March’s favourite blogs

This month I came across Writing Lives for the first time. Many people may already have discovered this, but it’s a fantastic resource for anyone interested in life writing, or working class histories. The site includes blog posts that introduce the autobiographies held in the Burnett Archive of Working-class Autobiographies, held at Brunel University, and is being developed alongside the project to digitize these and other memoirs into an online archive of working-class writing.

The site is also interesting in terms of pedagogy. The blogs introducing the autobiographies are written by third-year undergraduates. Each autobiography is written about with regard to a number of specific themes – for example, ‘Home and Family’, ‘Life and Labour’, ‘War and Memory’, or ‘Education and Schooling’.

Writing lives

That there aren’t more readily-available (read non-manuscript) sources written by working-class individuals seems to be a perennial problem when writing history. I recently encountered this issue when trying to write about women and their subjective experience of education and religion in the nineteenth century. A couple of scholars, such as June Purvis in her A History of Women’s Education in England, and Meg Gomersall, in Working Class Girls in Nineteenth Century England: Life Work and Schooling, provided tantalizing glimpses of the working-class life writing they had accessed in order to write their histories, but as I wasn’t able to access these, I couldn’t ask any further questions of the material or draw any relevant conclusions for my project.

Jean Fernandez’s study, Victorian Servants: Class and the Politics of Literacy further problematized the form for me, pointing out that the autobiography could only be written after literacy had been achieved, and thus no longer authentically reflected the subjectivity of an illiterate working class life. In her particular example, Janet Bathgate, who wrote Aunt Janet’s Legacy to her Nieces: Recollections of Humble Life in Yarrow (1872 and 1894), Fernandez argues that Janet’s narrative became self-consciously about her acquisition of literacy, written in a form that mimicked middle-class autobiographies. However, I think we can fetishize authenticity, and also – in a rather patronising way – the idea of a particularly illiterate, working-class subjectivity. There can be a tendency to want to find the Otherness of an independent, inviolable working class and a corresponding dismissal of working-class subjects who cultivated ‘respectable’ or aspirant subjectivities as being victims of ’embourgeoisement’.

So for me, Writing Lives is a great resource and I’m already combing through to see how many of the women autobiographers wrote about their schooling, and if they linked it with religion. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to follow up by accessing these memoirs myself.

 

February’s favourite blog(s)

I had trouble choosing just one favourite blog this month, as there were some really excellent posts on a number of blogs that I regularly follow.

Firstly, Jem Bloomfield had some good posts on current issues in academia: an excellent response to the debate ‘University isn’t for Men’ (I’ll write more about this in my monthly roundup), and some interesting data about the representation of women as speakers at Christian conferences in recent years.

One of my favourite blogs for a while now has been The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates’ Researcher Blog, and this month it had a really great post by Clare Walker Gore (‘The Love that Dare not Speak its Name’) about the links between Victorian same-sex desire and disability in mid-Victorian novels, such as those by Dinah Mulock Craik. I enjoyed working on Craik’s shorter novels about governesses for my PhD thesis. I was especially struck by how many forms of love her writing explores – love between mothers/daughters, governesses/students, sisters/brothers… She even finds a way to reconcile women’s unrequited love with the religious culture of the time (it was frowned upon for women to experience desire except reciprocally). Clare’s blog post focuses on the intimacy between male characters in Craik’s John Halifax, and makes a link with the relationship in Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone between two disabled women (one of them wonderfully called ‘Limping Lucy’).

Another nineteenth-century blog that I’ve been enjoying is Mimi Matthews’s collection of posts about nineteenth-century fashion, marriage, and animals(!). This blog is a treasure trove of detailed information on nineteenth-century life. The 14 February post about Victorian Valentines was especially enjoyable.

But possibly my favourite reads this month were from William G. Pooley. Not one, but two fascinatingly thoughtful pieces about history, which really spoke to me. First came a piece drawing out how playing the lottery can perfectly express the wonder of how the momentous and dramatic can enter the lives of ordinary people – and can be found in our study of such ordinary people by historians. Then there were thoughts on the radicalism of understanding the traditions we live in – the legacies of Marx, Freud, Darwin, Einstein, Mandela.

When it came to Marx, I had to agree with his statement:

What the man asking if I was a ‘Marxist’ didn’t realize is that in a sense it is very hard not to be a Marxist in 2016.

