Coming Out, Again and Again; or, In Which I Demonstrate That I Can Spin Out 2,000 Highly Personal Words In Response to a TV Season Finale

I just finished watching Gentleman Jack, and my overall view of the final episode is: cloying Hollywood ending is cloying. Without question the best part of this episode is Sofie Grabol as the Danish queen; second-best is how, in just a few brief well-chosen scenes, the first half of the episode efficiently and effectively conveys how lengthy and arduous all journeys were before trains. The split wedding scene itself was okay, using the language of the BCP to good effect to show how—as was the case generally—people were creative in adapting this familiar, powerful language to the rhythms of their own lives. (I don’t think I have actually ever heard the 1662 Eucharist ever in my life before? But in those pre-Oxford Movement days how did they just walk into a random church in York and find a communion service?)

Last week at the conference I had the somewhat heady pleasure of being welcomed into a lunch circle of queer women and trans senior scholars who had all devoured this series, most of whom know the text of Lister’s diaries much better than I do, and were talking animatedly about the whole phenomenon. For me, it was an extraordinary experience to be welcomed and included in this conversation, but I did fit in: pretty much none of us liked the presentist depiction of the Annes’ relationship or the way that Lister is represented as making born-this-way arguments about a sexual-object-choice-based identity, though we did think the series gets some things right about Lister’s gender identity and we all loved the estate management/Tory politics stuff. (People thought I was funny when I called it “Gay Poldark,” which I stand by.) On reflection, though, I am kind of struck by the gulf between this collective opinion and a wider one, perhaps, of the “can’t we just have this one thing?” variety, which sees in Lister the potential for an inspiring, exciting, sexy fictional character. As I write this, I apprehend something of how annoying people probably find it to be married to historians, always coming along to spoil a pleasant night hanging out on the sofa by nit-picking about television, which is always of course necessarily fiction. That those of us sitting on the grass outside the Birmingham history department on Friday were nit-picking about how you might act on screen the idea of, in 1832, defining your identity in terms of gender inversion and not sexual object choice—and not, like, the costumes (or, you know, what “death recorded” means)—is perhaps no less annoying to those who admit that the point of fiction is that it can convey something other than what actually happened in the past.

This has been an extraordinary few months for my own sense of identity and political belonging, with June fifty-years-since-Stonewall at its center. The work I did in preparation for our Sexuality & Erudition workshop at Princeton in mid-May brought me, slowly, back towards primary and secondary sources I hadn’t thought about in years, and the whole Naomi Wolf contretemps caused me to reread my senior thesis and remember how much I cared about Symonds and also why it mattered so much to me that both academic pasts and usable pasts get the queer past right—for I feel such great love for the queer past that I hate to see it manipulated or misconstrued, even when that’s in the interest of presenting a happier or a more accessible, less complicated story. The work I presented at the conference last week was kind of a confluence of the Sexuality & Erudition stuff and the axe I was grinding at Wolf—and while I wrote a dissertation chapter in the middle of all this too, about national politics and higher education policy in the 1900s-20s—it sure doesn’t feel as real or as pressing as the Sexuality & Erudition paper or the Wolf review or the paper for this conference or the job materials I have been worrying over wherein I pitch The Second Project.

On Thursday, when I had been sitting in classrooms listening to people speak about postwar British social history all day and was getting a little antsy, I spotted a Misuse of the Queer Past on Twitter and issued a snide and tetchy tweet about it, closely related to the paper I was about to give at 9 the next morning. This had a good reception on Twitter; my friends started making fun of me for bashing Stonewall (the organization); and then there was the paper and the heady queer lunch talking about Gentleman Jack. Somehow all of this caused me at some point, casually, to call myself a “professional queer,” words that I had not uttered in probably a decade. And that act of naming, in turn, unleashed a whole lot. I was still talking to my friends whom I get to see once or twice a year (another reason why this conference was to be cherished), and I heard as if someone else was speaking it the clarifying sentence—true, but strange to my ears—”I used to cover LGBT politics for a national DC-based magazine.” Was that really me? Yes, I know that I used to sing in an Oxford chapel choir—but Emily Rutherford, Dyke Reporter? In the days since, more scenes have flashed suddenly and vividly in my mind, some long forgotten. The time I, like every left-wing intern before or since, snuck into the CPAC conference and got thrown out. The time we carried a sign that said “Even Princeton” in the March for LGBT Equality in Washington. The time every student in Princeton woke up to my bowl-cut 12-year-old-boy head adorning a character-assassination piece in Princeton’s conservative magazine. But the one that stayed with me and kept me up late last night was in the spring semester of my freshman year when I met two women on campus, a professor and a senior administrator, who dressed like I did then, in men’s or men’s-type collared shirts and khakis. In those days I had worked in a cinema, as a theater electrician, and shelving books in the library, places where women regularly wear men’s clothes. But until I met that professor and administrator, I genuinely did not think that it would be possible to get a professional job, or one that involved any kind of public-facing work like lecturing, if you were gender-nonconforming. Thinking about Anne Lister, and about that extraordinary lunch on the grass on the Birmingham campus on Friday, what I get stuck on is the time in the spring of 2009 that I was sitting at a big table in a conference room during a committee meeting, and I turned to the person on my right, who was chairing the meeting, and realized she was dressed just like me. I feel a rush of emotion still, as I write this, many years since anyone has yelled at me for being in the wrong bathroom and so, so much older and more tired.

I have not been in a relationship in many years now—increasingly, and increasingly emphatically, by choice. For me, it in part follows from that state of affairs that I have felt more freedom to present as a woman without feeling that I have to get the illusion exactly right in order to keep the society of women from taking my woman card away. I remember being horrified when I was 14 and my mother suggested to me that I would not be socially ostracized for wearing a dress one day and jeans the next; fifteen years later, that is more or less exactly what my wardrobe looks like. On the other hand, as sex and relationships have faded farther from my purview, I have felt much vaguer about claiming any kind of sexual orientation, any kinship with others on the basis of sexual orientation. I have thrown myself into learning the wider field of British history, into travelling a lot and teaching my students, and into the minutiae of intramural politics at a few universities over a few decades in the past.

This has all, though, these last few months—the workshop in Princeton, and the intense and exciting collaborative experience of planning it with my co-conspirators; nominating myself on the internet as the guardian of John Addington Symonds’ legacy; that lunch on Friday—given me a yearning desire to belong to queer community again, to actually affirm that I am of my people instead of staying silent out of a kind of reticence or embarrassment or privacy (or just, like, dissociation from my body) and hoping people will assume the right thing. I am grateful to the queer communities who have accepted me through my implications rather than assertions up to this point, though I feel that I have to come clean that I am not, as I think many have sometimes assumed absent any kind of indication or clarification whatever on my part, a lesbian (but, you know, nor was Anne Lister, and she still gets a blue plaque saying she was, so).

In the past I have dated and been in relationships with men and women; the Kinsey Spectrum needle has fluctuated wildly and continues to do so on an almost-daily basis. I have, however, been single and celibate for nearly six years, and am increasingly affirmatively committed to celibacy as a concrete lifestyle choice and identity-political category. This does not mean I am asexual, but it does mean that I choose to organize my life around principles other than sex, dating, relationships, marriage, and children. This may change in the future, but it currently holds disproportionate significance for me given that I am nearly 30 and everyone is getting married these days, regardless of the gender of their spouses.

One of those women from college who wore button-up shirts said something beautiful once. We were at a professional dinner and another professor there asked her something about her wife. My mentor clarified that she and her partner are not married: “We’re old-fashioned gays, and we don’t believe in marriage for ourselves. But I’m so happy about marriage equality. There’s no use making a political statement to opt out of something unless there’s something there to opt out of.” I think the “born this way” narrative has led us to underrate the element of choice in queer lives, relationships, and communities. Queer people past and present do, all the time, make daily choices about whether and how to fit in or stand out, to break the law or not, to do so in secret or in the open. When we constantly walk the boundaries of what is acceptable, we know that every aspect of how we dress or how we walk or whom we look at is a choice fraught with meaning, sending a signal about cultural affinity both to those hostile to us and to those on our side. (I remember the electrifying cruising ground that the college dining hall could be, how expert I became at detecting a certain kind of gaze that one man would give another across the tables.) This is no less true in those places today where the medico-legal regulatory regime has been persistently and steadily domesticated to the point of collaboration with queer self-fashioning.

