Looking back; looking forward

1868_LittleWomen_RobertsBros_tp copy

It has become a bit of a tradition with me that I start the new year with some form of comment, often grumpy, occasionally laudatory, about the one of the historically-based or costume dramas that has been shown on British television over Christmas. (I am including Sherlock in the ‘historically-based’ category here as, despite the modern setting, the raison d’etre of the series is its connection to its literary inspiration.)  This year is going to be a grumpy one, and my subject is, I am sorry to say, the BBC’s three-part adaptation of Little Women (BBC1).

I was really looking forward this programme. Emily Watson (who plays Marmee) is one of my favourite actresses, Angela Lansbury as Aunt March was an inspired bit of casting, and I always enjoy Call the Midwife (BBC1) created by adaptor Heidi Thomas. Above all, the original novels, Little Women (1868) and Good Wives (1869), were an enormous part of intellectual and cultural development as a child and young women and I continue to re-read them on a fairly regular basis. As with many other women raised in the Anglophone tradition, these novels, like those of L.M. Montgomery, E. Nesbit and Frances Hodgeson Burnett have, for better or worse, shaped the woman I am today.

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of screen adaptation of Alcott’s classic novel, of which there have been a remarkable number (two silent versions, released in 1917 and 1918, three major Hollywood productions in 1933, 1949 and 1994, plus a 1978 television mini-series featuring William Shatner as Frederic Bhaer). In those that I have seen, the tendency has been to focus on the sentimentality of the novels (and Beth’s death in particular) at the expense of the acute reflections on Civil War-era New England society (and the gendering of that society) that forms the heart of the novels themselves.

To be fair, this is not something that this latest adaptation can be accused of. There are lingering shots of dying Civil War soldiers; the poverty of the Hummell children is depicted as deeply shocking, and Hannah, the Marches’ Irish maid is one of the more well-rounded characters in the drama. And yet these attempts at social realism seemed to miss so much of the complex social reality that Alcott was not merely depicting but actively critiquing in her novels.

Two things, I think, were at play here. The first was the attempt to fit as many of the multiple events that form the novel as possible into three hour-long episodes, rather than simply eliminating extraneous ones. As a result, some key episodes are seriously truncated, while others have their chronology muddled. Both adaptive strategies eliminate much of the subtext that Alcott inserts (not always subtly) into each of her stories within stories. Setting Amy’s valley of humiliation with the pickled limes after the departure of Marmee for the South to nurse her husband puts Jo in the role of the outraged maternal figure, rejecting corporal punishment, rather than Marmee, so that the episode no longer reflects on the polemical ideas about the appropriate way to raise and school young women that are so evident in the text.  The shortening of the ‘Camp Laurence’ episode, meanwhile, to Miss Vaughan’s snubbing of Meg and Beth’s self-sacrifice in talking to one of the twins (who is portrayed as temporarily incapacitated rather than crippled, as in the book), reduces a wider message about American self-reliance in comparison to European class consciousness to a caricature, while failing to fully capture the heroism of Beth’s actions. Most noticeably, the relationship between Beth, Jo and old peppery old Mr Lawrence is so underwritten as to have the emotion removed from it entirely, again reducing Beth’s characterization to a cypher, while criminally under-using Michael Gambon in the role of Mr Lawrence.

It is, of course, impossible to fit everything into a mini-series of this length, but these strategies, combined with shortening the overall trajectory from five years to less than three means that character development is seriously compromised. Amy and Beth are, as usual, cast far too old to begin with (they are 12 and 13 in the book), and all Beth’s ‘rosiness’ is eliminated in favour of portraying her as a permanently frail introvert. And this points to the second reason for my disappointment with this adaptation, namely the modernization of the characters to deliver a message about female agency which results in what felt like a series of mis-characterizations.  Jo’s independence becomes something to be celebrated rather than schooled; Marmee becomes a frustrated house-wife; even Aunt March gets an anachronistic feminist speech of regret in the final episode. Yet this, for me, misses the great joy of the book, which tackles head on the complexity of white womanhood, young and old, in mid-nineteenth century England. The process by which Jo goes from immaturity to adulthood, the challenges that Marmee faces in raising her children in a society increasingly defined by consumption, Meg’s failures at domesticity and the consequent negotiation of marital relations, Beth’s courage in facing loss of health and ultimately death, Amy’s search for a purpose that uses her skills but does not require genius, Aunt March’s loneliness and social isolation – all these plots have contemporary echoes which this programme, in its rush to tell so much about the limits of nineteenth century society for women, missed.

