Category Archives: Thesis

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.

Labor improbus; or, D-Day minus two months

It has been two years since the final downhill sprint to my last thesis. When I handed that one in, I knew it was too long and not ready, but I did know that it was good, at least for a college senior. I was keenly aware how much of my self and my lived experience had gone into it; moreover, my advisor had checked the history and had me convinced that somewhere in those too-many pages there were at least one or two things worth saying.

But I was so young then, and so filled with the flush of youth and of my first real piece of history. When I went through the year’s worth of revisions that it took to turn that thesis into an article I began to realize that in academic history there is more to a subject being interesting than simply stating that it is interesting, a fact which haunts me now as I try to turn around the second thesis. I started this one a little later on—when I hand it in it will have been just under two years of work, whereas the first one took two and a half—and knowing what I know now about how to do history has made this one harder rather than easier. I only see how difficult it is to do a credible job in two years with little training (and much less advising: the kind of guidance my excellent undergraduate advisor gave me, considered exemplary by Princeton standards, is here at Oxford dismissed as “hand-holding” tantamount to academic dishonesty). The knowledge of how far the bound product will fall from perfect, and how unlikely it is to live up to particularly English ideals of fine academic work, are more likely to be tear-inducing than anything else. The culture here is punishing: no one tells you that you are doing well for fear of causing excessive self-love; while at Princeton someone might have complained that she was too busy and too tired because she was over-committed to extracurricular activities, here the complaint tends to mean (as someone on my course claimed to be true) that you are working on your thesis sixteen hours a day. For someone like myself already predisposed to low self-esteem this is not a happy place to be, and day after day I go to the library under a black cloud of premonitions of failure—except on the really bad days, when I don’t go to the library at all, and I sit in my room all day crying.

I think it is important to talk about these things because no one in Oxford does, especially at the graduate level; the presumption (and I have been told this) is that if you find any of it difficult, that must be your fault, and a sign you’re not suited to it. It is considered impolite, I believe, to reply that you were admitted to various US PhD programs, have a publication, and so on, and still find it unbelievably difficult. And so—though I hate to say it after all this time since the last thesis, living in and loving England and Oxford—I am counting the days until I go back to America and start over with a US PhD. This relationship with Oxford of over three years’ standing, my longest and truest one, has started to turn abusive, and it’s best to get out now while I’m still relatively unharmed.

But with what time I have I am determined to fight back against this punishing culture: to see people, to carve out domestic space cooking and mending clothes and watching television, to eat lunch in restaurants by myself, to run down to Iffley and visit my friends the three Shetland ponies who live in the field opposite the church. I took up running as another way to punish myself, for my fatness and my ugliness, but I have come to value it as a way to take time away from the computer and take myself out of the city centre without feeling guilty. And (here we come to the point) it was while running this morning—and not while putting in sixteen hours at a desk!—that I came up with a central analytic conceit for the section I’m currently trying to write about Arthur Sidgwick’s marriage. Here is a paragraph I just wrote, which concludes the section:

Most of the evidence we have for the intimate details of Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick’s marriage is written from Arthur’s perspective, and so it is not always easy to know how seriously he took her as an equal, how she felt about her marriage, and—most elusive of all—how willing a participant she was in the ever-present ἀσπασμοί [’embraces’, a euphemism for sex]. But their marriage, falling somewhere between the twin archetypes offered by the much-mythologised stories of Arthur’s siblings [Minnie Sidgwick and E.W. Benson; Henry Sidgwick and Eleanor Balfour], offers a picture of daily liberal life as a pattern of compromises with the strict ideals recorded in published form by Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and others. While people like Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick may have tried to live their lives along with the pages of philosophy, real life—differing access to educational opportunity; differing ideals of fulfilment, both altruistic and personal; the birth of children; the presence or lack of physical desire for each other—may have, and did, intervene.

