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Dispatches from the Archives

Brexit for Historians

On Friday, September 9 in the Columbia University history department, British historians Susan Pedersen and Sam Wetherell led a conversation about Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union. Intended as what Wetherell referred to as an “air-clearing” for historians who still had thoughts from the summer to process, the event was attended by a range of scholars in different fields. About half the room had some connection to Britain, either through nationality or research field, but others spoke from their perspective as continental Europeans or Europeanists, as political scientists, or from other perspectives. After a brief introduction from Pedersen to the history of Britain’s relationship to the EU and the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership in the EEC, and a recap from Wetherell of events since June 23, the discussion ranged widely. Jake Purcell and Emily Rutherford felt that they had no choice but to take stock of things for the blog, and a conversation between them follows.

ER: I was looking back over my notes from the conversation, and I was surprised to realize that Susan kicked the whole thing off with some serious national British history to give some political-historical context for this summer’s referendum, because the conversation so quickly veered away from that approach! By the end, participants had raised so many questions about whether historians might best understand Brexit from a historical perspective, from a national British as opposed to a European perspective, and what kinds of lenses on British history (class? race? empire? culture? economics? politics?) might be appropriate to bring to bear. An ancient historian made the most eloquent defense of Leave voters I’ve heard thus far, and in the process invoked ancient notions of Europe and their modern reception. And of course, you’re a medievalist!

I’m a modern British historian who spent the whole summer in the UK, and who understood Brexit to be “really” about this sovereignty question that came up in the discussion, and about issues of national politics, economics, culture, the welfare state, etc. So far, given that markets seem to have stabilized for the time being, the fallout mostly seems to have taken place in the context of the parliamentary system and the national political culture that surrounds it. So I was really struck that this wasn’t actually the focus of Friday’s discussion. What did you think about how this group’s identities as historians factored into the fact that we were having this conversation? Other people present made claims for what an ancient historian or an early modernist could bring to the understanding of this political issue, but what do you think about that from your perspective as someone who isn’t a modern British historian?

JP: I’ll probably circle back to the non-British, non-modernist thing later, but two elements of the discussion struck me as particularly historianly. The first was Sam’s rather plaintive insistence that we were all there to try to get a handle on “what had happened,” and the second was Susan’s rather dense introduction to campaigns for and against British participation in a European economic system throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. In addition to removing some of the mysticism of the Brexit vote by giving it a clear context, Susan’s comments demonstrated that there were no particularly stances that different parties had to take, or lines of argument that necessarily fell to for or against. The idea that Labour had, in previous votes, been opposed to participating in EEC because it was a vote for capitalism, or that a relatively higher portion of, for example, young people voted to leave in 1975. Contingency! The discussion immediately became a project not just to figure out what arguments worked or didn’t, but why lines of reasoning were deployed or had resonance at this particular moment.

Like you say, the conversation wove through an extraordinary number of topics (I have five pages of legal pad notes, taken in a desperate attempt to keep the different strands clumped together), but do you think it’s safe to say that there was some consensus? Sam suggested that there were two dominant ways of reading the Brexit vote, one about poverty, austerity, isolationism, and the service economy, the other about a nationalist revolt against a lost idea of Britishness, and that the first of these was insufficient in explanatory power, that they had to be moved together. This assessment seemed to agree with Susan’s conclusion, that this moment we’re in is really a culture-emphasizing backlash against a politics that is only about economics. Which reminds me of another, not very historian-like aspect of the discussion, which was a genuine willingness to predict. What about this topic do you think made us willing to get over that particular aversion? Do you think the analyses that emerged gave us the right tools for that project?

ER: Mmm, I see what you’re saying about how historical reasoning crept into the conversation even when it wasn’t explicitly a conversation about how to historicize. Susan was also working in part from a recent book about Britain’s twentieth-century relationship to Europe, Continental Drift, written by a former US diplomat: so from the outset the conversation was framed as one in which history and other social-scientific methodologies for understanding contemporary politics have to work together. It reminds me of how Queen Mary University London’s Mile End Institute held a forum the morning after the referendum, featuring scholars from disciplines from public policy to law to economics, and also including a historian, Robert Saunders, whose blog has provided some of the most measured analysis of political events as they developed this summer. So I guess historians can predict, particularly if they are also drawing on other methodologies, but I’m not sure that it’s something we are innately qualified to do—particularly if we don’t work with the kind of numbers that allow a scholar to project trends in changing demographics, polling data, etc.

As to cultural versus economic arguments: it strikes me that the most interesting things the audience contributed to the discussion were cultural. I was particularly convinced by a few different speakers: one who discussed the internal workings of politics and whether it’s a “game”; another who carefully described a notion of national sovereignty (“take back control”) that can bridge class divides and appeal to people from very different groups for different reasons; and a third who asked about the working-out of loss of empire. I am not sure if all those things amount to one consensus, but they do certainly amount to one emphasis. But maybe that’s because I’m a historian of modern British elite institutions and culture myself! When I lived in Britain I became very susceptible to seeing the origins of the culture of the elite institutions that I was inhabiting in the late nineteenth century that I study; and to slipping back and forth between how a phenomenon like male homosociality worked in the late-nineteenth-century context and in the present day, the one illuminating the other. I still think some of that is true, though I’m not sure it’s the most responsible methodology when it comes to writing history. But maybe that tendency to collapse time, simultaneously inhabiting a mental universe bounded by your research and the normal outside world, is a cast of mind that historians can offer discussions like this one. I started studying Britain shortly after the 2010 general election which returned the Conservatives to power, and since then my research has helped me to understand, and to explain to other Americans, issues from the government’s education policy, to why Guardian headlines are so often ridiculous, to how Boris Johnson is the culmination of 300 years of history of elite education and its relationship to the British state (my current obsession).