For me, the emblematic scene thus became the final one, with Marmee sitting surrounded by her surviving daughters in the orchard at Plumfield. The camera cuts to their menfolk – Mr March, John Brooke, Laurie and Professor Bhaer. In the book, this scene is one of mutual affection and endeavor, the statement of Alcott’s view that a successful life involves the mutual aid of family, with men and women both having roles, rather than personal independence.  Yet in the programme, the men have been so reduced (with Professor Bhaer in particular barely allowed time to develop at all, as well as being far too young), that the message appears to be that they have been sidelined in a manner that is profoundly a-historical. Misrepresenting historical reality in this way in a work of fiction is not in itself problematic, but this, for me, misrepresents the source text in ways that undermine the whole adaptation.

Alcott, it is worth noting, was the daughter of Amos Bronson Alcott, an educator, philosopher, reformer and member of the Transcendentalists. Her father’s progressive ideas about education and the raising of children are reflected in many of her novels, not only Little Women, but also Eight Cousins (1875), which articulates the case for women’s dress reform, its sequel, Rose in Bloom (1876) and An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870). These latter two, along with the sequels to Little Women, Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1876), are explicit in their exploration of the desirability for women’s independent labour outside the home, and the tensions that this raises with many women’s desires for marriage and family. The novels all end, in good sentimental Victorian tradition, with weddings. However, the portrayal of Jo’s ultimate success as a writer occurring well after her marriage in Jo’s Boys and the insistence on Rose Campbell’s independent philanthropy in Rose in Bloom and Polly Mason’s self-reliance even in face of her lover’s poverty, points to Alcott’s refusal to see women’s work and the achievement of domesticity as mutually exclusive.

The window into the past that Alcott’s work offers, therefore, is one that exhibits a nuanced and complex reality, a past populated by women and men attempting to negotiate tensions and contradictions and, more often than not, succeeding. Little Women draws its loyal readers back again and again not only because of its overt sentimentality (as comforting as that can, upon occasion be) or because we see ourselves reflected in it (although, as the commentary around the television programme demonstrated, many women do identify strongly with the four sisters, and Jo in particular), but also because it shows us a world at once very different from ours but nonetheless asking many familiar questions of women seeking find their own way in a world and suggesting that we may, in fact, be able to find it, but not without cost. In seeking to impose a narrative of frustrated modernity, rather than exploring how the March sisters successfully negotiated these oh-so-familiar challenges, this latest adaptation, as visually beautiful and beautifully acted as it was, was ultimately a missed opportunity.

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Women, Gender and Sexuality visit Women, Work and War.

A guest post from Laura Boyd, a second-year PhD student in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds. Laura is researching the work of non-combatant male medical caregivers in Britain and France during the First World War, and is a postgraduate member of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster.

On 8 March 2017, the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster at the University of Leeds had the fantastic opportunity of a guided tour of the Women, Work and War exhibition at Armley Mills, followed by coffee and a chat. We were a mixed group of academic staff and postgraduates, from MA to Ph.D level in the Faculty of Arts. Guiding us was Lucy Moore, the Project Curator for First World War and member of the Legacies of War Project.

The visit began with the guided tour. The exhibition was wonderfully curated, and gave a real insight into the lives of the women working in and around Leeds during the Great War. These women came from all around Leeds and indeed much further, and took over the jobs in factories that were left by men who had gone off to war. Though it started in Armley, the factory expanded to the Barnbow site and employed large numbers of women.

Not only did it portray the ‘general’ or ‘bigger picture’ of the lives of these women who worked at Armley and Barnbow in the munitions factories, but was interspersed with personal stories. Lucy showed us around the different exhibits, including munitions and clothing, and shared other anecdotal tales that were not on display, taken from the writings of the ‘Canary Girls’ themselves. The exhibition featured personal accounts of the 1916 Barnbow explosion, which really brought home just how dangerous this behind-the-lines war work was. We even had the chance to have a sneak-peek at an original medal press that is currently awaiting restoration!

