Think Piece

Rescuing the Eighteenth-Century Church of England from the Enormous Condescension of Posterity

by Emily Rutherford

I think I’ve found the biggest gap in the secondary literature of all time. As long ago as 1860, the Oxford priest and historian Mark Pattison noticed that historians tended to overlook the Church of England in the eighteenth century. English Reformation, Civil War, Restoration, Glorious Revolution? Fine. Victorian evangelicalism? Fine. Eighteenth-century Dissenters, such as Methodists, Baptists, and Quakers? Fine. Catholic emancipation at the turn of the nineteenth century, followed by the Oxford Movement? Fine. But the yawning chasm of scholarship on the eighteenth-century established church is so wide that even the stacks of excellent seminary libraries skip neatly from 1688 to about 1830, with just a handful of books in between.

This is peculiar, given that other eras in the Church of England’s history have been extensively treated by confessional and secular historians alike. Why did it happen? I have a couple hypotheses. The first is that the eighteenth-century established church is not so sexy: as a church-published general history of Christianity in the British Isles puts it, “the main defining characteristic of the Church of England in the 18th century” was that the Church was a “via media,” defining itself in opposition to the two radical poles of Methodism and Deism. It stood for the establishment, for following the authorized forms of worship set out in the Book of Common Prayer and prescribed by law, and for a moderate-conservative form of politics that supported the monarchy, the state, and the social order. As such, the established church was neglected by a generation of social historians who focused on class conflict as constitutive of the early Industrial Revolution: EP Thompson famously portrayed the effects of Methodism on the formation of working-class consciousness as negative in The Making of the English Working Class, but he didn’t even bother with the established church. The established church, the literature suggested until quite recently, pertained to bishops, Oxford theologians, and Parliament, while Methodism was the ordinary people’s Christianity.

It looks to me as if this started to change when historians began to push back against the conflictual picture Thompson and others had painted of eighteenth-century society and suggest instead that there was much more unity and support for the establishment. In 1985, J.C.D. Clark wrote English Society 1688-1832: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice During the Ancien Regime, a controversial conservative revision of the left-wing social history which stressed continuity in the social order over the “long eighteenth century” and the strength of the monarchy and aristocracy. He emphasized the role of the established church in constituting a “confessional state”: a polity that didn’t make distinctions between religious and secular realms. Later, Linda Colley’s Britons took a different approach to the same problem. Focusing on culture rather than high politics, she nevertheless argued that over the course of the eighteenth century a unified British national identity formed that was founded in large part on a shared Protestantism. In their different ways, both Colley and Clark called historians’ attention to religion as a central aspect of how eighteenth-century Britain should be understood—though in Clark’s focus on high politics and Colley’s invocation of a common Protestantism that obscures the intensity of conflict among Anglicans and Dissenters and the status of the Church in Scotland, both leave much unsaid. Were laypeople actually attending the parish churches that existed in every community in England? How did they worship? In what ways did the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer factor in their lives? What was the role of clergy in local communities? How significant a threat did Dissent really pose to the day-to-day operations of the established church? When and how did notions of internal, individual belief develop? Answering these questions offers a route to taking the church seriously as a social and cultural presence, and to negotiating the relationship between large-scale pan-European intellectual-historical themes (secularization, Enlightenment) and the ways that people who were not part of the Republic of Letters might have thought and reasoned about the same issues.

The single historian who has made steps in recent years in this direction is Carolyn Steedman, whose extraordinary 2007 book Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age is written also against Thompson’s resistance towards taking religion seriously as a social force. Very unlike Clark’s or Colley’s work, though, Steedman’s book is a microhistory of one eighteenth-century West Yorkshire clergyman with a massive archive, and her central question is how it is that this priest—against the notions of morality we might expect him to hold—continued to employ and support a female domestic servant who became pregnant out of wedlock, and came to love and care for her child. Steedman’s sparkling, moving prose ranges across the importance of the Yorkshire landscape, changes in work and social structure, institutional and theological aspects of the Church, and what it is that this clergyman, John Murgatroyd, might really have believed about doctrinal issues or the more elusive experience of God’s grace. Ultimately, Steedman suggests that Murgatroyd’s diaries, sermons, notes, and library show that the Enlightenment had come to West Yorkshire—but that it was a much more Anglican Enlightenment, with a much closer relationship to God, than one might expect.

