Case of the Sultry Mountie‘.  What Wimsey demonstrates is the way in which fiction can fill the silences around subjects like sexuality that exist in archives but he also provides insight into social and cultural norms that have slipped out of the contemporary reader’s view.  The first can be accessed and identified through the sort of close reading that the study of literature and methodologies of literary critics fosters.  The second draws on the perspective that derives from the contextualising processes of social and, above all, cultural history.

A call for close collaboration between these disciplines and methodologies will probably not come as any sort of shock to most of this blog’s readership, and most will I suspect be personally and professionally sympathetic to it.  When presenting at the GLGW conference in Oxford last week, I spoke of how I have used fiction to access women’s perspectives on war disability in the past, and was, in turn, asked the extent to which I intend to use such sources in my current project. (The answer is less than before simply because the archive I am working with promises to keep me more than busy enough over the next five years, but I would love other scholars to take up the analysis of wives of disabled ex-servicemen in fiction to develop my arguments and challenge my conclusions.)

Yet it is worth, once again, reiterating the importance of such interdisciplinarity. There are still enough historians who sniff at literature as unrepresentative source material and literary scholars who shrug off the complexities of historical context as unimportant to make this a case that still needs to be made.  Most unnerving of all is the backlash against cultural history which continues to rear its head.  At this week’s Social History Society Conference Rohan Mcwilliam apparently called for cultural history to be dropped from the title of the journal Social and Cultural History. I wasn’t actually present when this was said (which I will discuss further in my post on doing history across space), so am unclear how serious this suggestion was, but such comments reinforce the need for those of us who work across disciplinary boundaries to continue to make the case for why it is so vital to our understanding of ourselves, our culture and our history.

[1] The Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot makes a third in end-of-novel drunkenness, another male friend of Wimsey’s who recurs in the novels far more often than Biggs.  Like Parker, his sexuality is rigidly respectable.  Any suspicion thrown over it by his decision to marry Rachel Levy, the daughter of the Jewish victim of Whose Body? is counteracted both by the self-interested logic of the financially-minded Freddy in marrying the daughter of a City magnate and by the devotion of the bride’s parent’s own inter-religious marriage.

[2] Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase, New English Library Edition, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974, 156.  First published London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1932.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night, Perennial Library Edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1986, 385. First published London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1936.

[4] Sayers, Gaudy Night, 445.

How I got here

The weekly convulsion of my Twitter-feed in response to the Academics Anonymous column in The Guardian is becoming something of a ritual.  Last week’s, a former PhD candidate’s complaints about the British viva voice examination system for doctoral dissertations, happened to coincide for me with a dinner discussion of the path I took getting from my PhD to my current permanent position with external funding.  Based on that conversation, and the comments below the line of the Academics Anonymous article, I’ve decided it is time for me to come clean about how I got to where I am today.  It has taken me a long time to reach the point where I feel confident enought to discuss this in a post on here, but the time has come, so here goes.

Why is it so hard for me to talk completely openly about my academic journey?  Well, based on the opinions of some in the academic community (reflected in the below-the-line comments), for the following reasons I am a failure as an academic:

1) My MPhil and PhD were both self-funded.  The practical reasons for this was that my decision to apply to do both degrees came quite late in the annual application cycle.  My options for funding were further complicated by the fact that I was applying as an overseas (non-EU) candidate.  Yes, I could have taken time out, waited a year, reapplied for funding, but in the case of the PhD that would have involved considerable complications with regards to relocating and would probably have thrown me off my academic course.  As I was in the fortunate position to be able to self-fund, that is what I did, and ended up with a degree from a highly respected institution as a result.  However, in a landscape where many believe that too many weak PhDs are being produced, self-funding is often seen not as a practical choice (even if one that isn’t necessarily politically palatable to those who make it) but as a shorthand for a project too weak to compete for competitive funding.

