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.

Think Piece

The Politics of Unearthing New Amsterdam in 19th-Century New York

by Madeline McMahon

John Romeyn Brodhead was fascinated by a city beneath his feet that he felt could only be dug up and discovered in the archives of the Old World. New Amsterdam, and its fraught transformation into New York, captivated Brodhead, so that even when he undertook diplomatic work at The Hague, he “divid[ed] his time between study and society.” He returned to New York in 1839 and was appointed by the state’s governor to transcribe documents relevant to New York’s colonial history in the archives of the Netherlands, England, and France.

After a slow start (he at first missed his boat, which turned out to be a good thing since that particular steamship never arrived at its destination), Brodhead seems to have worked furiously for the next few years. He was officially an Agent of the State of New York—an act of the state’s legislature had created his post. He leveraged this position and his former diplomatic ties in order to gain access to the archives. As he later wrote, reflecting back on his journey: “The inspection of the state papers of foreign governments, it is well known, is not a mere matter of course, but is considered a privilege of a high order; and is granted in most cases, only upon applications backed by high personal or official influence.” Brodhead’s quest for support in high places was riddled with failures—even after an interview, the US Secretary of State declined to give him letters of introduction, and he had to appeal instead to American ambassadors in Europe. He also sought audiences with and wrote letters to a vivid cast of European characters, from the king of the Netherlands to the archbishop of Canterbury, all to gain further access to documents. To anyone who has worked with manuscripts and rare books in the 21st century, Brodhead’s archival adventures sound strange indeed.

Nonetheless, when he returned, in 1844, one contemporary wrote that “[t]he ship in which he came back was more richly freighted with new material for American history than any that ever crossed the Atlantic.” Armed with eighty volumes of transcripts, he did what any researcher would do next: he tried to procure further funding. His Final Report (1845) was an overview of the documents he had found. Strictly speaking, it was the culmination of what he had set out to do, but it was also part of his case that he should be the one to translate and publish his findings. But politics were not in Brodhead’s favor as a Democrat, and in 1849, a Whig-controlled legislature assigned the task to two other men.

Although Brodhead wrote that an “antiquarian spirit” motivated his work, he identified with the past. He proudly claimed descent from “a colonial Hollander who stood up manfully for his Republican Fatherland” as well as “an English officer who helped his king to conquer Dutch New Netherland” as indicative of his lack of “partiality.”

Yet the battleground of the past extended beyond English and Dutch tensions in seventeenth-century New York. Brodhead’s expedition to European archives was driven in part by a national debate on American colonial origins. As the New Englander Puritan became ascendant in early nineteenth-century American mythology, New Yorkers fought back, creating the New York Historical Society (of which Brodhead was an active member) to counter that story (Joyce Goodfriend, “Present at the Creation: Making the Case for the Dutch Founders of America,” 261). The volumes of documents that Brodhead hoped to publish had New England counterparts (Goodfriend, 262). Ultimately, it was Brodhead’s identity as a New Yorker, excavating the sources for a local history—a genealogy of sorts—that compromised his impartiality. Yet it also led him to present early America as more than a monolithic English colony, and to search seriously for its sources in international archives.