In some ways, Steedman doesn’t know how to handle religion any better than Thompson. She admits that she can only guess at what it might be like to believe in God, and I wonder if in her speculation about the affective lives about John Murgatroyd and Phoebe Beatson, she writes the familiar, sympathetic characters she would like them to be, rather than long-dead individuals whose ways of looking at the world might in some ways be incommensurable with our own. As beautiful and compelling as her account is, too, and as important a move it makes in connecting Enlightenment sentiment so closely to established religion, there is still a certain chasm between her work and that of scholars writing from a present-day Church perspective who see an essential continuity between eighteenth-century theology and liturgy and their own—and an experience of faith that does not necessarily have to be explained to the reader.

This is a chasm that has to be traversed, a gap that has to be filled. Before the 1830 repeal of the Test Acts, when the Church of England really did define the terms of civic life, it needs to be an essential aspect of how all historians, not only those writing from a Church perspective, understand the past. Moreover, as Steedman suggests, intellectual history looks rather different when it turns to the thoughts, beliefs, and experiences of those who are not philosophers, writers, or even diocesan bishops. Steedman tells us that John Murgatroyd had an unconventional and largely autodidactic education, that he read and reacted to theology, philosophy, and classical learning but not always in the most up-to-date or predictable ways. There must be many others like him, troubling the extent to which it is possible to offer a single narrative about either secularization or the “confessional state.”

[Correction: Stuart Jones pointed out on Twitter that Pattison actually drew attention to the dearth of work on the eighteenth-century church in 1860, not in the 1880s as I originally wrote.]

Think Piece

British History and the Question of Relevance: Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies

by Emily Rutherford

Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto continues to make headlines within academic circles. Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler’s critique (about which I wrote in January) has now appeared in the American Historical Review, with a reply from Guldi and Armitage. Cohen and Mandler issued a further “rejoinder,” as well as a statement making note of “silent changes” to the History Manifesto‘s digital edition. The substance of the exchange seems largely to center on disagreements about how to interpret data about things like the level of specialization of history dissertations over time, but along the way there’s a degree of mudslinging that only serves to make clear what all participants see as the high stakes for this debate.

I’m still struck by the fact that Armitage, Cohen, Guldi, and Mandler were all trained within the British/imperial field, and to a large extent still teach and publish in it. I still wonder if there’s something about this field’s own long-perceived crisis that draws British historians to large questions about how to rethink the discipline. I also wonder if that’s the right way to think about this, and if media narratives about “crisis” and “relevance” aren’t too self-reinforcing. Last weekend, I attended and presented at the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies, the regional conference for my field’s professional association. Experts gathered from a wide range of institutions across the Mid-Atlantic region and also from further afield, including several scholars from the UK and Ireland. This was the first time I’d had the opportunity to see British history in action, and particularly to see it in action outside the most elite US and UK institutions. This experience told me a rather different story about the field, and historical scholarship more broadly, than you’re likely to get from the pages of periodicals.

MACBS 2015 was held in honor of the great social historian Judith Walkowitz, retiring this year, who broke new ground in the 1980s and ’90s with her sensitive and perceptive writing about prostitution and other ways that sexuality mapped itself onto urban spaces in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. Perhaps accordingly, social and cultural history were well-represented among the papers, ranging (among those I heard) from the demographics of Royal Navy officers in the Napoleonic period to utopian communes of the early twentieth century to gender and equestrian sport in late-nineteenth-century India, with much between. Many speakers made use of the kind of prosopography it seems that you can only do with the wealth of ego-documents left by Victorians, tracing familial and affective connections across empire. And a panel held in memory of another great social and women’s historian, the late Leonore Davidoff, demonstrated that there is as much continuity as there is change in our notoriously faddish discipline. Elizabeth Imber, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins whose dissertation project is clearly imperial and transnational, had as much to say as historians who came of age in the 1960s about the lasting influence of the seminal work Family Fortunes (1987) that Davidoff co-authored with Catherine Hall. In general, the conclusion I drew from MACBS was that much good work is coming out of history departments across the US and the UK that isn’t trend-driven, that doesn’t posit the global—or even the imperial—as a natural theoretical good. I saw a few graphs and maps that visualized things like census data, but this struck me less as a sign of the triumph of Big Data than as reflective of a kind of empirical social history with which the British field has long been associated. This is not to say that the entire conference focused on these themes—there were also panels on literature, on twentieth-century political history, on high-intellectual Cambridge School history of history (J.G.A. Pocock himself gave a paper on Gibbon!), on the early modern Atlantic, and more. I heard a surprising amount about eighteenth-century sodomy. But the conference’s overall interest in social history was clear.

