Posts Tagged ‘research’

Research thrills

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve been reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France. It’s a hard thing to categorize: a book encompassing fragments of a memoir, many elements of biography, and a tightly focused history of France during the Nazi Occupation. It’s completely gripping and extremely well told.

Priscilla, by Nicholas Shakespeare

The aspect that I want to focus on this week, however, is how so much of Shakespeare’s insight into his aunt’s life is the result of a series of happy coincidences. He begins the book with his childhood memories of Priscilla, his glamorous aunt with a mysterious past. She’d been married to a minor French aristocrat, lived in France under the Vichy government, and spent time in an internment camp. She was clearly scarred by those years, and nobody in the family spoke of them or questioned her directly.

After she died in 1982, Shakespeare continued asking questions but received few answers. There was a box of intriguing but inconclusive photographs and letters. It revealed that Priscilla had been adored by many men, but not who these men were or what kind of role they’d played in her life – and the larger history through which they’d all lived.

Years, and then decades, passed. One day at the Bodleian Library, writes Shakespeare, “I was in the final stage of putting to bed an edition of Bruce Chatwin’s letters, a project which had occupied me intermittently since 1991, when I noticed a reference to a Sutro Collection, recently catalogued and stored in the same building. In no real spirit of expectation, I pulled out the catalogue and saw that the Sutro archive had been bequeathed by Gillian [Sutro, Priscilla’s lifelong best friend]; further, three specific boxes related to my aunt.”

Do you see the extraordinary string of coincidence and happenstance at play, here? Nicholas Shakespeare happened to be working on the Chatwin letters. He happened to notice (how?) a reference to a Sutro Collection (a distinctive name, especially in England). The Sutro Collection happened to have been recently catalogued. It happened to be stored in the same building (the Special Collections Room of the Bodleian Library) in which Shakespeare was presently at work.

But the gifts of fortune continue! Shakespeare ordered up the boxes and found more harmless letters and photographs from before and after the war. “Interesting, I thought, but nothing more, and opened the second box, which was full of red and yellow notebooks. Then I read my name.”

Did your hair just stand on end? Mine did! Shakespeare explains that he’d mentioned his aunt’s wartime history in a magazine article in 1992. Gillian Sutro had read the article. In it, a factual error on Shakespeare’s part acted like a detonator on Sutro’s memory and emotions. It forced her to rethink her entire relationship with her lifelong best friend; made her re-sift the evidence of their conversations after 1941; and impelled her to interview others in their circle, to uncover what had really happened.

Shakespeare says, “For three months, I read and transcribed Gillian’s notebooks. Again and again, I had the freakish impression of being taken by the wrist and led down, through a procession of unlocking doors, into the cellars beneath one of the most fascinating and yet, in spite of all the literature on it, incompletely explored moments of the twentieth century – a period over which France continues to draw firm bolts: ‘Four years to strike from our history,” is how the French still refer to it. Because what Gillian had written down was the other half of the key.”

I love this analogy of “being taken by the wrist and led down… into the cellars”. It inspires the precise blend of excitement, helplessness, and foreboding that I recognize from my own (considerably less deus ex machina) research work. It’s one of the best things I know.

How about you, readers? Have you had comparable – or wildly different – moments in your own research?

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Nostalgia and serendipity

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Hello, friends. I spent yesterday morning very happily shuttling around libraries.

The first was Stauffer Library, the humanities and social sciences library at the university where I did my PhD. You could say I know my way around it. For a few years, it was as familiar to me as my own apartment. I had the positions of the stacks memorized; I knew which photocopiers worked best; I was on nodding terms with even the crustiest of staff. Heck, I had a personal study carrel on the fourth floor, with a lockable shelf where I kept my books. Nerd aristocracy, that was me.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t been back to Stauffer since that slightly bittersweet day when I returned the last of my library books and gave up the key to my study carrel. (I really loved that study carrel. I wrote tens of thousands of words in that carrel.) And then, this week, I needed to borrow a book. I was curious how the library might have changed, whether it would smell familiar, how they might have reinvented the “information commons”, aka the place where everybody used to check email at rows of sticky-keyed public computers. I was expecting a pleasant compare-and-contrast.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the rush of nostalgia that welled within me when I touched the outer door. Even the resistance of the door against my arm, the curvature of its handle in my palm, felt absurdly right. I crossed the foyer (empty, now that the academic year is over), entered the library itself, and suddenly, I was back. The only slightly discordant note was the absence of my backpack. I don’t think I’d ever entered that library without its weight on my shoulders.

After finding my book (I went to the wrong end of the stacks at first), I walked a circuit of the fourth floor. I even paid a visit to my former study carrel. Stauffer is still a terrific place to work: quiet, with lots of natural light. But I felt like a tourist there, an outsider who should know when to move along. And that’s appropriate, too.

