The History Woman's Blog

Divided Heaven – 25 years later

Posted in History, literature, Reviews by thehistorywoman on November 9, 2014
East German writer Christa Wolf (1929-2011).

East German writer Christa Wolf (1929-2011).

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall I have finally finished reading Divided Heaven by the East German writer Christa Wolf. It is a love story ended by the separation of the two Germanies, completed by the construction of the Wall, which aimed to prevent the defection of Eastern Germans to the West.

Divided Heaven, first published in 1963.

Divided Heaven, first published in 1963.

In Wolf’s novel the female protagonist Rita, a young woman from the East training to be a teacher, is in love with the academic Manfred, who one day fails to return from a conference in West Berlin. Manfred sends Rita a letter from the West, asking her to join him. But even before she visits him in the fateful summer of 1961 she knows that she cannot stay.

Rita’s heart is in the East – with the people in her little village and with the workers in the factory, where she spends her summers. She is not attracted to the well-stocked shops in the West or the flashing lights of the big city, and in the end her love for her home, her socialist ideals and her wish for a break with the Nazi past is greater than her desire to be with the man who betrayed her trust.

The Berlin Wall, built in 1961.

The Berlin Wall, built in 1961.

It is an odd story to read twenty-five years after the socialist dream collapsed. It is a book that sheds a very different light on what it was like to live in the East. While Wolf does not shy away from criticising the rigid rules, the hypocrites and the corruption of the GDR system, she also shows the reader that there were real people with real ideals on the other side.

As usual with many failed political systems it was not the ideas, but the brutal manner of their execution that led to their downfall.

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24 Hours in Academia

Posted in Academia, Comment by thehistorywoman on November 1, 2014

happy_woman_in_front_of_lap_top_by_mrphilips-d5ncb4tI used to think that I was the only saddo still on the computer while everyone else was down the pub on a Friday night. Turns out that’s not the case. I received several work-related e-mails from academic colleagues during the hours when other people were getting drunk last night, and on opening my mailbox this Saturday morning there was another load, including one sent at 6am apologising for a late contribution to an edited collection. Sometimes I get e-mails from colleagues sent at 2am or 5am, when I’m usually in my bed (NB for academics: That’s the thing in your bedroom that has the mattress on it. Some people use it for something called ‘sleep’.)

In this 24-hour culture academia has become, overworked staff have to function like clockwork or the lectures won’t be prepared for Monday, the essays returned by Tuesday (along with the latest chapter submitted by one of your PhD students you annotated over dinner), the article submitted by Wednesday, the funding application on Thursday, the review written on Friday and the UG Open Day be prepared by Saturday. If you dare to take Sunday off, you might find yourself stumbling unprepared into your 9 am seminar on Monday.

I have frequent rants to my friends and family about unsociable working hours, unreasonable workloads and the lack of a work-life balance. Surveys by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) or by The Guardian regularly show that academics are struggling with work, with life, with bullying, with mental health.

Yet, as long as there are people willing to work unreasonable hours for the sake of their reputation, their publication record, their career, or simply to show that they are good colleagues, committed teachers and that they can hack it, they are collaborating with a system that will eventually get them down. And if one of us leaves their ‘cushy’ job (that’s what outsiders seem to think), there will always be another desperate colleague on a temporary contract or a recent PhD to take our place.

So much for the general mood in academia these days. I’ll have a break to do my shopping now.

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Life outside academia

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education, History by thehistorywoman on October 25, 2014

AlienGetty460There is life outside academia, and by that I don’t mean that people are having more fun elsewhere. I am only suggesting that an academic career is not the natural, or even the most desirable outcome of a university degree.

As a lecturer in early modern history at a post-1992 university I know that only few of our undergraduate students will progress to a Master’s degree, and even fewer will embark on a PhD in the subject. Out of the few who do, not everyone will end up in an academic job; and with a highly volatile job market increasingly dependent on short-term temporary positions even a post-doc or a one-year teaching contract are not a guarantee of future employment in the sector.