The panel in honor of Walkowitz was titled “London, Britain: The Role of the Capital in Studies of British History.” Panelists spoke about the prominence of the spatial in structuring their analysis of the past as well as their practice of research in the present. Most of the audience nodded in recognition—if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about American historians of Britain, it’s that they love to bond over their shared experiences of the British Library and the National Archives at Kew—though as one historian originally from the North of England remarked to me at the subsequent reception, “Haven’t we heard enough about London?”

In his paper, panelist Farid Azfar (Swarthmore) made what I interpreted as an implicit dig at the History Manifesto-led argument that relevant—or even just good—history should have a wide geographical and chronological scope. Walkowitz’s book City of Dreadful Delight (1992), Azfar argued, remains compelling precisely because of its situation in a specific place and time and its synchronic analysis. I have to say that I agree—and MACBS convinced me. Since I began my doctorate, I’ve been anxious about the point of studying the intellectual and cultural world of English educational institutions within the span of fifty-odd years, when my department colleagues are planning dissertations about international governance, control over natural resources, capitalism, and other topics that bear a clear relation to today’s headlines.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. The range of excellent papers at MACBS ably demonstrated the difference between “relevant” work and “good” or “interesting” work. Papers compelled not because they were connected to the headlines (though some certainly were), and not because they turned to the kinds of “origins” questions from which diachronic narratives about recent (particularly state-centric) history so often depart. They compelled because in twenty minutes with just a few archival examples they opened up new worlds of understanding about the past, creating a way in even for non-experts. I was surprised by the number of papers from far outside my own sub-subfield by which I was fascinated.

Is it enough for historical scholarship to be “interesting”? I expect this question will continue to keep me awake at night, and it doesn’t change the fact that, no matter how “interesting” or “relevant,” there won’t be enough jobs for all of us. But it does suggest that reading magazines, or even the AHR, to know what’s happening in research terms in a range of American colleges and universities won’t provide a complete picture. Perhaps we should consider whether having a say in the media really constitutes the public engagement and claim to relevance to which all historians ought to be striving—or whether teaching “interesting” history to school and university students, as most of us who call ourselves historians do, mightn’t be just as essential.

Think Piece

Approaching Religious Belief and Practice in Modern Intellectual History

by Emily Rutherford

Two weeks ago, I attended a concert of seventeenth-century German music. The theme was the liturgical season of Lent, with a number of pieces meditating somberly on death. They meant Jesus’s crucifixion, of course, but I found myself thinking of the death, destruction, and political upheaval that characterized the period in which most of the program’s composers were active. Was the emotional pain evident in vocal pieces like Samuel Capricornus’s setting of “O Traurigkeit” related to Capricornus’s experience of fleeing Bohemia at the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War? Or do such secular explanations indicate an unwillingness really to explore the content of religious belief and practice, figuring religion as significant only when resulting in sectarian political violence and not as something that might inform affect, action, and art in its own right?

