Category Archives: History

RHSV Conference: The Other Face of War: Victorians and the Home Front

[A personal reflection]

A good  conference has a scope broad enough to bring multiple perspectives to the topic, but it is also defined closely enough for the threads and themes that emerge out of individual papers to weave something larger.  The Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) conference on Friday 8th August and Saturday 9th August 2014 succeeded on both counts. Continue reading

‘The Commonwealth of Speech’ by Alan Atkinson

2002, 136 p & notes.

The full title of this book is The Commonwealth of Speech: An Argument about Australia’s Past, Present and Future . The extended title gives a better indication of the book’s flavour because it is a wide-ranging publication that meanders between history, politics, rhetoric and methodology.  Many of the chapters were originally presented as speeches or lectures in their own right, thereby complicating for us the relationship between speech and writing from the start.

Talking and writing were fundamental in the founding of Australia, Atkinson argues, and indeed the first chapter of Atkinson’s intended-trilogy The Europeans in Australia is titled “Talk”.  When the Aborigines came across from Timor or Sulewesi, they must have used language to plan their trip, and by the time the English made their own journey in 1788  the logistics and implementation of the First Fleet was a product of detailed bureaucratic talk and writing.  Unlike any other people in the world, the convicts and soldiers of the New South Wales penal settlement were recorded in writing from the very inception of the colony,  in convict indents and admiralty documentation.  Frontier life demanded writing, in the form of overseers’ orders, information from agents’ letters and the provincial newspapers that quickly emerged. When the early forms of democracy arrived,  their introduction was largely unproblematic because of this underlying basis of literacy.

Early white  settlers recognized that Aboriginal people were highly attuned to speech.  They noticed, even if they didn’t fully understand,  that when aboriginal people spoke among themselves, there were nuances of affability, tact, respect and authority. This is something that white Australians are still learning today.   Despite the ubiquity of text, talk is still important in both black and white communities.  Atkinson spends quite a bit of time on Australia’s bi-centenary in 1988, examining the speeches given by Bob Hawke, Prince Charles and Galarrwuy Yunupingu for the occasion, and notes the power-plays jostling amongst the three speeches and the paradoxical symmetry between the speeches given by Charles and Yunupingu.

In another chapter, Atkinson discusses what he calls “vernacular history”.

Vernacular History rests on a body of assumptions about the ethnic or national past which exists, mostly unquestioned, as part of common conversation and common judgement….They regularly seep into popular, everyday writing.  And the more familiar they become on the printed page, the more they belong to everyday talk. (p. 27) …..Vernacular History always throws up moral themes.  It establishes, or it tries to establish, a uniform moral message.  It offers moral contrast, sometimes even melodrama, with the evocation of heroes and villains, of golden ages and dark days. (p. 31)

I’m still not sure whether he approves of vernacular history or not:  he describes it as a

peculiarly powerful combination of formulas, old and new, a vivid mix of subtle tones and heavy patterning. (p.33)

He proposes three examples of Vernacular Historians: Manning Clarke, Robert Hughes and Henry Reynolds.  All three, he says, presented themselves as unique figures, somehow independent of the community of scholars.  Their histories burst off the page and broke out of the academy to become integrated into the talk of ‘ordinary’ Australians (albeit often at a fairly simplistic level).  He spends quite a bit of time on Henry Reynolds in particular, whose history, Atkinson argues, is a history told from the perspective of “we” whites that relies on the tension borne of the moral relationship between current-day blacks and whites.

I enjoyed reading this book, and I can see that I’ll be using it later in my thesis.  I’ve been aware, in my work on Judge Willis, of the importance of talk-  the talk of power in the courts, the middle-class respectable talk of men’s debating societies, and the gossip of the streets.  I enjoyed spectating while Atkinson joustedwith other historians (an acquired taste, I admit) and his discussion of the use of history by politicians.

Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #1

From J. G. A. Pocock ‘Tangata Whenua and Enlightenment Anthropology’ in The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History p. 201

…the historian is not concerned to show that belief systems are ridiculous, but to discover why they were not ridiculous once.

Memory and history

Collective memory? No. Myth and memory? Nup. It’s all about me- it’s the historian’s memory- or lack thereof.

I’ve been writing away for the past couple of weeks on a little topic in my thesis that has me all excited and flustered.  I’m not going to go into specifics- not that I want to keep it from you, of course, but I must be a little circumspect and besides, who will buy “Judge Willis the Soap Opera” if I divulge all here?  But I’ve been quietly rubbing my hands in glee, anticipating interest from well, all of about twenty people in a particular thing I’ve found.  It was, as my earlier supervisor John Hirst would have said “a knock-down argument”.

