Confessions of an Archive Rat

I admit it: I am an archive rat. I just love to get into a hoard of letters, diaries and notebooks from the past, especially when I know that not too many other hands have touched the material before me! I love that there are now sites like Genealogy Bank that allow you to search through newspapers as well. In writing The Philosophical Breakfast Club, I was so fortunate to have at my disposal the vast archives of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and William Whewell, as well as numerous letters from Richard Jones (which are preserved in his best friend, Whewell’s, archive, which somehow seems fitting–even in death their papers are together).

Since publishing the book, I have been asked by a number of readers about the experience of reading so many letters of my protagonists. First, the practical details.

Most of the letters are in these archives: the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge; the British Library (in London); the Royal Society of London, and the Science Museum archives in Swindon (home of a railway museum and the largest UK outlet mall!). Once you have permission to visit these archives, you must request the bound volume (as in the Babbage collection at the BL) or the box of letters. The paper must be handled carefully, touching the ink as little as possible. The handwriting is very horrible–so hard to read. I rediscovered a passage recently from Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH where it is noted that it was the mark of a gentleman to NOT have the clear handwriting of a clerk! None of these four men could be accused of that. I usually need a magnifying lamp, especially with Whewell’s handwriting. When I am away from the letters for a while, the first day back is usually wasted, as I try just to get used to deciphering the handwriting again! But there is no substitute for holding and reading these letters–the men and their time just comes vividly to life in a way that mere digital transcriptions could never fully convey. I feel so fortunate to be able to have had that experience. It is almost as if I was able to eavesdrop on their conversations–and I hope that sense is conveyed to readers of the book.

Some people wonder whether it is really important to see the letters themselves, for instance if there are digital transcriptions. In the case of these four men, there are no complete transcriptions, but even if there were I would still have wanted to see the original letters. There are a few reasons for this.

First, I have caught errors in the transcriptions that do exist; this is not uncommonly the case with such bad handwriting! Second, the historian can learn, or at least make inferences from, certain physical features of a letter: how hard was the writing impressed into the paper at a given point (was someone angry, or at least emphatic?)? How many underscores are there below a word or phrase? What was added as an afterthought above or below a previously written line? Etc.

I can think of a couple of instances off the top of my head where seeing the physical condition of the letters was instructive. In one letter of the early letters between Whewell and a friend, letters in which they bantered rather boyishly about ladies, there is suddenly a paragraph that has been covered up with a dark paper and a glue so strong the paper would not budge (I only VERY gently tugged :). Given the previous paragraph, it is clear that the censored one is about a girl Whewell was involved with in some way. Whewell saved all or most of the letters written to him, even from his college days–so he must have felt it might one day be a collection others would want to see. Did HE, years later, censor this letter so that later prying eyes would not see, perhaps, how far his “flirtation” with Marianne had gone? Or did a surviving relative do so later, perhaps his niece, who also published some of the letters? To me, such details are the very stuff of history and biography.

I’m not saying that it is impossible to write good history without going through each and every bit of related correspondence in person. But when it can be done, it certainly, in my view, adds to the story the historian is able to tell.

Or maybe, it’s just that I am a real archive rat.
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