Reading Sherlock Holmes

Preface: this was written as an entry for a contest on the blog of author Laurie R. King. I didn’t win, but thought I might post it here, with a little introduction for relevance.

I grew up with mysteries as a form of entertainment: the program Mystery! on PBS, and books like the Encyclopedia Brown series. The challenge was, and still is, to try and figure out what’s happened before the author tells you.

In historical research, there isn’t an author to tell you the solution. It is entirely up to you to ferret out all the clues and then reach your own conclusions (hopefully supported by the evidence!). I wanted to be like Sherlock Holmes and Jessica Fletcher when I was a kid; being a historian is, in a lot of ways, fulfilling that dream.

Continue reading “Reading Sherlock Holmes”

Lost Causes

When I’m not reading history essays and biographies, I like a good mystery (I also like a good historical romance, but that’s a story for another time).  Today’s read is by an author who I’ve read before, Sharyn McCrumb, but a series I have not, starring one Elizabeth MacPherson. I’m reading the first in the series, Sick of Shadows (first published 1984).

There is a point fairly early in the book (page 47 in my copy), where Elizabeth is teased by her cousins for  knowing so much about the history of the MacPhearson clan and their participation in the ’45, fighting with “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” Her cousin Geoffrey comments:

“I congratulate you on your originality,” purred Geoffrey. “It seems you have been unable to escape the Southern weakness for lost causes, but at least you managed to avoid the conventional one. I would rather hear you go on about the Scottish Alamo than to hear about the Confederacy.”

This comment, made though it was by a fictional Southern cynic, gave me pause. I am a Southerner, in case I’ve not mentioned that before (North Carolina, in case you were wondering), and yet I have no great fondness for lost causes. Underdogs, certainly, but that can be put down to the influence of Robin Hood and being a geeky child in general. I confess that I don’t view the Confederate cause as a great Romantic story; but then, I also find Lord Byron rather trying and suspect I would be likely to tread on his foot if I’d ever met him at a party.  Likewise, I see nothing ‘bonnie’ about Charles Edward Stuart’s character, although he certainly was handsome and charismatic when campaigning with the elite of Edinburgh.

The men who fought in both armies interest me, and the women who traveled with them. Both armies contained people who had been disenfranchised, and I wonder what they hoped the future would bring if they won. How the wars affected the lives of ordinary people, the long-term impact, interests me far more than the movements of units or the personalities of the figureheads.

Sometimes my lack of passionate interest in the Civil War and the cause of Bonnie Charlie makes me wonder just what kind of Southerner and Scottish-descended-American I am. Perhaps a new generation, one with a different romantic outlook than the past. Or perhaps the kind who has always preferred Robin Hood and Little John to King Richard and his Crusaders. Or simply one who also happens to be a social historian.


In June of 2010, Oxford University Press is publishing a book titled The Passport in America: the History of a Document. The blub on the book in their Spring/Summer 2010 catalogue leads me to believe that this book should offer some insight into a topic I posted about earlier – what exactly makes a person a citizen of one nation and not another.

Hopefully by then I’ll have finished a number of the other books on my “to-read” shelf and will be able to snag a copy from one of the local libraries.  I am lucky in that the local university is funded by the State, so anyone with a state driver’s license can check out books!

A quote, a book, a whole discipline!

One of the books I received this year for Christmas* was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, a book of essays on women in history. The title is her most-quoted soundbite, taken from an essay on gravestones which forms part of her first book, Good Wives.

The quote, with “rarely” used in place of “seldom”, shows up on t-shirts, bumperstickers, signature lines, and who knows where else. It is generally meant to convey that women shouldn’t be “well-behaved”, a rallying cry to speak up and be heard. Which, in a way, is missing the point.

Disclaimer: I’ve only read about 3 pages of Ulrich’s book of essays so far, so I don’t quite know how she feels about the wide-spread use of the quote. I also feel I should point out that I do consider myself a feminist, and believe that women and men should have an equal voice in their communities.