Nevertheless, many universities still do too little to prepare their students for real life, while lecturers (in fairness) might not be the best qualified people to do so, as one of my colleagues pointed out at a recent meeting discussing ‘employability’. After all, most academics would have proceeded straight from their undergraduate degree to postgraduate study, finishing it all off with a PhD within seven or eight years before embarking on a career in research and teaching. The odd bar job aside, few academics will have seen much of the world of work outside when they are let lose on their undergraduate students. (In fact, I often feel a bit like an outsider because I worked in journalism for a number of years before becoming a full-time academic.)

Nevertheless, the percentage of graduates in appropriate employment within six months after leaving university is a key criterion in league tables measuring the success and quality of a higher education institution, and academics are supposed to prepare their students for the job market. So what can we do?  (more…)

How to get some quiet time over lunch

Posted in Academia, Comment by thehistorywoman on October 18, 2014

lunch-breakI dispensed with proper lunch breaks about six months into my first permanent full-time academic job. With lessons to prepare, essays to mark, admin to do, and – heaven forbid – research somewhere on my list, it seemed frivolous to set aside an hour or even thirty minutes each day just to eat a sandwich and have a chat with my colleagues in the staff common room.

Besides, with my colleagues around, most lunchtime conversations would be work related – discussing student problems, documents to be submitted or lesson prep – only reminding me of all the things on my to-do list, which seemed to be growing with every bite off the sandwich. So I decided to eat lunch at my desk instead.

Available for work

Alas, being at your desk implies that you are available for work. More often than not when I’m chewing away while going through my emails someone, either a student or a colleague, will knock on my door and demand that I drop my lunch to attend to whatever problem they are presenting me with.

You could argue that I should just not let them in. But our office doors have little windows we are not allowed to cover, in case there’s a fire and the fire warden needs to check if we are in. (I suspect the window is also there to monitor more sinister goings on, but let’s stick with the fire story for now.) (more…)

Wolfenbüttel – where Jägermeister and scholarship meet

Posted in Academia, Early Modern, History, Jobs and Fellowships by thehistorywoman on August 31, 2014
The eighteenth-century building of the Bibliotheca Augusta.

The eighteenth-century building of the Bibliotheca Augusta.

The little northern German town of Wolfenbüttel is known for two things: Jägermeister and the Herzog August Bibliothek or HAB. While the popular digestif is made with a large variety of herbs and spices, the HAB research library is the meeting place of a large variety of scholars from all around the world, who gather mainly over the summer months to enjoy a period of quiet research away from their Jägermeister-consuming students.

Home to about 1m items, including more than 400,000 imprints from the early modern period, the HAB is one of the largest research libraries of its kind in Germany and a first-class place to get some quiet writing done, while also meeting a lot of exciting people.

The is a link between Jägermeister and scholarship, but it's not what you think.

There is a link between Jägermeister and scholarship, but it’s not what you think.

With its well-preserved early modern architecture, quaint half-timbered houses and beautiful churches Wolfenbüttel offers an ideal environment for the (art) historians, literary scholars, musicologists and theologians who trail through the documents in the reading rooms of the famous Augusta or in the seventeenth-century ‘Zeughaus’ – a former armoury – next door.

The HAB research centre offers a number of prestigious fellowships for PhD students and post-doctoral researchers at all levels, enabling them to spend between one and six months away from their home institutions, while accommodation is provided in nearby guest houses. If you are lucky, you might even get the chance to stay in one of the visitors’ flats in the Lessinghaus, where the famous eighteenth-century librarian of the Augusta lived during his time in Wolfenbüttel.

The first time I had my daily coffee with the other fellows in the garden of the Anna Vorwerk-Haus (named after the nineteenth-century head of the local girls’ school) this summer I noticed that we were sitting under Jägermeister parasols. I thought this was a good joke, as the bright orange covers looked rather out of place in this scholarly environment, until one of the PhD students pointed out, that Jägermeister was made here in Wolfenbüttel.