But I remain struck by how so many people at the event kept pulling us out of the narrowly British, or even English, context: invoking the view from Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, America, or from a time before Great Britain. Brexit seems so irrevocably British to me, entwined with the specific context Susan and Sam began with and (I would argue) with a slightly more distant British past that accounts for those cultural phenomena and their effects on voter behavior. But is it possible that modern British history is actually the wrong framework through which to view what seems to me a peculiarly modern British event? Is there anything particularly British about Brexit at all? (This NYRB piece which links Brexit to the upcoming US election seems to think not.) Is it chauvinist to argue that there is? Why, as so many commenters pointed out, should we care about Britain at all?

JP: Yes, you’re right that it was more an agreement about what elements were critical as opposed to what the exact configuration was. Though, who knows if that’s just because of a propensity for institutional and cultural explanations among the people in that room! I like the idea that having a second frame of reference constantly in mind is part of the historian’s contribution; something like built-in “perspective.”

Trying to get out of the British-centric focus was definitely a theme! I think several people in the room would agree that “wrong” is exactly the word for using modern British history as the sole framework, not in sense of “incorrect,” but in the sense of “not quite ethical.” There seemed to be real frustrations that neither campaign discussed the effect that leaving might have on the EU, and the Remain campaign’s lack of critique somehow seemed to tie it even more closely to an all-powerful austerity bloc, at least from the perspective of some people in Southern Europe. Aside from that, even Susan did not quite think that historical context provided all of the answers. When someone asked about old colonial tensions playing out in the Irish vote, Susan pushed back against the specter of “Little England” as an explanatory element, instead pointing to demographic shifts and the massive expansion of higher education. At the same time, it doesn’t seem particularly satisfying to pretend that all populism is the same, or achieves power in the same way, especially if one of the participants whom you mentioned is right and the political game happens at the institutional level, rather than at the national or European level. For all the recent interest in transnational history, it is odd to me that we never quite developed a rhetoric for talking about what similarities in, for example, anti-immigrant politics might mean. (In addition to immigration, I can’t help but feel that the caricature of Brussels as a tiny, antidemocratic bureaucracy controlling the lives of European citizens from its paperwork-lined halls corresponds to a repudiation of Administrative Law in some corners in the U.S.)

I also think that maybe there was a scale problem in the conversation. Yes, you’re probably right that modern British history is exactly the lens that will allow us to explain in important ways the mechanics of the Brexit campaign and vote, in part because British politics has a particular flavor, but the significance—why we ought to care about Britain at all—resides in part at the level of Europe. The Council for European Studies’ major conference this year is on the themes of “sustainability and transformation,” and Brexit is a key component; it is clearly understood to have transformative potential, whatever the current calm. We need lots of national and transnational histories, not just British ones, to figure out what the impact might be.

I find myself returning again and again to the lone, brave, self-professed Leave voter. He suggested that one might support Leave because the EU immigration system disadvantages people particularly from Europe or Africa, and that the idea of a bounded “Europe” remained too closely related to constructions of race and scientific racism for his comfort. I honestly cannot say whether or not this is true, but I’m way more interested in the fact that these lines of reasoning are exactly the same criticisms that usually get leveled against nationalism and the nineteenth-century construction of the state. Maybe historians (especially premodernists, I think) can help to de-naturalize the presence of particular institutions or relationships between ideologies and political positions.

ER: I can’t argue with that!

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Think Piece

Intellectual History from Below

by Emily Rutherford

When he came to give a lecture at Columbia University last month, Chris Hilliard was introduced as “an intellectual historian from below.” “From below” is a term to conjure with in modern British history: a field whose forebears include E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Raphael Samuel, Christopher Hill, and others; a field in which class as a category of analysis is never far from the foreground. But “intellectual history from below”? Isn’t that an oxymoron? To judge from classrooms, conferences, even the pages of (ahem) a certain journal, it would seem that there is a rather specific and narrowly-defined vision of who gets to be a subject of intellectual history. But if, as Joyce Chaplin suggested in her Lovejoy Lecture earlier this month, intellectual historians might attune themselves to the nonhuman, surely they might also profit from inquiries into less elite, less educated subjects—even illiterate or barely literate ones. I am going to tell you a bit about how Hilliard has done this in his work. And then I am going to get a bit polemical. “Intellectual history from below” means two things: it refers to the subjects the intellectual historian investigates; but also to the culture of the field itself, which could be made more equitable and welcoming by a rethinking of what sort of subjects constitute intellectual history. As an editor of this blog, I have had probably a hundred conversations with potential writers who say, “What I do isn’t intellectual history/history of ideas. It’s not clever enough. It’s too far from political thought or the history of philosophy.” This perception is widespread and it is holding intellectual history back. Hilliard’s work shows us how it can be changed.

Hilliard’s first book, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (2006), is about how writing emerged as a pursuit for ordinary, working-class people in Britain in the interwar period. In his introduction, he clearly frames his project as “literary history from below,” taking seriously the literary aspirations of ordinary people and the magazines, clubs, and interest from democratizing publishers and agents that sustained them. His second book maintained his interest in the world of twentieth-century literature and literary criticism, but turned to F.R. Leavis and the literary-critical movement of which he was a leader, in English as a Vocation: The Scrutiny Movement (2012). Previous accounts of Scrutiny had tended to emphasize the centrality of Leavis, with other figures understood as disciples who sought simply to apply his methods to their reading, writing, and teaching. But Hilliard gives us a more contested and diffuse landscape, in which non-elite individuals such as schoolteachers and adult-education lecturers reinterpreted Leavis’s and other critics’ ideas to suit their own political and pedagogical ends, often with consequences for thought and action that the critics could not have predicted or intended. Hilliard’s creative use of sources makes both books stand out: he turns to documents, such as the records of provincial writers’ clubs or of adult education colleges, that others had not thought to use and in many cases did not even know existed. He reads those sources in original ways, revealing the idiosyncrasies in how individuals develop ideas about writing, politics, or the world around them.

