Daily Archives: August 23, 2006

Some introductions

Some readers will have encountered me at Early Modern Notes, among other projects, although I’ve been having a blog sabbatical this summer. My break from blogging was partly due to major changes in my life and work since the beginning of this month. I’ve moved a couple of hundred miles (note to US readers: over here in Britain, that’s a long way) to take up a new post with some relevance to readers of this blog.

But let’s rewind a bit. For those who don’t know Early Modern Notes, I’m a social historian. (And I’m pretty useless on 18th-century literature, truth be told, unless it’s about criminals.) My research interests are 17th- and 18th-century crime in England and Wales, and I’ve spent a lot more time digging around in dusty legal archives than is healthy. You can find out more about all that here.

What makes us choose one path to follow in research rather than some other? I don’t really know. Mine started way back when I was a first-year undergraduate, and I read this book, and then this one. I blame almost everything on Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, although EP Thompson had quite a bit to do with my interest in the 18th century.

I’ve now spent several years seeking out the nearest British equivalents of the rich legal records that Ginzburg and Davis used so brilliantly to write about Italian and French heretics, impostors and murderers. I do number-crunching (at a fairly basic level) whenever it’s necessary, but my real interests lie in qualitative analysis, and in the stories told by people long ago to reconstruct and explain their experiences of the world and of often disturbing and traumatic events.

At the same time that I was embarking on this research as a PhD student, I also started another momentous journey: using the web space provided by my university, I set up a very basic website listing some links to interesting early modern stuff I’d found on the internet. I never expected it to turn into this, that’s for sure. And the experience doing that which I’ve built up over the last five or six years has undoubtedly contributed to where I am now.

Which brings us back to the present. I think that many of you will have encountered The Old Bailey Proceedings Online. My new job is as project manager for two new, related London history projects, based in Sheffield University’s Humanities Research Institute.

The “easy” (hollow laughs) one is for the Victorianists: we’re going to finish off the OBP job by digitising the final run of proceedings from 1834-1913 (under the title of Central Criminal Court proceedings) and integrating them into the existing site. This will create a major, fully searchable, digital primary source for London history, and particularly for the history of non-elite Londoners, running right through from the late 17th century into the early 20th century. You can get some sense of the possibilities from the OBP Blog Symposium of February 2006.

Compared to the 18th-century project, though, that really is the easy bit. Like many other digital primary sources, the OB/CCC proceedings are printed texts – relatively easy to read and transcribe, and to mark up for digitisation. What we’re doing next is much more ambitious and much more complex. Plebeian Lives and the Making of Modern London 1690-1800 will be “a comprehensive electronic edition of primary sources on criminal justice and the provision of poor relief and medical care in eighteenth-century London”.

We’re including a wide range of primary sources. Most of them are archival manuscript materials, including legal records such as coroners’ inquests; parish records (eg: pauper letters, vestry minute books); the records of Bridewell and Bethlem hospital; apprenticeship records; and more. Print sources, meanwhile, include Ordinary’s Accounts. Like the Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court databases, they’ll end up online: thousands of documents fully searchable, freely available to all internet users without any subscription barriers. What’s more, we hope to construct a search engine that will make it possible to simultaneously search a number of related online primary source resources alongside ours, including the OBP, and others at different sites such as British History Online.

Well, we hope. Every phase of the process is lengthy and complex. All those documents and texts must first of all be microfilmed, scanned, and ‘rekeyed’ (transcribed) before we can even begin to do anything with them: that part of it is outsourced, although we have to produce various documentation to guide the rekeyers. Then we have to mark the transcripts up in XML, another dull and painstaking task, which will be done by the HRI’s programmers and by several part-time, home-based workers who are starting this autumn.

Once the markup is done, the CCC project will be quite straightforward to finish off, since it will be essentially a matter of adding it to the existing OBP database and giving it a few tweaks. But for our 18th-century plebeians, our job will barely have begun.

