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

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Tuning In

Alan Hollinghurst - recreating historical disorientation?
Photo by Nick Lansley

I’ve recently been reminded of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, the Booker-longlisted novel which I read over summer. The novel consists of 4 parts, set in different decades spanning from 1914 to the present-day. It’s a memorable read because Hollinghurst rather mercilessly drops his reader straight into a suburban drawing room (1914?), say, or a country house weekend party (the 1920s?) and into his characters’ conversations – about music, Cabinet politicians, minor public figures, or the latest trends in interior design. Because Hollinghurst doesn’t actually give us dates, the reader is left to flounder around like a time-traveller, guessing from the small-talk which year or century they have landed in. And unsurprisingly, a lot of the initial conversation in those scenes makes no sense at all at first, because it concerns the minutiae of a particular historical moment, and you have no reference points to hold onto.

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. Reading 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 Rome, 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.

Monday, 7 November 2011


It is very sad to write for a second time in less than six months about the premature death of a member of the Oxford community. I was working in the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room (URR) this week, when I saw a notice announcing that one of the URR’s long-standing staff, Vera Ryhajlo, had died after a short battle with cancer.

I’ve been reading history books in the genteel surroundings of the URR – with its high ceilings, seventeenth-century friezes, walls lined with history journals – since I was an undergraduate, in the mid 1990s. As long as I can remember, Vera was there behind the Reserve Counter, jolly, larger than life, and always totally helpful and professional. If I had a complex photocopying order, involving dozens of forms and hundreds of pages of a nineteenth-century book, Vera would go patiently through the paperwork with me for half an hour, to ensure that the order was correct. Her laughter would carry through the reading room.

Historical research – as I’m being reminded this term, on sabbatical leave – is often a pretty lonely business, even in an apparently well peopled place like the URR. It’s just you, a stack of books and a clock, for months on end. For over 15 years, I’ve gone up the Reserve Counter, watched Vera hand over my books, and maybe come to her with a query if something went wrong with the electronic catalogue OLIS. It wasn’t until this week that I realised that, although my interactions with her were entirely about history books and often wordless, I find it hard to imagine the URR, my main research base throughout my career, without Vera. It reminded me, perhaps too late, that librarians humanise libraries (or dehumanise them in parts of the former Eastern bloc, but that’s another matter). I’ve sometimes written about communities here, but I had not realised until now that the URR is a community too – a community of people sitting silently at their desks, who by dint of the fact of being in a library don’t talk to each other, but a community nonetheless. It was a community which was made visible today, at Vera’s funeral at Saint Aloysius church in Oxford: academics, librarians, readers side by side in the pews. If you Google Vera’s name, you can see how many eminent historians and academics have fulsomely thanked her, and her colleagues David and Helen, in the prefaces to their books. In a community where books, and not speech, are the main method of interaction and communication, I hope that is an apt tribute.