Except that I found it. And lost it. And now I can’t find it again.

It’s a letter that I’m looking for.  I thought that I remembered seeing it typed up amongst a collection of other letters.  I think I can remember a rush of excitement seeing it- AH HA! There it IS- in writing! And can I find it now?? No…

I’m rather obsessive about my record keeping. I could pretend that it’s because I’m a methodical person, but the truth of the matter is that, commencing this thesis at a relatively advanced age, I’m frightened that my memory is going to go before I get it written.  I know that I sound like a hypochondriac, but perhaps you should consider my mother’s strong family history (five of seven siblings) who have suffered neurological illnesses of one type or another.  I’m watching my mother’s brain slowly turn to cement, and I’m losing the Mum I love bit by bit.  So my fears are not completely groundless.

So, I turn to technology. In my research mainly I’ve been working on letters, dispatches and newspaper articles.  I have an Access database that lists them chronologically by writer, recipient, topic, location 1, location 2 (because many of these letters are found it several locations). There are literally thousands of them – 1444 the last time I looked.

Books and journals go into Endnote.

I’m a fairly quick touch typist (faster than I could write by hand) so it’s no hardship to type up documents and I code them in NVivo.  N Vivo is intended as a qualitative research software program, but you can use it to code the themes in any sort of document or artifact.  I use it at a fairly basic level for data recovery only.  When you want to find all the material you have coded on a particular theme, it collates it into one document.  When I type up notes on a book or journal, it goes into NVivo as well.  Of course, this is the weak spot- if I don’t code the document, then I won’t find it in NVivo.  But I usually print out a hard copy and tick off on the top once I’ve put it into Access (if applicable), Endnote and N Vivo.

So how have I lost this letter?  I just don’t know.  I have a fairly vivid dream life- did I just DREAM that I read it?  I can’t work out why I didn’t make a note of it somewhere; why I just put it back into its plastic sleeve. And yet I have my chapter plan written a couple of weeks ago where I can see that I thought then that I had read it.  I must have read it in-between entries on my other ‘secret’ blog that I write about my thesis-writing because I don’t mention it there.  I’ve found one small reference, and another letter that perhaps I had misinterpreted.  Did I just misread it? Did I conflate the two?  I’m distrusting myself, and that’s not a good thing.

For those of you writing history, how do you keep a track of everything you have?

Letters of a Nation Archive

Want to spend hours and hours and hours fiddling round on a website? [ahem, as if I don’t already]. Well, you might want to check out Australia Post’s “Letters of a Nation” website.  The project was part of Australia Post’s 200th anniversary.  They invited contributors to send in letters held in their personal collections which were scanned, indexed and transcribed and are all there on the website.

In fact I even had a little weep over the letters sent by the POW returning to Australia to his four year old son.


‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ by Kate Summerscale

304 p. 2008

It seems that after reading Curthoy and McGrath’s How to Write Histories that People Want to Read, I have picked up, one after the other, two books that would qualify-  Nicholas Shakespeare’s In Tasmania and now this one,  The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale.   This book won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008, and also bears the designation “New York Times Bestseller” on the front cover.

The book describes the true-life murder of a three year child in 1860, taken from his bed in the nursery outside the bedroom of his parents Samuel and Mary Kent, and found with his neck slashed and body wrapped in a blanket in the outside privy. The family that lived in this three-storey Georgian house was not a happy one.  It was a second marriage for Samuel Kent; the older children of the first marriage had been relegated for the second family; the new Mrs Kent was not all she seemed at first.  Suspicions mounted about the relationship between Mr Kent and the nursemaid who slept in the bed beside the murdered child, the sanity of the daughters of the house, the probity of the servants: the case opened the lid on the fug of family relationships amongst what otherwise appeared to be a respectable, prosperous middle class Victorian family.

The book takes a careful chronological approach with only what I marked as one example of foreshadowing that suggested that the outcome was known to the narrator.  Instead, events and evidence unfold bit by bit, complete with the false-starts and false-leads of any investigation,  and the narrative closely follows the newspaper articles and legal documentation generated by such a notorious case.  I hadn’t heard of the case at all but I assume, given that the murderer ended up depicted in Mdme Tussuad’s waxworks, that the case has more notoriety in England even today.  For someone completely unfamiliar with it, I wasn’t sure right to the end- and even then….?

But this is more than just a country-house murder story: instead it is a closely-grained and grounded study of domestic Victorian life and sexuality, the development of “the detective” as a profession and the relationship between the press and Victorian fiction.  The detective, Mr Whicher, is a lower-class employee in a newly-developing profession, and class sensitivities emerge over what is perceived as  his puerile probing of domestic relationships and middle-class respectability, and the derisive sneering of the popular periodical press.  Summerscale embeds this true-crime story within a broader study of the detective-novel as a literary phenomenon, both at the time in the work of Wilkie Collins and Dickens, and later as a literary genre much loved of BBC Friday night dramas.