Which is all to say that I am still queer despite my celibacy, and furthermore that (I would contend) my celibacy is a kind of queerness, for all that it is a choice: something which positions me as just as at odds with homonormativity as with heteronormativity, a form of resistance to a kind of totalizing logic about what sex and sexual orientation has to do with one’s personhood. Which is all to say, phrased a different way, that Call the Midwife—and not Gentleman Jack or Fleabag or Killing Eve or The Handmaid’s Tale or Game of Thrones—is the most radical and remarkable show on television, and queerer than you might think.

Remembrance

Note: There is extensive original archival research backing up the information shared in this essay, which is drawn from my Ph.D. dissertation. While I have not included citations in-text, I am happy to provide references upon request.

Had I been alive one hundred years ago, my life might have been a little like Rose Sidgwick’s. Sidgwick was 41 in 1918, and I am 28 now, but otherwise the similarities stand. Born in 1877, the oldest child of an academic family, Sidgwick had access to impressive educational opportunities, and finished her first-class BA in history at Oxford the age of 22. Structured PhDs were not yet common for lecturers in the UK, and after her first degree Sidgwick lived with her parents in Oxford, pursuing the mix of part-time work, further independent study, and semiformal education common among many young people at the turn of the twentieth century who aspired to an academic career. While doing a job at the Somerville library she met and began a relationship with the librarian and maths tutor, Margery Fry. Fry was shortly to take up a new position as warden of the new women’s hostel at Birmingham University; she negotiated a history lectureship—the spousal hire of its day—so that Sidgwick could accompany her. Sidgwick began her first (and what would turn out to be her only) full-time academic job in 1905, at age 28.

University House, the Birmingham hostel, must have been an extraordinary place to live and work. Fry, Sidgwick, and the like-minded women they hired to join their resident academic and pastoral staff sought to build a new kind of vibrant community for the young women in their care. Most of the first women’s halls of residence at UK universities, run by wardens of an older generation, were deeply worried about respectability, preoccupied by the need to assure parents that it was safe to allow their daughters to live away from home, and aware of their marginal (and sometimes contested) status within the university. The residents, mostly in their early twenties, complained that they were treated like schoolgirls. But Fry, Sidgwick, and colleagues such as Marjorie Rackstraw and Bertha Orange were part of a younger generation of women who had been to university themselves, and who were often inspired by the freer pace of academic and social life at North American women’s and coeducational colleges. Benefiting from the support of a vice-chancellor who prioritized women’s education and gave them a free hand, the University House staff treated their students with dignity while still looking after their welfare. Inspired, perhaps, in part by Sidgwick’s father, who had fostered a similar kind of community among his men students at his Oxford college, they opted for a kind of controlled silliness that had an implicit higher purpose. Students put on plays; they made a snowman in the image of the vice-chancellor; the staff could be relied upon to do a comic song-and-dance routine in the end-of-term entertainment. Through this, they knit together bonds that might sustain these young women in the difficult life-course they were undertaking. The overwhelming majority of women university graduates in this period did not marry; a strict binary pertained between marriage and a career; women who desired to work in professional occupations or otherwise pursue a public life faced an uphill battle. Single-sex community—and a physical space where young women could be themselves—was a compensation, but also an essential form of nourishment. The letters that Fry, Sidgwick, Rackstraw, and other Birmingham friends exchanged throughout their lives testify to the richness of the love that these women felt for each other.

A new-built brick building on a hill outside of Britain’s great industrial city is not exactly the archetype called to mind when one imagines nostalgia for the summer of 1914. But the safety and surety of this microcosm, too, would be fractured by the war. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, the building was requisitioned for a hospital. The male side of the university emptied, and many women students elected to train as nurses or pursue other forms of war work. The staff each faced a difficult decision about whether and how to help, which entailed consideration of deeply personal questions about religion and ethics, and about gender, that many felt torturous. Fry, a devout Quaker, seems to have fairly easily concluded that it was her duty to engage in nonviolent war work, joining the Friends War Victims Relief Committee to bring aid directly to those civilians whose homes and sources of income had been ravaged due to their unfortunate location near to the front lines of the conflict. As crop fields became battlefields, the FWVRC’s volunteers distributed food to starving villagers, and set up schools for traumatized children. Educated women had usually received extremely thorough training in modern European languages, and their ability to communicate with French or Russian peasants was in as high demand as their organizational skills. Fry—whose social circle seems widely to have perceived her as a paragon of selflessness—inspired many of her friends, including non-Quakers, to follow her into the FWVRC, where they spent the duration of the war in camp conditions encountering famine and devastation firsthand.

It had been decided that Sidgwick would remain in Birmingham to keep open University House, now squatting in some rented rooms that were not needed for medical purposes. Numbers of women undergraduates throughout Britain remained steady or rose during the war, even as their male colleagues, like other elite men, made up disproportionate numbers of the casualties on the Western Front. Communities of university women could be important sources of momentum for volunteer aid on the home front, as students undertook first aid courses, worked in national kitchens, picked crops in the university holidays, or used their degrees to enter graduate occupations previously closed to them. But Sidgwick struggled with guilt at staying behind. Her youngest brother, Hugh, fed up with what he perceived as the uselessness of his work as a civil servant in the Education Department, had joined up; her friends doing relief work were enduring daily hardships equivalent to his. As she received their letters and posted to France the blankets and toothpaste and candy they requested, she joined the League of Nations Union and lectured to her students and the Birmingham public about how Britain might participate in building a better postwar world—as well, of course, as doing a day job that before the war would have been done by three people. She also traveled back to Oxford very often to join the rota of mother and sisters caring full-time for her father, whose dementia was steadily worsening. But none of this seemed to her like a sufficiently noble sacrifice—and she keenly felt the widening gulf between her and her brother and closest friends, who were being traumatized by experiences she could not imagine. Her grief only worsened in September 1917, when Hugh was killed at Passchendaele, leaving behind his family and his fiancée, who worked adjacent to Sidgwick as a nurse at the University House hospital. Sidgwick felt obliged to put on a brave face, telling friends that she and her family were much more fortunate than others: the word come back from Hugh’s comrades was that his death had been quick and relatively painless. But she knew that in the last year of his life Hugh had been expressing increasing anger about the pointlessness of the war and the duplicity with which politicians had sold it to the nation, and I read a hollowness into how she sought, by repeating it to others, to tell herself that her brother’s death had to be accepted.

While fighting continued on the Western Front until the proverbial eleventh hour, the wartime coalition that had governed Britain since 1916 did so with an eye also to building the postwar order. It was with this in mind that, in September 1918, University House received an invitation from the Foreign Office: would they like to send a representative to join a British Educational Mission to the United States, a delegation of academics who would meet with American colleagues and politicians to determine how universities might participate in a postwar Anglo-American alliance? Fry was the first choice, but, exhausted from her war work and with responsibilities to her aging parents, she suggested Sidgwick go in her stead. Everything happened very quickly: the five men members of the Mission had already set sail (only belatedly had someone in the Foreign Office suggested that some women delegates would be a useful addition), and Sidgwick scrambled to find someone to cover her teaching for the autumn term, ensure her father’s care was in hand, and tie up her various responsibilities at Birmingham. She and her counterpart, Bedford College English professor Caroline Spurgeon, sailed from Southampton; at the beginning of October they were met at the dock in New York by the senior woman member of the official welcoming committee, Dean of Barnard College Virginia Gildersleeve. With Gildersleeve as their host and guide, they took on a whirlwind tour of over thirty campuses in the northeast and midwest, an itinerary more crowded than that of the men, since they had to squeeze in visits to women’s colleges alongside the predetermined official list of institutions. Sidgwick initially doubted her ability to do the trip justice, but she quickly rose to the challenge, gaining a reputation as an effective public speaker about women’s role in building a new, modern, internationally-connected educational landscape. She marveled at the sense of possibility and optimism in America, at the willingness to invest in women’s higher education, and at the social ease that existed among the students she met at women’s and coeducational colleges. She toured everything she could, museums and hospitals as well as campuses. It was October, and she looked out the train window, admiring the foliage. (A couple weeks ago, in late October, I took a train from New York to New England, a not-so-different view.) The trip was life-changing: a chance to do something, be something, make something away from the violent forces that had ruptured her family and her friendships.

