Friday, March 25, 2016

They're real people, you know...

by Jacqueline Reiter

I write about real people. I know, I know, every author writes about “real people”, in that fictional characters come alive on the page of the book they inhabit, but I write about real people, and for some reason I can't wrap my head around this. Why? I have no idea.

Technically I am no longer an author of fiction, although I'm not saying I won't go back to it when the opportunity occurs. My "work-in-progress" is not a novel but a biography, of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, elder brother of British prime minister William Pitt the Younger.

Real people

They are, obviously, real historical personages. If I hopped into my time machine and zoomed back to the year 1800, I might be able to meet them. They spoke words that were recorded by journalists and diarists; they wrote the letters I have read in the archives; they lived in houses I have visited. They went to sleep at night, got up in the mornings (... OK, more probably early afternoon, in the case of my boy Chatham), ate huge meals, wore sumptuous clothes, walked the streets of London, relieved themselves, caught the common cold, laughed, cried, and grieved, and lived.

I already know this because I've read about it, and yet there is still a sort of dislocation in my head that makes me unable to grasp the fact "my people" (as I modestly call them) were both real and human.

For example: a few months ago I made an accidental discovery (and I've already blogged about the possible existence of the Research Fairy, so won't go into that here). I found this record on the finds.org.uk site, dedicated to recording archaeological finds of historical significance in the UK.


Why did this find stagger me so much? Because this, dear reader, is the 2nd Earl of Chatham’s personal seal. The one he affixed to private correspondence. And it dropped from his watch fob, probably sometime between 1783 and 1790, while he was visiting his mother at her Somerset house of Burton Pynsent, where it was found in 2006 — not, alas, by me, although every time I’ve been back there I’ve kept my eyes peeled in case, you know, he did it twice.

Think about it. I knew Burton Pynsent belonged to the Pitt family; I knew the 2nd Lord Chatham would have gone there many times. But here is concrete evidence that he was there, in person: that he was capable of losing things, just like anybody else. I imagine he was pretty annoyed when he found out he had lost it, too. It’s like a glimpse into a timewarp, just a blink of a moment in which the walls of time and space come crashing down.

I’ve had the same feeling so many times while researching John Chatham in particular. I think it’s because he’s virtually invisible in the history books, so to find any evidence of his physical existence is doubly disorientating. Like while visiting his house at Abington Hall, near Cambridge, now the headquarters of The Welding Institute (TWI). The estate has changed almost beyond recognition, covered with prefab offices, storerooms and laboratories, but walking through it was like being haunted by the past.

There’s not much of “his” house left, but with assistance I was able to piece John’s Abington together. The house’s ground floor still has a flavour of John’s grand early-19th century reception rooms, and the outside still bears the peeling whitewash “inflicted on it by your boy” (as TWI's records officer informed me, accusingly).


Then there's the excitement of seeing "my boy's" name plastered across the top of the entrance to Casemates Square in Gibraltar. He was Governor from 1820-35.


Or finding this bookplate in Gibraltar's Garrison Library:


It's like reaching across the centuries and brushing Chatham's sleeve with my fingers. Never more than a glimpse, but still, definitely a frisson of connection.

Sometimes, such a frisson is accompanied by embarrassment. I am often reminded, while consulting the archives, that I am essentially reading someone’s private correspondence. I’m sure Pitt the Elder would be horrified to know I would read the following line, written to his wife, Lady Hester, shortly after she had given birth to their third child: “How I long, now that you are out of the straw, to have you in the fragrant grass?” (National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/5 f 205) The historian always has something of the voyeur in him or her, but I still won’t be getting that image out of my head any time soon.

So yes: real. Not real in my head, but real in the flesh, two hundred years ago. I’ve stood over the Pitt family vault in Westminster Abbey and tried to come to terms with the fact that the people I have read so much about are there beneath my feet. I can’t do it. I’ve touched things that belonged to them — I’ve seen John’s own miniature of his wife, eaten lunch with his cutlery, walked his estates, and I even have a letter he wrote hanging on my wall — but for some reason I can’t get over this barrier. I can’t comprehend that, even though they are "my people", they will never completely belong to me.
Surely I’m not the only one?

(Note: This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on my own blog.

All photographs by me)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jacqueline Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She is currently working on the first ever biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham. "The Late Lord" will be published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at http://alwayswantedtobeareiter.wordpress.com/, and can be found on Twitter as https://twitter.com/latelordchatham.

5 comments:

  1. Great post! I can completely understand the excitement of connecting to real people in the past.

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  2. Would a simple 'awesome' be acceptable ?

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  3. As part of a University biography course I did, I researched a local man whose diary was in the archives. I can still remember the delight I felt when I went to the church in the village where he'd lived and found a huge memorial which helpfully provided lots of details about his family. He became real for me at that point.

    I wonder whether your boy stays unreal to you because of the exalted circles in which he moved?

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    1. Interesting thought, but I'm not sure that's it. I can't really explain why, but I think it's because I get so caught up in the events and the milieu that when I find evidence that "my boy" was a real man, my brain just goes "bloop". It's as though my favourite fiction book suddenly sprang to life before my eyes. A great but disorientating feeling.

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  4. When you visit the places they lived and hold the objects they held, one's whole body, heart as well as mind is involved in the perceptions received; on both a conscious and subconscious level and in ways we cannot control, only experience. Much is "downloaded" that infuses us and it informs the writing later. There is more that connects us to them than keeps us apart. We are also human as they were and we feel the same sun and the same wind as they did.

    Learning of Earl of Chatham’s found personal seal was a mind blogging needle in a hay stack moment! Wow. Like getting a wish one would not even dare to make.


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