This is easy to do, when European politics seems to have been so shaped by the considerable violence and instability of the seventeenth century: monarchs deposed and killed, new systems of international order formed. It’s easy to see how it is that so many historians of modern political thought are drawn to the Thirty Years War and the transition it marks (or so the traditional story goes) from sectarian religious divides to a pragmatic, “Enlightened” politics of European balance of power. In Steve Pincus’s highly successful retelling of Britain’s 1688 (the so-called “Glorious”) revolution, the choice of the Dutch prince William of Orange as monarch in preference to the Stuart king James II involved two competing visions of the modern British state and its relationship to its empire. In his discussions of James’s Catholicism versus William’s Protestantism, Pincus shows Catholic-Protestant, High Church-Low Church distinctions largely to be political labels; they map—perhaps a little too neatly—onto the Whig-Tory divide. Like the modernizing story about Westphalia, Pincus’s account of 1688 has more to do with polities—the alternative constitutions and philosophies of empire modeled by the Netherlands and France—than with cultural divides suggested by the differences in Catholic and Protestant belief and practice that had previously shaped England. It’s a compelling story, but it might miss out too much. It’s true that politics were entwined with the church: bishops could be elevated to positions of political authority, deviance from the established church had long been associated with political radicalism (Pincus pays little attention to the fact that republican Dissenters had, all too recently, actually killed a king), the head of the state and the head of the church were (and are still, in Britain) formally the same person. Taking religion seriously on its own terms doesn’t mean ignoring the Realpolitik ways in which the powerful maneuvered around it in order to stake their claims to governance. But it does mean, perhaps, moving away from a way of understanding European history in which the “modern,” pivoting on a series of crucial moments in the seventeenth century, can best be apprehended as a body of secularized political thought. Perhaps it also means apprehending that when James II proposed to re-Catholicize Britain, this was something that would have consequences for belief and practice (re-emphasizing the Mass, returning to non-vernacular worship) that were central to many people’s lives, powerful/educated and not.

In nineteenth-century Britain, it is more possible to speak of a politics not fundamentally intertwined with theology. But as biology, geology, and archaeology changed how people understood the Biblical past, debate raged about how to understand Darwin’s theory of evolution or whether the Bible could be read metaphorically and allegorically. On June 30, 1860, huge crowds turned out to watch “Darwin’s bulldog” T.H. Huxley debate evolution with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, at the Natural History Museum. One member of the crowd may have been the undergraduate John Addington Symonds, whose letters are filled with commentary on how theological controversies of the period raged within Oxford. As he recalled in his autobiography, “Theology penetrated our intellectual and social atmosphere. We talked theology… wherever young men and their elders met together” (244). Years later, on holiday in France with his young family, Symonds experienced a nervous breakdown—what his friend and early biographer Horatio Brown termed “the crisis at Cannes,” and attributed to the catastrophic implications of Symonds’ loss of faith.

From the 1960s on, as Symonds has become recognized as a pioneer of homosexuality, scholars have taken a different tack: a man as ahead of his time as Symonds is not so likely to have been deeply shaken by loss of faith; the breakdown must have been a result of his struggle to repress his true sexual orientation. But is it so impossible to believe that a man who evidently thought deeply about theology, who wrote about the relationship between religion and science throughout his life, might have been paralyzed by the thought of a world without God? Is it so difficult for the historian to imagine how a change in formal patterns of worship (whether their sudden absence in Symonds’ life, or a shift from Protestantism to Catholicism brought on by a regime change) might have affected someone’s life as much, or more than, sex? Is it so strange that thinkers of the age of science and industry, grappling with radical new ideas, might also have asked questions that had troubled others for many centuries?

Belief is a tricky thing to grasp—it’s not always as well-documented on paper as the decisions of statecraft—but it’s important to try. For me, apprehending the complex relation of theology to more earthly matters, and the ways in which the formal rituals of religious observance can structure societies very differently to my own pluralist society of twenty-first-century Manhattan, flexes my muscles of historical empathy. But more importantly, it troubles the connection many of us instinctively draw between secularism and the modern west, and challenges us to think critically about the intersections of religion, politics, thought, and art in both the past and the present.

Think Piece

Why Are All the Costume Dramas Edwardian?, or, History and Popular Memory

by Emily Rutherford

When the World War I-era miniseries Parade’s End, based on the novels of Ford Madox Ford, was being broadcast on the BBC, a British friend asked me, “Why are all the costume dramas Edwardian?” It’s true: the narrative of Edwardian innocence lost in the trenches of France and the slow disintegration of the Empire has captivated audiences for decades, from Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1970s, to ITV’s 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, to Merchant Ivory’s 1980s and ’90s films of E.M. Forster novels, to today’s hits. The film of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, released in the UK last month, has proved surprisingly popular, enough to secure a US release later this year. The main UK television networks currently feature lavish shows set in an Edwardian department store and (albeit stepping slightly later, to the interwar period) the end of British rule in India. It’s not as if the rest of the English-speaking world is immune to this form of historical romance: just look at the success that Downton Abbey has had in the US and Canada.