So too last month at Columbia, when Hilliard opened his lecture by challenging himself to tell a literary history of the most unlikely subject: a poison-pen letter-writer who, in 1920s West Sussex, attempted to frame a neighbor for the obscene and threatening letters she sent to residents on their street, including herself. Ranging over the uses of literacy in a criminal libel investigation of the period, Hilliard concentrated in particular on the contents of the letters: the handwriting, a key aspect of the criminal investigation; and also the kinds of obscenities the letter-writer used. Swearing was a distinctly masculine practice in interwar England, and so by being a woman who swore in letters sent to both men and women, the letter-writer was violating an important cultural taboo. Hilliard showed how this could be why her syntax seemed so irregular. She mashed obscenities together in compound forms, used verbs as nouns and vice versa, in a manner not attested in any other records of slang or swearing of the time, because she did not have access to the masculine environments in which she might have heard swearing regularly used. She was not, as Hilliard put it, a “native speaker” of obscenity.

What does this have to do with the kind of history JHI represents? In a seminar Hilliard held with graduate students later that week, we came back to Scrutiny, and to the present-day consequences of how topics like mid-twentieth-century Cambridge literary critics are understood. Political thought has recently been experiencing a revival of interest in modern British intellectual history, with investigations into other academic disciplines (such as literary criticism, history, economics, or anthropology) often understood as closely connected to the political questions facing, predominantly, the New Left—and thus to political questions that we face today, as we re-evaluate the welfare-state settlement of a period that our discussion demarcated as 1942-63. Historians of the United States in the same period might notice a similar trend. This is a topic that can be pursued skillfully (and is, by several of my contemporaries), enhancing our critical historical understanding of politics and political thought in the twentieth century. But it is also a topic that can lend itself to a peculiar kind of nostalgia, expressed by young people who were born long after the mid-twentieth-century settlement unravelled through challenges on a variety of fronts: not only from neoliberalism, but also from other left-wing political perspectives, foremost among them feminism, that challenged the profound limitations of the mid-century New Left perspective. Understanding this genealogy has allowed me to observe a certain collapsing of past and present: when some young intellectual historians admire the pre-1968 Left for its commitment to a socialist ideal from which our present world has fallen, they also naturalize the culture in which the subjects of their research operated. I’m just going to come out and say it: the history of leftist political thought and allied disciplines, operating within the pre-feminist paradigms of the subjects it studies, is not a comfortable atmosphere in which to be a woman—particularly when it is the main arena for young scholars interested in history of ideas. The intellectual history of other times, places, and political orientations is often no better, similar enough to academic philosophy to mirror many of the social and cultural barriers to women’s participation in that field.

As in philosophy, I believe that many of the gatekeepers in intellectual history would not like to imagine themselves as people who contribute to their discipline being a hostile environment for women, and are eager to remove barriers to women’s participation. Unfortunately, such discussions tend to cohere around topics such as parental leave, work-life balance, and unconscious bias in hiring or grant decisions—which, if important issues, seem to me to have little to do with the reasons that I and other young, early-career women feel socially and culturally unwelcome among groups of intellectual historians. We are intelligent, opinionated people who are experienced at historical research and have opinions about ideas and their history, but the conversation that is going on around seminar tables and in the pages of journals is too narrow and uncritical to be an interesting one, while joining or starting alternative conversations usually entails reaching the decision, “I’m not an intellectual historian. Intellectual history is not for me.” Put simply, intellectual history is as much of a boys’ club as the Universities and Left Review, and when there are so many other subfields in our discipline which are not, why would we stick around?

How to change this? We can turn not to HR practices, but to our research itself and how we talk about it. We can take a leaf out of Hilliard’s book—as, indeed, we editors have sought to do since we began this blog—and define intellectual history as widely as possible. It is a subject which can be studied above and below, and one which can include the widest possible variety of individuals, who do not necessarily conform to our preconceptions of someone who is capable of having “ideas.” We must be unfailing in our commitment to situate ideas and their authors in their social and cultural context, and thus avoid temptations to naturalize our actors’ analytic categories and political programs or to collapse the distance between their time or their subjecthood and our own. We must take seriously those whose primary subject of study is the social and cultural context: we must not marginalize them as helpmeets to “real” intellectual historians, but must make sure that our conversations about intellectual history, at least when they occur in public, demonstrate awareness that ideas do not exist in a vacuum, in the past or in the present. As Hilliard’s sources and methodology demonstrate, the circumstances in which ideas appear can involve unintended consequences, or unexpected meetings of “high” and “low.” They can challenge us as humans to treat new interlocutors with dignity and seriousness. Making room in one’s scholarship for unexpected interpretations of Scrutiny outside the academy, or for a West Sussex housewife’s profanities, is not after all so different from making room for an intelligent and inventive colleague who has not read every word of Gramsci or Foucault, and may still have something important to say.