We then sat down for coffee and a chat with Lucy, and we began by asking about her own career progression into becoming a curator. Her answer? Refreshingly honest! And by that I mean that it wasn’t a straightforward, linear progression, as these things rarely are. A few of the postgraduates in attendance were interested in hearing about how to get into her line of work and Lucy gave us some great tips on how to get started.

This led to a discussion of the academic buzzwords ‘impact’, and ‘partnerships’ between academics and the community. Though these words tend to scare people like me, it was actually a really insightful and interesting discussion. Both Dr. Jessica Meyer and Lucy Moore are part of the Legacies of War Project here at Leeds, which they were delighted to talk about. Lucy was open about how the academic world has helped create interest around exhibitions such as Women, Work and War. Not only through organising trips such as ours, but by spreading the word among colleagues and at other academic events such as conferences and seminar series. She also said that she is happy to have connections to which (and whom) she can turn for information and help. Jessica was also keen on this point, telling us how the museum had also helped greatly in terms of ‘impact’, by helping the academic world bridge the gap between us and the public, leading to some fruitful and fascinating interactions. She also noted that often independent researchers involved in projects such as this come with knowledge and sources often unknown to academics!

So, to sum up, it was invaluable. Academic-community partnerships can help to get the public interested in what we do, and in turn can, through these partnerships make our research available to all. I would wholeheartedly suggest that if you have not yet been to the exhibition – GO! It will be well worth it, I promise.

A (belated) report from the wilds of Borsetshire

A recent post on Twitter asked if we are starting to witness the demise of the personal academic blog, at least in the field of history. Reasons put forward for the decline in the number of posts being written were pressures on time, developments in the research cycle (implicitly related to the increased imminence of the Research Excellence Framework) and variations in the teaching cycle, as posited by George Gosling.  Concern was also expressed that blogging was coming to be viewed as a requirement of postgraduate and early careers scholars, rather than more established ones.

I didn’t respond, all too aware that it has been months since I posted anything here, and even more since I directly posted anything related directly to either of my research projects.  This is due to all of the above reasons. I am teaching this term, not much but a new module that requires a certain amount of additional preparation and organisation.  I have committed myself to a large number of speaking engagements and forthcoming publications, as well as helping to organise two conferences.  On top of my research commitments and administrative obligations, this leaves me little time for writing the remaining chapters of the book, let alone reflections for the blog. And then there is the question of what I write about.  While I agree that blogging should not be the sole responsibility of PGRs and ECRs, I am becoming increasingly aware that it is easier to blog about searching for a job than it is about applying for promotion.  Similarly, blogging about ideas at the start of a project enabled me to work through key themes in ways that now seem to have less utility as I actively incorporate them into the book. If I am going to write about these ideas, I need to do it as part of my manuscript, not as a shorter reflection.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t have things to write about (beyond my despair at the current political situation).  There are stories emerging from the new research project, although as this has its own blog now, I tend to reserve them for that forum.  And the number of speaking engagements I have undertaken means I am regularly coming into contact with the work and ideas of others which is giving me much food for thought and which is worthy of putting on record.

Which brings me to the Academic Archers conference, possibly one of the oddest but also  among the most interesting academic experiences I have had since I spent two days up to my ankles in mud talking about medical care on the Somme last summer.  This was the second annual conference organised to bring together academic analysis subjects based on or inspired by Radio 4’s long-running rural soap opera and the immensely knowlegable ‘Research Associates’, the long-term listeners whose knowledge of the world of Ambridge and Borsetshire is unrivalled in terms of breadth and depth.  Papers presented range from sociological analyses of familial relationships among prominent family groups, and the wider social implications of the resulting (matriarchal) power structures through an examination of the programme as an exemplar of rural theology to a discussion of the social standing of male characters and the relationship to perceived penis size (a phrase I never thought I would type on this blog or, indeed, anywhere else).