What’s a tour of period dramas doing on a serious blog like this one? I want to suggest, speculatively and inexpertly, that the Edwardian era (the reign of King Edward VII, 1901-1910, and usually lumping in the years leading up to the First World War) has an outsize place in popular understandings of the British national story, in part because of how Edwardian and interwar writers themselves defined a particular sense of their national culture. We’re bequeathed that story now through lavish television adaptations of Waugh and Forster, Brittain and Flora Thompson, and I think it’s done a lot to obscure a more nuanced understanding of continuity and change in an English/British national history.

I was set on this train of thought by reading academic histories of the early modern British Empire—what’s often called the “first” British Empire, in contrast to the “second” that takes shape after the Napoleonic Wars. The latter is characterized, the usual story goes, by a strong metropolitan government that enacted powerful political authority over colonies across the world, by a strong culture of imperial pageantry, by an economic policy of free trade, and by a cultural experience of empire that touched the lives of everyone in the British Isles as well as those native populations whom the Empire subjugated. This, understandably, is what we think of when we think “British Empire”: after all, we’re not so temporally distant from it. People our parents’ or grandparents’ age celebrated Empire Day across the globe. Historians of the “first” British empire, therefore, have often had to clarify and explain how the ideology and the practice of imperial politics, economics, and lived social experience worked in a time before the nation-state (and indeed before Britain) and before capitalism. To what extent was the British Empire a system of political governance, and to what extent was it a trading network? What were the power relations between British settlers and native populations, and between settlers and the metropole? Does it make sense to conceive of the whole empire as a single entity? How were imperial politics and economics affected by the great political upheavals in seventeenth-century England? As I read this scholarship I’m struck by its need to overcome the sense that “the British Empire” wasn’t always already the concept Benjamin Disraeli invented when, in 1877, he got Parliament to pass a bill declaring Queen Victoria Empress of India.

Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) and his biography of Queen Victoria (1921) gave us the Victorian age we remember today: war, duty, muscular Christianity, sexual repression, stiff upper lips, all rendered colorfully with the irreverent tone of a child rebelling against his parents. Indeed, as psychoanalysis came to be a powerful backdrop to the explorations of the Bloomsbury set to which Strachey belonged, other writers such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster helped to solidify that sense of a generational break. “On or about December 1910, human character changed,” wrote Woolf in her 1924 essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.” The old social conventions no longer applied; the generation that grew up amid the Great War had to ascertain new ways of relating to each other. Downton Abbey, actually, dramatizes vividly this perception of a generational divide, showing it being worked out among groups other than one too-clever set of young London literati. I’m not convinced, though: my own research suggests that the concerns of affect, sociability, and interiority that preoccupied writers like Woolf and Forster had their origins in discussions about democratization, urbanization, educational reform, and, yes, sexuality that interested many upper-middle-class, educated people of their parents’ generation, too. Here, again, the psychological interest of the loss-of-innocence story that attracted literary writers since the Great War itself may be a distraction from what the evidence shows.

In order to engage with an audience wider than field-specific specialists, historians must constantly interact with received popular narratives and oral traditions about the past, narratives which as they’re repeated can seem to acquire a shinier veneer of truth than anything that appears between the covers of books published by Oxford or Cambridge University Press. If there’s a gulf between the truth that drives television ratings and the truth that gets a scholar tenure, it comes to matter: witness politicians’ attempts to redefine school history curricula on both sides of the pond, most recently an attempt in the Oklahoma state legislature to ban the revised Advanced Placement US History curriculum from state schools because, essentially, its themes and questions, crafted by professional historians, don’t conform to the rather different received popular narrative those legislators have internalized. Why are all the costume dramas Edwardian? Because they sell a dramatically seductive narrative and evoke a time when Britain still had significant world political power. But when, for instance, these narratives shape how politicians observe the centenary of the First World War and perceptions of foreign conflict going forward, the work they do to comfort and to entertain assumes serious importance.