I realized as I was writing this paragraph that it serves as a really illustrative example of the kind of history I love to do, the kind of history that keeps me caring about history: finding the sites at which ideas and lived experience meet, where the universally human and the historically contingent stare each other in the face, and where compromise—the idea that came to me halfway back from Iffley, but that could probably be said to underlie most of the history I try to write—is the lynchpin that holds together all my claims for interest. John Addington Symonds, Arthur Sidgwick, and all my other elite B-list Victorian men whose elitism and maleness makes me feel guilty do something that we all do: no matter our ideals, we compromise between them and our own self-interest, and more importantly our own happiness. The theses we hand in, the relationships we pursue, and the balance we strike between the two are all compromises, and while they may torture us (they certainly did Symonds, less so Sidgwick), life isn’t worth living if it’s spent in ceaseless mental anguish.

Months ago I said to an American classmate that I wished I had his capacity to let go: to accept that differences between the conventions of British and American history may affect how our theses are evaluated, and to write the thesis I want to write anyway even if it isn’t going to be, numerically, the best—or even as good as my undergraduate thesis was. I’m not there yet, and it saddens me to think that the first rush of passion for Oxford that helped to make that first thesis possible is now just dying embers. But maybe, like accepting a breakup, that’s what letting go means. And maybe that’s what I’m doing—just not in the way that I expected.

Research Notes

After much dithering, I’ve finally started to get back into the swing of archives, and to start to process the fairly large pile of material on Arthur Sidgwick and his times that I’ve already gathered: converting the Word documents in which I take notes linearly as I proceed through the archives, fascicle by fascicle, into individual database entries in EndNote for each letter, poem, set of lecture notes, scrap of paper on which is scrawled a bet Sidgwick made with his youngest daughter as to whether women would get the suffrage or the Oxford degree first (no, really!). Impelled both by practical urgency—this thesis is due in only nine months—and by a hope that getting down and dirty with the documents will rekindle my passion for the scholarly craft, I’ve been sifting through the raw material in the hopes that out of it some kind of narrative will magically emerge before my eyes. The scope of this project means that it doesn’t lend itself quite to a chronological telling of Sidgwick’s life in a manner analogous to the Symonds thesis; instead, I have to figure out how to get from Sidgwick’s life to a coherent and more thematically-organized argument about the nature of politics, universities, and the people who lived within them in the Victorian-Edwardian period—a rather more complicated proposition.

One reason it’s complicated is by a fairly obvious point about the nature of how real historical life is reflected through the sources, which only just hit me yesterday and today; it’s for this reason that I’m writing this post. You see, I’ve been irritated all along by the paucity of Sidgwick’s material leavings when compared to Symonds’: in Symonds’ case there is just piles and piles of paper, most of it well-documented (though some of it, excitingly, I was able to discover!) and much of it preserved in about 2,000 pages of edited, published letters. In addition to all these letters to far-flung friends, there are lecture notes, books with marginalia, manuscript poetry, and other such documents on which I’ve relied heavily in constructing a picture of Symonds’ mental furniture and the routes by which he arrived at his theory of homosexuality. This winds up actually being fairly straightforward, because it will turn out that he’s written a letter to Henry Sidgwick, Graham Dakyns, Edward Carpenter, or Havelock Ellis saying exactly what he thinks about some aspect of Greek literature, sexual science, or what have you and how it relates to his vision of what the homosexual man is to the rest of society.

Due to this incredible stroke of luck, I went into the Sidgwick project expecting that this is just what you find for literate, intellectual Victorians who were scrupulous in documenting their evolving ideas about the world. But while the disparate, candid, lively nature of Sidgwick’s day-books was what made me commit to a thesis on him, I’ve found that the archives contain very little actual working-through of the intellectual themes important to his life: pedagogy, women’s education, and professionalized teacher-training, Liberal politics, and the bonds of friendship in educational/intellectual communities. There is plenty of institutional record of the basic fact that he was involved, for instance, in such-and-such a reform committee or student society, but almost nothing self-reflective about what impelled him to get involved in such an organization or why such work was socially important—which makes writing the kind of thesis I’d hoped to write about how such day-to-day activities can help us to understand Victorian values and the “intellectual aristocracy” vastly more difficult, if not altogether inconceivable.

