Category Archives: Journal Article of the Week

Weeping Judges

My research interest is Mr Justice Willis and it is almost a reflex action now whenever I encounter a book about 19th century justice to flip to the index to see if ‘my’ judge gets a mention.  Again and again my heart has leaped at seeing   “Willes, J.” only to look more closely and see that it is Willes (with an ‘e’) instead of Willis (with an ‘i’).  The two judges were roughly contemporaneous and I wouldn’t be the first person to have confused them .   Of course, I’m fairly wedded to the human story in my own Judge Willis, but Judges Willes (with an ‘e’) has a damned good story as well.  Perhaps I should write it when I’ve finished with my man? (Only joking- mostly).

When reading 19th century press reports of trials, there are stock phrases that are used in describing the demeanour of the judges.  In the court reports, judges might be “twitchy”, they “stifle a groan”, they are “grave” and- rather strangely to our way of thinking today- are sometimes “overcome by weeping”.    Thomas Dixon from the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions has written an excellent article titled ‘The Tears of Mr Justice Willes’ in the Journal of Victorian Culture  2012, Vol 17 No. 1 p.1-23.  It is available on open access here.

James Shaw Willes was born in 1814 and died in 1872. He was born in Cork and was educated at Trinity College Dublin but was called to the English Bar and commenced practice on the Home Circuit.  At the age of forty one (which is young) he was knighted and appointed a puisne judge of the Common Pleas and he presided over a number of sensational and widely reported cases.  Most particularly he presided over the 1865 trial of Constance Kent for the murder of her young half-brother at Road Hill House Wiltshire, a case which was so ably explored in Kate Summerscale’s recent book The Suspicions of Mr Witcher (which I reviewed here). In this case, along with others he heard, Justice Willes was overcome by emotion, breaking down in tears.  According to press reports, in passing sentence on young Constance, Justice Willes ‘bent forward and wept for some few seconds’ and  ‘the learned Judge here again wept, and the solemn words of his sentence were almost inaudible’.  Dixon’s article gives several other examples of Justice Willes’ displays of emotion, before moving to talk about the meaning of tears across history and particularly in the 19th century.

I have come across several mentions of Justice Willes- in fact, ‘my’ Judge Willis cited him in a court case once.  Indeed, he was highly acclaimed for his judicial knowledge at the time and after, although apparently he had his detractors among some of the other judges (as did ‘my’ Judge Willis who in fact seemed to take pride in his unpopularity with his fellow judges).   Justice Willes seems to have been a deeply intelligent, cultured, literate man.  It would appear that his personal life was rather unhappy, and there are suggestions that he married only to avoid a breach of promise action.  He sat at the highest levels of the judicial establishment in England at the time, and was a member of the Privy Council.   He committed suicide in 1872.  Explanations for his suicide have included his over-sensitive and melancholic  nature, ‘repressed gout’,  the burden on his health of heavy court sittings, and the prospect of potential political scandal.  In his article Dixon looks at the diagnosis of ‘repressed gout’- a malady much in fashion at the time- and its relationship with the emotions.

Thomas Dixon has a 3-part posting on the History of Emotions blog.  It’s a good read, interspersed with video clips and comments on a BBC program (to which Dixon contributed) called  Ian Hislop’s History of the Stiff Upper Lip, which screened in England in November 2012.  I wonder if we’ll see it here in Australia, or whether it will be scooped up under the highly unpleasant Foxtel deal.

I’m fascinated by this whole area of history.  I can see a whole other area to explore in relation to ‘my’ Judge opening up in front of me!

Behaving badly

If Santa brought you ‘The Best Australian Essays 2011’, then you have probably already read Maria Tumarkin’s essay “The Whisperer in the Jungle” because it made the cut into that compendium.  But if you haven’t read it, it is available online here as it first appeared in Meanjin last year.

You may recall that I read Maria Tumarkin’s recent book Otherland recently, and I have her earlier work Traumascapes on my towering TBR list- a fate that, sadly and paradoxically, seems to befall books that I am keen enough to buy and yet never seem to get round to reading.  In this essay, she describes attending a Melbourne Writer’s Festival event in 2008 where Orlando Figes was discussing his then-recent book The Whisperers,  a much-lauded book on people’s private lives under Stalin.  I can easily see why she would have been attracted to the session: her own work examines the psychological cost of traumatic political and ecological phenomena, and as an Ukrainian-born historian, she would have a particular interest in the Soviet context.

But at one stage she reached across to take the hand of her Russian friend, whom she had cajoled into accompanying her:

After ten minutes I reached out and put my hand on my friend’s hand. I was afraid to look her in the face.

My friend and I, just by virtue of having been born in the Soviet Union, knew that the sweeping statements being hurled with overwhelming certainty from that stage were crude, conveniently mangled and phrased cheaply for effect, but it was something else that made us ill, a question. How could a person write a book about this kind of history and not have his heart even a little bit broken?