Think Piece

Intellectuals on Toboggans

by Emily Rutherford

For the sake of some midweek levity, and in honor of the weather across much of northern North America at the moment, here are some pictures of intellectuals and educators enjoying the snow:

Symonds tobogganing
J.A. Symonds tobogganing in Davos. Bristol University Library, John Addington Symonds Papers, DM 410/2 (Emily Rutherford)
Gildersleeve and Spurgeon toboggan
Virginia Gildersleeve, Caroline Spurgeon, and dog tobogganing. Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Virginia Gildersleeve Papers, Box 5 (Emily Rutherford)

As comical as these pictures are, there’s actually something to be said here about the culture in which an increasingly professionalized group of Anglo-American intellectuals operated. Sports such as rugby, American football, baseball, and rowing loomed large in schools and universities on both sides of the Atlantic, and the history of universities and of institutions like the Rhodes Scholarships tells us lots about the racialized valences of this. But that’s not the whole story: among university men in England—even those who weren’t particularly athletic or oriented toward a “muscular Christian” attitude—Alpine adventuring and other winter sports were particularly trendy in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. In January 1884, the Oxford Magazine satirically commented on the fad for mountain-climbing by suggesting, “It is proposed to utilise Port Meadow [a large tract of common land in Oxford] by importing and erecting upon it a genuine Alp, to be selected by the Oxford members of the Alpine Club, from whose number a Reader in Alpine Climbing might be appointed” (vol. 2 issue 1, 19 (Bodleian Library)). Long-distance walking was also popular, as Arthur Sidgwick’s diaries show: Sidgwick records astonishingly long walking trips across England, such as from Oxford to Windsor, a distance of almost fifty miles on present-day roads. But the Alps loomed particularly large in the culture in which most of the middle-class British people connected to education and ideas in this period operated: they had the disposable income for holidays and the knowledge of French and German, and groups of young men or nuclear family units often holidayed in the Swiss Alps. John Addington Symonds (top picture) met his wife there while on holiday with a group of friends (she, also English, was on holiday with her family); later, having contracted tuberculosis, he and his family moved permanently to Davos, site of a primarily anglophone health resort for people with respiratory illnesses. The whole Symonds family became heavily involved in winter sports, and while this reflected something about the English culture to which they belonged, it also may have helped the family to move beyond their English enclave. Symonds’ daughters Margaret and Katherine both record in memoirs about their childhood in Davos that through winter sports they interacted with local children of different class backgrounds, while Symonds père was celebrated in the local community for sponsoring an annual toboggan race.

It’s not wildly implausible that the Symonds daughters’ enthusiasm for winter sports might have rubbed off on other educated women of their generation involved in internationalist charitable causes, as they were. There’s no way of knowing this, but the bottom picture depicts two women of the same age who moved in a similar orbit: Virginia Gildersleeve, Dean of Barnard College from 1911 through the Second World War, and Caroline Spurgeon, a professor of medieval literature at Bedford College, London, who were long-term romantic partners. I don’t know where or when this photograph was taken, but I found it in a folder of other photographs and memorabilia that document Spurgeon’s and Gildersleeve’s relationship. Due to being lost among Gildersleeve’s papers for some years, this one file escaped the flames to which most of the couple’s letters and so on were consigned. With the dog, it’s very much a family group, and it evokes something about what William Whyte has called intellectuals’ “lives beyond their books” (18).

In the same article, Whyte also asks us to consider “the way in which walking, and cycling, rowing and mountaineering became the characteristic—and self-consciously characteristic—occupations of the intellectual aristocracy” (35). Whatever one might think about the usefulness of the label “intellectual aristocracy,” I think this is true of this group of British professional intellectuals and their families, and it seems to transcend strict gender lines or religious, political, and imperial ideologies. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this—if you have some ideas, I hope you’ll share them in the comments! But it’s a useful and evocative reminder that intellectuals are people—with significant relationships, children, health concerns, and even hobbies—as much as they are generators of ideas.

