Thursday, 25 August 2011
A day in the archives
Today I had probably the most exciting day of my DPhil research so far - and, bear in mind when you read the rest of this post, I'm not being sarcastic. When I tell you that I was off on a research trip to Wiltshire & Swindon Record Office (rather than other research destinations I've heard of friends visiting - New York, Paris etc.) you might think that I'm rather overstating the case. But, in all honesty, today was one of those days that makes me realise that I'm not the world's least suited person to be doing a doctorate. For today I got my hands on Edith Olivier's papers.
I started off going to Chippenham Train Station - from which the record office is about three minutes' walk. I wondered why the website said it was ten minutes away, until I saw the average age of the people using the archives reading room - quite a few over 70s researching their families and, in the case of the lady behind me, the history of her house. An archives reading room, incidentally, is a great place for eavesdropping. Just so you know.
Back to Edith Olivier. An easy way to write original work is to choose a topic not many people care about. Scholars have not fought over who gets to look at Olivier's diaries and letters - although a sort of biography/selected letters was written by Penelope Middelboe, picking most of the choicest bits. But I still had a wonderful time working out Olivier's handwriting (she does the most peculiar things with 'p's and capital 'A's) and slowly reading her diaries. A couple of eureka moments - when I found that she had attended a party with Sylvia Townsend Warner, for instance, or her thoughts on To The Lighthouse ('far too highbrow for me as a whole. She demands too much of the reader – who has to make his own unity.’) I snapped away with my new camera - I mentioned in the comments the other day that I opted for a blue Canon PowerShot A3200 in the end; thanks again for all your advice. I signed something saying I wouldn't publish the photographs I took, sadly, but I have included a tiny snippet of the page on which Olivier records that Martin Secker had accepted The Love-Child (her first novel) for publication: 'A Great Day'.
I'll be going back on Friday, since I only read one folder of publishers' letters and three months' worth of diary (out of about forty years... hmm) and I want to take a moment to say thank you to all the staff at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. As most of you know, I work for the Bodleian. Whenever people tell me "This is my first time" my heart melts a bit, and I go out of my way to help them - and so I trotted out this line to everyone I encountered. I troubled four separate people, from receptionist to help desk to archivist - and they were unfailingly helpful and incredibly friendly. I was so impressed - not a smidgen of grumpiness with my ignorance and helplessness! There's not much of a chance that they'll spot this post - but if any of you do, thank you so much!