In this essay, written three years later, she returns to this memory of Orlando Figes’ appearance at the Melbourne Writers Festival in a reflection on moral bankruptcy in academia. For in 2010, news broke of the controversy over Figes’ anonymous and glowing comments on the Amazon site for his own book, and the equally anonymous and damning comments he made on the books of his academic rivals, in particular Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky (whose book I reviewed here).  The controversy is spelled out in more detail in an article about Polonsky here , and the comments that follow the story are revealing and hint at the venom that the controversy drew forth.

It was the critical acclaim that greeted Figes’ most recent book Crimea: The Last Crusade– in bookshops now as I speak-  that prompted her to dig up the story again.  She begins by citing Figes’ own anonymous praise for his own work:

‘Leaves the reader awed, humbled yet uplifted … A gift to us all.’

Ever since the story (the scandal, the row, the controversy) spilled forth in April 2010, these words have proved irresistible, to the British media in particular. They have been printed and reprinted countless times. I feel no hesitation in repeating them here once more. Let them stand. Let them be read more times still.

I am digging this story up again because to this day it feels large to me, not merely the incongruous straying of an academic at the peak of his powers but more like a sweeping epic befitting the Russian nineteenth-century literary tradition that Figes sought to capture in Natasha’s Dance, the book that preceded The Whisperers. …my feeling is that in front of us is a much bigger story, one symptomatic of a particular kind of public culture that is able to absorb certain transgressions but not others, a culture that has a bigger problem with the stain on Monica Lewinsky’s dress—such is this culture’s fixation on the thousand variations of sexual impropriety—than with, say, the ostentatious abuse of intellectual power. It is a culture that is forgiving, indeed encouraging in some of its quarters, of a certain intellectual psychopathology notable for its indifference to three key human emotions: empathy, shame and remorse.

…No-one (really) knows what to do with you—and not just you, Professor Figes, but all you celebrated writers, artists, scientists (you know who you are); you bullies, cowards, hypocrites and cynical opportunists; you filmmakers who forced your little selves inside other people’s children; you philosophers who abandoned your own children to orphanages; you eminent scholars who proudly headed university departments in book-burning, people-eating dictatorships.

We seem to be hearing quite a bit about intellectual and political psychopathology in the last week here in Australia.  We have been witnessing the fallout and the silencing that comes when people hold their tongues over the behaviour of a powerful man, and we can watch the rinse-cycle of public rehabilitation of reputation and legacy as it whirls into action.  I guess that we like to think that there are second chances, and the possibility of public forgiveness but sometimes it seems that some people have to fight harder for it than others.

J. I Little (ed) ‘Love as Strong as Death: Lucy Peel’s Journal in Lower Canada’

Lucy Peel was the wife of a naval officer on extended half-pay leave and in 1833 she and her young husband  Edmund arrived in Sherbrooke, Lower Canada, “attracted to a romantic and utopian dream of creating their own genteel Eden in the wilderness, but they were pragmatic enough to regard a permanent return to England as a possibility” (Little 1999 p.58).  And indeed, this is what happened- some three years later they returned, despondent that their plans had not come to fruition:

Edmund is, after four years hard labour, convinced that nothing is to be done by Farming in Canada; the land here produces too little to pay the labour requisite to cultivate it.

Lucy’s diary  has been published as Love strong as death: Lucy Peel’s Lower Canadian Journal 1833-1836, edited by J. I. Little (2001).    It was written as a “letter diary”, where she recorded the letters that she sent as monthly instalments to her mother and occasionally to her sisters and in-laws.  Her husband Edmund also contributed a few letters as well.  The letters survived as transcriptions in three bound volumes titled “Letters from Canada” and the transcriptions, written (and possibly culled?)  in two different hands, were donated to a university archive by a great-great-grandson. As such, it should be seen as a series of letters rather than a journal as such, and subject to the qualifications about letters discussed and commented on previously by Hels and Yvonne.

I have not been able to locate a copy of Little’s book here in Australia, but Googlebooks has a generous excerpt that includes the introduction and the Canadian Historical Association’s journal has a downloadable version of Little’s article “Gender and Gentility on the Lower Canadian Frontier: Lucy Peel’s journal 1833-36.”

Little cautions us:

While it is necessary to remember that journals such as Lucy Peel’s reflect the experiences and views of a small, privileged sector of society, their authors were nevertheless sharp observers of their social and natural surroundings and they provide valuable insights into the ideology and behaviour of the families who dominated the Canadian colonial socially and politically in the pre-Rebellion era. (2001 p. 2)

My interest is in Upper Canada, and at this stage I am not sure how much the mindset in terms of social expectations within the English community differs between Upper and Lower Canada.  Of course, the French presence in Lower Canada was a major distinguishing feature between the two provinces.  Little notes that English gentry preferred Lower Canada to the more sparsely populated Upper Canada, which was afflicted with cholera and malaria. (In my total ignorance of Upper Canadian climate at this stage, the reference to malaria surprises me.)   Peel, at least in the excerpts and article, does not make much comment on the French at all, but she does describe the English community and expresses some fairly virulent anti-Americanism, and I would expect that similar sentiments would apply in Upper Canada as well.

