Past Hands

…the feeling of the Guildhall, and of the tombs, and even of some of the manuscripts I look at, turned out to be a gregarious physicality. Eyebrows raised, lips pursed, they’re quite as curious about you as you are about them. The feeling you get is not quite time travel, but time evaporating. Not future shock, but past shock.

As I write, I’m preparing to return to Chicago from ten months of research in the United Kingdom. It’s been wonderful. But it has been, too, a period of aphysicality. The British don’t like physical contact; I have received very few hugs here; and I have taken a secret delight in the spasm of fear that grips British people when you put your hand up for a high five.

My work, too, has been more aphysical, more virtual, than I expected. I work on the history of reading. I focus on Renaissance English poetry, and, to consider how people living in the period read their favorite poems, I look at the documents in which these poems circulated: hand-written manuscripts. (It’s rather like trying to reconstruct the behavior of teenagers by listening to the mixtapes they make for each other.) This, naturally, involves a great deal of contact with the handwriting of historical personages, some of whom are or were relatively famous. But—perhaps because the medium is language—these personages tend to remain unreal, more like literary characters than living human beings, as I consider their tastes and habits, attempting to reconstruct small portions of their lives.

But certain moments rendered those people real to me, and surprisingly forcefully. Philosophers speak of the Augenblick, the blink of an eye in which everything changes. I wouldn’t claim profound philosophical significance for my individual experience, but that’s how these moments felt. And the embodiedness of the philosophical term was anything but coincidental.

Westminster Abbey attracts both tourists and tombs in droves, and picking your way through them can be difficult. The audio guide to the Abbey counterbalances this in that it’s narrated by Jeremy Irons, whose soothing disembodied voice guides you from point of interest to point of interest, assuring you that everything will be all right even as it enjoins that you keep moving.

I entered a side chapel in which, Jeremy Irons’s voice informed me, Mary, Queen of Scots was interred. What it did not tell me until I came upon the thing: this chapel also houses the monument to Margaret Douglas, who was, among other things, the grandmother of James I of England. She was, before giving birth to the boy who would be the father of James, a lady in Anne Boleyn’s court, and a savorer of lyric poetry: she seems to have been one of the main architects of a document that contains much poetry from the 1530s, the Devonshire Manuscript.

The Devonshire is also featured in one of my chapters. I’ve perused it thoroughly, and I’ve seen Margaret’s youthful handwriting, seen it commenting on poems, changing poems, transcribing poems. I have grown accustomed to her idiosyncratic use of a lower-case “y” as the first-person pronoun “I.”

But she wasn’t real to me until that moment, when I leaned forward to examine a physical object that proved she was. Not until I could reach out my hand and touch it. In that moment, the “y” became an “I.”

One of the other women involved in compiling the Devonshire Manuscript was Mary (Howard) Fitzroy, wife of the son of Henry VIII and sister of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. She became real to me in a similar way—bidden, but unexpected, like all friendly ghosts—in a small church in Suffolk, where she’s buried with her husband.

I was in the country with a couple of my British friends. We stopped in a small town to look in its church. We walked in, intrigued by the wooden ceiling and floor, so different from Westminster’s flying buttresses and gulfs of space. And there they were: Henry Fitzroy; Mary Fitzroy. The issue of Henry VIII and a woman who once touched pages I’ve touched, who used them to do mysterious things with poetry, things whose mystery I attempt to dispel.

Later, we were in Lavenham, another Suffolk town that used to be one of the richer places in England, the center of its wool trade. It sports a magnificent Tudor guildhall, a timber and plaster building sagging humorously and, in its way, beautifully. A friend took a picture with me in front of it.

In the picture, I just look like a tourist, standing and smiling in front of some piece of history to prove that I’d been there.

But actually, the feeling of the Guildhall, and of the tombs, and even of some of the manuscripts I look at, turned out to be a gregarious physicality. Eyebrows raised, lips pursed, they’re quite as curious about you as you are about them. The feeling you get is not quite time travel, but time evaporating. Not future shock, but past shock.

You think of Margaret writing the words “forget this” next to a poem she evidently didn’t like, her eyes straining in candlelight (for this poetry is a nocturnal activity). You think of Mary’s wedding, her becoming ersatz royalty; and you think of her effort, transcribing her brother’s poem into the Devonshire Manuscript. You think of hand cramps, feel memories of your own, learning cursive in third grade. And you think of your own body, occupying the spaces occupied by theirs; you think, perhaps at this moment I am breathing in particles of them. And you blink your eyes.

Sometimes I worry that this feeling compromises my ability to write good history, that I’ve been gulled into seeing things that aren’t there. But then I think: the art of writing history is the art of seeing the invisible against the visible, of jostling absences, of sharing bodyheat with ghosts, looking out over the Thames, which often froze over in the winters of the sixteenth century. Of breath hanging in the air. Of watching the English wobble on ice-skates, looping the “frost fairs,” the booths and animal pens and festival edifices that they constructed on the surface of the ice: wonderlands that, now, can’t exist except as imagined memories.




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