Arguably this was all tongue-in-cheek good fun, something not to be taken very seriously but to be played predominantly for laughs.  Certainly the most popular papers, such as the ones picked up by the press looking at negative aspects of competing in village flower and produce shows, and the ‘Ambridge Paradox’, or why all the characters don’t suffer from type 2 diabetes, involved much laughter along with the learning.  But there was very serious scholarship being undertaken here as well.  The session focussing specifically on the Rob and Helen story line of domestic violence and coercive control was sobering not only in terms of the subject matter, but also in relation to the information conveyed, whether on the forensic analysis of blood spatter patterns or the cost per day of food for women in prison.  Additionally, my understanding of my own work has been enhanced by a number of papers.  I have come away with a long list of recent sociological texts on masculinity, disability and violence taken from Katherine Runswick-Cole and Becky Wood’s paper on the use of the stoma bag in representing Rob’s disability and Jennifer Brown’s keynot on using Rob to understand the antecendents of domestic violence perpetration. Amber Medland’s concept of culinary coercion, while derived from the domestic context of Rob’s control of Helen, has opened up questions for me about the regulation of food in the institutional setting of the military hospital.  And I am looking forward to learning a lot more about masculinity in post-Second World War literature, particularly as it relates to birdwatching, in the on-going work of Joanna Dobson.

As for my own paper, I’m not sure I got the balance between humour and scholarship quite right.  ‘Erudite’ was one description of it, and I can only apologise to the tweeter whose brain apparently hurt when I finished speaking.  But the opportunity to explore how this particular artefact of British popular culture has memorialised the First World War – and to use the title ‘Some Corner of a Foreign Field/That is Forever Ambridge’ – was too good an opportunity to miss.  Among other things, it provided me with the opportunity to design an academicMeyer Poster poster in collaboration with some very excited and supportive colleagues. [1] I will, I hope, be publishing an extended version of the paper in the forthcoming edited collection (the one from last year’s conference is a beautiful object, available to buy from Amazon).  Writing it up will enable me to engage more fully with debates around imagined communities and invented traditions than I have done since I was a post-graduate, a useful exercise that will enhance my other academic endeavours.

And, in a sign of just how stimulating and welcoming the conference was, I’m already considering the topic of next year’s proposal. Leading the field is a plan to recreate the Ambridge War Memorial using the information from English Heritage uncovered by Laurie MacLeod, one of the attending RAs.  I’m even thinking about putting together an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, if any of the Academic Archers community would like to form a group to work on this.  And I know there are several other First World War historians, many more eminent than I, who might be persuaded to trace the progress of the Borsetshire Regiment on the Western Front, analyse the minor poetry of Lt. Rupert Pargeter, explore the records of the Borsetshire Military Appeals Tribunal or discuss the impact of the use of women and prisoners of war in agricultural labour on wartime Ambridge.  I hope they will consider putting in a proposal when the call goes out.  The experience, both intellectual and social, will be well worth it.

 

[1] My thanks to Sara Barker, Tess Hornsby-Smith and Sabina Peck for their encouragement and insight.

Conference Report – Resistance to War

Following on (rather belatedly) from my last post, one of the conferences I was only able to attend partially in March was the Resistance to War conference, held in Leeds on 18th-20th March.  In addition to Twitter, an important, and more established, way of keeping up with conferences that one can’t attend in person is via conference reports.  It gives me great pleasure to publish a report of the Resistance to War conference written by Charlotte Tomlinson, a former undergraduate and current MA student in the School of History, University of Leeds, and founder of the HUll Blitz Trail project (which can be followed on Twitter @hullblitztrail).  My thanks to Charlotte for taking the time to write and reflect on what sounds like a fascinating few days.

As the centenary of the First World War has come upon us in the last two years, scholars across fields have turned their attention to the conflict and offered new ways to look at it. As well as encouraging commemoration and highlighting traditional narratives, the anniversary has inspired fresh perspectives and uncovered previously untold (or at least under-told) stories. One such strand of new thought was recently celebrated at the Resistance to War conference, held in Leeds March 18th-20th. It was a truly international event, with speakers visiting from stretches as far as Auckland, and covered an equally diverse scope of subjects relating to resistance to war. Inevitably then, the conference encouraged consideration of a less traditional approach to the First World War. However, as all papers seem to, the event had me thinking more broadly about how we, and I, approach histories of war.

The event began with a series of panels exploring different aspects of war resistance. I decided upon one which explored resistance and gender through the lens of wartime literature in France (Philippa Read), Germany (Corinne Painter) and Britain (Sabine Grimshaw and Sarah Hellawell). After four extremely interesting talks, and a few books added to my ever-growing summer reading list, it was a question on how these works were received at the time that really peaked my interest. Not in the answer, but in that it made me contemplate how we use literature in history more widely. As happens so often lately, I found myself pondering the representation vs reception debate, comparing the cultural and social approaches to sources such as those discussed. While our own readings of literature are insightful, and were hugely fascinating to listen to, the panel left me with more questions about my own research than theirs.