Yesterday I cycled up the Woodstock Road to St Anne’s College, formerly the Oxford Society of Home Students. Back in the 1870s when there were only two women’s colleges, Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall, which were not formally incorporated into the University and could only offer certificates that attested that their students had completed an equivalent level of work and exams to that of the men students who would be given degrees for it, there was also something variously known as the Association for the Education of Women, the Home Students Association, and the Society of Home Students, which was an administrative body that would organize teaching for and advocate on behalf of women students—often the wives, sisters, or daughters of dons—who lived at home in the city instead of joining Somerville or LMH. T.H. Green was the AEW’s first secretary, in 1877; two years later, his wife, Charlotte—Symonds’ sister—took over the position. Members of the committee over the years, before it became a more formal organization with a Governing Body, included the venerable Annie M.A.H. Rogers, the first woman to formally register for a University degree (because she registered at Balliol under her initials, and they didn’t realize she was a woman until she showed up), Walter Pater’s sister Clara, renowned heads of house and professors like Mark Pattison and Henry Nettleship, and—you see where this is going—Arthur Sidgwick, whose daughters Rose and Margaret sat Pass Mods and Modern History Finals as Home Students in the 1890s and 1900s. (Rose went on to be one of the UK’s first women lecturers, first at Somerville and then at Birmingham University, before dying tragically in the 1918 flu pandemic while on a tour of America with other British academics.)

It seemed not out of character with St Anne’s informal beginnings—which I was there to research in their college archive—that it was also the most informal archive visit I’ve ever done. There were no rules about bags or pens; I was simply shown to a desk in the college library’s main reading room and invited to call up anything I fancied, which the archivist then had to go and hunt for, piling masses of disarrayed papers on my desk. Looking for evidence of Sidgwick’s involvement in the AEW, I did. I noticed that he was President of the AEW during years that the organization made a major push to lobby the University to admit women to the degree, 1907-10, and so looked for him particularly in a scrapbook Annie Rogers had compiled documenting that fight. There were a few letters he had written on behalf of the AEW to the then-Chancellor, Lord Curzon, but no private correspondence between him and Rogers, in contrast to the many letters Rogers had received from prominent dons and teachers to whom she had written asking for their support for the degree campaign. It finally struck me that, even today, the leaders of social and political organizations don’t make important decisions by letter (or email): they do it in meetings, face-to-face. And even if they take minutes, those usually don’t reflect the same kind of frank, candid opinions that a letter might. Annie Rogers and Arthur Sidgwick lived in the same city, and they were good friends: if they had a matter about women’s education to discuss, they could go round to each other’s houses and chat about it face-to-face, leaving no permanent record of the conversation.

Circling round back to Symonds, while going through the other archival material today I re-encountered a letter I found in Henry Sidgwick’s papers at Trinity College, Cambridge. Shortly before Christmas, 1875, he wrote to his mother, “If you have to be in London after the 10th, you will find us all there—by all I mean Nora, Self, A.S, Charlotte, H.G. Dakyns, J.A. Symonds – “the whole company” as I told them this morning when I wished good bye at Clifton….” Nora is Henry’s wife, A.S. is of course Arthur Sidgwick and Charlotte is his wife, and the Sidgwick brothers were very close to Graham Dakyns (whom they knew from Cambridge) and his good friend Symonds (Dakyns’ neighbor in Bristol) until Symonds took off for Davos in 1877. The four went on holiday together to Europe when they were just out of university; Henry, Dakyns, and Symonds staged an intervention when Arthur was thinking about initiating an erotic relationship with a pupil at Rugby in 1867; and it sounds as if after the Sidgwick brothers married, their wives joined the gang too. (It’s interesting to note that Symonds’ wife Catherine, who wasn’t as intellectual or as outgoing as either Nora or Charlotte Sidgwick, doesn’t seem to have been part of this particular gathering.) I devoted some minutes to wishing I could have been a fly on the wall at assemblies of “the whole company,” before the contrast between this time and the period after Symonds moved to Davos really illuminated itself. Of course, after the move, Symonds only had letters with which to keep in touch with his friends, let them know what he was thinking about, and share personal feelings about which, because of their homoerotic nature, he couldn’t confide in his wife. In England, on their Christmas holidays, they could just hang out in London—as Henry, Arthur, and their other friends continued to do even after Symonds left the country and basically lost a normal social life in the process, having to replace it with those now-familiar, oh-so-confessional letters.

