My seminar yesterday considered the objective and subjective position of the historian. At the end of class I asked students to write down one question they thought was important to ask me to understand my identity as a historian. Most of the questions they asked focused on class and politics. But below also illustrates some really interesting/ thought-provoking questions, which really surprised me. For this reason I thought I would share my responses with you. This is because I think history is subjective. I’m no scientific historian. I really like meeting and getting to know other historians (probably explains why I like Twitter). When I was an undergraduate I loved reading the acknowledgement pages. Nowadays blogs allow us to fully discover the identity of the historian. This post is a nice way to introduce myself to you ‘dear reader’.
What social background/class do you come from?
Don’t be fooled by the accent or the double-barrelled name, I was brought up in what would be described as a working-class household. I have 1 mum, 2 dads, a twin sister and 3 brothers. Until my mother remarried I lived in a prefab council house. We fondly called this the ‘tin house’. It was painted blue! My mum was a housewife until I started at the village college, while my step-dad worked for British Rail maintaining the overhead lines. Similarly, my dad was a BT phone engineer. With my twin sister, I was the first generation to attend university. I went to the University of Manchester, which I loved. I see myself as a northerner rather than as a southerner. It must be been all the Northern Soul nights!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a large Cambridgeshire village called Sawston, famous for its leather tanneries, pubs and churches. My childhood made me realise that I am not a country bumpkin. I prefer the bright lights of cities.
And, how influential is your background and upbringing upon your writing and your research? Would you say that your interests in history and research are based on your background?
How I approach history is certainly informed my upbringing.
1.Religion: My interest in religion largely comes from my mother. We weren’t necessarily brought up in a religious house. We didn’t go to church. I count the number of times I went to church on one hand. I can, however, remember asking my mother when I was fairly young if she believed in God, to which she replied that she did. I asked her why she didn’t go to church then. Her response was that she didn’t need to go to church because she prayed when she did the washing up. I always found this really interesting. It must have stayed with me, because when I look at religion now I’m more interested in practical and personal expressions of faith. At the same time, I went to university the week after 9/11. I was struck by the discourses of religion and secularism. I wanted to explore and unpack these some more.
2.Home/ Material studies: I love being nosy and peering into people’s homes and I think this emerges from spending so much time with Granny Jones. I think she’s a wonderfully inspiring woman. I’ve dedicated my forthcoming edited collection to her because of the many weekends I spent with her and my sister looking at ornaments and other domestic objects from her childhood and marriage. I loved hearing their stories; where they were brought, how much they cost, who she got them from. My grandparents also had a splendid house and garden. Compared to our semi-attached, I was struck by their large Victorian house crammed with stuff and original features. I was mesmerised by the electronic servant bells which still worked.
3.Identity: My grandparents have always made me think about the complexity of class. My family has historically always moved between the working and middle classes. As a result of this I’ve always wondered about performance and identity. This interest largely emerged because I found it intriguing that my Liverpool grammar school educated granddad did not sound ‘scouse’ or really discuss his upbringing. Before WW2 he changed his accent and added his middle name ‘Matthew’ to our surname so he wasn’t just another ‘Jones’ in the Indian Armed Forces.
Do you believe the history you were interested in when you were younger is still relevant to your research today?
Not really. When I was younger I was really interested in Kings and Queens of England. I had two books that I memorised on this topic. Rather, I think university pushed me to consider more dynamic areas of history and to turn to people’s personal stories. I like thinking more about the everyday and the mundane rather than high history or politics now. I have, however, always been rooted in British history.
My passion for Victorian history only really emerged in my MA year when I took a theology module that looked at religion, feminism and imperialism. From there I decided to do a dissertation on Josephine Butler. Until then I was supposed to be writing a dissertation on women’s relationship to leisure in the 1950s-60s. I was, especially, interested in looking at how race informed women’s experiences of leisure with working-class women. You never know I might one day return to this area.
What race are you?
The box I tick on questionaries’ is ‘White- Other…European…’
What are your political beliefs?
I was taught that you should never talk politics or religion at the dinner table, which was probably a good thing in my household given that my step-dad was a Labour supporter and my mum largely Conservative. This did leave me with some very contradictory political opinions when I was younger. Safe to say, I am now a fully paid up member of the Labour Party, Guardian reader and a third-wave feminist.
Do you believe that looking at feminism in the past is becoming more prominent due to more open discussion on it?
I’m interested to see how feminism gets discussed in history in future years. Sadly, I don’t think that the study of feminism is all that prominent at the moment.
Do you remain in your ideological comfort zone when conducting your research?
I think it is hard to remain in your ideological comfort zone when you are conducting research, in part because you are reliant on your sources and what they say. In this way you can’t help but face things you dislike. For me, researching can be an emotive and physical experience. For instance, when I have to read nineteenth-century middle-class accounts on poverty, the poor or the working classes, I can tut and sigh rather loudly. If I am in my office alone I can exclaim ‘Bloody Hell!’ Some people in the past can be very smug and opinionated.
If we all have our biases, what would an example of one your biases be and how does it affect your work?
Another really interesting question.
I would like to think that I don’t have any prejudices. However, I do think that historians create specific research blindnesses. This is largely practical because there is only so much of the past you can research. But I also think that this is related to personal and cultural relationships the historian has with the past. For instance, I support Cannadine and Evan’s claim that the present informs our vision or understanding of the past and how history is a mirror reflecting both the past and the present to one another. On a personal level, I have specific research blindnesses. For instance, I’m not necessarily interested in organised sport or physical education. It’s unlikely that there will be a chapter in my book on football, gym classes or table tennis etc. But I’m not too worried about that as I have to leave something to a younger generation of historians, like yourself, to look at.
Do you think that you have to let go of your childhood prejudices?
Oooh, this is really thought provoking. I think it is hard to step away from what you’ve learnt and been taught from a younger age. However, I think you can develop and change your ideas and opinions. Being trained as a historian you can become more critical, which enables you to reflect on your own perceptions. For instance, my political leanings evolved when I met my university boyfriend, now my husband. He was – and still is- an armchair socialist.
Who was your biggest influence when you were studying history? What historian influenced your research?
I want to break these questions down a bit. On intellectual level I would have to say Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight (1992) was thought-provoking and changed how I thought history could be approached because it introduced me to a new type of history and embedded me more firmly into the cultural history camp.
My MA lecturers at University of Manchester were inspiring. Studying history never stops, even when you have a PhD. For me I continue to be inspired by people I have worked with and use for research purposes. Helen Rogers, Joanne Bailey, Alision Twells have offered interesting ways to think about and communicate history. Jane Hamlett, Amanda Vickery, and Deborah Cohen have recently piqued my interest in home studies. Leif Jerram, Martin Johnes and Mike Benbough-Jackson have been great ambassadors for making me think about teaching history.
Why did you choose to make the study of history your career?
I probably didn’t choose history, history chose me. What I mean by this is that I never intended to carry on studying history after my undergraduate degree but when I reached the third year I started to think that I wanted to do an MA. This was also helped by the fact that someone had written on a second year essay that I should think about doing an MA. I was hooked. My MA year still remains one of my favourite academic years.