The techie people have to create a powerful search engine that anyone can use fairly easily and, of course, we have to create a web site to present it. Even that’s just a beginning. Of course, we want to see many people with 18th-century interests, from genealogists to academics, using the Plebeian Lives database in their own ways. What we want to do with it is to analyse the data in order to “reconstruct how ‘ordinary’ Londoners interacted with various government and charitable institutions in the course of their daily lives”. We’ll be doing large scale quantitative analysis and record linkage (to find out, for example, patterns of relationships between claiming poor relief and ending up as a victim or perpetrator of crime). The technique of nominal record linkage has tended to be applied to small rural populations: the computer made record linkage practical in the first place, now the internet is making possible the extension of its methods to the teeming metropolis. On the other hand, where we can find enough information about individuals, we’ll trace their individual experiences and uses of the institutions available to them. I eventually get the fun job of writing short biographies to put on the website.

Stories! Did I mention that I like telling stories?!

Theories of the Novel

I’m gearing up to teach The British Novel to 1800 this fall (we’re on a quarter system and so don’t start back until after Labor Day), and I’ve been re-reading various histories/theories of the novel: Bakhtin, Watt, McKeon, Spencer, and Armstrong. After reading the introduction to McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel and then skimming some reviews of the book, many of which predict the “replacement” of Watt’s model by McKeon’s–an accurate prediction, at least to some extent–I wondered whether McKeon’s is still the dominant one. Is there a particular study of the novel that is especially convincing to you? Which model of the novel’s development do you present when you teach the novel?

Haywood’s Fantomina: The Ending?

Well, I was teaching Fantomina a few days ago in my grad novel class, and I realized that I was having trouble with (what I considered to be) one of the most interesting turns in that text, the ending.

We’d talked a little about the running comparison between F’s deceits and Haywood’s enterprise as a fiction-writer. For me, this becomes explicit in the crisis created by her pregnant fits in public, the naming of Beauplaisir as the father, and her mother asking her if she is finally telling the truth, or just offering her “a fictitious tale.”

Then we get this ending, which describes the resolution as if all the parties were waking up from a dream, when F finally tells the truth about herself and her adventures to her mother and Beauplaisir (interestingly, we don’t receive F’s own account of her adventures]:

Both [B and the Mother] sat for some Time in a profound Revery; till at length [the Mother] broke it first in these Words: Pardon, Sir, (said she,) the Trouble I have given you: I must confess it was with a Design to oblige you to repair the supposed Injury you had done this unfortunate Girl, by marrying her, but now I know not what to say: — The Blame is wholly her’s, and I have nothing to request further of you, than that you will not divulge the distracted Folly she has been guilty of. — He answered her in Terms perfectly polite; but made no Offer of that which, perhaps, she expected, though I could not, now inform’d of her Daughter’s Proceedings, demand. He assured her, however, that if she would commit the new-born Lady to his Care, he would discharge it faithfully. But neither of them would consent to that; and he took his Leave, full of Cogitations, more confus’d than ever he had known in his whole Life. He continued to visit there, to enquire after her Health every Day; but the old Lady perceiving there was nothing likely to ensue from these Civilities, but, perhaps, a Renewing of the Crime, she entreated him to refrain; and as soon as her Daughter was in a Condition, sent her to a Monastery in France, the Abbess of which had been her particular Friend. And thus ended an Intreague, which, considering the Time it lasted, was as full of Variety as any, perhaps, that many Ages has produced.

[from Jack Lynch’s etext]


This to me seems like a conscious unraveling of the retributive, didactic ending that readers apparently expect: even Austen’s Marianne has to pay for the rest of her life for her bad judgment about Willoughby. By contrast, Fantomina goes off stage, B never sees the “new-born Lady” again, and the mother arranges a convenient exit for her daughter that to me seems quite mild, at least compared to the fates of other coquets who get reformed or suffer the consequences. No death, no reformation, not even an affirmation of marriage or “realism” at the expense of her fantasy.

So what seemed to me really provocative, felt pretty flat in the room. Perhaps all this is too obvious to need reiteration. Anyone else taught this lately?