Archive Fever

by Claire Scobie

biblioteca del museo británico de londresI’ve often found libraries sexy places to work; none more so than the British Library in London. As you walk up the marble steps, you feel the tension. Everyone is focused, everyone is busy. You can’t dawdle or daydream here. Inside the reading rooms the atmosphere is hushed. It’s this intensity, a combination of intellectual stimulation, furious study and a reverence – for books, for the written word – that fuels the headiness of the creative process.

During the four years working on The Pagoda Tree I spent many weeks there. My favourite place to write and read was in the cavernous rare books room. The library is home to some of the world’s most famous tomes including the original Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible. It also houses the India Office Records, the repository of all documentation of the East India Company.

Disappointingly I never had to wear white gloves as I leafed through eighteenth-century journals. But I did experience my first taste of ‘archive fever’. English novelist Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet, The Night Watchman) once described how her characters seem to ‘come out of the mist’ of the historical material once she’s done enough. But how much is enough? Kate Mosse (Labyrinth, Citadel) says she spends three-quarters of the time it takes her to write a novel doing the research. I knew that what I found in the British Library would only provide half my story.

On my second visit there I was figuring out my character, Thomas Pearce, who goes to India to make his fortune. I came across a reference of an anonymous diary, Mss Eur E292. Dated March to September 1773, the exact time that Thomas arrives in Madras, it was described as ‘in the form of letters addressed to Charles Maynard, 1st Viscount Maynard, of a voyage from Portsmouth to Madras on the East Indiaman Harcourt.’  An hour after ordering it, I picked up a heavy leather-bound book, velvety to touch. I carried it carefully to my desk. Inside, the thick yellowing paper was watermarked; the inked writing flowery and cursive.

Ross Gibson, professor of contemporary arts at Sydney University, describes how the moment you first approach a historical object, you need to be attentive to everything left behind, ‘to the drama, to the semantics and form.’ He encourages writers to wait for the artefact to tell you what it wants you to know. He says that some have a ‘sense of pulse and flare’ and as you work with them, there’s a moment of realisation. This is the essence of archive fever: when the past streams into the present. Something shifts, like a piercing through the fabric of time.

Unlike the majority of primary sources in the India Office Records, this text was anonymous. By knowing the recipient of the letters, though, I sensed traces of the author. I guessed him to be a well-educated clerk rather than a friend of Viscount Maynard. From his writing, the power balance was clearly favoured towards the viscount, most likely his patron.

As I read through, making notes as I went, my excitement grew. There were some apposite details and a baldness of language. ‘A crooked flagstaff; a parcel of black fellows; a repast of bacon and cabbage.’  Later on, he writes plaintively how ‘we had to wait while our Excellency put on a pair of breeches.’ I realised how time moved more slowly back then and this was important to understand my characters. God knows, it could take a year to reach India by ship.  And that’s if you arrived there at all.

Through these letters – sometimes banal, often prejudiced – I was entering into the same world as my character Thomas. I read quickly, wanting to find out what happened. And then, the story suddenly ended. Blank pages. The letters stop. What happened to the author: did he die, did he give up?

Over the months I went back to the manuscript, always looking for more traces. I tried to be alert to how it made me feel. Sometimes repulsed, other times moved. He was hemmed-in – by duty – and buttoned-up ­– by his masculinity. Yet his curiosity was endearing and some of that quality seeped into Thomas.

But that single anonymous text had a much deeper influence on my final story. I knew the author had a name, though he chose not to include it. For whatever reason, he named his patron over himself. This, I imagined, was deliberate.

In archival research, naming matters. It mattes a lot. From a colonial perspective, the deliberate un-naming of native peoples was a way to marginalise, dispossess, control and subjugate. According to the cultural theorist, Edward Said, naming and categorising was one way that the West controlled the East. This extended to keeping native women out of the official records.

I teased this idea out in my novel. It became a quiet theme and one that was important to me. Not only were Indian women rarely named in official records, they were unidentified in eighteenth-century paintings, which I often referred to in my research. And even when these women had long relationships with British men, the custom was for him to name himself and his children in the baptism register. The mother – usually a non-Christian – remained nameless. In a very small way, I wanted The Pagoda Tree to challenge this silence.

Now, two years after I’ve finished my novel and a year since its publication, I’m seeing how pivotal one artefact can be, how its influence bleeds into a story. The fact that Mss Eur E292 was anonymous meant it became a leveller. I could inject my character in there and it could respond without taking over. I only wish I could have worn white gloves as I turned its pages.

old papers and books on a wooden table

 Thanks to Rachel Morley at the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney for introducing me to the phenomenon of ‘archive fever’. Thanks, too, to the Centre for organising the Creative Ecologies Retreat in 2011 where I heard Ross Gibson talk.

Photos were taken from Fotolia. British Library (C) Jgz. Manuscript (C) ulkan.