The book is carefully footnoted and researched; there are maps and photographs, and an extensive bibliography.   Its chronological structure makes you feel as if it is unfolding before your eyes and it’s quite a page-turner.  And surely that qualifies it as “History That People Want to Read”.

‘How to Write History that People Want to Read’ by Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath

2009, 238 p.

This book is exactly what the title says it is: a how to book on writing history.  This no-nonsense approach pervades the book- it’s a real [clap] “Come on! Get stuck into it!” sort of book.  It could have, but wisely has not, been called “History Writing for Dummies” because it shares features of those little yellow books- the cheery, confident tone, the jokes that make you groan, the dot points,  the anecdotes and the bubbling optimism that of COURSE you can write history that people want to read!  I must admit that there’s something about all this bustling, practical advice that brings out the long-lost teenager in me.  I want to roll my eyes, toss my head, and mutter “der–” (the ultimate expression of nonchalance and superciliousness in my adolescence- I warned you that it was some time ago).

Except that it is so damned practical and, yes, good advice.  The book is aimed at a wider readership than just  PhD student- it also has family historians and local historians in its sights.  It is very simply written, with short sentences which at times seemed  just a little patronizing.  But of course, this is a book of advice and it does not pretend to be other than this. Clarity and  a certain amount of  firm direction is fundamental to the act of giving advice: I must remember that a bit of humility and preparedness to listen is fundamental to gaining from it.

This book starts from the beginning, right from conceptualizing your history project and your projected audience.  It has good, practical advice about archives  and the how-to of working with sources , then moves on to the writing.  It was at this point that I stopped my eye-rolling and read more carefully because writing, and thinking about narrative and action, character and the emotions  is right where I am at the moment.  And this is probably the real strength of this book; at some stage it is going to connect with you as history-writer at some point in the cycle.  In this regard, you could buy it at the start of your thesis or project, and dip into it usefully for a bit of a kick up the backside or a dust-off after a setback when you need it. The examples they used from a range of histories were well-chosen; you didn’t need to know anything about the content, and the text guided you to look through the content to the technique.  The discussion of footnotes, grammar and punctuation again had me tossing my head with impatience -until I’d come across something that I thought “oh really? Is THAT the difference between a colon and semicolon?” and “You mean that my examiners won’t even READ my quotations?”.  At times I bridled at the decisiveness of their approach but when I came to areas that for me are foggy and ill-defined, the clarity was reassuring.  I suspect that  I am very bad at taking advice.

The trouble with aiming at a broad audience is that sometimes, in order to avoid alienating one audience, the needs of another audience are put onto the backburner.  As a postgraduate student, I yearned for a chapter about analysis.  They do mention analysis, but its difficulty is downplayed by giving it equal billing with themes and chronology as a narrative problem.  I think that analysis is more than this: it goes to the heart of the endeavour; it is what makes history more than just a good story.  It might be stripped out of histories for publication so as to attract a wider audience; it might be over-kill for a local or family history, but for an academic thesis there  is a fundamental assumption that your thesis says something, means something beyond just the narrative at hand.  This is the real work of history,- it’s the part that makes your head hurt- and it’s hard.

I almost didn’t read this book when I first heard about it because I thought that I had read it before. But no- that was an earlier book (2000)  by the same authors that has been recently re-released: Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration.  It  is an edited collection of papers by contributors to a Visiting Scholars Program workshop for fifteen very lucky post-graduates, and is a who’s who of Australian historians who I admire deeply:  Tom Griffiths, Bill Gammage, Donna Merwick, Greg Dening, John Docker, Deborah Bird Rose, Peter Read and of course Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath themselves.  This book, in many ways, supplied my “missing” chapter, even though I found it rather daunting.  In my reading journal after reading this book I wrote:

I can’t say that I feel empowered- intimidated more like it; overwhelmed by other people’s erudition and breadth, and feeling stodgy and constipated!

It’s a pity that the two books aren’t released by the same publisher, because they would be a wonderful combination within the same volume.  The prose and vision doesn’t exactly soar in “How to Write History” but it is warm, encouraging and empowering.  The virtuosity and incisiveness of the historians talking about their craft in “Writing Histories”  while inspirational, can be almost paralysing.  As an aspiring history writer, I need both.  I need to be beckoned onwards by those up ahead of me;  I need the grip of a confident, more experienced friend at my arm, and  a damned good shove from behind as well!