The armoury turned research library.

The armoury turned research library.

As it happens, the local company had donated the parasols as well as supporting the work of the HAB in other ways. So we soon started joking that we should encourage our students to drink more Jägerbombs as they were indirectly supporting our research.

On the other hand, the parasols were a daily reminder for me that I yet had to prepare next semester’s teaching and that I had to read my research students’ draft chapters. Instead of letting me forget my students, the omnipresence of the stag on orange ground thus served as a constant reminder of my university duties, while I was away on research leave.

Having spent two happy months at the HAB this summer I now know (among many other things) that there is a link between Jägermeister and academic research after all. I will remember that next time I find myself in a pub with my students. Jägerbomb anyone?

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Laughing about Hitler

Posted in History, literature, Politics, Reviews, Twentieth Century by thehistorywoman on July 22, 2014

Look-Whos-BackIs it ok to laugh about Hitler? This seems to be the one big question critics have been asking themselves about Timor Vermes’s Look Who’s Back – a novel about Adolf Hitler waking up in 21st-century Berlin seeing a confusingly modern world through a Nazi lense.

Some teenage boys playing football on a field must be the Hitler Youth training, the large number of Turks in Berlin an indicator that they did support Germany in World War II after all. But Hitler is also impressed by the clever demagogy of the German Bild newspaper with its many pictures and extra large type, regretting that ‘the zealous Goebbels’ did not have that idea first, or the Nazis would have found ‘much more enthusiasm’ for their ‘cause’ amongst the elderly population.

The sight of what they take to be a Hitler lookalike shocks many Germans in the book. Yet, none of them take him seriously. They all think he must be a method actor and comedian out to challenge and provoke the German public, testing the limits of freedom of speech. Instead of arresting him for war crimes, Hitler is thus given his own TV show, where he is allowed to do and say whatever he wants as long as he agrees that ‘the Jews are no laughing matter’. (more…)

Lies, secrets and death on the eve of the Glorious Revolution

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on July 10, 2014

The Bitter Trade 3D Front Right WebThe Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander is a historical novel set in the murky world of London’s coffee houses on the eve of the Glorious Revolution. The son of an English dissenter and a French Huguenot, its young redhead hero Calumny Spinks lives under the shadow of his father’s dark secret dating back to Oliver Cromwell’s time which takes his mother’s life and traps him in the poverty of the weaving milieu.

Yet, he is determined to escape his fate and make his way in the world in the newly emerging coffee trade, which is at times only fractionally above board. Along the way, he meets crooks and wise men and a range of strong women, who teach him a thing or two about life and love, and that hardly anyone is who they appear to be at first sight.

Torn between the scheming daughter of a wealthy coffee trader, a popish seamstress and the waitress of a coffee house, who all carry their own secrets, Calumny stumbles from one adventure to the next as he uses his wit and ability to imitate voices to climb up the social ladder.

Calumny Spinks, telling name and all, is an old-fashioned hero, his first-person narrative of the chancer in dire straits reminding the reader of the picaresque novel of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Yet, Alexander wears his history lightly. (more…)

Tracking down the regicides

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Republicanism, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on June 1, 2014

Kings_Revenge_ImageI don’t read much popular history, and that is probably a mistake. By ignoring countless works written for a mass audience I miss what attracts most people to my subject area: a good story that is actually true, or at least could be true, reconstructed from sources scattered all over the archives and joined by creative ingenuity.

With historical writing, the lines between fiction and non-fiction are frequently blurred. Academic historians tend to lay claim to objectivity by comparing countless sources and weighing up possibilities and arguments, while novelists might have invested a similar amount of time to research but openly admit that they made up the missing bits and, most importantly, the majority of the action and dialogue.