I am not an epidemiologist, but it seems possible that, had Sidgwick not traveled to the US, she might not have caught the deadly strain of influenza that, in 1917–1919, claimed far more military and civilian casualties worldwide than the war. By late 1918, the infection had mutated to a less virulent form in Britain, but American soldiers returning from Europe re-imported the worst strain. The last entry in Sidgwick’s diary was a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, a week before Christmas. Her immune system no doubt compromised by the punishing travel itinerary, she was admitted to the Columbia University Hospital with influenza, and died on December 28. She received the academic equivalent of a state funeral in the Columbia chapel, a High Anglican service (at that time, Columbia was officially affiliated to the US Episcopal Church) with high-ranking politicians, diplomats, and university administrators among the attendees. Her coffin—just like her brother’s—was draped in the Union Jack. Casualties of the First World War who died in the service of their country could take many different forms.

Though the chair of the British Educational Mission did not mention Sidgwick or Spurgeon in the memoir he wrote of the trip, Sidgwick’s death sent shockwaves throughout the community of university women. Numb with grief just after the funeral, perched on trunks in a New York hotel room, Gildersleeve and Spurgeon (who had just begun a decades-long romantic relationship of their own) resolved to found the International Federation of University Women in Sidgwick’s memory, tying together groups of graduates across Europe and North America in the name of internationalism and world peace. Its first act was to found the Rose Sidgwick Memorial Fellowship for a British woman pursuing graduate study in the US. At memorial services in Oxford and Birmingham, the tributes to Sidgwick poured in. Sidgwick had left her estate to University House; the new warden, Bertha Orange, decided to spend the money on a fund for books and travel for low-income students. A year later, after their father had died, Sidgwick’s sister Ethel made the trip out to New York to visit her grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Ethel and their mother had written the inscription on the headstone, and Gildersleeve had seen that it was installed. It read, very simply, “In loving memory of Rose Sidgwick, of the Universities Mission of amity to the United States, died Dec 28, 1918, aged 41 years.”

I have told you Rose Sidgwick’s story on the eve of the centenary of the 1918 Armistice because not only those who take up arms are the casualties of war. Sidgwick did not have the pacifist convictions of her beloved friend Margery Fry, and remained genuinely ambivalent about whether the Great War was a just conflict. Her pride in Hugh’s sacrifice only turned sour after his death. But she, too, was a casualty of war, one whom we might care to remember this special Remembrance Day. The Sidgwick family lost two children to the war. Their loss was as real as that of any other family who lost a child—and as real as the loss that accompanied the fracturing of the University House community; as real as the deprivations endured by the families in France whom Fry and other Friends War Victims Relief volunteers sought to help, who saw their crops burned and trenches dug through their fields; as real as the grief of German-speaking parents who lost their children. Like many of the most ardent members of the League of Nations Union, Sidgwick sought a forgiving settlement with Germany, and a postwar order that would quickly incorporate it within a liberal community of nations. Like them, too, she probably gave less serious thought to the ways that postwar internationalism might align all too neatly with British and French imperial ambitions. But there can be no doubt that she, and the family and friends who survived her, knew that modern warfare does not discriminate in those on whose lives it drops (literal, figurative) bombs.

The Rose Sidgwick Memorial Fellowship was still going strong in 1933, when members of the Women’s Cooperative Guild adopted the practice of displaying white instead of red poppies to protest the ways that remembrance observances were being used to stoke nationalist fervor and justify rearmament. The following year, the symbol was adopted by the newly-founded Peace Pledge Union (nondenominational but founded in connection with the Church of England), which continues to encourage its use to this day. It is above my pay grade to re-litigate the story of the appeasement of Nazi Germany, and the place that popular opposition to rearmament had in that story. And it is somewhat outside the scope of this essay to consider the ways in which this kind of women’s political activism intersected with popular imperialism—(which it, like basically every other form of British politics, did). But what the Women’s Cooperative Guild understood—like, I think, the International Federation of University Women, like Rose Sidgwick and her friends—is that if war is in some times and places a necessary evil, it is always and everywhere an evil. There is nothing glorious about war. Mostly it is death, and it is mud. And even when we imagine the antithesis of this particular vision of war bequeathed to us by the Great War—the sanitized, automated drone killings of today’s wars—the pervasive stink of evil endures.

When I was the age Rose Sidgwick was when she took her degree, and I too was living in Oxford, I sang in a Remembrance Sunday service in which the processional hymn was “I Vow to Thee My Country.” I know it’s a state church, but the conflation of nationalist battle fervor with Christianity sickened me, and has sickened me since, all throughout these years when the red poppy has become ever more commercialized and ever more mobilized as a litmus test of empty, amoral patriotism. For people like Rose Sidgwick and Margery Fry, and many like them who lived through it or didn’t, the Great War gave lie to patriotism. This year I hope you will join me in remembering them, as well as the countless unnamed casualties of war before and since who were not given a choice about whether to identify emotionally with a conflict fought in their name or on their land or with their bodies. I hope you will join me in doing what you can to resist war and violence in your own lives and communities; in informing yourselves about the wars fought overseas, including those fought in your name, and whether you want to be party to such conflicts. There is far too much anger in our world, as there was a century ago. I hope that, like me, you seek to commit yourselves to peace.

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Me, Too; or, Gender as a Category of Historical Analysis

The first week of my PhD, I was entering the elevator in the history department building when a male grad student—someone whom I had already identified as a bit weird, a bit icky, to be around—followed me. We nodded hello. The doors closed. There was a silence, which he broke. “So, you’re the one who works on sex,” he said. “No,” I said flatly, “I don’t”—for not only did every instinct I possessed scream that being alone in an elevator with a man who has just said the word “sex” is a situation that has to be shut down as quickly and coldly as possible; in those days, having just come back to the States from Oxford, I had absorbed certain preconceptions about working on gender and sexuality. I thought that leading with these subjects would make me be taken less seriously as a scholar, that the only way in with the Big Guns was to purport to be an intellectual historian. And I knew from experience, honed since I first started going to conferences and talking about my work in public fora online as an undergrad, that the “sexuality” research-interest box is so all-consuming that it is very easy to get typecast, very easy for colleagues to forget that you do anything else, very easy to find yourself only talking to interlocutors who do exactly the same thing—and who maybe take just a little too much prurient interest in rehearsing, say, the content of nineteenth-century pornography or the exploits of the men who populated London’s cruising grounds of yore.