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Think Piece

Friendship, Idealism, and Federating University Women in the Early Twentieth Century

by Emily Rutherford

Working my way through my most recent archival findings, it’s tempting to conclude that, in early-twentieth-century England, men’s visions for the future of higher education revolved entirely around conservative retrenchment, while women’s embraced exciting new progressive ideas including coeducation, curricular innovation, and education’s relation to international relations. To be sure, my sample size is small, my research as yet inconclusive; previous historians have done much to trace the transformation of liberally- and Liberally-minded academics in my period into public intellectuals who pronounced on everything from social reform and imperial policy to the League of Nations.

Still, while schoolmaster-turned-Cambridge don Oscar Browning or American art collector-turned-Oxford benefactor Edward Perry Warren were working hard to defend the distinctly cloistered, masculine culture of the Oxbridge collegiate system, women’s educational community had grander and more outward-looking aims. Their vision marked a significant departure from that of men who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, had sought to use the residential college model and a broadly classical curriculum to inculcate morality and civic duty in their students. However idealistic some of these men might have been, their visions usually turned inward. By contrast, in a 1922 speech, the London English professor Caroline Spurgeon argued that an organization connecting university-educated women from around the world might prove a more successful vehicle for “international friendship” than the League of Nations (Caroline Spurgeon Papers, Royal Holloway PP7/6/3). I want briefly to tell the story of Spurgeon and some of the friends with whom she came to hold this belief—and to suggest, perhaps, a different account of early-twentieth-century elite higher education in Britain from the perspective that the Oxbridge men’s colleges offer.

Caroline Spurgeon, the daughter of an army captain, was born in India in 1869, and later went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College and King’s College London. She received a doctorate in medieval literature from the Sorbonne in 1911. Margery Fry, born into a prominent Quaker family in 1874, read mathematics at Somerville College, Oxford. Rose Sidgwick, born in 1877, was the daughter of a prominent progressive Oxford don; she attended Oxford High School for Girls and read history as an Oxford Home Student. Virginia Gildersleeve was also born in 1877, into a prominent New York family; she attended Brearley and Barnard, and did a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Columbia. All four were “new” women: a generation who came of age in the 1890s, the first women for whom education opened doors to an independent, public life that would have been inconceivable to their mothers. They were committed to their fields of research, and to building institutions that could offer to women what university education had long offered to men—whether that meant residential colleges to rival Oxbridge and the Ivy League, or large coeducational institutions committed to offering a higher education in a wider variety of fields to anyone capable of doing the work.

Somerville College, Oxford, where Margery Fry and Rose Sidgwick met. Wikimedia Commons.
Somerville College, Oxford, where Margery Fry and Rose Sidgwick met. Wikimedia Commons.

For all this progress, most women who pursued a professional career were thereby making the choice not to marry. In her volume on women in British universities in this period, Carol Dyhouse offers the remarkable statistic that 79-85% of women academics at the turn of the century “remained lifelong spinsters” (161). Instead, women who worked in universities—like those in other professions, like social work, newly open to women—were emotionally sustained by the close friendships they formed with each other. Rose Sidgwick and Margery Fry are a typical example: they met when teaching at Somerville College, Oxford early in their careers and became committed partners, moving together to Birmingham University in 1904 to start a residence hall for women there. While we can’t, and shouldn’t, speculate about whether a relationship like Fry’s and Sidgwick’s might have looked like what we would call “lesbian” today, the collection of Sidgwick’s letters and poems that Fry saved are a testament to the two women’s intimacy; ardent expressions of love from the 1900s give way to anxiety after Fry decided to join the Quaker ambulance corps on the Western Front in 1915. It’s difficult to do justice to this extraordinary collection of documents here. But through them it may be possible to tell a detailed and difficult story about the ways in which “new women” intermingled love and labor—of the kind which Seth Koven has begun to explore and which could benefit from more perspectives and forms of evidence.

As the higher education sector expanded, it became an important component of the cultural ties that intellectuals and politicians believed united the English-speaking world. As Tamson Pietsch has shown, universities were an important vector for communication across the settler empire; as early as 1902, Cecil Rhodes’s will evidences that the United States was imagined as part of this network as well. By the summer of 1918, when the end of the war was in sight and the British and American governments were both planning avidly for a new peacetime order, universities were part of their picture. The US Department of Defense invited the British Foreign Office to select a group of prominent British academics to tour US universities in a so-called “British Educational Mission,” a highly-publicized diplomatic event which would explore what higher education could contribute to a new Anglo-American alliance. The Foreign Office selected five men who were prominent in academic administration or in their research fields—and then, after these had already departed, they concluded that it was no longer appropriate for only men to participate in such an initiative. Hastily, they contacted Spurgeon and Fry, two of the more senior women then working in academia. Spurgeon, by then the first woman in Britain to achieve the rank of professor, accepted. Fry was exhausted from her wartime service and needed to care for an ailing father. She suggested that Sidgwick go in her stead.

University House, the hall for women at Birmingham that Fry and Sidgwick founded. Author photo.
University House, the hall for women at Birmingham that Fry and Sidgwick founded. Author photo.

Sidgwick and Spurgeon set sail for New York in September, 1918. They were hosted there by Virginia Gildersleeve, by now Dean of Barnard and a member of the reception committee. Barnard became their base as over the next four months they toured colleges across North America: from the Seven Sisters to the universities of Michigan and Texas, and—making a brief sojourn for the sake of imperial relations—McGill and Toronto in Canada. While their male colleagues reviewed ROTC parades, they collected information about the ways American women undergraduates lived (Sidgwick’s travel diary records her surprise that Americans were more independent and outspoken than English women students, if not as learned) and promoted the idea of scholarships to send American women to do graduate work in Britain. In her memoir, Gildersleeve recalled that she, Sidgwick, and Spurgeon were all sitting perched on trunks in a tiny New York hotel room when they conceived the idea of an International Federation of University Women (IFUW), a body that would work for international fellowship and cooperation. For Gildersleeve, that moment was also the start of a decades-long relationship with Spurgeon: in addition to working on the IFUW together, the two women bought a cottage at Alciston in Sussex, where they spent summers until Spurgeon retired to Arizona. In strikingly modern fashion, they contrived to spend sabbaticals at each other’s institutions. For Spurgeon and Gildersleeve, as for Fry and Sidgwick, their relationship was always intertwined with their common work, in medieval and early modern literature and in bringing international university women together.

