The shock of the familiar

A couple of weeks ago, after a night at Harpenden House, husband and I decided to visit Hertingfordbury; my MA dissertation was on the family of Judith Cowper, whose family seat was Hertingfordbury Park, and we took a sneaky peek at the house (it’s privately owned and down a long drive, so we tried to blend into the scenery). On the way we were near Stevenage Old Town, where I was born, so we decided to try to find the street I lived in. Determined to get there from memory rather than via satnav, I was temporarily diverted by the fact they’ve built a dual carriageway across the road I used to walk down to get to the High Street, but we finally found it, Orchard Crescent. I remembered the number but when I saw the house was disappointed that it meant absolutely nothing, didn’t stir any memories at all. We drove to the end of the road, turned round, and stopped outside no. 26 on the way back. Looking back to the main road it was then it hit me, an almost physical jolt of memory – I was 10 years old again, walking down the road and round the sweep of the bend that I could see in front of me.

To me, one aim of good history writing must be to evoke that kind of response in our readers, helping them identify with the people of the past and exploring the universality of human experience across both time and space. You can’t experience my memories directly, but if I describe them in the right way I can enable you to feel as if you are and to recognise parallels in your own life. Similarly, when I write about my research, I need to find a way of conveying what one might call the shock of the familiar. Despite a distance of hundreds of years, so often little has really changed.

For example, when I read from an eighteenth-century husband ‘PS Every letter has promised me to fly to your lips in the shape of a kiss’ it makes me think of phrases like ‘sealed with a loving kiss’ (or even SWALK!). When I read in a letter from a new bride to her mother:

I wait with the utmost impatience till you give me notice of your paying me a visit at Hertingfordbury, yet methinks I still wish to defer that pleasure till I am perfectly settled in my belov’d Dwelling; at present I am far from it & cannot expect to be able to receive you as I ought till Mrs C gone, & I am realy mistress of my own house… we laugh, sing, have musick, walking, punning, and content from morning till night. Mrs C & I have much discourse, and seeming satisfaction on both sides…

the tension between her and her mother-in-law is evident and timeless. Familiar also is the type of gossipy information in letters between mother and daughter, today more likely to be exchanged over the phone:

As to the head dress, it appears in so many various forms tis hard to say what is the fashionable standard – numbers wear their hair very well toopee’d & braded up behind & no cap at all, & everybody that wears any wears very small ones, egretts almost always worn of various fashion & colours…

I have not seen Madm Maintenons letters, but shall take thee first opportunity to read them that I may find out what the world has mistaken as to her character – should be glad in your next of your oppinion…

As you ask me what sugar I give Betty, such as is commonly call’d breakfast lump, all the other servants use our own brown, which is purer sugar then any we buy, & I never use any other for apple pyes, tarts, or anything of that kind, unless on some very particular occasion, I realy then I cant say there is any material difference in any respect – as to Lisbon sugar I never use it, it is a very strong ill-sifted sugar.

And which flouncing diva hasn’t felt like this at the actions of an apparently fickle admirer:

How is it possible for me to fancy you as sencire as I would have you, when an opera, nay one you did not like, could make you leave me? I would not say thus much before you went, because you would then certainly have paid me the complement of staying… Judge then how I can bear to be neglected – I would not have left you – Pope might have talk’d, or Guzzoni sung in vain… I have not seen a human creature since you left me – I have had time for reflection – have you any notion of the pain of doubt? If you have, you may perhaps imagin part of what this melancholy evening gave me… you may perhaps, wish to see me soon – when I may be engag’d – it may be in the vast affair of divertion… Tis now near ten a clock – I shall not sleep to night – write to me in the morning & let me know whether you continue to love me or not.

Don’t you just love it? Translation (probably in a series of text messages): ‘Obviously you found something far more important to do than be with me. How could you do this to me? Next time you want to see me I’m going to be busy enjoying myself. Don’t you love me any more?’ Followed by swift change of Facebook status to ‘I was sooo wrong about you’.

Reading the author notes to Wolf Hall, I was struck by Hilary Mantel’s observation that she’d chosen to write in the present tense because then she was deprived of hindsight, like her characters. As historians we don’t have the same liberties that novelists do – and we also want to try to join the dots, make the connections, set everything in context, use our hindsight to highlight what we’ve learnt. Maybe sometimes we need to stand back a bit more, let the sources speak for themselves and bring the past to life.

Quotes from Papers of the Madan family, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. lett. c.284: 26, 1723; 42, April 30th 1724; MS Eng. lett. d.268: 17, 1750; MS Eng. lett. d.286: 21, January 16th 1752; 25, April 1st 1752.

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