Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Peter Carey and Making Plans

Inbetween marking HAT tests, doing admissions administration and teaching, I’m reading Parrot and Olivier in America, the new novel by the Australian master-novelist Peter Carey, which narrowly failed to win this year’s Man Booker Prize. All names have been changed, but it’s basically a fictional account of the French aristocrat Alexis de Toqueville’s journey to the USA, which inspired him to write the seminal Democracy in America (1835 & 1840).

Reading Parrot and Oliver has reminded me of something my friends who write/publish fiction talk about, and which the novelist Zadie Smith even lectured on last year – the fact that novelists construct their books in two radically different ways. Some plan everything out (plot etc.) meticulously beforehand; others (like Smith) literally just sit down and write and see what happens. I have a very strong hunch that Peter Carey falls into this latter category – the opening scenes in a Normandy post-revolutionary chateau, and in a radical printers’ workshop in the wilds of Dartmoor, are gripping, but I increasingly have the uncomfortable sense that Carey is improvising as he goes along, and losing momentum. It feels at the moment as if he and the reader are stuck in a lacklustre, early 19C New York, waiting for a plot to present itself.

The notion that one can just sit down and write a book, without planning, is absolutely horrifying to a history tutor. When undergraduates sheepishly admit that they didn’t write a detailed plan for their weekly 2,000 word essay, we given them solemn homilies on why this is a terribly Bad Idea. A historical monograph which had no plan would literally disintegrate somewhere after page 5, under the sheer weight of unstructured information, unconnected analyses, and the absence of a big picture. When writing my book (Church, State and Dynasty in Renaissance Poland, on a Polish royal cardinal who died in 1503), not only did every chapter have long typed-up plans & crammed A4 sheets of source references I was going to use, but there was even a pencil diagram showing how the argument of the book as a whole would interconnect. I mention that not as a good model (it's probably not!), but as an example of how meticulous/obsessive historians can be about planning. Evidently some writers find that Calliope and Erato, the wild muses of poetry, will carry you along headlong in creative inspiration; Clio, the muse of history, clearly needs a bit more help and mundane props like Plans.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Hold onto your HATs


My undergraduate and colleagues haven’t seen much of me this week, because I’ve been locked away in my room marking the History Admission Test (the HAT), which applicants sat in their schools at the start of the month.


Mi'kmaq woman, Nova Scotia, 1859
Photo by Paul-Emile Miot

This year the test paper had an eighteenth-century theme. The first question was (as usual) a comprehension exercise, in which candidates were presented with an extract from a historical monograph – a discussion of how social policy was made in Hanoverian England, through the interaction of Parliament, local officials and an emerging public sphere. This text, as it happens, was taken from a new book, Inferior Politics, written by my Somerville colleague Joanna Innes, so this year’s HAT has a distinctly Somervillian flavour. The second passage – where applicants must appraise a source – was an 18C French missionary’s account of a ceremony he witnessed among the Mi’kmaq Indians of eastern Canada. Its centrepiece is an arresting, bloodthirsty speech by an elder female of the tribe. Same period, but a world away from Jo’s polite, provincial lawmakers. (The HAT paper with mark scheme will in due course be published here: http://www.history.ox.ac.uk/prosundergrad/applying/hat_introduction.htm).


The HAT has quickly become something of an Oxford institution. Our current undergraduates remember the HAT papers they sat with a mixture of apparent affection and terror, and can still recall the fine details of the passages years later. It certainly seems a more imaginative, challenging and useful exercise than the old Oxford entrance exam which I sat in the 1990s, which was basically a mock (and surrogate) A-Level.

