Dr Alice Violett
Book thoughts and PhD archive

#storypast, #transcribathon, and back to teaching

It’s been quite a busy week for me, not that I’m complaining. As well as having two new classes to teach, I joined in an online book group discussion and transcribed an early modern woman’s recipe book alongside 88 others, in my university and around the world.

The new Storying The Past virtual reading group had its first discussion on Tuesday, and we talked about HHhH, by Laurent Binet, about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by a Czech and a Slovak (who had been trained for it by their government-in-exile in Britain) in Prague in 1942. I quite liked this book; I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read it myself as I’m not really one for stories of war and ‘great men’, but that’s the beauty of book groups - you get to read something you otherwise wouldn’t.

What I particularly liked was what made it different from other historical novels - the ‘director’s commentary’ throughout, signposting the author’s motivations and struggles re: making up scenes to convey what happened, as well as documenting his visits to archives. One point of discussion was why Binet was so insistent that he was ‘compelled’ to tell the story. As far as I could tell, his family had instilled in him that these were national heroes - not a feeling I could relate to, so maybe that’s why it didn’t feel like a strong reason for me. I did cyncically suggest that by saying ‘this is a story that needs to be told’, he was enticing the reader to keep reading, and distinguishing himself from all the other books about the event. 

As for imagined scenes, when I read, for example, Philippa Gregory’s novels, I enjoy them, but the cynical historian in me does think ‘is that quite true?’, so I quite liked seeing the ‘bones’ of the story.  I liked the parts where he went to museums and archives, as it gave the novel a ‘detective work’ feel. A lot of us remarked that we could have done without his references to his various girlfriends though! 

Big questions of the discussion were ‘is it history?’, and ‘should historians use imagined scenes in their work?’ to which the answers seemed to be, respectively, ‘kind of’ and ‘maybe if they italicise them/signpost them as distinct from the research in some other way?’ Points were also raised about conventionality, and how, by being unconventional in his writing of a historical novel, Binet has actually been quite conventional in terms of history, both by putting perpetuating the old idea that history is cold, hard, facts, and being speculative and tentative, as historians are. 

Me being me, I also interpreted ‘conventionality’ as ‘war, politics, and great men’, but, readable as HHhH was, I think I’d have just preferred to read a book with more women in! Luckily, next month’s book, The Match Girl and the Heiress, by Seth Koven, looks much more my sort of thing, though alas I won’t be able to join in the discussion ‘live’ as I’m teaching when it’s on.

Another highlight of this week was transcribing Rebecca Winche’s recipe book, from the seventeenth century, as part of a twelve-hour transcribe-a-thon organised by the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective. The aim was to triple-key (i.e. have three different people transcribe each page for accurately) as many pages of the book as possible in the twelve-hour window, and between the 89 of us, we pretty much managed the whole thing.

As well as being a fun test of my transcription skills, I got some experience in using the Dromio transcribing platform - as you would expect, it’s not as easy as just typing in what was written in the book, you also have to take note of crossings-out and insertions and all sorts of things like that. The content of the recipe book itself was really interesting - I transcribed recipes for pancakes, mead and wine, as well as remedies for illnesses - I didn’t quite fancy treating my ‘sore throte’ by making a concoction which I then had to take three times a day by pricking myself with a bodkin, however!

Doing the transcribe-a-thon reminded me of how much I love and miss early modern history. Luckily, I get to teach it this term! I had my first two classes this week. Before the first one I was very, very nervous, and I had a crippling adrenaline comedown afterwards, and I was worried that that was going to happen every seminar. However, with the second group, probably because I knew by then that the material I had would fill the time slot, I was a bit more relaxed and actually managed to function afterwards.

I do think I’ll always worry more about that earlier group, in case I haven’t prepared enough material, or it’s not going to engage them, but I’ve seen my attitude shift from ‘oh God I have to teach why did I agree to this help help help’ to ‘it’s okay, I got this’. I haven’t been worrying so much about what the students think of me, or going back over seminars in my head as much (though, control freak I am, I still rehearse future ones in my head), so maybe I shouldn’t rule out some sort of teaching in my future career as ‘too exhausting’ after all.  Or perhaps I’m just getting more confident and used to it.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester - not just thinking up interesting things to do in the seminars, but I’ve also been enjoying the lectures and the reading - as I said, I’ve really missed early modern!