Fry and Sidgwick would have no such future. In December 1918, Sidgwick was admitted to the Columbia University Hospital. She died just after Christmas, a casualty of the Spanish influenza epidemic. Gildersleeve organized the academic equivalent of a transatlantic state funeral: a High Anglican service in the chapel of the only university in the Thirteen Colonies to have been founded by royal charter, with the coffin draped in a Union Jack and pallbearers including the British ambassador and the presidents of Columbia, Yale, and NYU. Effusive eulogies were delivered on both sides of the Atlantic, and Gildersleeve later recalled that “I felt that she had died as truly in the service of her country as had the thousands of her young countrymen who had fallen on the fields of Flanders and of France” (Many a Good Crusade 130). The British Educational Mission might in retrospect seem parochial, but Sidgwick’s death makes clear just how entwined it was with large-scale questions of international diplomacy.

So too did Sidgwick’s death galvanize Spurgeon and Gildersleeve to follow through with founding the IFUW in her memory. One of the organization’s first actions was to create a scholarship for American women to study in the UK, named in memory of Sidgwick. A benefactor donated a house in Paris—a symbolic place due to being the location of the Peace Conference—to serve as an IFUW clubhouse. Annual conferences were held in cities around Europe. Papers of the IFUW Council record discussions about paths to education and careers for married women, research statements from women whose scholarships the IFUW sponsored, requests for official recognition from the League of Nations (the League declined to take action on the IFUW’s proposals). In speeches in the early ’20s promoting the IFUW to women’s groups around Britain, Spurgeon argued that international relations were not just for statesmen. They were something everyone could practice by joining organizations like the IFUW that could facilitate the formation of friendships across national borders—like, perhaps, the friendship she had found with Gildersleeve. Drawing on ideas about women’s role in politics popular in both the British and American suffrage movements (whose gains were still a novelty), she suggested that this kind of affective connection was women’s version of peacemaking, equivalent and no less important to what men pursued in Geneva. In some ways, she went a step further than seemed possible in Geneva in the early ’20s: her papers include a 1926 cutting from a German women’s magazine which celebrates her achievements alongside those of women scholars and researchers from the German-speaking countries (RHUL PP7/8/2).

Like the rest of the interwar internationalist moment, the IFUW never again enjoyed the intense burst of enthusiasm it had between about 1919 and 1926. Due to blockades, delegates were not able to make it to an IFUW conference in Copenhagen in 1939, and after the war they did not resume the habit. Like the branches of the League Secretariat absorbed into the UN, the American and British branches of the IFUW still offer scholarships—but they are dwarfed by other, higher-profile initiatives. Along with liberal internationalism, the postwar period saw the decline of women’s education as a separate enterprise to men’s, which embodied a different ethics and sense of social relations and at times a different curriculum. The Cold War Anglo-American alliance was cemented with new, coed scholarships like the Marshall and the Fulbright; that imperial holdover the Rhodes finally admitted women in 1977—around the same time as most Oxford and Cambridge men’s colleges. The conservative men who in the early twentieth century had tried to protect the distinctiveness of their own domain were no more successful than were the progressive women who sought to enrich theirs. But Gildersleeve’s, Sidgwick’s, Fry’s, and Spurgeon’s story is a way into a world we’ve lost: one of extraordinary idealism in which the idea, however zany, that friendships engendered between the women university graduates of the world could prevent another Great War, had real and urgent currency.

Gildersleeve and Spurgeon toboggan
Virginia Gildersleeve and Caroline Spurgeon sledding (n.d., probably early ’20s). Gildersleeve Papers Box 80, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University.
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Think Piece

Legacies of British Slave Ownership: Thoughts on British Imperial History and Public Memory

by Emily Rutherford

Last week, I was meant to be teaching the women’s suffrage movement to my modern British history discussion section, but my students only wanted to talk about one thing: Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jamaica last week, but was dismissive of calls from prominent Jamaican politicians and public figures that Britain pay reparations to Jamaica and other West Indian nations whose people were the victims of Britain’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave trade. My students were interested in this, I suspect, because they are of a generation of American and international students who care deeply about imperial and postcolonial history, and see a greater understanding of empire (and its sins) as a key reason to study British history. If you count the US (as we should) as a former British colony, nearly everyone enrolled in the lecture course for which I TA has a heritage that is somehow implicated in the history of British empire.

Yet my students were also particularly keen to discuss the subject of slavery and Jamaica because a couple weeks ago, I enthused to them about the most successful piece of academic-history outreach to the public that I have ever seen: the Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project (LBSO), a collaborative research project based at University College London and headed by Catherine Hall, along with Nick Draper, Keith McClelland, and a number of other historians. These days in the UK, research council-funded collaborative research projects are the norm, but they don’t tend to take on the life that LBSO—which has spawned not only an academic volume but also a BBC documentary and countless community- and school-based workshops—has had. I’m writing this post in large part to bring some incredible work to the attention of those who, like my students, aren’t scholars in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history. But I also think the project offers a model for how we can all think about the public-outreach applications of our work, and about its messier political ramifications.