Nostalgia is a fundamentally limited emotion or approach; it gilds the view, offers a shiver of delight, and little more. Worse, I think it inhibits more productive thoughts or feelings from developing. That’s a realization I’ll need to hold fast as I continue work on The Next Book. The past is elusive enough, without the fog of nostalgia.

After leaving Stauffer, I continued to the public library. And there, in the Friends of the Library’s book sale, was this:

Shinozaki, Synonan My Story

Syonon: My Story, by Mamoru Shinozaki, is a memoir that’s been hovering at the edges of my research for The Next Book. I’ve thought, repeatedly, must chase that down. And there it was, sandwiched between The Wealthy Barber and What is My Cat Thinking? (I swear I didn’t make that up.) Really, what were the chances? And what if I’d given in to nostalgia and sat down to work at Stauffer? I might never have found Shinozaki.

Some of the most serendipitous moments of my life have been in libraries. How about you, friends? Have you had any big moments – serendipitous, nostalgic, or otherwise – in libraries, lately?

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Kingston Penitentiary, Part 2

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Hello again, friends. Two weeks ago, I wrote about my recent tour of the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary. It was an intense and memorable experience, and today I’d like to round it out with a few more photos and explanations. In my earlier post, I walked you through the main prison building and mentioned the native ceremonial grounds. Just past these grounds there is a second major building that was in daily use: the prison “shops”. This is the building in which inmates could work and learn.

There was a wood shop, a metal shop, and a furniture-maker – the clearest indication of the prison’s rehabilitative function. (It may seem hard to believe, but when Kingston Penitentiary was first built in the 1835, it was considered an enlightened and modern place.) Here, in the shops, inmates could learn skills that might change their futures.

Inmates who held jobs earned a small amount of money – according to our tour guide, David Stewart (pictured), the inmate wage topped out at $6 per day and was reduced in recent years, due to budget cuts. Inmates could spend their earnings at the canteen (which sold snacks and cigarettes). Prisoners who applied for extended visits with their families were also permitted to buy and cook their own food in the family units, using money earned in the shops.

Here’s an image of the metal shop, with its beautiful Victorian brick-arched ceilings.

It’s an interesting level of trust, to have a sole teacher working with a group of inmates using heavy machinery. According to someone who worked as a prison teacher, the consensus was that it was fairly safe: the teacher was seen as an ally, or at least a bystander. If any violence occurred, it was much more likely to be between inmates.

Up on the second floor, there was also a school. You can see the small sign below. Some of the inmates would have been working towards their high school diplomas or possibly university degrees, but many lacked even elementary reading and math skills.

After the cool gloom of “the shops”, Dave led us back outside. The prison grounds house a hospital with a permanent psychiatric ward, and there is also a gym. We didn’t see either of these but we got a strangely beautiful sight of the outdoor exercise area.

It’s hard for me to judge how large this space is – maybe three football fields put together? Dave said that in the 1970s and 1980s, it was quite common to have three hundred inmates in the yard, and two unarmed guards locked inside with them. There would also have been guards with rifles posted at two or three lookout points over the yard, but even so, it’s a daunting thought.

This next image is a closer shot of the guard tower. The entrance you can see is the old one; it was filled in some time ago and you now access the guard tower from outside the prison walls. If you’re a Kingstonian, these guard towers are iconic. Along with the front door, they are the only parts of the prison you can see from the outside.

As our tour neared its conclusion, we walked along the west wall towards the entrance. Again, I was struggling to capture the scale of the place but I remembered that there have been escapes from this penitentiary in which inmates have managed to climb the walls. Here’s what the climb would have looked like, over the west wall.

The final brief sight on our tour was of this neatly landscaped limestone building. It now houses the prison’s administration. Can you guess its previous function?

This was the Female Department: Canada’s first prison for women. I’m not sure exactly when it was built, but I believe that originally, female inmates were housed in a separate wing of the men’s prison. They were allowed to bring their children with them. The Female Department was used to hold prisoners until 1934, when the Prison for Women was built nearby.

At this point in the tour, we asked Dave how he’d managed to work in Corrections for thirty-two years. His answer was both encouraging and admirable: he said that the most important thing was to remember that each inmate was a person, and wanted to be treated as such. He emphasized the importance of always being watchful, because prisons are always potentially dangerous. He also said he’d been lucky because he had missed the 1971 riot at the Pen, when prisoners seized control of the building for four days, killed two inmates, and took a number of guards hostage. However, Dave finally said that he tried always to speak to inmates with respect, and to do what he said he would do, and he felt a similar respect from them in turn. I really admired his approach.