This is, of course, a “me too” story, one of the large number of anecdotes women have been sharing—mostly to sympathetic audiences on Facebook—in the last couple days, I suppose as a consciousness-raising and solidarity-building exercise. Others have expressed sentiments that are variations on the theme: that they feel guilty saying “me too” because their daily experiences of sexism have never shaded into the horrific, the violent; that they are looking for a form of action that is concrete rather than symbolic; that they are experiencing cognitive dissonance between the righteous moral outrage of left-leaning metropolitan-elite social media and the impossible task of how they would ever broach subjects like this with their fathers or their brothers or their high-school classmates. Scrolling through my news feed and reading the litany of “me too” and the periodic expansions upon it, though, what came to my mind are the other things I think my anecdote about the Fayerweather elevator suggests: the ambivalence I’ve had throughout grad school about whether to identify as a gender historian and my simultaneous frustration with sexism in intellectual history; the ways that my research into gender and sexuality have often either symbolized or sublimated my personal relationship to gender and sexuality; and the way that experience has trained me to flatly shut down, run away from, and view with deep suspicion forever any man with whom I have a slightly unpleasant interaction. It doesn’t feel safe—for one’s career or for one’s emotional and mental health—to leave oneself open to the possibility that something might go wrong. (And, indeed, years later I learned that this particular grad student had a history of violating women’s boundaries in far more inappropriate ways, and that he did so consciously and not through social ineptitude—much as I later learned that the senior academic I backed away from because he really, really wanted to stand in the corner of a classroom and talk to me about how we had attended the same Oxford college fifty years apart also had a history of harassment.)

So, three years on, I lead with my research interest in gender, because I am not in Oxford anymore, and also I think times have changed across different institutions since I first started doing research in modern British history. I was at a discussion yesterday about a new monograph in economic and political history, and multiple participants—even those who don’t consider themselves to work on gender—suggested ways that the book might have incorporated a discussion of gender. That would just not have happened five, six, seven years ago when I first started to sit in the corner and listen to faculty and grad students talk about new historical research. (Maybe some will contradict me, but it didn’t happen in the places where I was at that time.) A colleague once said that when deciding which of her historical interests to pursue in graduate study, she made her decision based on which group of historians she’d most like to be in rooms talking with. The openness of modern British historians to a wide variety of thematic and methodological approaches, particularly at the present moment, is one reason why I’m loyal to my field. My colleagues who work on political thought can also think about gender; my colleagues who work on neoliberalism are alive to culture as much as to economics. (It strikes me that this is one reason to continue to promote national histories, even after the “global/international turn”—they can serve as useful containers in which to put an eclectic set of methodological approaches, which wouldn’t be the case in a field that is primarily organized around a methodology, such as intellectual history.)

I also find, as I gain more expertise in my subject, that I have more to offer to the wider public discussion we are currently having about how particular norms and practices surrounding gender structure our society. In due course, naturally, the outraged Twittersphere will move on to something else, but right now gender is having its moment. I became interested in the ways that gender difference, and gender segregation, loom large in elite British culture and the culture of elite educational institutions in particular because I have spent a significant part of my adult life living within elite British culture and its educational institutions, and it turns out that there are highly specific historical explanations for the reasons why this culture works the way it does. But once you’re attuned to reading documents for evidence of how gender works, you see it as much in the Greek-letter organizations of American universities, in the Boy Scouts, in the President, in your own social and professional networks, as you do in nineteenth-century single-sex colleges and student societies. The disadvantage of this, of course, is that you can’t unsee it—and I find that as a woman, it makes it harder for me to relate normally to men, to see them as something other than either research subjects or potential predators. This is a state of mind I find it unpleasant to live within, and I’d like to find some way of moving past it.

They say the public have had enough of experts. And that may be true, but sometimes I think we experts are not sufficiently imaginative about how we might reach people with our expertise and use it for good. Expertise is not something best promulgated through broadsheet op-eds or through written work intended largely for already sympathetic audiences; it’s not only a matter of theorizing about something abstract like, say, global economics that seems removed from the experience of daily life; it is not always about having more facts and about the top-down dissemination of them. Instead, experts can encourage non-academics to think analytically about something they might not have thought about before, and then to think with them as they bring that analytic tool to bear on new pieces of information or experiences or feelings. Coincidentally, this practice has a name: it’s called teaching.

Thus far in my academic career I have only given three undergraduate lectures. If I do not win the academic-jobs lottery, I may never give another one. But in each one, I have found a way of telling the story about the past dearest to my heart, the one where my interest in the past began. In each one, I have told fifty-odd young people new to thinking analytically about the past that our modern conception of homosexuality is historically constructed and contingent. I have given them some heroes overcoming adversity that they can take away with them, but also some ways the story is more complicated and less satisfying than that. Every semester there are a couple students who actually care—who use the content from that lecture in their final paper, who come up to me after class and ask a follow-up question. Hopefully, though, in still further students, the presentation of a new way of thinking about a familiar topic plants a seed that they might, unconsciously, come back to later, even if they no longer connect the thought to that particular lecture or to the history of nineteenth-century Europe. In many forms of psychotherapy, it is held that the conscious awareness of patterns of behavior or ideas or emotions that you may have unconsciously held since early childhood, and of how those tendencies might have originated, can help you to move on from tendencies that might be unhealthy or unhelpful and lay down new patterns. The more that we can point to the things we read in the news—or, more important, every single interaction we have every day—and say “look, gender is happening here,” the more we can recognize harmful behavior when we see it, and move outside boxes of gendered behavior that imprison and hurt everyone.

On a certain troll in The Spectator; or, did I mention that I am also defending my dissertation prospectus in four days?

I was struck, today, by Mary Beard’s response to that awful troll in the Spectator. (Edith Hall’s response is also great, as are the comments of Olivia Thompson and many other classicists on Twitter.)

Historians are often in the rather irritating position of having to pop up every so often when it’s relevant to offer a fun historical fact, which has the unfortunate consequence of leading other humanities scholars to suppose that all we do is learn facts and that we’re duller and more pedantic than others, who of course work with texts and read theory and are original and clever (spoiler alert: we do those things too!). But in my God-given role as purveyor of historical fun facts I will note that, whatever trolls in the Spectator may feel about the matter, the history of increasing access to classics at Beard’s university and others dates back to the massive expansion in grammar schools and in women’s education of the second half of the nineteenth century; and that there have long been dons who resisted Oxford and Cambridge entering the nineteenth century (to say nothing of the twentieth and the twenty-first), but that a great many good and dedicated people who were masters of university politics have slowly, in bits and pieces, manipulated institutional structures to make these universities far more open than they once were. There is still, of course, much to be done, and many difficult and unanswered questions about the way these two universities loom large in the national culture and whether that is a foundation on which good can be built at all. The teaching and study of classics has particularly played a disproportionate role in a debate about such questions that has been very much in the public eye over the course of the last two hundred years. But change has evidently occurred, and is going to keep occurring, because the question of what universities are for, like most questions, is a historically contingent one. I will explain why.

According to Wikipedia (yes, historians use Wikipedia, it’s awfully useful), said Spectator troll is the son of a factory owner, and the single-sex independent school he attended, founded in 1865, was part of a sort of access movement of its day, the public schools run on an Arnoldian model that were founded in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century precisely because progressives thought that the sons of factory owners, and not only the sons of landowners, deserved a good education. Said Spectator troll then went on to read English Language and Literature at Christ Church, Oxford, something made possible by Arthur Sidgwick and other dons, many of them classicists, who designed the English course as an equivalent to the language-and-literature education of classics suitable for women and other students who had not been to a public school—the great curricular revolution of the early twentieth century which also saw the development of Modern History, PPE/Moral and Political Sciences, and other such courses that sought to face the reality that translation into and out of Latin and Greek was not exactly the only suitable preparation for living in the modern age. Classicists have always—I think probably since Roman schoolmasters struggled to teach recalcitrant pupils Greek—been aware of the burdens and barriers that the study of two difficult foreign languages imposes even on the most willing pupils, and sought to find ways of circumventing that obstacle. And classicists, like all teachers, would always rather teach a willing pupil than one who already knows stuff but is bored and boring.