2) To confirm those critics who would argue my research was too weak for a PhD, my thesis was referred following my viva.  There is quite a lot of confusion around the various terms relating to examination outcomes, so to clarify, the options for examiners at my university are a) unconditional approval (pass), b) conditional approval (requiring either minor OR major corrections), c) revision and resubmission of the thesis (referral), d) revision and resubmission OR the offer of a lesser degree (MLitt/MSc.), e) offer of a lesser degree without the option of revising and resubmitting, f) outright failure.  Roughly 10% of vivas at my institution result in option c, the option my examiners went for, which means that the candidate has longer to make the suggested revisions (6 months as opposed to 3).  While it can be emotionally tough, and certainly tougher than major corrections, it can provide the necessary time and space to absorb the ideas discussed in the viva, read any additional suggested literature, and produce work of the expected quality.  In my case, this time was invaluable in addressing the key theoretical weakenesses quite rightly identified by my examiners.  Using their suggestions I was able, in this time, to produce a thesis that did not require a second oral examination upon resubmission, although this in turn has left me with a strong sense of anti-climax around my degree, and a more than usually heightened sense of imposter syndrome.

3) I left academia for five years.  Nope, I couldn’t hack it.  After 2 years of temporary teaching jobs and about 300 failed applications, I decided to cut my losses and try something else.  I spent a year working in academic publishing before my personal circumstances changed, after which I did some freelance editing, finished my book and had a baby.  It was in this period that I realised that historical research and writing was what I loved, what I wanted to do with my life.  But I had left academia, hadn’t I?  I was a failed academic, with a weak degree that probably should never have been undertaken in the first place…

Except, that isn’t quite how things panned out.  When my son was 6 months old I was invited to lunch by Alison Fell and asked if I wanted to contribute to the Legacies of War project she was just starting to develop with colleagues at the University of Leeds.  My answer was yes, of course, but I had no professional links with the university.  With the support of Alison and the School of History, I was able to put together a successful Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship application, a job which in turn enabled me to put together my successful applications of the position of University Academic Fellowship in Legacies of War and for European Research Council funding.

So what did Alison, the University of Leeds and the Wellcome Trust see in me to make them take the risk of giving me the opportunity to get back into academia? I’m not entirely sure, but the following probably contributed.

1) I was REF-able.  My PhD may not have met the standard of being publishable on submission, but two chapters, almost entirely unrevised, formed the basis of half of my monograph, published four years after I was awarded my degree.  I  had also published two refereed journal articles (as well as several book chapters) based on the research undertaken for my doctorate, so publishers, journal editors and referees had, independently come to the conclusion that my research and writing were of sufficient standard to be published.  I had passed the criteria for examination by publication, if you like.

2) I had strong networks.  I never really fully left academia, even in the period I stopped actively pursuing a straightforwardly academic career.  I organised conferences, edited essay collections, reviewed books, acted as membership secretary for a scholarly society.  People knew may name, were willing to write references for me, launch and review my books, endorse my work.  In other words, I had the endorsement of ‘the academic judgement of the scholarly community as a whole’, as called for as an alternative form of examination by the anonymous academic.

3) I had good ideas which I was able to put forward as coherent, fundable projects (although I currently fear that I have overpromised on my current project, a by -now familiar phase of any new undertaking).  These ideas, both for Wellcome and for the ERC, arose directly from my PhD.  They are questions I was not able to answer within the scope of that project but which now, with greater experience and knowledge of the field, I can tackle.

So what is the point of this confession other than to finally make a clean breast of my academic failures, to show some of the frantic paddling that has gone on under the surface to travel this far?  Primarily, I think, to note that the PhD, while a necessary qualification for an academic career, is not the be-all and end-all of making a success of that career.  Being a successful academic requires skills that can be reflected in a PhD, but which can also be developed over the course of and after gaining the degree. The examination of our credentials does not end on the far side of the viva door but carries on throughout our careers, undertaken by funders, publishers, colleagues, students and, increasingly, the government and the public (but that is a discussion for another post).  The prospect is a daunting one, whatever stage of a career you are at, but it is also one that, at least for those of us who started our careers with a sense of failure, also offers immense opportunity.