It turns out that you can really do a certain amount of historical work by thinking about the relation of the present and the past. The intellectual problems with which these men and women grappled—the ones which I’m most interested in unravelling—can seem very foreign to us today. We think we’ve solved quandaries by which they were sincerely troubled, or aren’t affected with the same passionate intensity by emotions that could overcome them. But if I think about how many Deep Conversations I’ve had in university and since with close friends that no one wrote down, I realize how much the prospect of reconstructing my own intellectual world would stymie a scholar a century and a half hence. There is continuity as well as change, and being sensitive to the ways in which this circle of friends are like so many other young people with ideas can make us still more alive to the ways in which they are very alien indeed.

QOTD (2013-07-10); or, Adventures in the Archives

Arthur Sidgwick to Catharine Symonds, 15 July 1893 (almost 120 years ago!):

My dear Catharine,

I have just emerged—not yet fully emerged,—from the hardest and fullest and most unbroken years’ work I have ever had. All through last term I have been waiting & hoping for a quiet time to write to you—and in vain. I must seize the first moment of leisure, lest it pass and leave me again in bonds.

I saw Mrs Green on that day in April when she had just got the telegram, and was about to start for Italy. The exact place remains in my mind where I heard that I was never to hear or see again the voice or face of that friend who stands apart from others in my memory and in that of all of us who knew him. Mrs Green was very quiet, and all she said was that it had always been his wish when death came that it should not come as slow decay painful to all: and that she was glad it had been for his sake. That is so: but it does not make it less bitter that it shd come when he was away from home and from all but one of you. And though the strangers were no doubt very good, still they could do little, and they were strangers. And it is no use dwelling on what the sudden news was to us, to think we should see him no more nor hear again his wonderful talk, in which when he was at his worst physically there was more than in any other man’s whom I have ever known. For myself I have always regretted the sadly broken intercourse I have had with him of late years, since increasing business & manifold difficulties intervened, and never more painfully than now when all chance of better using opportunities, and struggling more successfully against circumstance, is over for me in this world as far as he is concerned. We can’t do this, and we can’t do the other: but it remains true that if we were better and stronger, and tried more, we could: and these things come painfully home when the chapter is closed. But on his side there was never a one of my friends who was always more absolutely the same in spite of absence & distance & silence: none with whom one began so easily & certainly & richly where one had left off. And in my heart, as in that of all his many friends—alike those who kept up intercourse and those (of whom I was one as I sadly realise) who fell very short of what they wished & ought to have done—in all of our hearts alike he had a place that was his own, which now is empty and will remain so, except for manifold memories.

The weeks go on, but I find no difference as to the strangeness and the sadness of the news on that April day that he was dead. I have been thinking often in the last two months of the earlier days of our acquaintance beginning in that hot summer in the pension at Dresden: it is hard to believe it is 29 years ago. I remember still some of the afternoon walks & talks—with a sort of shame and gratitude mixed. He was younger, and yet so much older & wiser in everything that mattered: and I had never seen anybody so able to deal effectually with the peculiar sort of confident ignorance which must have been my principal characteristic in those days. He was so easy to talk to: so naturally adapting himself to all moods and frames of mind: so full and bountiful of thought & talk: so gentle & wise & yet so instructive without ever dogmatising or setting himself to instruct. And in my two visits to Davos, and in the few times I have seen him in England, it has been just the same. Old intercourse & affection taken up just as before, with the edges fresh: even the changes in each of us making no difference except a new interest.

All this was only one side of him, & there were many others, of which, most notably, the long and heroic struggle to do his work & deliver what he had to say, in spite of weakness and absence & all obstacles. This is what all the world has felt, and it has been good for all of us to see it. But for myself the most potent thing was the influence he had on me in early days, and the long affection it led to, tho’ interrupted as I have said.