There is some consolation in the fact that for any number of bodice rippers there is probably one Wolf Hall or, an old favourite of mine, An Instance of the Fingerpost, while for any number of bad popular history books, there is one like The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History. Its authors Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, writers, filmmakers and journalists, have done an excellent job researching the fate of the regicides of Charles I, many of whom had to escape from the British Isles at the Restoration of the Stuarts. Some went to the colonies and others to Europe, while those who remained in the country had to keep their heads down or arrange themselves with the new authorities.

I’m not sure whether ‘manhunt’ really adequately describes the actions of the new Stuart government against the regicides, as Charles II did not in all cases explicitly sent out the bloodhounds. After all, he had promised to forgive and forget in his Declaration of Breda (1660). Most of his ‘agents’ were shady ‘volunteers’ who aimed for reward or attempted to prove their doubtful loyalty to the new regime, while orders to find and assassinate the exiles more often than not were given indirectly by those close to the King, such as his sister, the Duchess of Anjou, in France, or driven by a vengeful Parliament of angry Cavaliers.

Nevertheless, the book describes in much detail the actions of the regicides, the precariousness of their situation after the Restoration, the martyrdom of some and the constant fear of those who survived at home and abroad, knowing that an assassin might come for them any time. (more…)

Grumpy George and his family: The First Georgians at the Queen’s Gallery

Posted in Art, Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, History, Reviews by thehistorywoman on May 25, 2014
David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

The first Georgians must have been a grumpy lot. At least this is the impression visitors of the exhibition The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760 get. For all the publicity materials show a smiling David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel painted by William Hogarth, while none of the pictures of George I (1660-1727) currently displayed at the Queen’s Gallery were apparently friendly enough to make it onto the posters.

The oil painting of the king of Great Britain and Ireland, and elector of Hanover by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which greets viewers at the entrance of the gallery, looks rather stern and serious as if George was weighed down by his newly acquired role. The Act of Settlement (1701) had transferred the succession to the English throne to his mother, Sophia of Hanover as the next protestant in line. As she died shortly before Queen Anne, George had to uproot from his native Germany to take up his new responsibilities. Indeed he did not seem to have much to smile about.

Speaking little English and not exactly welcomed with open arms by his new subjects, he had arrived in Britain without his wife Sophia Dorothea, who had abandoned him and, as a punishment for her adultery with a Swedish count, was imprisoned in her native Celle. George I was also alienated from his eldest son, the future George II; and, of course, there was the Jacobite threat to consider.

King George I, from the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller. / Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

King George I, from the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller. / Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

The exhibition shows a deceptively harmonious-looking oil painting by Pierre Mignard of the alternative royal family of the Catholic James II around 1694, by now safely exiled to France. Yet, the Jacobite threat would persist, and uprisings, such as those of 1715 and 1745 would make the new Hanoverian dynasty feel uneasy on their throne. This is also documented through the many military maps displayed in the exhibition, some of them used by George II’s younger son William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721-65) on his campaign in the Scottish Highlands. Nevertheless, 300 years ago this Hanoverian dynasty began an unbroken line of succession to the present monarch Queen Elizabeth II.

There are more playful elements to the exhibition that reveal happier times and interesting personalities within the royal family. For instance, there is Queen Caroline’s Wunderkammer of small treasures, containing little hardstone carvings of the Tudors, or wax and ivory carvings of various family members alongside miniature paintings and enamels by the Dresden-born artist Christian Friedrich Zincke. In fact, there are many items in the exhibition that remind the viewer of the royal family’s German origins.

Apparently, the family had a particular liking for the work of Hans Holbein the Younger, and Queen Caroline discovered a complete set of his drawings, while one of the more famous items displayed in the exhibition is the oil portrait of Sir Henry Guildford (1489-1532), one of Henry VIII’s companions of his younger years.

