August, 2019. I have my second cold this month; my daughter turned four; my uncle died. It’s my birthday on Friday, and I am very tired.
In October 1468, Thomas Stonor, a forty-four year old gentleman from Oxfordshire, wrote to his wife Jane:
My own good Jane, as heartily as I can I recommend me to you. Like you to know that my father is gone to God also: and the there was a soon departing: and my mother on Saturday by the morning, and my father on Monday by daybreak. … And good sweet lemman, be you merry and of good comfort for to comfort me when I come.
Here Thomas recorded the death of his stepfather and his mother within two days of one another. The letter recorded between the ellipsis is a distracted one, with news of his lawsuit against Richard Fortescue tangled together with requests for Jane to send him a horse and a request that Wickes (presumably a servant) bring him cash. In the letter he calls her his own Jane twice, his lemman – sweetheart – twice too.
We have fewer surviving letters from Thomas than to him, so it’s hard to say anything too confidently about his writing style: but to me this particular letter has a staccato sound even for the brisk letter-writers of the fifteenth-century gentry, with requests and observations slung together as they came to mind. But I think of how in times of grief or stress I’ve heard my own mouth tumble out words, often remembering a string of practical and mundane things that need to be done, and I wonder if that be merry and of good comfort was a plea made in hard straits, as Thomas doggedly ploughed through the business that took him to London all the while carrying a great hurt. My father is gone to God also: and my mother on Saturday.
I’ve thought about emotions and embodiment a good deal this summer, alongside other thoughts I’ve been having about how my own stories shape how I read history and how I write it. I read Vikki Turbine’s brilliant ‘First Generation Feminist? Auto-Ethnographic Reflections on Politicisation and Finding a Home within Feminism’ (available OA here), where she uses autoethnography to reflect on her own genealogy as a feminist as well as asking larger questions about feminism within the academy.
In writing this paper, I am not doing something ‘new’. Yet, it feels like a radical act. I am unwriting my ‘success’ as codified by a classed academia. I am making clear that my feminism is still from the gut, even if I now know how to render that recognisable. I am showing my privilege, but unmasking the precarities that co-exist. I have told you parts of my story. I am not asking you to believe it, but I am asking you to listen.
Listen. It’s hard to find a quiet moment in a busy academic life, which is why it took me a month to read Sarah Knott’s Mother: An Unconventional History. Not because it’s a difficult book, or a long one. Just because I had no immediate deadline to read it, and so I would pick it up when I had a moment, then put it down again. Up, down. Up, down. Knott records many such moments in her book, which is shaped around historical anecdote and personal reflections.
Passing the baby back and forth. Handing the baby over and walking away for the day, the night, the season. Receiving the baby. … The first time I handed the baby over for an hour he slid half-asleep into the sling. The soft purple fabric stretched across Gaury’s back. I adjusted a wrinkle. ‘You know exactly where we are if he’s unhappy when he wakes up!’ … We know Gaury through friends who are leaving town for the year. She is a student who needs the cash, a sister of older siblings, a baby lover, a half-stranger briskly made privy to my most intimate life. In 1960, the New York Times thought babysitters were for suburban couples to head out to the movies or bowling on a Saturday night. The term was then in common use and some three decades old. … Passing the baby back and forth has entailed kin and non-kin, lengths of time both short and long, mothering by other names.
The morning of my daughter’s fourth birthday party, I heard that my uncle was about to die. What to do? I did as most parents would do, I think: I put on the Elsa dress I’d bought for my daughter’s princess-themed party, put out the crown cake I’d made the day before, and got on with it. I wouldn’t have wanted to cancel; even if my daughter – who still has only a flimsy grasp of mortality – hadn’t been desperately disappointed, it felt better, in the end, to be surrounded by people, and to throw myself into the pleasant work of hosting, seeing my daughter go from friend-to-friend, relative-to-relative. Up, down, back and forth.
I woke in the night burning hot, and spent the next day in bed with a high temperature. Is it possible to grieve your way into a fever? It wouldn’t be the strangest thing my body has done. And, after all, we now know that it is possible to die of a broken heart. The history of the body still has so very much that needs to be written, and it is scholars like Turbine and Knott who are forging paths in how we approach it. I, too, will be making my own up-and-down journey in due course, in a new project that feels too nascent to be talked about widely yet. In terms of my own work, I have a queer superstition that, like announcing a pregnancy too early, discussing the earliest stages of new research is somehow bad luck. For now it sits in a few emails in my sent box, and a few files on my computer, and buried somewhere in my chest. All in good time.