However, the thrust of the quote isn’t about the present, at least in my mind. Perhaps it’s because I read Good Wives as an undergraduate, and so have a vague memory of the context of the quote. I hear the quote as a reminder that the ordinary, lawful people of the past have very often been left out of History. National narratives tend towards the warriors and activists, the rulers and rebels. It is only recently (broadly speaking) that the well-behaved people became the subject of historical interest.

Thus, where many might read “make history” to mean “make historical change”, I read “make history” as “make it into the historical record”.  What many people might not understand is that historical events often would not happen without those well-behaved, ordinary people. Individually they might not have made an impact, but collectively they can. Millions of ordinary, well-behaved citizens made history by performing their civic duty: they voted, and in voting helped elect the first African-American President of the United States.  It’s not that I object to people thinking of the quote in one light, but I would love to help people see the social history interpretation.

That’s all for now. I will try to remember to post again when I’ve finished reading the introduction (and the rest of the book).

* I also received Georgette Heyer’s Pistols for Two – hooray for historical fiction!

Rememberance/Veterans Day

Thank you to all the veterans of this nation and our allies.

Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church of the United States.

Short take on the news: shared beds

There’s a story on the BBC today wherein a Doctor suggests that married couples not share a bed because sleeping apart is healthier. The article says “Dr Stanley, who sleeps separately from his wife, points out that historically we were never meant to share our beds. He said the modern tradition of the marital bed only began with the industrial revolution, when people moving to overcrowded towns and cities found themselves short of living space”.

I think someone needs to read a little social history.  Especially if he thinks the only time people have ever shared beds was as a married couple.

I remember when I was research women’s roles in war in Scotland (and Europe) for one of my grad seminars and read an essay about women’s units in Britain during WWII.[1] The administrators (upper and middle class urbanites) were concerned about what they saw as lesbianism among the women in the barracks; these women were from rural, less wealthy families and as one of them pointed out later, they had never had their own bed. Many of them were sharing a bed not in a romantic or sexual way but because they were so unused to sleeping alone they could not sleep at all.

I appreciate that people have the option to sleep seperately or alone, but one would hope that when you start making historical defenses for your scientific theories, you would actually understand the history…

1 I believe the essay was in A soldier and a woman : sexual integration in the military – it may have been the DeGroot article.

“History doesn’t change”

Recently I went down to south-west Florida to visit my grandfather, who lives in one of the many retirement communities in the area. He said “We’ll do whatever you want,” and I said “Hey, let’s check out the local history museum.” My grandfather admitted he’d never been, despite having been in the area for over a decade, and away we went. It was a very nice County Museum, with a small static exhibit in the administrative building and a nice collection of pieces and small buildings in the outdoor area/garden.

We went to leave, and said we would be back. The woman who was working the desk at reception/gift shop area said “Well, everything here will be the same – history doesn’t change!”

I just nodded, but her statement bothered me. True, the actual facts of history are, at this point, static. What happened does not change. Our understanding of it, on the other hand, does. Their exhibits included topics such as the Seminole, slavery and escaped slaves, and the logging of the cypress forests. How those topics are presented today are not necessarily how we would present them 15 or 30 years ago; who knows how we will interpret them 15 years from now? Scholarship certainly changes. Public history changes, too.

I know that this is a small county museum, which is part of four museum sites operated by the county museum administration. They don’t have a large staff, their budget is definitely small. They may have limited opportunities to change their exhibits, even if their administrators (whoever they may be) wanted to do so. To me, however, saying “History doesn’t change” is to say “this place is static, only worth seeing once, because it and history are only worth a single walk through.” Museums and history deserve second looks, because you never know what you might discover that you missed before.

why a magpie?

As a jewelry-loving girl whose first name starts with M, I was nicknamed ‘magpie’ by my family long ago.  It is, at this point, a fairly good decription of my approach to history – not that I gather everything shiny, but that I’m willing to take sticks and grass as well as silver to build a nest, or economics and ethnology when looking at history.  That and I love learning new things about history anywhere, any time in the world, even if it’s not one of my points of focus.