I always struggle to find ways of justifying and explaining my historical research on institutions and a surrounding culture that shaped the experiences of only a tiny minority of people in Britain and the empire in the period I study. I can never give an elevator pitch in a way that makes my work sound sexy. People ask me all the time why I only study elites. But the thing is, weirdly, for all that we live in a completely different universe from the one in which someone like Sidgwick lived (as my correspondence with his 104-year-old granddaughter vividly reminds me), these debates about the significance of elite education to British culture at large just won’t go away. They are rehearsed over and again as part of the drama of class (as culture, not, or not only, as dialectical materialism) in Britain—and as we are now all too aware, class as culture is the stuff of the 52 versus the 48 and of the uncertain future of unions of all kinds. This is a country in which how education makes class has a remarkably large role to play in who is in and who is out: the very first bill proposed by May’s government was about grammar schools. Many of the 47 Labour MPs who voted in Parliament against Article 50 represent university constituencies, not least Cambridge’s Daniel Zeichner. (And until 1950, of course, universities had their own seats in Parliament; in looking up that date, which I should probably already have committed to memory for Thursday, I learned that India and Rwanda still have university seats in their legislatures. The legacies of empire are more wide-ranging, and sometimes more bizarre, than we imagine.)

Some will probably say I oughtn’t to write several hundred words feeding a troll. But I’m not just feeding him, I’m congratulating him for being just the latest in a long queue of members of the British chattering classes who frequently remind me that my research—and the study of history more widely—matters, and bears a critical relation to understanding the mess that Britain is in today.

Third Week

It’s so rare, in my life as an American PhD student, that: a) I get to have the experience of going to the pub after a seminar; b) that going to the pub after a seminar makes me want to go home and Have Ideas and Do Academic Work. Usually I am aggressively procrastinating on doing any real work whatsoever, and generating largely pointless admin to avoid coping with the reality of whether I am intelligent enough to take on the weightier tasks of orals and prospectus.

At the pub a faculty member was pontificating about the differences between grad school in the US and the UK. One difference is surely the prevalence of beer as a lubricant, and that as something that smooths relations between grad students and faculty, rendering those categories something other than a capitalist managerial hierarchy. Another is the view, deeply embedded in American culture, that alcohol is Not Helpful, followed by the realization that I was the only woman of the relatively gender-divided seminar who wanted to go on to the pub after. It has actually–I thought, listening to the men in the pub pontificate about politics–been rather a long time since I pointedly noticed that I was, by choice, the only woman in the room. I related to the group the story of the conversation I once had with a female colleague in an adjacent field, with whom I shared the unease of knowing that we felt comfortable in those kinds of masculine intellectual environments–especially when our gender could be erased when the conversation took a particular route–and yet that many other women might feel profoundly alienated by the same environments, and that we were letting the side down. I thought about how unimpressed I was by the male student with the posh English accent who came up to me after my class last night and tried to convince me that drama rehearsal was a good reason to miss whole weeks of my course. “I know what you are,” I didn’t say, “and for that reason I enjoyed your contributions to our class discussion–but that doesn’t mean I’m taken in.”

I came home and I felt I had no choice but to turn to a Word document that contains my latest thoughts on the subject as it arises in the late nineteenth century. Which is not to say that there is an easy story to tell here about class and gender and elitism, or that I have a political program to advance, or that there is not something about me that is complicit in perpetuating a kind of elite masculine intellectual culture that holds others back. But rather just to say that I’ve come a long way, baby, in the last decade-plus, an astounding journey back and forth across the Atlantic and the centuries, something that has left me increasingly convinced that there is something to say about the pub and the academics in it, not so different to what there is to say about Guitar Hero in Scripps Ranch in 2005, or Cameron’s late Cabinet, and thus why it was that I watched Lindsay Anderson’s if… over and over in high school, a leftist public-school romance with an ironic Kipling reference truer to what it is like to have your character formed by a southern Californian suburban comprehensive high school than any thing I know.

In the summer, just a few days before 23 June, I reunited with some old friends in East Oxford (a cartwheel of streets that feel more viscerally like home than any place I’ve ever known), and their sharp, informed political analysis was exactly what I needed to give me purchase on what was going on in the run-up to the referendum. In large part because of those pints drunk and those views exchanged, I was neither surprised by the referendum result a few days later, nor overwhelmed by it as a grand tragedy. When I posted on Facebook that I’d had a lovely time that evening, however, I was chastised for my self-absorption—a criticism that still haunts me these months later, as we face another, even more momentous, electoral contest between reactionary populism and “liberal elites,” of whom of course I am one. I said tonight in the pub that I am a liberal elite, and my politics are those of a liberal elite, but of course I am glad the world is not made up of liberal elites and I wouldn’t wish my politics on anyone else. I like that formulation, happy that it provides me with some measure of peace, proud that I’m getting better at accepting my differences of political opinion with my colleagues and that I can move past being paralysingly tortured by them. But I also like that the pub provides—across, I would hazard, classes and cultures—a space in which to pontificate, to test out ideas, to say outrageous things and see how people react, to attain some measure of control in our own social universes from events and power politics that seem so vastly removed from us as to be outside our agency. Some would hope, presumably, that the pub is the beginning, a first conversation that leads to a regenerative kind of democratic politics, a sort of Chartism for our time. I, on the other hand, am skeptical of Chartisms, particularly when a feminist critique is applied to them; and also because of the particular life experiences that I’ve had (institutionalized as I have been since the age of majority, and indeed rather longer), which have led me to view physical locations where food and drink are shared as ends in themselves, their physical location within communities (colleges, neighborhoods) constitutive of a kind of public sphere that seems very thin on the ground in our virtual age. As I was walking to work today, I found myself recalling the crazy things anonymous readers of the student newspaper used to say about me in the online comments, recalling what it was like to be a figure of outré radicalism, where now I find myself so often on the right. I remember by contrast the challenging but civil conversations I had in my last semester at Princeton, when people walked up to me—in the dining hall, the chapel, the library, my cooking co-op, outdoor spaces—and respectfully disagreed with the point of view I expressed in an op-ed that was skeptical of Annual Giving. Shout all you like after a few drinks in the pub, but you still have to see the members of your community when you’re cold sober the next day.

There are a lot of things that make me an early-twentieth-century liberal, some more objectionable than others. Tonight, what stands out to me is the pub, or (as I’ve often said) the college hall: a space many find repulsive and intimidating, but with which I (for whatever reason) feel that I know where I am; a space on which, even if fascism does come to America, I’ll continue to place my bets. There really is something about the connections you can make across political lines when you’ve properly got to know your interlocutors, and when you’re in a space (a dining hall at an elite college with endless supplies of free guacamole, a particular kind of drinking establishment with precise social rules about who buys whom drinks, a welfare state) in which certain structures are in place to smooth (if cosmetically) over social divides. I still think these are the spaces in which important things happen, even if they are things which reinforce power structures and which depend on encoding the system of references that inheres in a reference to the men who walk up and down every afternoon from 2 to 4 on King’s Parade. If not by any means the only things which demand the historian’s attention, they certainly do demand it.

I am a pessimist about politics at present, and whether I can find a socially and politically relevant role for this work if things in my country do become very, very bleak remains to be seen. One thing I do want to become better at is to live out the implications of my work; to participate more wholly and less judgmentally in the public sphere and systems of local politics, the cultivation of one’s own garden, in which I claim to have some faith; and to find a way of using the perspective that I can bring to American and British elite male intellectual and political culture for good.

Orals Diary, 5; or, History and Politics

I had made plans to meet a colleague for lunch yesterday, and when he walked into the café I jettisoned all greetings and immediately blurted out “Did you see that Leadsom has dropped out of the Tory leadership race?!” Fifteen minutes of animated conversation about the implications of this latest development in the insanity that has been the British news cycle of the last month followed. “It’s a great time to be a modern British historian,” he concluded—though admittedly, I think, with a touch of irony.

