Updated: Nov 27, 2020
For this very first post, I want to start at the beginning. For me, the beginning is Curley’s Wife from Of Mice and Men. It’s 2001-ish and I’m in GCSE English. Okay, so Curley’s Wife isn’t technically a real person, but it was her depiction in the novella that first sparked my interest in gender. It wasn’t just about women in the past, but about women now. It got me thinking about how things have changed and, more importantly, how they’ve stayed the same. You might say Curley’s Wife was my introduction to patriarchy.
Having done some digging into Steinbeck’s life, I couldn’t pinpoint any one woman on whom Curley’s Wife might be based. But, thinking critically for a minute, it wasn’t so much her story that struck me, it was the fact that almost everything we learn about her comes from the perspective of the other (male) characters in the story. It’s not until that tragic scene in the barn that Steinbeck gives her a voice and we see her for who she really is.
If, like me, you’re interested in the history of ordinary, everyday people, then studying the past isn’t that different to reading Of Mice and Men. Your starting point is silence and, for the most part, evolves into sifting through the perspectives of others. When I wrote the story of Christiana Edmunds, I had mountains of paperwork around me. Court reports, census data, editorials, mental health records. But these thousands of words came from spectators and witnesses, not from Christiana. Honestly, if I were to separate what Christiana said from this mass of material, I could have fit her words in their entirety on the single side of a post-it note.
The point is, I saw Christiana through a white, male (and predominantly) middle-class lens, just as I had seen Curley’s Wife. The problem with this lens is that when that person breaks free – if only for a second – she tells a very different story. Curley’s Wife isn’t a slut or a floozy; she’s a failed actress, now trapped in a loveless marriage. Christiana isn’t a bloodthirsty killer; she’s driven by a pathological need for acceptance and attention. (Of course, I’m not excusing or condoning her crimes).
So, isn’t it about time that we smashed that lens into a million pieces and replaced it with one that’s bigger and more inclusive? I think it is. And I’m not the only one who shares this view. I saw this happen back in June when Black Lives Matter supporters tore down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. As Colston disappeared under the murky waters of the harbour, that lens went with him. Now, Bristol has the opportunity to reassess its history and make space for those once-silent voices. L. P Hartley once said that the past is a foreign country where people do things differently. But if anything proves that the past and the present are not mutually exclusive, it’s Black Lives Matter. Only when we start widening that lens on our national past will we start building an equal future.
This is exactly what I’m trying to do with The Herstorian. Inspired by recent movements, like Black Lives Matter, my classroom experiences and my own historical journey, I want to dig up the forgotten stories and cast that new lens on old ones. I don’t always know how to do it and I don’t always get it right, but I’d love it if you came along for the ride.
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