Think Piece

Arthur Sidgwick’s Diaries: Notes from a Work in Progress

by Emily Rutherford

A page from Arthur Sidgwick's diaries
A page from Arthur Sidgwick’s diaries, Bodleian MSS Eng. misc. e. 655-9, p. II.172 (Emily Rutherford)

This image (click for full size) is a page from the diary of a man called Arthur Sidgwick, who lived from 1840 to 1920 and who taught ancient Greek first at an elite private secondary school and then at Oxford. When he was an undergraduate, Sidgwick began to keep a written record of different aspects of his daily life. It ranges back in time to record the births of people like his wife and his closest university friends, and stays up-to-date with work appointments, travel plans, and more intimate details. Sidgwick filled this diary in retrospectively, possibly by copying information from an appointment book that doesn’t survive. But it’s very unlike the texts most historians and literary critics mean when they discuss the “Victorian diary”: it’s not written in complete sentences; what forms of introspection and emotional revelation there are here need to be read quite literally between the lines of the tabular format, which bears a greater resemblance to an accounting ledger than to a piece of life-writing. There’s a literature on accounting ledgers, particularly in the eighteenth century, but is it the right source for appropriate models for how to read this later, more qualitative, record? Perhaps not any more than the literature on Victorian diaries, which tends to characterize them as nakedly confessional documents, is.

As you might guess from this page, a lot of code-cracking has gone into my efforts to read this diary. Reading its five volumes was a slow process of figuring out the logic behind the ordering of the page: the list of travel destinations and days spent at each at the top, the column at right filled with initials that probably signifies correspondence with specific individuals, the column further to the right that, due to glosses of symbols such as “β” (bicycling) and “lt” (lawn tennis) that Sidgwick offers elsewhere, probably keeps track of his physical fitness. Some of the text is in Greek, a language of which I have limited knowledge—though likely more than the other women, such as Sidgwick’s wife and sister, who would have had access to this document as Sidgwick composed it. This is important, because translating the Greek (another act of decoding) sometimes reveals more intense emotions than Sidgwick is willing to express in English, and sometimes—veiled in metaphor or euphemism, requiring further decoding—references to sex. On this page Sidgwick marries his wife, Charlotte (just above the horizontal line that firmly divides his single from his partnered existence), and just below the line a Greek phrase offers one of a small handful of descriptive records of a wedding night in all of nineteenth-century English sources: “lovingly with her lips she made holy my shame.” Greek also offers the key to the code in the column between the date and the longer entry. On an earlier page, Sidgwick glosses the “|” symbol with a Greek word meaning “kisses,” and an “—” with two Greek euphemisms for sexual intercourse. The “μ,” on the other hand, appears roughly every 5 – 7 days out of every 25 – 30, and not in the months preceding the births of the Sidgwicks’ children. I’m sure you can work that one out for yourselves—but I have to confess I actually said “eureka” out loud in the archive when it dawned on me.

There are more codes I don’t have space to discuss here, not all of which I’ve cracked yet. I also don’t want to tell you too much about the conclusions I’ve drawn from my attempts to synthesize this enormous document, because they’re very much a work in progress. But the challenges this source raises have lessons for dealing with Victorian ego-documents more generally. I’ve shown you one page out of thousands, featuring a particularly significant event in the lives of Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick. This page and others surrounding it are also important in historiographical terms, because they challenge the contentions of some work on Victorian marriage that the wedding night is typically shrouded in mystery in the archive, and that in the absence of records we have to assume that the sudden intrusion of carnal knowledge into couples’ previously homosocial lives was traumatic for both parties, particularly the wife. This document shows, however, that Charlotte enthusiastically expressed sensual desire, as well as some knowledge of what would happen to her physically on her wedding night (on this page and others, Sidgwick copies in excerpts from Charlotte’s letters to him). And that one wedding-night sentence in Greek, read between the lines, says a lot about carnal knowledge as well.

Still. It’s one page out of thousands. As revelatory as this finding is, it wouldn’t be appropriate to blow it out of proportion. It’s easy to get enchanted by clues and codes and to use them, in Freudian or Foucauldian style, to seek out the sexuality simmering just below the Victorian surface. Seen as a whole, though, these diaries’ story isn’t (only) about sex, whether marital or—as some have insisted—homoerotic. Read faithfully as Sidgwick’s own comprehensive tabulation of the varied aspects of his professional and personal lives, it shows how one man negotiated a multiplicity of affective bonds: with his wife, children, his students, his colleagues, his extended family, his lifelong friends. Sidgwick’s diaries help us to map more comprehensively than historians have before the variety of affective relations people had in this period—when emotions and sex worked differently to how they did today, and defy historians’ efforts to put them into boxes as easily as Sidgwick did his correspondence and his exercise routines.