Well, I don’t know about “great”—I think a lot of my colleagues and I have had the sense that we are howling about parliamentary sovereignty into a void and no one is listening to us—but it’s not a bad time to read for orals. My deep immersion in British political and constitutional history is exactly what I’ve needed to make sense of this crisis, and it’s also been a great source of motivation, making my orals feel like something that will improve my general knowledge and capacity to engage with the world as a thinking person in addition to a hurdle that has to be cleared in the long and idiosyncratic course of training that is meant to credential me in my chosen profession (fellow graduate students should take heart that would-be clergymen in the early eighteenth century, as I learned yesterday from Geoffrey Holmes’ Augustan England, often spent seven or eight years at university, and that this guaranteed them nothing better than “perpetual curacy,” the adjuncting of the day). Many of my teachers and colleagues have published insightful&ndbsp;pieces on the EU referendum and the ensuing domestic political crisis (for make no mistake, what we are experiencing now in Britain is a crisis within the parliamentary system, and one that has been simmering for some time, and not an extra-parliamentary revolution (though that may yet be to come, in part depending on how the parliamentary crisis is resolved) or much to do with how Britain’s relations with Europe may be affected by the outcome of the referendum). Introducing myself and my research interests at an event last week, I found myself for the first time grouping “political history” among my interests. It is something I am slowly coming to understand, and something that I see is at the center of my work on educational institutions and the plans their founders, reformers, and funders had for them—not unlike the plans that many others have had for states and their constitutions, and just as organic and messy and filled with unintended consequences in the result.

But it is time to make an important distinction. This is something that is far different, to me, to saying that my work will have any particular bearing on how we understand contemporary political (or social or cultural or intellectual) issues, that this is my research’s primary purpose, that I have an ideological stake in the kind of society I would like modern Britain to be that is reflected in my historical research. I have certain ethical commitments that structure my work: I believe in the importance of the individual and her or his emotions and personal lives, in looking for stories that haven’t yet had the opportunity to be told (though not particularly the stories of those who have historically been structurally disadvantaged—you could not say that the history of universities is history from below, and I wouldn’t want to claim it as such, or to say that it is therefore less important or worth doing). I believe I have a certain responsibility to my subjects to render their stories faithfully, to understand the perspectives from which they saw the world in their own time and translate them into terms that modern readers and interlocutors might understand. I look for complexity, ambiguity, ambivalence. I also see a close relation between my research and my teaching, and try to listen to students as I might listen to sources, meet them where they are as I would sources. I see my research not primarily as something that will change how we—and by “we” I particularly mean people outside my specific subfields—think about any particular topic (though I can certainly, if pressed, make claims to significance within the fields in which I am in conversation), but rather as something that gives me personal pleasure, which I strive for my own sake to do to as high a professional standard as possible, and which will credential me to teach history, hopefully British history, to young adults in Britain or North America. Only at the level of in general thinking that we should all be kind and love one another (even if “one another” = dead people of historical significance who left behind personal papers) does my practice as a historian have anything to do with how I vote, the kinds of policies I would like to see the governments of Britain, the US, or Canada (my three countries, not divided by common language but united by shared, messy and distasteful, imperial history) enact, or even really the kind of conversation my colleague and I had at lunch yesterday about what it will mean for Theresa May to be Prime Minister.

Which is, then, why I bristled when I read a blog post announcing the next Birmingham Modern British Studies conference next year, and then picked a fight on Twitter about it:

In remaining within the confines of our particular fields, we also evade the most difficult questions about what our discipline is — and should be — at this particular historical conjuncture. As we enter a moment of genuine crisis, are some kinds of history more important than others? As the political, social, cultural, and economic effects of Brexit become increasingly manifest, should historians pay more attention to questions of inequality, power, and the global economy — all comparatively neglected at #MBS2015? When the role of the ‘expert’ in public life has been so spectacularly undermined, do we have to think again about who we are and what we do?

I worry about where people like me are left when historians try so hard to pin their work to present political circumstances. As I said in the ensuing Twitter conversation—which Will Pooley summarized and responded to on his blog yesterday—not only do we risk casting aside work that might turn out to be “relevant” later, when the political circumstances move on, we risk giving preference to work that endorses particular political perspectives (in the sense of partisan or parliamentary politics) at the cost of others. At the last Birmingham MBS conference last summer, I and a colleague who both considered ourselves very left-wing were shocked to find ourselves at the conservative end of the spectrum of conference attendees, and we were disturbed by the kinds of ideological purity being enforced, particularly in the conference’s plenary sessions. One plenary speaker asserted that someone who voted Conservative could not be a good modern British historian, an assertion that no one in the room of hundreds sought to challenge. Others made large-scale presumptions about the party-political preferences of the conference, and pegged their claims to significance on the ability to speak to or bolster such a political perspective. Colleagues who, like me, felt discomfort with these assumptions—even if we might have voted for the same party as the most strident speakers—whispered awkwardly to each other in the corridor. When I asked a question in the final plenary session, challenging the speaker’s assertion that political history whose role is to challenge “neoliberalism” from a leftist perspective is more important than the kind of intellectual and cultural history I do, the room felt cold, frightening, and hostile. I’m no stranger to sticking my neck out in public historical settings (I’d also note that in that final session, another historian made a great critique of the conference’s assumptions from the left, challenging its lack of racial diversity among participants and lack of attention to imperial topics), but I’m not sure that’s the kind of climate that a conference which purports to speak to all modern British historians (as well as those working on modern Britain in other disciplines) should foster. The MBS blog post, however, suggested to me that the conference organizers had a different view: that it was important to them that history should make political interventions. But if that’s the case, then you’re working with the kind of political categories, such as parties, that exist today, trying to achieve goals that are possible within those structures. Maybe that doesn’t create so much cognitive dissonance for historians who work on the recent past. But I work on the nineteenth century, I don’t do marxist social history (which I also believe is like, a morally defensible life choice), and so it’s not clear where that leaves me as a participant in a modern British history organized around different concerns.

One great thing Will Pooley brought up in his engagement with me on Twitter and later on his blog is that we are probably working with different definitions of “politics”: some would call the ethical commitments I outlined above a kind of politics, and would understand that word more expansively than the sense of present-day party or parliamentary or electoral politics in which I’ve been using it here. Pooley put it this way: “politics in the sense of: who (or what) gets to have a history, what factors do we consider when writing history, what do we owe to the people we write about, and similar questions.” I think this is a totally fair position, and I really respect historians who view the commitments that drive their work in this way. But I don’t think every historian has to see what they’re doing like this. It reminds me of an experience I had my first semester at Columbia. My department there has an explicitly political cast that my previous departments at Princeton and Oxford definitely didn’t. Many of my colleagues see—perhaps like some participants in MBS—a close relationship between their historical work and present-day political goals, invariably from a very left-wing perspective. I experienced and continue to experience a lot of culture shock, a lot of guilt and cognitive dissonance, when I interact with colleagues in that environment. I have tried very hard to engage with important parts of my colleagues’ lives as graduate students, such as many people’s commitment to union organizing, but however much I’ve wanted to I haven’t been able to change my views to agree with the particular kinds of leftist politics they have and that drives their work in and out of the archive. After one union town hall meeting I burst into tears from my guilt that I couldn’t see things from what was obviously the more morally blameless point of view, that my work didn’t have obvious leftist political investments like theirs and that I didn’t come to grad school to advance the cause of the oppressed. My colleagues tried to comfort me by reassuring me that all work has a politics; my work could advance leftist causes too even though it was less obvious. This, however, was not comforting. What I was really looking for was a world in which I could have the freedom to seek other frameworks for living a good and ethically committed life, and in which my historical scholarship could be practiced to different ends.

