* The following is a guest post by Sarah Bull, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University *

"Holywell Street and the Strand" from _London. Compiled And Engraved By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S. John Dower, 1866. Updated by Bacon to 1868. London: G.W Bacon & Co., 1868. Image courtesy of http://london1868.com/
“Holywell Street and the Strand” from London. Compiled And Engraved By Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. Revised And Corrected To The Present Time By John Dower, F.R.G.S. John Dower, 1866. Updated by Bacon to 1868. London: G.W Bacon & Co., 1868. Image courtesy of http://london1868.com/

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.

Holywell Street, Strand (Demolished 1901)." Frontispiece to _The Fascination of London: The Strand District_ by Sir Walter Besant and G.E. Mitton. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1903. Image courtesy of http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25508/25508-h/25508-h.htm
“Holywell Street, Strand (Demolished 1901).” Frontispiece to The Fascination of London: The Strand District by Sir Walter Besant and G.E. Mitton. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1903. Image courtesy of http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25508/25508-h/25508-h.htm

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?

3 thoughts on “The Leftovers; or, Anecdote and the Serious Academic

  1. Sarah, what a great post — thank you for guest-blogging with us! As someone whose research tends to develop out of the collecting and mulling-over of anecdotes, fragments, artifacts, and bright shiny objects, I appreciate the level of thought you’ve given here to what we might call “proto-evidence” or even “anti-evidence.” That is, we know there’s something worthwhile in, say, the Holywell Street story or some other fragment that becomes an interpretable text, but it hasn’t yet — and may never — become evidence *for* a larger argument. New Historicists writing about the early modern period traditionally began with an anecdote about something marginal or outré (historical records of 16th-century French hermaphrodites were good for a high-five from any nearby Foucaultian). But these writers inevitably led their readers from the outskirts of history back into the centre, typically by drawing a conclusion about the power dynamics of the English court. And yet, as you say, there’s value in the discoveries that don’t necessarily push our research forward, but still fascinate. Perhaps there’s even a unique value to fragments that can’t easily be assimilated into our research narratives, but spark our historical imaginations for reasons that are more instinctual than critical.

    To your question about what to do with these by-products of our research, for my part I tend to save these examples for teaching in the hope that my students will help me make sense of them (which they frequently do). I also hoard them up for blog posts and other occasional writing. For example, I just finished a draft for a short commissioned essay on old/new media, which discusses a Shakespeare facsimile made in the 1880s. I ran across the editor’s proof-copy, made for him by the printer to record his corrections, but was fascinated by the fact that this proof-copy was printed on re-used paper that must have been lying around the shop. A few leaves had images of the 1623 First Folio on one side, and a draft of an advertisement for “Herbert’s Pale Ales” on the other. Although this tells us nothing we don’t already know about the re-use of paper by Victorian printers — that is, it’s not evidence *for* an interpretive argument — I nonetheless enjoyed the accidental juxtaposition of high and low culture, and wanted to share it. In the essay, I’ve tried to turn this into a meditation on media archaeology, but perhaps that’s just repeating the New Historicist mistake of not letting fragments be fragments? In other words, I’m left with the same question as you.

    One last point — I also agree with your suggestion that what we’re discussing is “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.” Your description made me think of one of my favorite passages from Thomas Richards’s book The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (Verso, 1993): “These people were painfully aware of the gaps in their knowledge and did their best to fill them in. The filler they liked best was information. From all over the globe the British collected information about the countries they were adding to their map. They surveyed and they mapped. They took censuses, produced statistics. They made vast lists of birds” (p. 3). I wonder if our interest in research fragments and unassimilated by-products is an expression of the Victorian bird-listing instinct, or perhaps a challenge to it?

    Anyway, you’ve inspired me to plan a Floating Academy post on a fragment I found in the Alexander Graham Bell family archives: his father Alexander Melville Bell’s proposal to create a series of floating mid-Atlantic telegraph relay stations. I’ve never known what to do with it, but your post has given me some ideas — thanks!

  2. Alan, thank you for your wonderful response. I love your formulation of these kinds of fragments as proto- or anti-evidence — it really captures that sense that potential that they sometimes evoke, of connections that we aren’t yet able to (and might never) make. In the context of recent debates in Victorian Studies about what some have called scholarly antiquarianism, I think that (as you point out) this is an important function of these ‘strange’ or ‘random’ findings. Even if we don’t know what to do with them on their own, recognizing the breadth and depth of the unknown in that massive archive through their presence is useful. On reflection, that recognition seems to have spurred on experimentation with some interesting new research methods — distant reading, for example.

    That passage from Richards’ book is wonderful! A colleague asked me “why the Victorian period?” today, and I think I should have just quoted that passage back to him. That urge to amass that defined so much of the period is both inspiring and frustrating! I wonder how (or whether) Victorians themselves thought about discoveries that seemed to resist being filled in. I’m trying to finish an essay right now about Victorian bibliographers who attempted to unify seemingly unconnected materials into a single generic/cultural/historical category (they seem to have simply refused to entertain the notion of a fragment), but I have yet to see something like the reverse. Something to keep an eye out for!

    I’m so glad that you’ll be making a post on Bell’s proposal, and really look forward to reading it! Did he have any drawings made up of how this would work? If so, I’d sure love to see them…

    1. The essay you’re working on sounds really interesting, Sarah — my ears perked up at the word “bibliographers.” I’m guessing that you’re looking at people like Skeat and Furnivall, or perhaps others? In any case, I wonder if it might be helpful to look at how some of the New Bibliographers of the early twentieth century approached categorization, often in self-conscious opposition to their Victorian predecessors (though some, like A.W. Pollard, spanned both periods). One might expect New Bibliographers like W.W. Greg to be rigid positivists in their approach to categorization of cultural materials and the disciplines that study them, but I recently happened to be reading two of Greg’s addresses to the Bibliographical Society (“What is Bibliography?” from 1912 and “Bibliography—An Apologia” from 1932) and was struck by the inclusiveness of his thinking about materials worth studying, even in writings 20 years apart. That is, he imagined bibliography as a unified perspective that would encompass just about any period and form of textuality, though he’d probably have been as averse to letting fragments be fragments as the figures you mentioned. In any case, when critics today tell the story of modern textual theory, they too often stop short of the Victorians (often accepting the New Bibliographer’s assurances that they weren’t like the Victorians at all!), so I’m glad to hear you’re exploring that area.

      Thanks also for your encouragement about doing the Bell post. I might write it up and let Fiona post it if things get slow around the Floating Academy, though it’s hard to imagine that being necessary given the wealth of interesting posts lately!

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