|Alan Hollinghurst - recreating historical disorientation?|
Photo by Nick Lansley
I’m on research leave this term, and spending a lot of time in the Bodleian reading a massive collection of Polish 16C political correspondence called the Acta Tomiciana.
The Stranger’s Child is, in many ways, like forging your way through new source material as a historian. When you’re first dropped in with the documents, up close with the fine grain of the evidence and beyond the reach of existing textbooks or earlier published research, you’re swimming in an alien world where a lot of things are totally baffling. I found this as a graduate student first dipping my toes into late medieval Polish letter collections, like the Akta Aleksandra. Who are the Nohalsky Tartars the Polish elites keep talking about, and how do they relate to the Crimean Tartars also mentioned? If a letter is written on the octave of the feast of St. Cyril, what exactly does that mean? With the Acta Tomiciana, there are now new questions: who is the humble Mr. R in Reading , and why do Polish bishops write to him so often? Who is the Cardinal of the Four Saints? Who exactly is encompassed by the troubling enigmatic but commonplace phrase ‘the enemies of Christ’? But gradually, as with Hollinghurst’s novel, you tune in. You work out who the dramatis personae are, their concerns of the moment, and roughly where the story is going. Both Hollinghurst and the Acta Tomiciana have been a sobering reminder to me that before you can say insightful or new things about the past, you first have to work out what an earth is going on at ground level. But what Hollinghurst has done very effectively, and what we as historians sometimes struggle to do because we have tuned into our sources too well, is to convey the disconcerting alienness and bracing otherness of (even the recent) past. Rome