Screenshot of the LBSO website, October 5, 2015.
Screenshot of the LBSO website, October 5, 2015.

LBSO’s signal contribution is its database. In 1833, when Parliament abolished slavery in Britain, thousands of individual slave-owners filed claims of compensation for their lost “property,” and a total of £20 million was paid out to these individuals. In order to process these claims, meticulous records were kept, with individuals’ names, addresses, occupations, and so on—and a value was placed on the body of every freed man, woman, and child as part of the compensation process. Historians always knew that these records were in Britain’s National Archives, but only with present-day advances in technology and the financial and staff resources of a collaborative project has it been possible to turn the records into a publicly-searchable, online database that yields findings astonishing and undeniable in their clarity. Compensation claims reached right across the British Isles. There are claims from lavish country houses (and, of course, from the plantations of Jamaica and Barbados) but also from widows or clergymen in more modest circumstances. A map feature reveals the extent of the geographic range—and allows you to see records of compensation claims from your own town or neighborhood. During a presentation about the project to Columbia University’s British History Seminar last week, Catherine Hall mentioned an exhibition the project leaders had put on at UCL, about the compensation claims that emanated from the university’s own neighborhood: “The Slave Owners of Bloomsbury.” The compensation records also allow historians to trace a complicated flow of money: compensation money bought its recipients land, buildings, fine art.

Anyone can type their own surname into the database. I just did, and nine individuals came up, with claims ranging from twenty pounds for one enslaved person to many thousands of pounds for 892. Without more work, I couldn’t tell you if they were my ancestors—plenty of Rutherfords aren’t related to me—but seeing my name at all is still startling. The LBSO database has featured on the popular genealogy TV program Who Do You Think You Are?, with many celebrities confronting their own ancestors’ profit from the slave trade. And—here we come to the point—arguments for reparations for Jamaica have made appeals on these kinds of personal grounds. In the database is General Sir James Duff, a first cousin six times removed of David Cameron’s, and campaigners have laid stress on this fact: it means, they argue, that he is personally implicated in one of the British Empire’s ugliest legacies.

I’m not a fan of Cameron or his party myself, but I don’t think that’s fair—and it’s not the lesson that LBSO teaches. Cameron’s particular branch of his family acquired their wealth after abolition, but more to the point, I suspect that anyone with white European ancestry would be hard-pressed to find a first cousin six times removed who wasn’t implicated in racism and imperialism in some way. As Hall explained to the Columbia seminar last week, the LBSO project doesn’t seek to lay the blame for the slave trade, and how it has been forgotten as a part of British history, at any particular individual’s door. What it shows is precisely the opposite: that quite a lot of people of white British ancestry can find their surnames in the database, and anyone can find compensation records from their own town or city, if not their very street. LBSO uses an unusually clear, empirical record drawn from a public archive to show that slavery is part of Britain’s national story.

In the state schools in California and Massachusetts that I attended, I was taught American history three times: in fifth grade, eighth grade, and eleventh grade. Each time, we began at the “beginning,” with the first European settlements in the Americas, and saw how far we could get. In eighth grade we got bogged down in the Civil War, but in eleventh grade, with the AP US History exam to sit, we made it as far as Vietnam. US public history education tells a rose-tinted, whiggish, not always accurate story about the long history of race relations, but it tells a story. It can’t just pass over, for instance, the Civil War and Reconstruction; the three-fifths compromise and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. But in Britain, secondary history education is taught in thematic units without an overarching narrative or a sense of a national history: an approach with some benefits, to be sure, but it makes it easy to avoid the bad bits. Tie this to (as Hall pointed out in her presentation) a long history, dating back to 1833, of valorizing Britain’s role in abolition while forgetting its role in slavery, and you have all the elements you need for a widespread case of collective amnesia. Often, this amnesia is downright disturbing—as anyone who has watched the Last Night of the Proms, while having a sneaking suspicion that none of the spectators madly waving Union Jacks and singing “Rule Britannia” have any notion that Britain once forcibly ruled half the globe, will recognize.

LBSO is about undoing that amnesia: its historians are writing prominent individuals’ slave ownership back into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where it rarely appears; campaigning for more accurate accounts of the funds that purchased paintings in the National Gallery; working with local genealogists and historians to document the history of slavery in their own families and communities (you can read about some of these efforts on their great blog). In the process, they’ve been very careful not to tell a story that casts blame, but rather one that raises awareness. In its marshalling of facts and letting the facts speak for themselves, LBSO can’t easily be co-opted by one political perspective or another—except inasmuch as it very clearly shows anyone liable to pontificate about the golden thread of liberty running through British history from the time of Magna Carta that it was, after all, Britain who brought slavery to North America. It shows us, I think, that work which is really going to make a difference in how the national story is understood can do so as much through careful empiricism as through ideology. When I go to British history conferences, I hear countless orations about the left-wing political stakes of historians’ work. But that database—and seeing your own surname in it—speaks volumes that no speech ever can. No wonder my students are amazed by it, as am I: it’s history at its best, and it clearly demonstrates why public outreach, communication, and teaching have to be conceived of as a central part of historians’ job.

Categories
Think Piece

Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading in the Archive (I)

by Emily Rutherford

It seems no wonder, then, that paranoia, once the topic is broached in a nondiagnostic context, seems to grow like a crystal in a hypersaturated solution, blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand. (Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” in Touching Feeling, 131)

When I travelled to Cambridge at the start of this summer, there were three things I knew about Oscar Browning’s personal papers: 1. like the personal papers of many former fellows, they were in the archives of King’s College; 2. there were a lot of them, mostly correspondence; 3. midway through his professional career, Browning had been dismissed from his teaching job at Eton College under suspicious circumstances.

