I am unsure about this. What’s the point of investigating questions that can’t be answered? What purpose is there in the history of a household, perhaps or perhaps not typical of its time and place? ‘Perhaps’, ‘possibly’, ‘evidently’, do not make good history. Is there a chance of finding out anything substantial about this family’s reality? How did it sound, ten people in one small house, conversing in a dialect now difficult to recollect or fully understand? How did it smell – of bodies, coal, lamps, cooking, bathing, all in one room, with a damp cellar below and a lavatory right behind? What were the furnishings, the utensils, the bedding?
Time has not yet converted their world into something foreign, in the way that older centuries slip back into a mist. The preoccupations and beliefs of those times become increasingly hard for modern minds to tune into. But while life day-to-day is hard to summon up, and becomes more so as the decades roll along, the real test for history is to grasp at the things that were abstract: relationships, viewpoints, motivations, creeds. What was acceptable, and what not? What could be negotiated, what changed, and who was prepared to do it? These concerns seem more important than the matter of how many pots and pans in the Beever cupboard – if indeed there was a cupboard.
In fact in this case, there is information on some of these more nebulous points, so more to be deduced. The personal recollections make the task possible and promising. Edith wrote for her own granddaughter, as an act of love and remembrance. Edgar made long and jumbled notes in his old age, because he enjoyed the physical act of writing. He had aspired to clerical work, though his background forced him into a factory at the age of twelve. But he also wrote because he thought that recording these things was important. In later life he started to enquire about the extended family, and particularly his father’s relatives. The notes he made may have been for his benefit alone. The early experiences as oldest child had given him responsibility, shaping the direction of his beliefs and so of his entire life. He would probably not have thought of his diaries turning up in a trunk 30 years after his death, and being shared by others. Perhaps I see more importance in them than he ever did.
The work needs justification. Its subject matter is minute and in a way personal, and its significance is not clear. It will not fully satisfy; history doesn’t. It may never mean much on its own. But it’s something to keep hold of. The endeavour, the effort to pin down experiences from the past, I think empowers us to imagine the future.
23 August 2016