Though I might agree for different reasons. These days, every time we discuss the UK Conservative government, my husband and I are struck by Marx’s perspicacity, in that our only explanation for many of their actions is: ‘the rich consolidate their power in the economic superstructure’ (we call this Marxist catechism. Try it – next time you’re asking how on earth they can abolish student maintenance grants/money from the disabled/tax credits for families…).

Of course his main point is nothing really to do with this, but is rather concerned with how there is a tendency to purify the past: reducing Freud to the Oedipus Complex; selectively reading Darwin, Huxley and Einstein to champion the ideal of the rational scientist and ignore the religious, spiritual, or occult elements of their thought; simplifying the complexity of Mandela and Pankhurst’s actions as unproblematic ‘heroism’. (I thought about this last night actually, while watching Ken Burns’s documentary about Theodore Roosevelt, in which historians endeavoured to go beyond the usual hagiography to speak about his imperialism and blood-lust ‘with dry eyes’.)

It isn’t normally considered a very radical thing to be called a ‘traditionalist’, but I suppose what I am saying is that it can in fact be quite radical indeed to think about the traditions we inhabit. In fact, that is the kind of radicalism that has long been the preserve of the folklorists, who seek to understand, rather than condemn the traditions we live within.

I don’t know that much about folklorists, but I’m certainly learning from this blog.

One thing I do know, is that I absolutely share this desire to understand the traditions we live within. This might in fact be at the heart of my project to explore the religious underpinnings of early feminism and how this has affected our thinking about, and as, women up to today.

So those were my favourite blogs of the month – what did I miss? What blogs did you find enjoyable/thought-provoking this month?

 

My favourite blog this month

This month I’ve been following Dr Nadine Muller – and I think it’s been good for my mental health! Her project ‘The Good Stuff’ aims to produce a year’s worth of positive thoughts – one per day. Now, when I scroll through twitter in the morning, I find myself looking forward to coming across the handwritten index card that contains today’s happy thought:

Probably my favourite post this month was the one about time: ‘Be patient, persevere, value slowness’. Her point is that most of the things we do as academics require time (if we’re to do them well), but that time has become a privilege in academia.

I’ve been thinking about this same issue this month, but for different reasons. I’ve found lately that short deadlines for turning around re-drafts, proofs, and conference abstracts; combined with a desire to bosh through my to-do list items; combined with the overload of blogs, tweets, news articles and emails to read, have caused me to change my standard work methods so that I now routinely rush through things and skim read.

I thought that I had lost my love for research and writing – I realised it was because I was no longer allowing myself to devote proper time to my work.

My rush to get through the reading I’d decided was necessary for my draft (usually due that week) meant that I was no longer able to just enjoy an academic essay. I wasn’t reading for pleasure; I wasn’t allowing myself to just sit with the ideas. Reading articles was freighted with anxiety and the need to take copious notes.

It was the same with the writing. Forcing myself to write to short deadlines (there was usually quite a bit of procrastination in the week running up to the due date), I had to binge-write whole sections of essays, fuelled by caffeine and anxiety. I longed to develop that ‘mild happiness’ in writing described by Oliver Burkeman in his reflection on Robert Boice’s ‘How writers journey to comfort and fluency’ (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/dec/11/column-change-life-very-expensive-secret-good-writing-oliver-burkeman), but I just didn’t have the time!

So this month I’ve tried to write something every day. Not much, probably just 10 minutes a day, that I can come back to and work over again the next day. I’ve designated time in the afternoon as ‘reading time’ when I can read that linked article from Twitter – the one that really needed concentration to be properly appreciated.

And while I’ve not achieved it yet, I’m going to keep trying to follow Robert Boice and Nadine Muller’s advice: Cultivate patience, and value slowness.

Could you help me develop my links section?

I need your help!

I’ve finally got around to putting links on my site to the academic blogs I follow, and some to societies and libraries as well. They’re in rather loose categories at the moment, but I’m thinking this might evolve.

The main thing is though, that I know there are sites that I’ve missed or not yet encountered, so I’d be really grateful for suggestions of blogs/sites I should include. My initial aim was to focus on nineteenth-century/Victorian blogs, but as you might see, this has expanded. There are lots of people out there writing great things about the process of history, for example, who don’t fit into my nineteenth-century frame, but whose work is tremendously helpful in thinking about my disciplines.

So please do take a look (just scroll down) and use the ‘leave a comment’ or ‘leave a reply’ function for any suggestions of sites and blogs you might have.

Thanks in advance!