What's all this then?


My name is Victoria Stiles and I'm an Early Career Historian currently doing whatever odd research / consulting / outreach / tutoring jobs come my way. I blog here about some of the interesting texts I've found.
My research focusses on books about Britain and the British Empire which were in circulation in Nazi Germany but you'll also find a smattering of school textbooks, witchcraft beliefs, bog drainage, bemused travellers and weird illustrations that caught my eye.
Translations from German are my own. Comments are currently unmoderated and are mostly spam for leather jackets anyway.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

I finished! So, er, what now?

This blog had to die for a while as I got stuck into the final write-up stage of the PhD and now that I've finished and the thesis has been examined and approved (woohoo!) I'm not sure what to do with it. I want to do... something different. It started as a way of motivating myself to make sense of odd sources I found at fleamarkets and so on, but I want to do more than contribute to the growing mountain of "content" and clickbait which does little more than say "look at this weird thing - isn't the past just soooo quirky".

I want to talk more about how sources can be manipulated and how we understand and work around the inevitable gaps in our evidence. I'd also like to talk about how we're increasingly coming to terms with gaps which were previously largely unacknowledged - the fact that there is such a lack of diversity in the most dominant voices, or the biases and assumptions that shape all accounts, primary and secondary.

I'm not sure yet how to achieve this in the short, nugget format of blog posts. I'm also frankly terrified of writing something that might come back to haunt me later on. While I'm fairly sure I've got the backbone to admit that I was wrong about something when presented with new information, I still want to make sure that everything I write has been thought through as best I can. Plus, now that I'm "done", I've got job-hunting, preparing things for publication, further job-hunting, additional research, figuring out which conferences I can afford to go to and yes more job-hunting to fill my time.

In short, goodness knows what will actually get done here but I'm going to have a proper crack at making it count.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Moritz visits the British Museum


Today is the 255th anniversary of the opening of the British Museum to the public. The first few decades of tours were not without their problems, and there's a great account available on their website of the mounting discontent at delays in getting tickets and at the lack of information available to the visitors being hurried through the collections.

Twenty-three years after it opened, German writer Karl Philipp Moritz gave this account of his visit:

I have had the happiness to become acquainted with the Rev. Mr. Woide; who, though well known all over Europe to be one of the most learned men of the age, is yet, if possible, less estimable for his learning than he is for his unaffected goodness of heart.  He holds a respectable office in the museum, and was obliging enough to procure me permission to see it, luckily the day before it was shut up.  In general you must give in your name a fortnight before you can he admitted.  But after all, I am sorry to say, it was the rooms, the glass cases, the shelves, or the repository for the books in the British Museum which I saw, and not the museum itself, we were hurried on so rapidly through the apartments.  The company, who saw it when and as I did, was various, and some of all sorts; some, I believe, of the very lowest classes of the people, of both sexes; for, as it is the property of the nation, every one has the same right (I use the term of the country) to see it that another has.  I had Mr. Wendeborn’s book in my pocket, and it, at least, enabled me to take a somewhat more particular notice of some of the principal things; such as the Egyptian mummy, a head of Homer, &c.  The rest of the company, observing that I had some assistance which they had not, soon gathered round me; I pointed out to them as we went along, from Mr. Wendeborn’s German book, what there was most worth seeing here.  The gentleman who conducted us took little pains to conceal the contempt which he felt for my communications when he found out that it was only a German description of the British Museum I had got.  The rapidly passing through this vast suite of rooms, in a space of time little, if at all, exceeding an hour, with leisure just to cast one poor longing look of astonishment on all these stupendous treasures of natural curiosities, antiquities, and literature, in the contemplation of which you could with pleasure spend years, and a whole life might be employed in the study of them - quite confuses, stuns, and overpowers one.  In some branches this collection is said to be far surpassed by some others; but taken altogether, and for size, it certainly is equalled by none.  The few foreign divines who travel through England generally desire to have the Alexandrian manuscript shewn them, in order to be convinced with their own eyes whether the passage, “These are the three that bear record, &c.,” is to be found there or not.
- Travels in England in 1782

And here's a picture of by far my favourite exhibit in the museum, Hans Schlottheim's mechanical galleon.