I know this is a lot of material to contemplate. But before I go, I want to leave you with a link to this CBC documentary about Kingston Pen, Tales from KP. It’s quite melodramatic but it offers a number of interesting insights into the prison. And it mentions that Charles Dickens toured the Pen in 1842! Dickens called it “an admirable gaol… well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.” Despite the suffering and injustices that must have taken place within the walls of Kingston Penitentiary, it is good to know that it was born of generous and progressive intentions.

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Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Hello there, friends. I’m sorry for my lapse last week. I had an outrageously slow internet connection (now partly fixed – it’s only somewhat slow) that made even a simple email check a struggle. Today, I thought I’d show you what I’ve been up to.

We went a bit crazy with the tomatoes, this year. It was our first year starting them from seeds and we planted a lot, thinking that only about one in three would make it. Ahem. We have about 30 tomato plants producing right now. I’m not sure what we’ll do with them all: we’ll either learn to can, or take to leaving them on neighbours’ doorsteps in the dead of night, I guess. Anyway, the tomato bed was a million-tentacled green monster, and it took me most of a day’s work to prune and stake them. I hope that doesn’t sound like a complaint: it’s a strangely addictive job, and it pains me to admit that there are two sad, drooping, crawling plants I haven’t yet found the time to attend to.

Here’s another gratuitous tomato shot:

Isn’t it exciting? We’ve had a few cherry tomatoes already and they’re lovely: sweet and complex, and all the more delicious for being the (literal) fruit of our labours.

And then there’s the garlic: 50-odd cloves planted last autumn, which we harvested last week. They’re currently drying out and I think the effect is like oddball musical notation.

Apart from frantically trying to reclaim the garden, I’ve also begun work on The Next Book. Here are the 3 novels I’ve ordered from the public library to read next:

Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain

Tan’s sequel to The Gift of Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists (2012)

Madeleine Thien’s Certainty (2006)

If you didn’t already know (or perhaps if you did), can you guess what I’m working on next?

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Rethinking Richard

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Hello, friends. Have you been following the recent news about the identification of Richard III’s bones? History nerds all over the world (your humble blogger included) are jumping for joy. The past is a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle, and some people in Leicester just got a corner piece.

The whole Richard conversation perfectly encapsulates what I love most about writing historical fiction: exchanging ideas, puzzling things out, realizing what I don’t know, and figuring out how to learn it. Is this how your brain works, too?

This is a short blog post because I’m hard at work on Rivals in the City but I’ll leave you with a photo. Kristan Tetans, who writes the Victorian Peeper blog, made my morning when she shared this on Facebook:

Happy Wednesday!

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Grit and pathos

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Hello, friends. On Friday, I was over at Nineteenteen, blogging about the history of the London Foundling Hospital – essentially the first charity orphanage in a huge city rife with abandoned babies and homeless children. This is, at first glance, an eighteenth-century story: Thomas Coram, who fought to create the Foundling Hospital, did so in 1739. Its major patrons, composer George Frideric Handel and artist William Hogarth, were eighteenth-century figures. So what does this have to do with the Victorian era?

Dickens, of course. (Whenever in doubt, the answer is Dickens. Fact.) For a time, Dickens lived on Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Foundling Hospital. We know that Dickens was a frenetic walker and a fervent student of London life, in all its grit and intensity. He would definitely have noticed the daily dramas of the Foundling Hospital, and some of this found its way into his novels. For example, in Little Dorrit, the Meagle family adopts their servant Tattycoram from the Hospital. She’s a fierce and frustrated girl, Tattycoram. And have you noticed her name? The “coram” part is borrowed from Captain Thomas Coram, of course, the founder of the Hospital. Tattycoram is right to be impatient, because she’ll always be identified with the Foundling Hospital. Her (lack of) social status is right there in her name.

There’s also the story of Oliver Twist, with Oliver’s childhood in a poorhouse – not the Foundling Hospital, but another kind of holding place for destitute children. (If you haven’t read Oliver Twist, you may still know the famous scene of Oliver asking for more gruel.) Inspired by his own experience of child labour, Dickens attacks his society’s treatment of the poor – especially poor children. The children of the Foundling Hospital would have been a daily reminder and a constant prodding of his own traumatic memories.

I think what’s interesting here is the way history bleeds untidily from period to period. Although we can think, “Foundling Hospital, Thomas Coram, Handel, Hogarth – yep, all eighteenth century”, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that institutions and problems endure. And the tragedies that Coram sought to prevent – the abandoned and homeless and dying children of London in the 1730s – continued through the Victoria era.

What do you think? Are there places or things you associate with one era which, in fact, belong to others as well?