I don’t want you to answer this at all. I shall hear of your plans and welfare from Mrs Green. I hope we may meet before long. This is only written as a sign that my many weeks’ silence—though there is much on my side for years’ past that needs forgiveness—does not mean that I have forgotten or am unthankful for the past,—and for the kindness & affection and many other good things I have received from him.

Yrs ever most truly
A Sidgwick

For the benefit of those just tuning in, my current research subject has written this lovely letter to the widow of my former research subject. And once you have burrowed so deeply inside a long-dead person’s head—read all his extant correspondence, his poetry hidden from all but his closest friends, learned to recognize his handwriting instantly and spent many, many hours sitting in the rooms he sat in and walking the paths he walked, trying to guess at how he might have thought through a given subject—you can’t help a warm rush of recognition when you unexpectedly find a document in which someone else says that dead person meant a lot to him, too.

Microhistory? or, Steps Towards a Thesis Proposal

Dissent has published a review article about Harvard historian Jill Lepore and her recent collections of essays, which makes a rather heavy-handed case that Lepore should be identified as a microhistorian. This appellation leapt out at me: I have read “microhistories” in every methods or historiography class I’ve ever taken, been assigned over and again Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and asked to consider the relationship between Ginzburg’s mad miller Minocchio and his intellectual and cultural context, and Ginzburg’s success at articulating it. But I’ve also wound up with an idea of microhistory as something that’s over and done with, a quaint relic of the 1960s-’80s “history from below,” or maybe of the postmodernist transmogrification of everything into a text and a narrative, à la the work of Natalie Zemon Davis from that period. It has never occurred to me that a historian of a younger generation might be described as writing microhistory, and indeed it’s made me wonder if, by the criteria this piece lays out, I am a microhistorian. After all, I have, since I began writing history, been interested in “second-tier” figures in the modern intellectual classes, and I use those figures—as this piece characterizes Lepore’s work—as a lens through which to view contemporary trends in sensibility, sentiment, ideas, intellect, values, ways of engaging with the world. Symonds’ life, and the way in which he pieced together a theory of homosexuality from a disparate set of intellectual influences, are a window onto what sex and love meant to the Victorians. So, I am hoping, are the ways in which Arthur Sidgwick put into practice philosophical and political positions that he’d developed as a young man in his relatively quiet, unhistoric political life as a teacher, parent, and activist in local politics another window onto late-Victorian and Edwardian ideals of liberalism and social reform from that afforded by the ever-chic, ever-larger-than-life Bloomsbury.

But I’m not sure this is what makes something microhistory. To me a microhistory is primarily self-contained, and one of the radical things that it does is that it does not feel a need to make the case for its subject’s importance. Menocchio or Martin Guerre are intrinsically interesting people, not necessarily because they can be connected directly to trends in life and thought larger than themselves. They leave a lasting impression on our sense of the colorful tapestry that is early modern Europe, but I don’t think of them primarily as figures who help us to understand things larger than themselves—c.f. another example of microhistory cited by the Dissent piece, Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre. Ginzburg and Zemon Davis both demonstrate prodigious contextual knowledge about the times and places in which Menocchio and Martin Guerre lived, but they use it not to get from their subjects to something “bigger,” but rather to add more detail and color to the lives of their subjects—particularly, in Zemon Davis’s case, to establish what we know and can’t about the life of Martin Guerre.

By contrast, I am not drawn to—or, perhaps, I don’t have the prodigious skill it takes to pull off—projects that can maintain historical interest intrinsically. With Symonds, I felt driven to talk up his importance to the story of the development of male homosexuality as an identity; I got myself into countless tussles with a secondary literature that doesn’t regard him as quite so important as I do in order to firmly establish the necessity of taking on this project instead of any other. Maybe this was kind of a juvenile impulse, the desire of a student still trying to establish herself as a “real” historian and demonstrate that she knows what is an appropriate subject for research and what isn’t. But I find myself doing it again with Sidgwick. For the first half of the Easter vacation I despaired a bit about my putative master’s dissertation project, not sure whether—absent a pivotal academic discovery like Symonds’—I could make a case for why we should care about Sidgwick. (Nor, in fairness, am I sure that there’s enough in his diary to sustain intrinsic interest, in the way that there sometimes is with a single breathtaking document that a historian has the excellent fortune to stumble across.) I feel that, without a way to connect Sidgwick in an important way to big names and big trends in the late-Victorian intellectual culture that interests me, this isn’t a project that would sustain my interest, much less my readers.