There are also ornate items of furniture, gilded chairs and marble-topped side tables, as well as a silver dinner service, from which the family would eat English, German and French dishes. Alongside Meissen porcelain the viewer can also admire Chelsea plates with garden motives and a rather absurd-looking asparagus-shaped needle case.

Royal hobbies are reflected in the beautiful harpsichord next to a marble bust of Georg Friedrich Händel, while a number of sporting guns for game shooting reveal a taste for rather more bloody pursuits.

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The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, open until 12 October 2014.

 

English republicans on film in New Worlds

Posted in Early Modern, History, Republicanism, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on April 27, 2014

I never thought I would see Algernon Sidney on TV. Now I have – on the recent Channel 4 drama New Worlds, which looks at English radicalism during the Exclusion Crisis. He is cast as the grand old man of republicanism (Donald Sumpter, made to look much older than Sidney’s 60 years) who has survived Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration to pass on the torch of the “good old cause” to the next generation. “Let this hand be an enemy to tyrants”, says Abe Goffe (Jamie Dornan) to Ned Hawkins (Joe Dempsie), as they link theirs before the latter returns to right the wrongs in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the New World, while the former, the fictional son of the regicide William Goffe (James Cosmo), who died across the Atlantic, is determined to set an end to the Stuart monarchy in England.

The photogenic young cast of 'New Worlds' (from left: Alice Englert, Jamie Dornan, Freya Mavor, and Joe Dempsie)

The photogenic young cast of ‘New Worlds’ (from left: Alice Englert, Jamie Dornan, Freya Mavor, and Joe Dempsie)

The words written by Sidney into the visitors’ book at the University of Copenhagen in 1659, have become the motto of the new generation. Nevermind that he originally wrote them down in Latin, “manus haec inimica tyrannis”, they now stand for the young radicals’ hatred of monarchy (and would later become the official motto of the state of Massachusetts in the USA). Yet, Sidney himself has mellowed. When Abe goes to meet him for help and advice in episode three, Sidney is no longer keen to rid the world of all kings, he wants to subject them to parliamentary rule to avoid another Civil War.

So Sidney and Goffe get involved in the Rye House Plot to kill Charles II (Jeremy Northam) and his younger brother James, Duke of York (Samuel James), as they are travelling back from the races at Newmarket to replace the King with the Duke of Monmouth (Tom Payne) as a constitutional ruler. When the plot is foiled and discovered they are arrested at Sidney’s home and taken to the Tower. The papers seized from his desk, the manuscript of his Discourses Concerning Government (published posthumously in 1698) are used in evidence against him to prove his hatred of monarchy and murderous intentions. Thus he has to die the death of a traitor in episode four, swearing off violence before he departs from this world, while Ned smuggles his writings into Boston, from where they inspire a new generation of Americans hoping for indepndence from Britain.

While most critics found the much anticipated New Worlds badly written, soulless and disappointing as the sequel to the amazingly popular Devil’s Whore by the same creators Peter Flannery and Martine Brant, I was most interested in the historiographical aspects of the four-part series. The Whig myths around the regicides seem alive and well outside the world of academic history. William Goffe is confirmed as the Angel of Hadley, who defends the English settlers from an attack by Indians before jumping to his death, while Algernon Sidney is confirmed as the mellowed republican and respectable defender of constitutional monarchy, brought to the scaffold by a cruel and unjust government.

As a historian I was also somewhat disappointed that the creators of New Worlds found it necessary to introduce two very contrived love stories, between Abe Goffe and Beth Fanshawe (Freya Mavor) in England, and between Ned Hawkins and Hope Russell (Alice Englert) in the colonies, to get their audience interested in one of the most exciting periods of English history. While I enjoyed some of the period detail and was pleased to see that there are film-makers who share my passion for the seventeenth century, I nevertheless think that the original sources tell the most exciting stories, and that someone should be bold enough to produce a historical drama without artificial enhancements and changes to the original plot. Seventeenth-century history as reality TV, a documentary filmed as drama, now that would create truly new worlds.

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