I’ve been marking the HAT for some six years now, and I’m always impressed by the rigour of the marking operation. The process is very much akin to the way we mark History Finals papers – dozens of Oxford tutors beavering away at their desks, working to strict deadlines with papers piled up in front of them, meticulous double-marking, and couriers on bicycles shipping batches of scripts between college lodges and the Faculty building (this week, in freezing fog). The candidates invest a huge amount of intellectual effort, time and emotional energy in sitting the HAT; it is only fair that we, as Oxford tutors, do the same when reading what they have written.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Humanities and the Prince

This week, I’ve been thinking (or maybe brooding) about the historical fortunes of the humanities. On Monday, I gave a lecture to Finalists on humanism in late 15th century Venice and Florence, on the intellectual movement which lay at the heart of the Renaissance. When talking about humanism, I’m always struck by the humanists’ audacious and massive success in convincing Europe’s ruling elites - princes, monarchs, popes and republicans – that the studia humanitatis, i.e. the study of ancient languages and literature, history, poetry, was the highest calling of mankind, one of the most useful things anyone could do with their lives and, above all, fantastically useful to the state. Princes rushed to employ humanists as ambassadors (because they were top notch public speakers) and in their chancelleries/government bureaucracy (because they wrote nicely). A humanist education very quickly became a mark of social prestige, a must-have career asset for any aspiring member of the European political or cultural elite; humanism took the world by storm.

The UK, in the autumn of 2010, presents a rather sad contrast to that glorious Renaissance moment, for anyone with any interest in the humanities. Although the details of the Comprehensive Spending Review’s 40% cut to the Higher Education teaching budget are still being thrashed out, government ministers have been saying for months that arts subjects are ‘non-priority’, and degrees in humanities possibly not worthy of any state support whatsoever. That’s quite a historical turn-about: the Medici in Renaissance Florence patronising humanism lavishly, Cameron-Clegg today publically washing their hands of the studia humanitatis altogether.

Obviously, somewhere along the line British humanities scholars have palpably failed to capture the imagination of government. I’ve recently had invitations to a lecture in Oxford and a conference at Birkbeck College, which have both explored the case for the public worth of studying literature, history, philosophy and languages (you can read about the London conference here: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/11/defending-the-humanities). As a community, we seem to be mobilising rather late. Renaissance scholars and politicians alike would be deeply perplexed at the notion that the studia humanitatis were of no value – they teach eloquence, critical thinking, and give a sense of perspective on human society, across time and space. But humanism was loved above all in Renaissance Italy by the liberty-loving, self-governing elites of republican city-states – because they believed that the ultimate point of a humanities education was to create active, reflective, intelligent citizens. They knew that democracy needed the humanities; our present masters think, instead, that the economy needs science.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Breughel for the People?

This week I was pleasantly surprised to receive in the post an A3 colour reproduction of The Road to Calvary (1602) by Peter Breughel the Younger (but just possibly by his much more famous dad). The Art Fund sent it as part of their current campaign to raise £2.7M, in order to keep the Brueghel on display in Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, and save it from auction and possible export. (You can see the picture here: www.artfund.org/procession).

The poster is arresting and rich in detail, if not exactly cheerful – there is an intricate seventeenth-century cityscape, a distant windmill, mounted soldiers with Habsburg standards marching Christ up to a very hilly Calvary, and scores of figures milling about. The accompanying letter from the director of the Art Fund points out that the precise meaning of much of this detail is controversial and slightly mysterious. Is it a commentary on the tensions in 17C Dutch society? An allegory of the Dutch Revolt against Habsburg rule? The letter then invites the reader/potential donor ‘to form your own [historical?] interpretation of the painting.’

I baulked slightly at this line, just as I was a rather thrown to be asked, in the Battle of Bosworth museum, for my personal opinion/judgement on the meaning of key archaeological artefacts recovered from the site. I myself have no killer insight into the Brueghel painting, but I did at first worry that the Art Fund invitation was a little silly – is the opinion of ‘everyman/woman’ really by implication as valid, or as useful, as that of an art historian who specialises in early modern Dutch art and has a formidable grasp of the context, genre and painterly oeuvre? But then I remembered what I say to the Somerville History Freshers when they arrive in Oxford (but not this year, because I’d lost my voice!) – don’t be afraid to challenge the historical experts you read, because as non-specialists you (potentially) bring a panoramic and fresh perspective, and can see things that a specialist who has spent 20 years immersed in their chosen field can perhaps no longer see. So, let’s wait and see if any of the Art Fund’s members come up with an iconoclastic, radical interpretation of Brueghel’s lively but gloomy panorama. In the meantime, I’m going to pin up the poster on the notice board outside my tutor room.