The excerpts reveal a lively, perceptive letter writer, and their marriage seems to be a loving one.  Little uses Vickery’s book The Gentleman’s Daughter as a thematic touchstone for describing Peel’s writings and identity as a gentlewoman on the frontier : love and duty; fortitude and resignation, prudent economy, elegance, civility and vulgarity, and propriety.

Both she and her husband Edmund are engaging and surprisingly modern writers, and I was touched by Edmund’s description of his wife’s experience of childbirth.  I suspect that many men stumbling out of the labour ward today might say the same thing, perhaps less eloquently (although possibly with fewer commas!) :

I was present all the time to support Lucy and I was much distressed to witness her agonies.  I thought it the proper place for a husband at such a moment, considering it nothing more than false delicacy which would make a man absent himself at a time when his presence and support are most required, it is a fearful thing to see a woman in her pain, I could not have believed it possible they had suffered so much, at times I felt quite distracted, as soon as the child was born I staggered into an adjoining room and cried like a child until I saw Lucy smiling and free from pain, her face last seen was distorted with pain, the impression made on me will not be forgotten (19 Dec 1833 entry by Edmund, cited in Little 1999)

Move over, Lucy- I think I’m a bit in love with him myself!


J. I. Little Love “Strong as Death”: Lucy Peel’s Lower Canadian Journal , Ontario, Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2001. Googleview excerpt

J. I. Little  ‘Gender and Gentility on the Lower Canadian Frontier: Lucy Peel’s Journal 1833-1836.’ Journal of the Canadian Historical Association Vol 10 (new series), 1999

Writing home

Read a good article last night:

David A. Gerber “Acts of Deceiving and Withholding in Immigrant Letters: Personal Identity and Self-Presentation in Personal Correspondence.”  Journal of Social History, Vol 39, No. 2 (2005) pp 315-330. I accessed it through my university library, but I see that it’s available through SLV as well.

With the current trend to write the “I” into history ( something that I am ambivalent about and will no doubt explore one day in another post)  you’ll often read about the emotional rush that researchers feel when holding a letter.  The precariousness and contingency of its journey into your hands, the physicality and smell of the paper and the knowledge that your subject had picked up a pen, smoothed out that very sheet, re-read it on finishing-  it all gives the act of reading the letter an edge of sanctity that is lost when reading it on microfilm, or digitally.

In this article, the author has obviously moved beyond that initial response- as must we all eventually. Instead of attending to the content of the letter, he looks instead at the immigrant letter as a strategy in maintaining interpersonal relationships across distance.  We know for ourselves that what we project and present in letters is not necessarily the case, and he focusses on what is not made explicit, what is hidden and held back.  Perhaps that’s part of the uneasiness about an online communicative presence now- that the interconnectedness of different online genres means that our different personae are no longer quarantined from each other. We may intend to remain silent, but instead earlier conversations are overheard.

Gerber’s research involves immigrant letters written between Canadian and American migrants and their families in Britain.  They were separated by a sea-journey of approximately 7-10 days which could stretch out to as long as 4-6 weeks: whatever the range it was certainly of a different magnitude to the voyage to Australia.  He describes his immigrants as “venturesome conservatives”, pessimistic about Britain’s future after the Napoleonic Wars and hostile to modernity and again I find myself wondering whether this also applied to Australia.

In these letters there is a psychological need to continue the relationship they are seeking to maintain in some way.  It’s often a collaborative exercise, even though in the archives we often only read one side of the communication.  Of course there is the issue of incompleteness and representativeness: letters may not have been collected or saved; they may be in private hands; they may have been culled; and the illiterate or those with completed families may not appear at all.

He explores the reasons – using examples from his letters- of outright lies and misrepresentations, but also untruths and silences.  Letter-writers might not want to cause worry to those at home; perhaps they had been discouraged from emigrating and have the need to save face.  On the other hand, perhaps it suited their purposes to exaggerate their situation.  Either way, there was the danger of being found out.  As Gerber points out “Gossip became transnational” as letters were shared between family and acquaintances in both settings.  Even silence is itself a type of communication.  It was a way of changing the tenor of the relationship.  For example, a child could take her time in replying to a parent and there is nothing at all that the parent could do about it.

Often the reason that we come to a body of correspondence is because we need the content that we hope they contain, or because the writer or recipient is important to our research in some way.  We become swept up in the details they offer, and the relationships that we try to reconstruct from them.  This article reminded me of the relationships that underpin the artefact itself, as a genre, that lie at the bottom of the act of writing and reading at a distance.