A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)
A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)
Browning, as his ODNB heading informs us, lived from 1837 to 1923 and was a “teacher and historian.” He spent his life caught in the Eton-King’s revolving door (until 1861, only Old Etonians could become members of King’s): educated at both institutions, he washed up at King’s after he lost his job at Eton. He wrote popular accounts of political and military history, helped to found the modern history course at Cambridge, and particularly devoted himself to the cause of teacher-training. His career could not be said to be successful—he was more of a comic stock character—but I was drawn to him for what he might tell me about the world of elite education in the late nineteenth century: his archive includes letters from hundreds of correspondents, many of whom taught in schools and universities, some of whom were prominent in public life, and some of whom were schoolboys, trainee teachers, and other more anonymous figures on whom I would be unlikely to land in a less focused trawl through the archives of an educational institution.

But when you have three weeks to get through tens of thousands of documents, you make certain choices that influence your reading practices, and there I was led astray. The finding aid lists series of letters in alphabetical order by correspondent, with other miscellaneous papers coming at the end. I went through in order, making a note of familiar names: headmasters, future politicians who had been Browning’s students at Eton, Cambridge dons—and prominent figures in the history of homosexuality, such as George Ives, G.L. Dickinson, Robbie Ross, J.A. Symonds, and Oscar Wilde. Thanks to the gossipy tone of Ian Anstruther’s biography of Browning, as well as other sources that assume Browning’s homosexuality, I was primed for scandals and secrets. In my head, I placed ironic scare quotes around the finding aid’s identification of certain young male correspondents as “protégé” or “secretary.” I started calling up letters that had nothing to do with education reform and everything to do with homosexuality, hoping that they might show that Browning had let slip a confidence confirming his sexuality or shedding light on his dismissal from Eton.