I want to clear one thing up: contrary to what some people on Twitter asserted, there is not a binary between politically-committed history and Rankean objectivity. It is possible to be something between a leftist and an arch-conservative, and it is also possible to take no position on such a spectrum while still being self-conscious about one’s methods and how one reads sources. I study the 19th century, but I do not live in it. Bodies of work such as gender and queer theory that have been fundamentally shaped by the leftist political concerns of a slightly earlier era have been essential to how I have conceived of what I do when I read documents. I do think that it is a historian’s responsibility to be honest, faithful, and committed to a truth, and that some histories are better than others in the sense that work can be more or less precise, more or less rigorous, more or less sophisticated. But there are many truths and many ways of representing truths, and rigor is not code for some nineteenth-century fantasy of objectivity. For some—such as, perhaps, for Pooley—understanding this responsibility may be inextricable from politics. And sometimes—not always, but sometimes—I find that the best way to make sense of a story about the past that I am telling is to give it a political edge, such as in the case of a draft paper I am working on, which is partly (though not exclusively) engaged in reviving an older strand of women’s history committed to feminism. This is probably the thing that I have written that would find most favor with the leftists. But it isn’t all of what I do, and it isn’t why I became a historian.

I became a historian because John Addington Symonds wrote letter after letter to Walt Whitman, trying to get the famous poet to admit that his “Calamus” poems really described a type of person, the male homosexual, whose existence Symonds, for personal-is-political reasons, desperately wanted his hero Whitman to acknowledge—and because Whitman refused to buy into Symonds’ worldview. I became a historian because the two men’s letters showed how their different levels of education, differing cultural contexts, and differing understandings of politics revealed them to be completely talking past each other. I became a historian because I was able to show that Symonds wasn’t, as so much literature has represented him, a gay liberationist avant la lettre: he was a rather conventional upper-middle-class Victorian who had this one part of his being that just didn’t fit with everything else—but he used rather conventional upper-middle-class Victorian tools to make sense of it. I became a historian because Symonds showed me how rich and rewarding, how alien and confusing, how different from our own nineteenth-century British ways of understanding the world were. I became a historian in order to capture that difference—and also because I felt a calling to give my life to the university, and this seemed like a way to do it.

Last week I had the immense pleasure to be an instructor on a three-day workshop for some of the students in my department who are writing undergraduate theses. Many of our students see important present-day implications to their work: they are driven to their topics because of how they allow them to engage with issues of massive present-day consequence: the global financial system, colonialism and colonial identities, Marxist thought, women and politics, the machine of diplomacy. They are driven by an enthusiasm and energy that I remember from when I was in their shoes, the thrill of their first trips into the archive. I love their eagerness to make sense of the world through the methods of historical research. But somehow in our workshop we didn’t talk about the crisis of capitalism. We did talk a bit about topics like how to read against the archive, to figure out why it was compiled and what voices are missing, which I suppose is generally understood to be a political question. But we also talked about how history-writing is a creative act, how making sense of those archival silences can involve many different approaches and affective relations with one’s sources, how there is also an extremely important technical aspect to history work, involving how one organizes one’s research and how one processes data on a large scale, particularly if one is working on a topic that involves quantitative analysis. There is so much to history, and to how it is not objective, that we can talk about without needing to agree ideologically.

Looking around me at Britain and at the whole world today, I can completely see why people would believe that conditions are so urgent that we all need to mobilize whatever skills we have to respond to crisis. This is also the response that many academics, completely reasonably, have had to crises such as racial injustice in the United States, to intolerance of political dissidence in India, to Donald Trump, to climate change (the invention of the analytic category “anthropocene”), and so on. What would I then say in particular about the Birmingham MBS conference? Of course, this post isn’t really about the Birmingham MBS conference, it’s about the culture shock that I have experienced over the last couple years as I have gone from being one of the most left-wing people I know to one of the most conservative without feeling as if I have changed any of my views or electoral habits, and growing sick and tired of always having to beat myself up for not being right-on enough. I guess maybe what I would say to Birmingham MBS is that if the conference has an explicitly political orientation it should say as much, that it should be clear that some views about politics, and not only some kinds of history, might be more welcome than others. This strikes me as a perfectly defensible viewpoint given all the rhetoric of “crisis,” even if it’s one which would mean I might be less likely to attend the conference myself. Though perhaps this happened already in 2015, and I just didn’t know how to read the signalling closely enough or was otherwise a bit clueless. Will Pooley asks “why some voices so clearly feel policed by the left-wing.” I guess what I would say in response is that I thought I was part of the left wing (I mean, you would, if you grew up in Republican country and the other children would come up to you in primary school and tell you that you were going to hell, and parents would tell you to stay away from their children, and you were sent to the principal’s office because you wouldn’t intone the Pledge of Allegiance with everyone else), until I found myself losing friends and colleagues because I didn’t participate in particular ritual acts of ideological positioning within academia. I am of course very elite, and have much to apologize for, but I sometimes think that other people who are as privileged as I do escape the need to apologize by committing themselves to certain kinds of leftist rhetoric or by positioning themselves as part of a proletariat that is oppressed by greater forces such as capitalism. I am not sure I find this stance convincing, and I find it frustrating, tiring, and depressing to live among it, as much as I understand that the crisis of our times demands some kind of response from everyone, but particularly those who have a lot of privilege. I am sure that many who will read this post will see it as entitled and self-absorbed, and perhaps that’s entirely appropriate. I welcome that feedback if it’s how you read it, and I’d urge you to get in touch and tell me so.

I keep trying to go to union meetings at Columbia and understand what I’m getting wrong, and so I look forward to attending MBS2017 (if it will have me) and trying to engage with this way of doing modern British history that seems very different to what I’m doing. I think I’d also say that our students always benefit from getting a variety of viewpoints, and that each student clicks better with some teachers than with others. I think of a particular person who taught me during my master’s with whom I never established a connection because they had a particular leftist political cast to their work and I suspect interpreted me as conservative and thus hostile, but who was an incredible resource to many students who shared that political cast and who felt isolated within the conservative atmosphere of the Oxford History Faculty. I’m so glad that person is there for students who desperately need to talk to and be supported by someone like them, even if I regret that politics seemed to create a barrier between this person and me, against my will. I also think attending MBS2015 helped me to clarify what I actually was seeing and experiencing after the culture shock of my first year at Columbia, and it’s been helpful to try to learn more about the real reasons that historians bring an explicitly leftist cast to their work, to understand where they’re coming from. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that I am wrong to persist in the belief that it is morally conscionable for me to do what I see as a kind of history that doesn’t fit easily within present-day political frameworks or speak to the present-day condition of Britain and other nations whose histories were shaped in relation to Britain’s, or a kind of history that doesn’t engage deeply and primarily with questions of identity and difference or with marxist economics. But I guess I’ll just say that my mind hasn’t been changed yet, and thus I think that leftist historians and I may need to do a bit more meeting in the middle (I promise, leftist historians, that you wouldn’t really have all that far to go—for despite everyone who has sought to label me to the contrary in the last few years, I am not a conservative or a Conservative and I hope I never will be).

Pooley and others who engaged with me on Twitter yesterday were really warm and generous, and I derive a lot of optimism from how respectful everyone was in that conversation. It suggests that even if my views are in the minority or not part of how the conference is explicitly oriented at MBS2017, I and the kind of history I do might still be given a fair hearing. Pooley invited me to respond to the blog post that he wrote yesterday. Will, I’m not sure if any of this very long reflection helps to clarify where we disagree, but it does seem clear that we are working with different categories, and it looks to me as if these categories are shaped by certain political (in the more expansive sense) assumptions we had going into thinking about history and what made us historians, as well perhaps as who we are as people, what our childhoods and our higher education and graduate training were like. I think as participants in a discipline we all might need to develop clearer statements, and revisit older debates, about what we think the purpose of history is, how it relates to politics (particularly of a specific left-wing, electorally- or social-movement-oriented kind), and be really explicit about these commitments if we have them. And if we create or enter echo chambers, we should do so self-consciously, and be wary about how our ways of thinking may be out of step of those in the countries we live in at large, as both the 2015 general election and this latest referendum demonstrated to many British academics. This isn’t at all a criticism of your position, Will: I really appreciated how you expressed it in your blog post and how you clarified where you were coming from.