Sunday, 5 January 2014

Things I didn't know about Darwin


I've been reading The Voyage of the Beagle, the account of his travels which rightly brought Charles Darwin fame and praise as a writer as well as a naturalist. He wrote for a non-specialist readership, but it's still not exactly light reading. It has however given me a completely different view of a man whom I usually picture sitting quietly in a Victorian study, peering at fossils over his enormous white beard. All the passages below are from 1832, when the Beagle was surveying the Eastern coast of South America, and due to the way he groups his observations, the locations given aren't always related to the events. Here he is, in the fine tradition of English tourists, failing to master an important local skill:

Entry from July 26th, travelling inland from Maldonado, Uruguay
The main difficulty in using either lazo or bolas is to ride so well as to be able at full speed, and while suddenly turning about, to whirl them so steadily round the head, as to take aim: on foot any person would soon learn the art. One day, as I was amusing myself by galloping and whirling the balls round my head, by accident the free one struck a bush, and its revolving motion being thus destroyed, it immediately fell to the ground, and, like magic, caught one hind leg of my horse; the other ball was then jerked out of my hand, and the horse fairly secured. Luckily he was an old practised animal, and knew what it meant; otherwise he would probably have kicked till he had thrown himself down. The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried out that they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself.
As well as the fish-out-of-water humour, Darwin gives his readers an insight into the sheer joy of discovery.

Entry from April 19th
During the remainder of my stay at Rio, I resided in a cottage at Botofogo Bay. It was impossible to wish for anything more delightful than thus to spend some weeks in so magnificent a country. In England any person fond of natural history enjoys in his walks a great advantage, by always having something to attract his attention; but in these fertile climates, teeming with life, the attractions are so numerous, that he is scarcely able to walk at all.
[...]
Nature, in these climes, chooses her vocalists from more humble performers than in Europe. A small frog, of the genus Hyla, sits on a blade of grass about an inch above the surface of the water, and sends forth a pleasing chirp: when several are together they sing in harmony on different notes. I had some difficulty in catching a specimen of this frog. The genus Hyla has its toes terminated by small suckers; and I found this animal could crawl up a pane of glass, when placed absolutely perpendicular. Various cicidae and crickets, at the same time, keep up a ceaseless shrill cry, but which, softened by the distance, is not unpleasant. Every evening after dark this great concert commenced; and often have I sat listening to it, until my attention has been drawn away by some curious passing insect.
July 5th, travelling from Rio de Janeiro to Montevideo
As soon as we entered the estuary of the Plata, the weather was very unsettled. One dark night we were surrounded by numerous seals and penguins, which made such strange noises, that the officer on watch reported he could hear the cattle bellowing on shore. On a second night we witnessed a splendid scene of natural fireworks; the mast-head and yard-arm-ends shone with St. Elmo's light; and the form of the vane could almost be traced, as if it had been rubbed with phosphorus. The sea was so highly luminous, that the tracks of the penguins were marked by a fiery wake, and the darkness of the sky was momentarily illuminated by the most vivid lightning.
It isn't all pleasant reading, of course. His views on slavery are frustrating: humanity and self-awareness when describing personal interactions, but a general unwillingness to condemn the system.

April 13th, on an estate called Socego, Brazil
One morning I walked out an hour before daylight to admire the solemn stillness of the scene; at last, the silence was broken by the morning hymn, raised on high by the whole body of the blacks; and in this manner their daily work is generally begun. On such fazendas as these, I have no doubt the slaves pass happy and contented lives. On Saturday and Sunday they work for themselves, and in this fertile climate the labour of two days is sufficient to support a man and his family for the whole week.
April 14th, having travelled to "another estate on the Rio Macae"
While staying at this estate, I was very nearly being an eye-witness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this act. Indeed, I do not believe the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner. Yet I will pledge myself, that in humanity and good feeling he was superior to the common run of men. It may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit. I may mention one very trifling anecdote, which at the time struck me more forcibly than any story of cruelty. I was crossing a ferry with a negro, who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.
There's a useful-looking map of the voyage here.