The following day, another question of how we approach history left me a little more excited. In a fascinating talk on two ‘gender dissidents’ of the early twentieth century, Conscientious Objectors and Suffragettes, Lois Bibbings argued for a more complex understanding of how the two groups used gender in their resistance. In doing so, she highlighted how Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU used fashion as a method of resistance, how suffragettes ‘consciously played on gender’ by maintaining a prim and proper appearance in order to defend their femininity, and oppose media representations of them as unruly and manly. In a later conversation, we discussed how the loss of control over appearance was also central to the suffragette prison experience. It was encouraging to see how the issue of fashion, so often overlooked as a trivial matter, could be integrated into an analysis of war resistance and I was left feeling quite uplifted about the potential for this research to be taken further in the future.

Another talk inspired a less encouraging but equally interesting reflection, on how collective histories continue to shape how researchers approach resistance to war. The huge success of the conference showed how far we have embraced less typically-glorified narratives of the conflict which do not place the volunteer soldier suffering in the trench as the quintessential war narrative. Benjamin Ziemann’s keynote paper, on German soldiers who refused to fight from July 1918 onwards and how these have been remembered in Germany since, did however cause me to consider how we approach war resisters who were not pacifists. Crucially, a point was raised about the likelihood that a similar project would be undertaken on British so-called ‘cowards’. While popular opinions of war resisters has undoubtedly altered in past decades and become more positive, it was rightly argued that our changing cultural memory in Britain of heroic fighters or brave COs has not yet allowed a shift that adequately acknowledges our ‘cowards’ too.

It is hardly surprising that Cyril Pearce’s paper proved thoroughly inspiring. His work continues to influence scholarly thought on conscientious objectors and encourage new work. It was not his insights into war resistance here that had me thinking though, but his approach. In using statistics and maps to explore the pattern of conscientious war resistance in Britain, the paper was undeniably unique in a historical conference. Outside of economic histories, it is perhaps unsettling for many of us to deal with such mathematically presented ideas, but by mapping COs it was easy to highlight resistance hotspots and identify interesting communities that require further study. Ultimately, it was refreshing and inspiring to see an approach many researchers, myself included, would usually shy away from and provided a visual exploration of COs that really brought the issue to life.

Finally, a paper on the infamous Alice Wheeldon left me thinking about the significance of new perspectives on war resistance beyond the weekend conference, and beyond academia. A moving paper was given by Nick Hiley and Wheeldon’s great granddaughter, Chloe Mason on how the conviction of her family for conspiring to murder the then Prime Minister Lloyd George should be overturned. Hiley and Mason unpacked the case and highlighted the secrecy surrounding it, explaining how they are now appealing for the conviction to be quashed. In doing this, rather than reflecting on war resistance as much of the other papers had, the paper reminded us that our memory of war and war resistance remains a contemporary issue that touches lives today.

Driving home after a long couple of days, my (non-academic) dad asked me, ‘so what’s the point in a conference?’ What followed was a lengthy answer which I don’t think he was quite expecting. In the first instance, the papers given offered interesting insights into many areas of resistance to the First World War, some related to my own research, some not. But more importantly, the papers, as always, left me with a number of questions and points to reflect upon, a few of which I have briefly discussed here. These relate above all to how both I, and we, approach history. So more than just gaining knowledge and enjoying papers from across the globe in a celebration of centenary research, I left the conference with a greater self-awareness of myself as a researcher. Once again I was reminded that no matter the topic, there is always something to be learned in hearing about another’s work.

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!

Enduring War: A review

So I am currently in London, part way through the first of a mad pair of weeks encompassing a meeting, two conferences, a couple of days in the archives and two days with the BBC at the Great Yorkshire Show. To ease myself in, I began Monday morning with a wander around the Enduring War exhibition at the British Library.

This is an ambitious exhibition, given the size of the space it occupies. Divided in to six sections, from the ‘The Call to Arms’ to ‘Grief and Memory’, the exhibition not only tries to tell a complete story of the war, but as a contributing partner in the Europeana 1914-1918 project, attempts to do it from an international perspective. Inevitably, some things are missed, while others are under-analysed. For instance, the caption to one photograph ends with the statement ‘There was an increase in Protestant church attendance in Britain in the first weeks of the war but, for a number of reasons, this was not sustained.’ There is no indication as to possible reasons why church attendance was not sustained, leaving this viewer with a sense of incompleteness.