I can’t believe I wrote so much about this. I’m going to step away now and return to orals: today, I think, I am going to read some work in which historians grappled with how to define friendships and romantic relationships between women in the past, invoking particular kinds of feminist and queer commitments as they did so. Queer theory is a great way to think about the relationship between history and politics—it is astonishing how many queer theorists who were not trained in history still make use of historicist arguments—so hopefully this will be the basis for further reflection.

Orals Diary, 4

Finally the sun came out for the longest day of the year, and I met up with a long-lost childhood friend, and discovered the concept of the vegetarian scotch egg, and I feel grateful for what I have (though mostly for blue sky and green fields), and I wonder what I will read tomorrow. Yesterday I tramped eighteen miles up and down South Oxfordshire, getting wet and walking on too many busy roads, and felt a painful affectionate sadness for this country that has had so many ups and downs over so many centuries, some of which you can see simply in the lay of the land and the architecture as you walk through its fields and towns.

Over the course of the last week, I read five books about the nature of the nature of the British state in the eighteenth century, as well as part of a textbook/general history of eighteenth-century Britain. I am trying to force some facts into my dullard’s brain, some prime ministers and some wars and political crises that fifty or sixty years ago surely any schoolchild would have known. Of course, it isn’t fifty or sixty years ago, and that’s the thing about Britain, today, and the reason I haven’t read more than five books this week. From grieving the victims of Orlando to grieving Jo Cox MP and the vacuity of public debate in this country in the run-up to Thursday’s referendum. Of course Cox’s murder hasn’t changed the idiocy with which both sides are talking past each other. This referendum isn’t about Britain’s membership of the EU, and in pretending it is the politicians are either: a) tone-deaf to what is going on in their electorate (or perhaps they have the same wish to return to a golden age of monoethnic welfare-state class-structured Britain as said electorate); b) deliberately trying to mislead said electorate in order to work out a power game of their own devising. No, it’s about that golden age, and I would well believe the politicians are prey to that fantasy because I know that so many modern British historians are too. It’s sure tempting—I can catch a glimpse of it when I look out the window of my current lodgings to the neat rows of brick terraced houses in what was once a mostly-white working-class neighborhood and now is a mostly-white bourgeois neighborhood. The Guardian columnists know that gentrification is part of the problem, but they miss much else: the long story that Ross McKibbin and others have told about why working-class people don’t vote against the bourgeoisie, and also the story you can see when you go into any terraced house in England whose bathroom is in the rear ground floor of the house: a recent addition built into the garden, a sign of what it meant to live in houses like this one before the welfare state, giving lie to that golden age.

That was a confused paragraph. But perhaps that’s appropriate for how confused I feel right now, at a stage in my acquaintance with the modern British past where I know enough to doubt the easy answers of Guardian columnists who preach a very specific kind of comforting class warfare that their readers want, but not enough to offer op-ed-sized pronouncements of my own. I was thinking, though, about the debated and uncertain picture historians over the last fifty or so years have offered of the eighteenth-century British state. That history was first written in the nineteenth century, by the governments’ political opponents, as one of “Old Corruption,” the political and church establishment everywhere mired in the selling of offices, rotten boroughs, taxes that punished the poorest, and otherwise not doing very much. Later in the early twentieth century, the eighteenth was seen as the century of politeness, monarchy and aristocracy. More recently, other pictures have emerged: a messy and violent early form of class conflict; a far-reaching and powerful “fiscal-military state” that occupied a powerful position with respect to the Continent; a thriving proto-capitalist economy on which an empire of trade was founded. Throughout all these histories, it seems to me, there is a pervasive atmosphere of British, or even English, exceptionalism: the first to industrialize, its democracy nascent if imperfect, always favorably compared with autocratic France and Prussia. I don’t know enough yet to challenge this view, but it doesn’t make things look great for this “historian for Europe.”

Actually, though, this impasse tells us something about the uses of history. It’s foolish and misleading to draw direct parallels between past and present, as many historians who have written in the press to criticize the never-ending parallels between Trump and Hitler or Mussolini have argued. But we can use history to learn other things about how people are, how politics works, how we can understand the confusing and contradictory business of human relations, whether people mean what they say and how they behave when they interact with others who are unlike them. In his 1996 The Waning of ‘Old Corruption’, Philip Harling told an intricate high-political story of how Conservative governments marketed themselves as the guardians of sound, efficient, cost-saving government and thus stemmed radical calls for large-scale political reform. I don’t always find political history engaging, particularly in the dry, “establishment” style with which Harling relates it. But one anecdote about how government and radical extra-parliamentary critics in the years after Pitt’s death in 1806 caught my attention. In Harling’s telling, Tory ministers interpreted radicals’ calls for parliamentary reform as calls for greater fiscal accountability. They took great pains to show that they were balancing budgets, cutting taxes, and cutting out dead wood in the form of sinecures and preferments. Most opposition Whig politicians saw the government to be acting in good faith, and disappointed radicals by not taking on their cause. But the radicals didn’t really care whether the government cut the budget in this area or that one, whether they prosecuted war on the continent in this way or that way: they wanted a thorough-going commitment to complete reform, including greater democratization, a revival of the commitment to ancient liberties to which they believed ordinary men’s English heritage entitled them, and a recognition of the social consequences that continental wars had visited on people at home. So the radicals didn’t let up in their critique, but at this point in Harling’s story it wasn’t that the politicians willfully misinterpreted them for instrumental reasons. It was simply that they were speaking different languages, and something very important was lost in translation.

Some of the radicals making the reform case were autodidacts, farmers and working men; but others were middle-class, highly educated. This wasn’t really a class war, not in the way that in the tradition of some social historians it has come to appear. But it was, maybe, about differing visions of nationalism, about operating on different scales in the way that happens when some people are thinking about foreign policy and some people are prioritizing the lives of their families and neighbors in their own communities. I don’t take any direct guidance from this about what we should do about Europe today—as I said, that’s silly—but I do take some other lessons. One is that tensions about what England and Britain are, and how those tensions manifest differently across class, regional, and party-political lines, aren’t going away anytime soon. Another is that, despite how things might have looked in 1806, over the course of the next hundred and fifty years an extraordinary battery of incremental legislation turned Britain into a pretty good approximation of a democracy, and one that has—whether it admits it or no—in some respects (though of course not all) moved on from the more shameful episodes in its history, whether on these islands or in the empire. This is not a linear history of progress, of course, but one of countless messes (some it might have seen coming as the consequences of its own follies, some rather less so), all of which have demanded different responses. I’m not saying “Everything’s going to be fine,” because it might well not be; and even if everything is ultimately fine, it might take many years before that’s the case; and it might never be fine for the worst off among us, as it never has been. But I am trying to put things in 300-year perspective, just a bit, because that’s my job. It’s not a glamorous job, or a morally blameless job or even, sometimes, a terribly interesting job. But it’s the job I was called to do, and I couldn’t change that if I wanted to.

If you’re reading this and you have the UK franchise, I hope you will vote on Thursday, because there is a history stretching over centuries of women and men who gave their lives to the fight for the franchise, and however stupid it was to throw open this particular decision to the people, those people now have a sacred duty to discharge. For my own account, I hope you will vote Remain, because my considered view is that that’s what would be best for Britain today and in the immediate future, regardless of what might have been best for Britain in 1950 or in 1850 or in 1750. You know, no matter how earnestly those on the right or the left sing the praises of the welfare state or the empire, it’s never going to be 1950 again. But we can think seriously about what kind of contribution Britain, in cooperation with other countries of similar size and power and working within the constraints of new political models, can make to the world today. But if you disagree, I hope you’ll get in touch and we can have a conversation about it. There are still three days to go, so lots of time to talk.

My life has been enriched immeasurably by the last five or six years of close study of this country. I hope that I, and it, have many more years to spend together; and I hope that as I continue to read for orals I will be able to offer more cogent accounts of these messiest of political circumstances.