Happily, though, while going over some notes I’d made in Michaelmas, I remembered the key fact that (I hope!) is going to make it all hang together: Sidgwick was a member of the Cambridge Apostles. He makes passing, coded references to Apostles meetings and dinners in his diary (the Apostles were famously secretive, and used a certain set of slang to discuss meetings and members’ issues). William Lubenow’s The Cambridge Apostles, 1820-1914: Liberalism, Imagination, and Friendship is a flawed group biography of the Apostles’ widespread infiltration of and influence upon public life in the period, but it does decode those references in the diary and mention Sidgwick’s (along with his brother Henry’s) membership in the organization, and its primary subject is the Apostles’ relation to a particular stripe of turn-of-the-century liberalism that shaped fora from parliamentary politics to university reform to the novels of E.M. Forster and, indeed, the narrative of the development of sexual, and particularly homosexual, identity. It was this connection that helped me to see that Sidgwick’s work as a teacher and as an activist in Oxford university and local-government politics, and his personal relationships to his wife and children and to his students, might be a route to understanding what all these moving fin-de-siècle pieces might have to do with each other, how they might add up to a cohesive worldview, and what it has to do with other intellectual-cultural movements in the period, from Decadence to the evangelical Christianity that spurred so much social reform and poor relief. (I’m also personally compelled by the fact that when Symonds moved to Switzerland in 1878, this is precisely the world that he left behind, and seeing it through Sidgwick’s eyes (he and Symonds were good friends as young men, though they later drifted apart) may help me to understand what Symonds was missing and why his worldview may have been shaped more fundamentally than I’ve previously suggested by his expat status.)

We have a tendency to get distracted by larger-than-life personalities, it’s true, and that’s why people like Symonds or Sidgwick can help us to retell stories that have hitherto placed disproportionate emphasis on figures such as Wilde and the Bloomsbury Group. But I’m interested in telling these stories not for the sake of Symonds and Sidgwick, though they are people for whom I feel immense affection. Rather, what motivates my interest in history in meta terms is the perspective it can give us on huge humane things: how we treat each other, how we perceive ourselves in relation to others, how those connections are negotiated through the historically contingent avenues of sex, love—or pedagogy. For the most compelling thing about Sidgwick, to me, was that he was a lifelong teacher with a fierce passion for his vocation and a dedication to making education accessible to more people, whether in a set of lectures on Greek verse composition that attempted to recast the skill as accessible to and learnable by non-public-school audiences, in his successful efforts to remove Greek as an entrance requirement to Oxford, or in his lifelong commitment to women’s education in school, university, and private contexts. This is a model very far from that of the mid-Victorian schoolmasters in the mold of Thomas Arnold who have already received a great deal of historical attention; it allows us to engage in questions of what a university is for and what relation education has to do with social equality that are still extremely current.

I still need to learn what late-nineteenth-century liberalism is, much less what Sidgwick has to do with it, but I am excited to think that he is, after all, a way to ask the biggest questions. Before I hand in my dissertation proposal midway through next term, I will need to do more to nail down the precise primary sources I will need to track down and read in order to develop the sense of Sidgwick’s worldview I was able to develop for Symonds. Unfortunately, Sidgwick doesn’t have Symonds’ voluminous paper trail, but his diaries are of course all in Oxford, and his contributions to the Oxford Magazine and his many textbooks and school editions of classical texts are freely available here as well. Some of his children’s papers are also in Oxford. But I need to determine whether the Apostles thread will be worth a trip to Cambridge, and indeed how far in general I will need to venture outside of Sidgwick’s own life in order to tell this story.