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My brain is tingling

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Hello, hello! My friend, Colette Colligan, is a terrifyingly smart person who pops into my life every now and again with something that completely changes my view of the nineteenth century. Those of you who’ve read A Spy in the House will probably remember a scene that pays homage to Colette’s doctoral thesis on Obscenity and Empire (her thesis was later published as The Traffic in Obscenity from Byron to Beardsley).

Her most recent email casually mentioned that there’s a book called The Female Detective. Published in 1864. I know, I know! has come up with nothing, which is both shocking and a fantastic challenge. In the meantime, I’m going to borrow Joseph A. Kestner’s Sherlock’s Sisters: The British Female Detective, 1864-1913 for an overview.

This is the thing with research: it never ends. It’s infuriating and alarming (what did I miss, that I really should have known about?) but also a wonderful and constant reminder of how much there still is to learn. And I adore that.

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Researching the Victorians

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

I promised last week to share some favourite research resources for the Victorian era. But first, some news that despite being 6 days old is still enough to make me jump up and down! A Spy in the House is shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association’s 2011 Red Maple Award! Yes! Let me throw in a couple of extra exclamation points, like so!!

This is a reader’s choice award for ages 11-15, it’s linked to a great reading-promotion program in Ontario schools, and the whole thing culminates in a 2-day gala at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. The craziest part, though? Being in the company of writers I think of as superstars, like Kelley Armstrong. And Gordon Korman, for crying out loud, whose work I loved as a kid. Plus, there are writers on the shortlist whose work I don’t know, but am really looking forward to discovering (click here for full shortlist). It’s all a bit dizzying.

But enough diva-ish fluttering. There are thousands of resources, both print and online, that I used when writing the Agency books. This is because my research began long before I thought of writing a novel, back when I was working on a PhD thesis in Victorian literature and culture. And that’s the beautiful, maddening, addictive thing about research: you start in one place and end up light years away, with pages upon pages of facts and anecdotes that probably won’t make it into the finished work. And it doesn’t matter, because you’re the richer for having read them. It’s brilliant.

But it’s also a pretty unhelpful thing to say here. But there are some books and sites that I go back to very regularly, and those are the ones I’ll share here today. Without further ado:

Online Resources (no particular order)

I adore Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London, a compilation of primary sources (that is, sources from the Victorian era). It’s addictive reading; I dare you not to spend four times as long there as you’d intended. Don’t miss the “Flash Dictionary” of slang!

The Old Bailey Online archives the proceedings of London’s central criminal court, from 1674-1913. Again, utterly addictive and a fantastic window into Victorian crime. My friend John Nicholls first told me about to the site. Thanks, John!

The Times Archive is just that – a searchable archive of every article published in that newspaper, from its launch in 1785. You have to pay for access, unless you belong to an institution (eg, university) that subscribes.

The Victorian Peeper (I know – sounds vaguely rude) is an truly wonderful blog written by Kristan Tetens, “a historian of nineteenth-century Britain based in twenty-first century America”. It’s an endless delight and offers links to previously unknown sources, such as the one below.

Hidden Lives Revealed is a sometimes heartbreaking archive of case files and photographs of orphans at the Children’s Society, 1881-1918. The photographs are particularly illuminating.

The Victorian Web is an academic site with about 40,000 short articles on the Victorian period. Many of these were written by Brown University undergraduates and some aren’t 100% reliable, but it’s a terrific starting point and most of the essays have a partial bibliography for further research.

Print Resources (alphabetical by surname)

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography. 2001. An authoritative history of the city.

Flanders, Judith. Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain. 2007. Wonderful social history and a window into real people’s lives.

—. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. 2004. You wouldn’t think a book about domestic life could be gripping, but this is. One of my favourite non-fiction books, period.

Picard, Liza. Victorian London. 2005. A lively general overview, but if you’re already deep into the era, you can skip this one.

Ross, Ellen, ed. Slum Travellers: Ladies and London Poverty, 1860-1920. 2007. Letters and reports from reform-minded ladies of the period. Great for contemporary flavour.

Smith, Stephen. Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets. 2004. Useful chapter on Victorian burial practices.

Sweet, Matthew. Inventing the Victorians. 2002. Debunks a lot of tenacious myths about Victorian culture and morals.

Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. 1990. Definitive biography of Dickens’s long-time mistress. It’s also a sparkling social history and portrait of theatrical life.

Wilson, A.N. The Victorians. 2002. Authoritative, sometimes infuriating, interesting.

Wilson, Bee. Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats. 2008. Gripping stuff – the chapters on “food adulteration” are wonderfully, horribly vivid.

This is a longish blog post but a very short bibliography. Don’t forget the goldmine at the back of nearly each of these books: the notes and bibliography, which will lead you in all kinds of wild new directions. I hope you have a blast!

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