Spoiler alert: dear reader, this is exactly not how you should read the archive of someone who lived in the nineteenth century. In her essay on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Eve Sedgwick criticizes a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: a Freudian diagnostic mechanism as applied to texts, an analytic frame that fixates above all else on sexual difference. Following Freud and then Foucault, historians of nineteenth-century sexuality have often worked in this vein, seeking to uncover the homosexuality or other forms of deviance lurking under the covers of Victorian propriety. Particularly in the literature on education, they have been joined in their suspicions by school chronicles and biographies written by old boys, the sorts of books that are able to rely on uncited but intimate background knowledge and that allude to gossip with winks and nudges. It’s no surprise, then, that I fell unwittingly into a suspicious approach when I entered the world of Oscar Browning’s archive. But while some pioneers (such as Symonds or Wilde) eventually made sense of their desire for men by making it part of a countercultural identity, so many other men’s intense same-sex friendships, or their unfulfilled longing for the beauty of youth they saw all round them in their teaching jobs, was part and parcel of an elite culture that enjoyed powerful official sanction as the forge of imperial masculinity. Which category applied to Browning, if either? The answer wasn’t as conclusive or as interesting as I had expected, and I ultimately came to understand that I was misreading everything.

~~~

The first clue that I was doing it wrong appeared five days in, when it started to dawn on me that none of the men whom I expected would talk to Browning about homosexuality were doing so. Browning was around the same age and moved in the same social circle as John Addington Symonds, who had been writing and talking with his friends about what it meant to be a man who desired men since the mid-1860s, before the word “homosexual” existed. But Browning’s archive doesn’t suggest him to have had the same self-consciousness or sense of membership in a group of men united around a label such as “Uranian” that generated dialogue in other correspondence I’ve encountered. Even if this kind of commonality might have helped to initiate his friendship with men such as G.L. Dickinson, George Ives, or Robbie Ross, it didn’t sustain it. With his old Eton tutor William Johnson, about whose erotic interest in students the record is not so ambiguous, Browning discusses pedagogy and the academic abilities of pupils. With Dickinson, a colleague at King’s, Browning discusses reforms to the Modern History Tripos and college politics. Ives was one of the most visible activists for queer men’s rights in England in the first half of the twentieth century, but his letters discuss cricket and give Browning fashion advice, which only the most suspicious reader could regard as some kind of clue. A certain Hellenic homoeroticism preoccupied many men who were passionately devoted to single-sex educational institutions: even my research subject Arthur Sidgwick, who grew up to record in his diary a passionate relationship with his wife, spoke as a young man in an idiom that praised “beautiful boys”: all his friends were doing it. But Browning’s papers never quite go there. Oscar Wilde’s correspondence with him is about whether he will write an essay on “the women benefactors of Cambridge” for Woman’s World. When Symonds writes to Browning, as he did to many men, asking for data about the place of “sexual inversion” in Britain that he can use in a new research project, he asks Browning whether he thinks studying the Greek and Latin classics in school inclines boys towards homoeroticism, and whether there is any link between school dormitories, masturbation, and homosexual tendencies. He’s asking Browning’s opinion as a professional educator, who was once a housemaster at the country’s most famous public school—not necessarily as a homosexual himself. Folder after folder of letters caused me to reevaluate the picture of Browning as a flamboyant, effeminate queer man offered by the secondary literature, seeing the gossipy insinuation in works such as Anstruther’s biography as homophobic stereotyping rather than honest uncovering.

The mechanism of paranoia explains how, when there is a gap in a particular narrative, our imaginations will rush to fill it with such intensity as to overwhelm the information we actually have to work with—perhaps especially when it comes to repressed homosexuality, which Freud associated with paranoia. Browning’s archive, which contains over 10,000 letters, gives the illusion of completion because it is so vast. But stop to think, and you realize that most runs of letters from a given correspondent—even those Browning knew since childhood—begin in 1875 or ’76. 1875 was the year that Browning was fired from Eton and had to start his life anew, suggesting a bonfire of paper at some stage: perhaps a perfectly innocent one, meant to clear up waste when Browning closed up his Eton house and moved into smaller quarters in King’s College, Cambridge; perhaps one specifically designed to hide secrets that could cloud Browning’s righteous outrage at having been unfairly sacked. Our brains don’t like gaps: simple optical-illusion tricks show that when we are shown half of a familiar type of image such as a human face, our brains will automatically fill in the other half. Our paranoid minds rush, perhaps, to ascribe the interpretation that would offer conclusive proof of repressed homosexuality, instead of the more mundane one. The thing is, there are plenty of examples of both situations among men in Browning’s milieu. It’s Schroedinger’s archive: both are equally possible.

Throughout the entire vast archive, too, we only have one side of the story: aside from copies of a few letters, Browning’s voice itself doesn’t come through. We have teenage boys who thank him for lavish presents; we have Symonds’ requests for data; we have Robbie Ross’s appeals to a fund in support of Wilde and his family during Wilde’s imprisonment. But we don’t know what Browning might have said, if anything, to suggest that he was receptive to such letters. Perhaps, if such conversations ever existed, Browning would have been too nervous to put them in writing. My status as a professional researcher allows me access to archives; my knowledge of foreign languages dead and living allows me to read documents whose creators originally tried to hide them from the eyes of anyone not an elite man. But I’ll never know what, if anything, was said behind closed doors, perhaps with the aid of Browning’s prodigious personal wine cellar, when like-minded men could be fully frank with one another.

Still, as Brooke Palmieri has wisely reminded us, all archives are constructs that are necessarily subjective and incomplete: how, then, can we work with what we have? Next week, in part two of this essay, I will suggest that we might start by asking different questions.

Categories
Intellectual history

Long Vacations, Big Histories

by Emily Rutherford

ostNo one who—like we blog editors—has recently completed their first year of history graduate school could be in any doubt that “global” history is enjoying its moment in the sun. When we decided this summer to choose a common text to read and write about in book club fashion, we were looking for something that would capture the spirit of the historiographical times as well as offer entry points for historians with a variety of interests. We didn’t have to look long to settle on Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World, which, following the great popular success of its original German edition, has also received numerous accolades for the range, clarity, and accessibility of Patrick Camiller’s English translation. In just over a thousand pages, Osterhammel aims to offer a comprehensive account of “the nineteenth century” as its own category of analysis—rather than the lenses so often used to explain that period, such as capitalism, industrialization, imperialism, and the jockeying of European powers. Thematic chapters begin with the nineteenth century’s own understanding of itself in relation to world history, moving on to consider themes as diverse as slavery, coal, and world languages. Ultimately, it seems, Osterhammel won’t fundamentally challenge what the reader knows to be the “transformations” of this period—”great divergence,” increased mobility of people and ideas around the world, a tension between democratization and imperialism—but he may well confound our tendencies to assimilate those transformations to single “grand narratives,” teleologies, frameworks informed by Marxist or postcolonial theory. As Fritz Stern wrote in the New York Review of Books, Osterhammel’s account is a “mosaic,” its at times circular and repetitive structure and its frequent digressions suggesting the messiness, and perhaps the impossibility, of capturing a sense of the world over the span of a 150-year “long nineteenth century.”

Why did we at the blog think that it was worth devoting our summers to this massive tome? First, it makes a case for the nineteenth century—not currently a fashionable period—in its own right, rather than primarily for its ability to explain the twentieth and the twenty-first. As a nineteenth-century specialist, I was particularly keen to explore ways of understanding how this particular period orients our perspective to the past—how nineteenth-century actors’ experiences of the world can be at once completely alien and startlingly familiar. Second, we wanted to understand what it means that this global history doesn’t look like many other recent iterations of the genre written originally in English. Over the summer, we’ll explore comparisons to older big histories such as Braudel’s history of the Mediterranean, as well as how to understand The Transformation of the World in its original German academic context. With the help of a range of experts, we’ll try to understand the benefits of Osterhammel’s approach—but also its limits. Does the need to force so many national/regional contexts into a single frame crowd out the social history (which often has a lot of local variance) to which older histories of the nineteenth century such as Hobsbawm’s devoted considerable attention? What is lost when large-scale political and economic trends take precedence over individual lives? What might be gained by putting Osterhammel in conversation with a microhistorical global history like Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh? Is it the business of global history, in our post-postmodern moment, to do “big structures, large processes, huge comparisons” rather than the identity politics of a previous historiographical generation; if so, is Osterhammel’s self-stated “pervasive disregard of gender issues” (xiii) understandable—or not?

As the debate over Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto has shown, there are real, attention-grabbing stakes to the global turn, the longue durée, the new political history, the reasons why we historians do what we do in the ways that we do it. This summer, we’ll be thinking about how Osterhammel, along with others, might help us to understand the trajectory of our discipline. Along the way, we encourage your comments: at the bottom of posts like this one, on Twitter, and on the weekly Osterhammel discussion questions we’ll be including with our Friday link roundups for the duration of the summer. These will aim to progress through Osterhammel sequentially at the rate of about one hundred pages per week, but you don’t necessarily need to read along to engage in what we hope will be a lively conversation.

Finally, if you have a more expansive perspective on The Transformation of the World and other “big” or “global” histories that you’d like to add, drop us a line with a couple-sentence pitch. We look forward to hearing what you all have to say, in the comments of this post and beyond!