But as I begin to push forward on this I think that my conclusion has to be that focusing your research, and the stories that you tell with it, through the lives of C-List celebrities doesn’t make you a microhistorian. At the end of the day I’m interested in the macro, and still—bright-eyed youth that I am—see my great lifelong research question to be, “What does it mean to connect with others?” But I stand on the shoulders of giants, from Ginzburg and Zemon Davis to, perhaps, Jill Lepore, to my own teachers, who have given me a sharp sense of the relation between micro and macro and an ambitious sense of what it is possible to do with history.

QOTD (2012-02-24); or, The Days When I Love My Job

This last slog toward a finished thesis and a finished bachelor’s degree is proving much more arduous than I expected. Despite what a cushy life I lead, this year has not always been so happy, especially this winter. Sometimes it’s made me strongly doubt whether I really can sentence myself to a life sentence of reading and writing and be content with that.

But then I read beautiful things, and I am sincerely grateful that I get paid to be an intellectual and literary historian and that I am currently at an institution where the librarians will special-order recently-published and very expensive volumes for me, such as the new Philip Gardner-edited edition of E.M. Forster’s diaries and journals. My thesis ends with Forster, who is one of the most interesting twentieth-century readers of Symonds, and the following entry in Forster’s “Locked Diary” explains why. He wrote it on 10 January 1912, after a visit to Symonds’ old friend Graham Dakyns reminded him of Symonds himself:

J.A. Symonds. Feel nearer to him than any man I have read about — too near to be irritated by his flamboyance which I scarcely share. But education — (Classics, Renaissance, Eng. Lit.) — , health — (tendency to phthysis) — literary interest in philosophic questions, love of travel, inclination to be pleasant and above all, minorism. True, he married,but he had better not have. His contrary inclinations only dragged him asunder till the strongest triumphed. He was a brave & intelligible man, and I am proud to be in some ways so like him, & mean to think of him in difficulties, though having a weaker brain and a stronger sense of humour, I may get through life more easily. Such a fine passage — end of Vol I of his life — about never acting from moral reasons. What wouldn’t I give to read the Autobiography entire but Horatio Brown will never let me. ‘Rough handsome young man.’ It is odd. He has met Walt Whitman by now, if the dead are meetable, and has rebuked him for his hypocritical letter, & on that supposition I too shall meet them, and though Whitman will have most to say to me, I shall have most to say to Symonds. Samuel Butler would be nice for a little. Then there are the big people whom one feels one has to want to meet, like Keats and Petrarch and Michelangelo.

Reading that means something human. Accessing the universal through the particular. The promise that even three floors underground, elbow-deep in books at a little boxy desk, reading others’ commonplace books and filling in my own, the books and the world will, on the best of days, work together—and I will learn how to connect.

QOTD (2012-02-10)

This afternoon found me in the Princeton University Library Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, poring over some 1890s Oxford undergraduate periodicals that became rather notorious because they were edited by Alfred Douglas and were thus made much of in the Wilde trials. They were fabulous as a window into late-nineteenth-century student life, featuring everything from ads for High Street businesses to original verse in Greek and of course endless commentary on Summer Eights and bad attempts at humor about scouts. And, naturally, there’s quite a lot of homoeroticism of the neoclassical sort, including some poems by Symonds, Douglas, and Wilde. But this anonymous poem jumped out at me in a way the others didn’t—it seemed to me to be actually about the unique romanticism of Oxford, not the romanticism of other times and places:

Love in Oxford

When the shades of the twilight come
Hiding the face of the flow’rs,
My heart yearns blind and dumb
In a city of mist-girt tow’rs,
In a place of shadows and spires
The love of my heart goes forth
To the sea and the clear cold north,
To him whom my soul desires.

The southern skies and the mist
Chill me and blind my sight.
I long for the lips I kiss’d,
And the eyes that were brave and bright;
I long for the touch of his hand,
And the sound of the voice I knew
When the breeze of the evening blew,
And the stars shone cold on the sand.

Out of his northern home
I call him here to my side,
On his face is the salt sea-foam,
In his ears is the song of the tide;
He shall come with his soul aflame,
His voice shall be sweet and strong,
He shall sing me a golden song,
He shall rob me of fear and shame;
He shall steep my spirit in bliss,
He shall triumph and set me free,
For love is as deep as the sea,
And sweet as the core of a kiss.