Inspiring History

Historians’ motivation for researching the subjects they are passionate about are varied. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve been able to acknowledge the roots of our interests, often so very personal, emotional, and subjective. Everything from family trips to castles, children’s television programmes, and major political events noticed in childhood push us to know more.

I’ve talked about one of the causes of my own love of history before. It is Ruth M. Arthur’s The Saracen Lamp (1970), which I read as a child. I remembered this in 2016 when writing an epilogue for Feeling Things, the wonderful volume on emotional objects edited by Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway, and Sarah Randle. I wanted to handle The Saracen Lamp as well as remember it, so I found one online and bought it. I sourced the copy that I recognised from childhood, the 1978 edition, and opening it prompted a sensory and emotional memory of being a child. It made me fall in love again with Margery Gill’s beautiful illustrations, magical line-drawings of medieval life.

My memories of this ‘magical’ artefact, helped me in my epilogue to reflect on the relationship between objects, emotions, and identity. As I noted in my chapter ‘Moving Objects: Emotional Transformation, Tangibility, and Time-Travel’: ‘In this book I see my love of gender and family history, and belief in the power of material culture’. I went on to talk about the ways Davis’ book inspired me as a historian in a short video made for Oxford Brookes Think Human Festival in 2018 as part of a series called ‘Books that made me’. I also wonder now if my choice of the name Gabriel for my son was influenced by the protagonist’s brother having that same name! But crucially, this childhood object was part of my thinking through how to situate the individual, idiosyncratic response to emotional objects within more general historical factors. As I observed

emotional autobiographies can be written to great effect not just about individuals, but also about families, communities, and nations, to offer new insights into societies across time and place. Perhaps what strikes me most about my egotistical game of ‘I have an object, therefore I am who I am’ is its cultural and historical specificity; it reveals a life in a precise time and place. Although yours and my emotional objects might differ, they will be composed of shared items and forms, for they are shaped in very similar ways which reveal societal and cultural rules.

Serendipitously, I discovered just recently that I can confidently stand by my proposal that we can read outwards from an individual’s emotional object to broader, historicisable shared influences. This is because Professor Jennifer Jones got in touch to let me know that she had read my chapter in Feeling Things. She was startled to see my reflections on Arthur’s book. She told me that as a girl living in Chicago in the early 1970s, she devoured every book Ruth M. Arthur wrote. But The Saracen Lamp was a special favorite. She explained:

The book was so special to me that when it came time to celebrate the summer that I finished writing my first book, Sexing la Mode: Gender, Fashion, and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France (2004), I bought a copy of The Saracen Lamp on eBay and spent an entire day luxuriating in the story. 

Jennifer’s copy of her book.

Jennifer’s book is a wonderful history of French fashion culture, which uses material culture to explore the gendering of modern commercial culture. My publications focus on the relationship between gender, emotions, and material culture. It cannot simply be an uncanny coincidence that both Jennifer and I read Ruth M. Arthur’s fiction as girls and that it inspired us both to study the history of gender, family, and objects? Clearly, we are products of our cultural time and place to the extent that we could respond similarly to the SAME emotional object. Interestingly, it also shows we are not prisoners of one cultural moment. For when I got my copy of The Saracen Lamp and read it avidly, I was more surprised by the aspects of it that I’d forgotten than those I’d remembered.

I had recalled well the beguilingly evocative descriptions of historical artefacts and place, especially clothing and buildings, and how the lamp was the device used to move the reader through different centuries, with a wonderful dash of the supernatural. Indeed Arthur’s books are described as ‘timeslip romances‘. What I’d forgotten was the exoticism of the figure of the Saracen, Yusuf/Joseph, ‘brave as a lion’, who once captured by a Crusader became the Count’s loyal servant. He was ‘a fine looking man, a little younger than my father’ (p. 10) says Melisande, the fourteen-year-old protagonist. Yusuf gives her the lamp he has crafted himself when she leaves southern France to be married to an English knight. This is secretly gifted because her father banished Yusuf a few months before. Melisande leaves with her prospective husband, bereft at leaving her family and the Saracen. It is only months later that she learns from her older brother that Joseph took his own life the day after her departure, and that he had been banished because he had wanted to marry Melisande. That’s an age gap that would not be presented romantically today, to say the least.

This book speaks to me of memories of my childhood, and evokes several times and places, real and imagined. I can see aspects of all this in the way I think about and write history. Are there more historians (perhaps only female ones?) who grew up in the ’70s-80s whose shared similar cultural and imaginative worlds shaped their research interests? As Jennifer asked:

I wonder how many other historians who focus on gender, family, and material culture were shaped by the magical worlds recreated by Ruth M. Arthur?!

If anyone reading this has similar experiences, drop a comment. I’d love to know more about emotional objects that shape lives.