I spent Thursday and Friday of this past week in Leeds (hence the late blog post - it was a long journey back!) at the ‘Birth: Personal stories to population policies’ conference. The full programme can be found here, and I also livetweeted most of the papers (alas, train trouble meant I missed the first session on the Friday) on the #histbirth hashtag. I’m not going to talk about every single paper as it would make for an insanely long blog post and you could just read my tweets, but I am going to blog here about my particular favourites. It was hard to choose as they were naturally all excellent and accomplished!
Every now and again, you come across an autobiographer or oral history interviewee you find objectionable to some extent or another. You’re happily reading or listening along and then BANG, they advocate a bizarre one-child policy in Britain, criticise the Church of England for having the gall to take the views of minorities into account (with the conjunctive use of the terms ‘gay marriage’ and ‘unnatural lives’), or say that women shouldn’t go out to work (all actual examples). You have to keep going, because you haven’t quite finished compiling their only-child experiences, but you’re less inclined to be sympathetic with them. You also have to keep an eye out for any unintentional bias you might use against them when you’re analysing and writing up.
I’m not one of those who are snobbish about historical novels. Au contraire, I admire anyone who can spin a believable yarn set in the past, and tend to ignore all but the most glaring of inaccuracies and anachronisms. After all, the historical novel is for entertainment, not a scholarly text to be scrutinised. The following are, in my view, the ‘best’ (by which I mean most entertaining and transporting) books of the genre that I’ve read.
Given that I’ve been reading the autobiographies of people worthy of note on ODNB, it’s unsurprising that quite a few of them went to boarding school. Despite growing up on Enid Blyton, I never really fancied the idea, put off by thoughts such as ‘but if you’re being picked on, you can’t get away!’ and ‘ugh, sharing a room and never being alone ever!’ With these ideas, I’m similar to some late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century only children, but not others.
I’m still ordering and reading autobiographies of only children by the pile. So far I’ve been through autobiographies by people born between 1850 and 1920ish, and I’m going up to 1945, so I’ve still got a little while to go. But autobiographies are commonly seen as a dubious historical source, not even worth bothering with. Here are some thoughts I’ve come up with over the course of my reading.
I’m coming to the end of a four-week trial of Nvivo. Having tested it out, with the help of Bazeley and Jackson’s guidebook, on my notes from early-twentieth century psychology/sociology articles about only children, I’m going to keep it for my oral history and autobiography work. This week’s blog is about my experiences of Nvivo, and using computers in my work in general.
Sometimes, you come across an autobiography that transports you to a closeted, miserable-sounding childhood, and you can’t help but feeling really sorry for the author. I’ve read more than thirty autobiographies of only children now, and while a lot of them described themselves as isolated, they at least seemed to have some companionship of their own age laid on sometimes. Scholar and author Joan Evans’ (b. 1893) descriptions of her childhood sounded a lot worse than most.
I confess - I’ve never read anything by Antonia White (b. 1899) or Dodie Smith (b. 1896). I really enjoyed reading their autobiographies though - very interesting, and more differences and similarities emerging between the experiences of different only children.
Autobiography-reading is chugging along nicely, and I should hopefully reach at least the statistically-okay number of thirty from people born in the nineteenth century (as opposed to people who actually write in the nineteenth century, as we’re talking people born after about 1850 here!). Physical illness seems to be a recurring theme, with 14/20 autobiographers so far talking about it in some form. This is interesting, partly from the contemporary/near-contemporary view that only children were less healthy, but also from the vague idea I’ve picked up regarding Victorian/Edwardian fetishisation of illness - I’ve done no reading whatsoever on the subject, but do wonder if illness is such a noticeable feature of autobiographies of those who had siblings, and whether those without siblings really were more fragile, had more anxious parents, or were onlies _because _their illnesses had put their parents off having further children.