The History Woman's Blog

Love and Death in Dystopia

Posted in Dystopia, literature, Reviews by thehistorywoman on January 16, 2017

theheartgoeslastHow desperate do you have to be to sign up for a social experiment that promises you a comfortable life at the expense of your freedom?

Young couple Stan and Charmaine seem to have reached that point when their area in the North American Rust Belt is hit by mass unemployment, they are forced to sleep in their car, and their only regular treat is a breakfast of coffee and stale doughnuts.

Life in the twin town of Consilience/Positron promises the perfect solution for them: a job, a home, a meaningful life. The only catch is, once you’re in, you can’t ever leave.

Nevertheless, Stan and Charmaine seem to have few doubts. Or at least they are quick to ignore what niggles they might have. A nice meal at the restaurant and a pair of soft bath towels at the Harmony Hotel seem to seal the deal.

Life seems good at the beginning. Stan and Charmaine spend alternate months living together in their house in Consilience and working in the town, and the others separated from each other at Positron Prison.

And it’s the prison months that really mess with their brains. But the couple seem prepared to go to great lengths to preserve their sheltered and comfortable life, their illusion of being safe. And as they do, they cross lines they might never have touched before and test their relationship to the limits.

You can’t help but see numerous tributes to the great twentieth-century utopias/dystopias as you’re reading Margaret Atwood’s latest offering, The Heart Goes Last (2015). Consilience has something of the consumerist utopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), where the fulfilment of material needs becomes the focus of a society starved of love and real feelings, while the prison universe is more akin to life in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), where orders are given by talking heads on screens and asking questions is not encouraged. (more…)

Being a refugee

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, News, Political Thought, Republicanism, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on February 14, 2016
Shipwreck_IoP

Woodcut illustration from The Isle of Pines (1668).

It’s weird to be writing a book about English republican exiles in the seventeenth century while thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa make their way to Europe every day. I’ve been wondering a lot what it might feel like to be a refugee and if there are experiences that might link these two very disparate groups of migrants – or indeed migrants at all times, everywhere – such as feelings of displacement, isolation or fear.

One of the things that keeps coming back to me when I read about the present refugee crisis is a letter Algernon Sidney wrote to his father from Italy some 350 years ago, in which he describes his exile experience as that of ‘a broken Limbe of a Ship-wracked Faction’, while also often feeling ‘naked, alone, and without Help in the open Sea.’

The shipwreck metaphor

I think it’s the maritime metaphor that gets me. Even though Sidney was for the most part travelling on horseback over land, he decided to describe his exile situation through the metaphor of shipwreck. The republican faction that he was part of had failed to maintain its power base in England and was replaced by the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. It was shipwrecked and had to start all over again.

Shipwreck was a common metaphor used in England as a maritime country, part of an island surrounded by the sea. It had also been a common metaphor for the exiles of antiquity, who were part of a world of seafarers and adventurers.

Being at sea

It seems that ‘being at sea’ was one of the scariest experiences during times in which humans were much more exposed to the elements and regularly at their mercy, when every sea journey could end in death, and yet had to be undertaken for the purpose of trade, or warfare, or necessary overseas travel.

It is interesting too that Henry Neville in his exile dystopia The Isle of Pines uses the topic of shipwreck to start his narrative about the discovery of an unknown island that holds up a mirror to Restoration England. Here, shipwreck too is an end but also a new beginning and a call for the English republicans to reinvent themselves.

(more…)

Incredible universities

Posted in Academia, literature, Reviews by thehistorywoman on December 1, 2015

imageWhen I left my last academic job, a good friend and colleague gave me Ian McGuire’s campus novel Incredible Bodies, in case I would have any regrets. Like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, it’s a satirical novel about academic life and the dysfunctional characters that populate our universities and take themselves way too seriously, while pretending to shift the paradigms of this world with their research.

At the centre of the novel is Morris Gutman, a thirty-something over-worked and underpaid temporary lecturer in the English Lit department at the University of Coketown, who is still learning the ropes of the system while others are embarking on successful careers.

The aptly-named Gutman is a Candide-like character, who naively stumbles through the academic world thinking hard work, original ideas and compliance will eventually land him a permanent academic position. Alas, he soon comes to find out that it’s all about politics and whether or not certain people in power like you.

Only when an unfortunate car accident and a misunderstanding involving a challenging exchange student and a scheming colleague bring him closer to the centres of power, do his fortunes finally begin to change. (more…)

Distractions in the lab – and elsewhere in academia

Posted in Academia, Comment, literature, News by thehistorywoman on June 10, 2015
Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979) was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Physics at Cambridge.

Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979) was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Physics at Cambridge.

The comments made by the famous scientist and Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt at a recent conference in Korea show that sexism is alive and kicking in academia and elsewhere. Apparently, “three things happen when (women) are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” Wow!

As several people have pointed out, Hunt is married to fellow scientist Mary Collins. I don’t know whether they met in the lab or not (I’m sure the media will find out soon), but their mutual love for science clearly had something to do with it. So surely that’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless there are problems Hunt hasn’t told us about yet. However, there are many scholars of both genders who just work alongside each other in a team without any sparks flying that hinder their work. It’s just like the real world. So I don’t quite get what the problem is.

As for women crying at work, there’s a simple solution: don’t treat us like s*** and it ain’t gonna happen. Nobody cries for no reason at all. If you find a woman (or indeed a man) crying at work, something is seriously wrong. Either she has been dumped with so much to do (women are the donkeys at work and the safe pair of hands) that she is close to breakdown, or she feels powerless because someone offended or bullied her. If she was feeling happy and appreciated she would not cry. It’s as easy as that. (more…)

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The English Revolution and its Patriotic Exiles

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on December 27, 2014

Major caseDespite the plethora of literature that has been published on the English Revolution and Restoration over the years, the topic of exile during this most exciting period of British history remains an understudied area. There is still much unseen primary source material to be uncovered in European and North American archives and plenty of gaps in knowledge to be filled. With Writings of Exile in the English Revolution and Restoration Philip Major has taken the plunge and produced a fascinating yet somewhat disjointed book.

Tackling Edward Hyde as the ‘Case Study of a Royalist Exile’ the first chapter engages with ‘many of the key corollaries of dislocation and dispossession with which royalist exiles are habitually preoccupied’, including ‘the loss and reassertion of identity; displays of stoicism, patriotism, friendship and nostalgia’ and the ‘intense debate on the discernment of divine providence’. These are accessed through ‘a close reading of Hyde’s Contemplations and Reflections on the Psalms of David’ (27) begun during his first exile on Scilly, Jersey and elsewhere during the 1640s and 50s and completed during his second exile in Montpellier in the late 1660s and 70s.

Chapter 2 on ‘Ceremony and Grief in the Royalist Exile’ explores the reaction of royalists ‘to the death of fellow exiles, as well as friends and family left behind in England’ (67). Major highlights the extent to which the use of the Book of Common Prayer in burial rituals as well as other Episcopalian traditions gave displaced royalists a shared sense of identity, while deaths within the exile community also enhanced Prince Charles’s public role and helped to revive the patriarchal image of King Charles I, which after the regicide was transferred to his son.

Chapter 3 deals with ‘Royalist Internal Exile’, primarily focusing on the banishment of royalists from London and their confinement to the countryside where focus on friendship networks and shared value systems and traditions resonated with issues pertinent to external exiles.

In his final chapter, Major then turns to the regicide ‘William Goffe in New England’ after the Restoration, showing that some of the key themes of exile such as ‘the choice of the place of refuge; the symbolism of the journey into exile; the critical importance of correspondence; the influential, sustaining role of Christian … belief; … and the attitudes of the exile towards the homeland from which he has been displaced’ (139) were similar to those we find in Hyde. Intriguingly, Major also observes that we find parallels between Goffe’s and Hyde’s use of the Psalms and other Biblical texts in their exile writings revealing their shared Protestant experience. (more…)

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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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…)

‘The World is Our House’: A Midsummer’s Symposium of Jesuit Culture and Music, 1540-1700

Posted in Conferences, Early Modern, History, literature, Religion, Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on May 12, 2013

Swansea University and Hereford Cathedral are holding a Midsummer symposium on international Jesuit culture, 1540–1700. The event on 21 June celebrates the re-evaluation of the Cwm Jesuit Library, housed at Hereford Cathedral since 1679.

The library is the largest surviving seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary library in Britain. Scholars are currently analysing the library as part of a joint project between Swansea University and Hereford Cathedral, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The study day aims to place the library in its larger international context by exploring the rich and fascinating world of seventeenth-century Jesuit culture.

The symposium is to feature six speakers and an exhibition of early Jesuit books and music as well as other rare material, including the Hereford Mappa Mundi. There will also be an evening concert of early Jesuit music.

An agenda for the day as well as a booking form can be downloaded from the conference web page worldisourhouse.blogspot.com.

For queries, please contact the organisers, either via the conference web page, emailing library@herefordcathedral.org, or by calling 01432 374225/6.