* The following is a guest post by Sarah Bull, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University *
London. May 5, 1871. Great crowds gather on Holywell Street one Friday afternoon as more than 30 policemen prepare to raid shops reputed to deal in “obscene books, prints, photographs, and other things so vile they cannot for decency’s sake be described” (10).
The army of officers first enters a Mr. Tyler’s premises, at 31 Holywell Street. Tyler’s bookshop connects with several others via communicating doors, like those one might find between 21st century hotel rooms. Holywell Street booksellers are rumoured to use these doors to swindle their customers: they bind lurid divorce-court reports together and dress them up as spicier offerings, selling them “in sealed wrappers [with] questionable covers half exposed to view. When the cover is broken the witling who has made his purchase, and has found the book not what he thought, has no opportunity of quarrelling with the shopman who served him, as he generally passes through a private door into the next shop,” trading places with its proprietor (10).
Now, Tyler uses his private exit for another purpose—escape! He bolts through a series of communicating doors into a house on the Strand. Knowing that the police will not be far behind, he makes for a window and jumps forty feet down, down, down into the street. Severely injured, but with his sense of self-preservation intact, Tyler somehow, amazingly, succeeds in his break for freedom. Undeterred, the officers get on with the business of raiding, and carry “a fearful amount of obscenity” away from the crowd in Holywell street at the end of the day (10).
“Extraordinary Seizure in Holywell Street.”
Nottinghamshire Guardian 12 May 1871: 10.
Gale Newsvault. Accessed 8 February 2015
Anecdotes like this are the reason I’m an academic.
I’m not completely serious, of course. My research, which focuses on the publication of sexually explicit writing in Victorian Britain, is certainly motivated by my desire to understand how competing personal, economic, professional, moral and state interests have impacted how sexual knowledge circulates, and how our thinking about sexuality has changed over time as a result. I can’t deny, though, that much of the pleasure I derive from the research process is from the discovery of fragments of history like the one above—stories, images, moments that don’t necessarily push my research forward, but that do fascinate me, amuse me, or inspire me. I file these fragments away, in my memory and on my hard drive. I tell my friends about them incessantly, half-blind to the fact that some of my stories have fairly limited entertainment value to those working outside my research area.
I want to figure out what to do with these fragments beyond this exercise in continuous retelling.
If I’m lucky, they eventually illuminate some aspect of my research and find their way into my finished work as illustrative anecdotes, which rightly have a long and venerable history in academic discourse: as we all know, a well-chosen story or two can really drive a point home. In a recent public lecture, for example, Lynda Nead masterfully deploys an 1863 piece from the Penny Illustrated Paper, which recounts how women removed their voluminous crinolines and abandoned them in the streets to escape from thick crowds gathered in London to celebrate the Prince of Wales’s marriage, to introduce her argument that the so-called “crinoline cage” could act, by virtue of its sheer enormity, as a symbol of presence and power for Victorian women. But what of those intriguing stories, images, moments that we come across during the research process that never do fit neatly into a public lecture, an article, or a book chapter? What are we to do with the ‘leftovers’ that seem to be an inevitable by-product of performing research on a period that produced an ever-expanding mass of information and artefacts, a mass that can often feel excessive and unmanageable?
Many wonderful research projects are borne of, or are eventually enriched by, such research ‘leftovers’. A serendipitous discovery guides the focus of the next research project, or one scholar’s stray find—following the axiom that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure—turns out to be another scholar’s smoking gun. Given that we can’t study everything, though, it seems to me that these fragments more often serve as tools for engagement—with the nineteenth century, and with each other. In the classroom, tired students perk up in response to an anecdote about racy Victorian letters, or manage to make it past the halfway point in Bleak House having been promised an episode involving spontaneous human combustion. In the blogosphere, researchers engage with one another as a social community by discussing Victorian valentines and cookery, despite our diverse research interests. And although popular histories have long served to engage the general public with historical research, the sharing of historical tidbits over the internet has become a significant way in which the public engages with major humanities research initiatives. Witness one of the most shared of the 7,500+ letters digitized and transcribed by the Darwin Correspondence Project on Twitter, Charles Darwin’s amusingly bloodless pro/con list on the topic of marriage.
Despite the huge range of opportunities we now have to share our research with others, though, I remain uncertain about what, and how, and when to share, especially when my findings fall outside the bounds of my research projects and aren’t easy for me to put into context. I also wonder what uses, aside from engagement efforts and inspiration for new research projects, these orphan findings might serve. I’d love to know what counts as a research ‘leftover’ to you, if anything at all. Do you organize the findings that ‘don’t fit in’ to your academic work in some way? What do you do with them, and how do you choose which ‘leftover’ findings to do these things with? Has the explosion of the blogosphere and social media changed this?
And, is it excessively Victorian of me to try to find a purpose for something that provides so much pleasure?