In fact, the section on ‘Faith Under Fire’ is possibly the least satisfactory of the six. The claim about the prevalence of protective charms and rituals is never really demonstrated, in part because the use of the library’s resources places limits on what is available for display. The original manuscript of Ruper Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in the first section is extraordinarily moving, but there is no equivalent of, say, Adolphus, the mascot who has become the face of the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds. Excellent use is made of posters, particularly in illustrating the Russian perspective, and the use of ANZAC trench journals makes a double point with an elegant lightness of touch. Nonetheless, the material on display does not consistently feel capable of carrying the full breadth of the story that the exhibition is attempting to tell. Indeed, so broad is the narrative that it isn’t always evident what the curators understood by the exhibition’s subtitle, ‘Grief, Grit and Humour’.  All three elements are addressed episodically but don’t really feel as if they are the central thread of a coherent narrative.

Having entered the exhibition from the side, and followed the chronological path to the dead end around a corner in the separate space that houses the section on ‘Grief and Morning’, I ended my visit by deliberately walking back around to look at the audiovisual displays at the front entrance. And here the exhibition managed to produce what was for me its most powerful and moving display through its series of video booths of montages of postcards from the front, the accompanying audio just the messages scrawled on each one. Very simple, yet entirely mesmeric, the displays demonstrate the art of the everyday that, as much as the war poets, artists and musicians whose work is, once again, presented throughout the exhibition, defined the First World War as a profound cultural experience in Britain and across Europe.

‘Men whose minds the dead have ravished’

A new public sculpture was unveiled in Seaham, Co. Durham on 29th May.  Entitled 1101, the piece, by the sculptor Ray Lonsdale, shows a 9.5 foot soldier in First World War uniform sitting at rest and is intended to reflect a moment of contemplation in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.  It is also, apparently, supposed to represent ‘what is now known as Post Traumatic Street Syndrome [sic] (PTSD) which many faced as they returned from the battlefields.’ [1]  Even ignoring the typos, this interpretation worries me for two reasons.

The first has to do with the fact that I don’t think we should retrospectively diagnose soldiers of the First World War with a psychiatric condition which was not fully defined until 1980 and which remains contentious today.  This is not to say that First World War servicemen didn’t suffer from psychological wounds; many most certainly did.  But, as I have explained in more detail here, shell shock (and or indeed hysteria, neurasthenia, disordered action of the heart or any of the other names given to psychological disability during and after the war) is not same thing as PTSD.

Setting the question of labeling aside, however, I still have serious reservations about this work of art as a representation of psychological war disability, whatever name we give it.  It shows the soldier as calm, contemplative, tired perhaps, maybe even sad, but seemingly in control of body and mind. There can be few adjectives further from the experiences of shell-shocked servicemen, as depicted in the literature and art of the time, than ‘calm’, ‘contemplative’ or ‘controlled’.  These were men whose bodies jerked and twitched, who woke screaming from nightmares, who leaped violently at sudden noises, who stuttered, struggled physically to overcome hysterical mutism or groped blindly through hysterical blindness. They had lost control of both mind and body, a condition that was fearful both to experience and behold. These men were not calm or contemplative about their condition.

The pain of psychological wounding comes across viscerally in some of the great literature and art of the period.  Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ is powerfully physical in its description and the disgust and pity it evokes.  The art of Otto Dix is agonizing to look at.

Dix Shell Shock 127-otto-dix-verwundeter-map-der-krieg-jpgThe viewer recoils from the pain and violence of the images.  This is how psychological disability was experienced by many First World War servicemen and those who lived with them – as pain, fear, disgust and violence. To represent the condition through a generic image of a soldier, as something calm and totalizing, runs the risk of whitewashing from history the individual subjective pain suffered by many that made their condition as disabling as any physical wound or amputation.  Too many shell-shocked ex-servicemen suffered stigma and poor treatment throughout their lives.  I would hate to see the very real pain they suffered written out of history because it is too painful for us to contemplate today.

[1] ‘New World War One statue for Seaham seafront’, Sunderland Echo, 22nd May, 2014, http://www.sunderlandecho.com/what-s-on/new-world-war-one-statue-for-seaham-seafront-1-6630051, last accessed 25th June, 2014.