Caryn Radick 2016-07-11 12:30:54
I may have too many books, but do I have too few ideas? It’s only my second column about archives and fiction and I find myself talking about the same book I talked about in the first one! But this time I’ve gone past the book review and read the book, Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us. And at the risk of repeating myself, I thought the story itself worth examining. So, here goes . . . On reading The World Before Us, I couldn’t help thinking about how archivists are affected (burdened?) By the stories in their collections or by the people who wrote or are otherwise recorded in them. If the records present a mystery, is the archivist compelled to find the answer? Is it fair to say that archivists are haunted by the lives they encounter through their work? Jane Standen, the archivist at the center of Hunter’s story, certainly is. Literally. She has ghosts observing and trailing her. They need her to know their stories, to understand what really happened, because they themselves do not. It’s safe to say that Jane has faced some challenges. At 34, she is coming to the end of her first professional position—the museum she works at will soon be closing (funding cuts—that one rings true), its items being auctioned off or otherwise deaccessioned. While she is unaware of the ghosts around her, she is haunted by her past. When she was fifteen, she was watching a girl named Lily who disappeared during a trip to Yorkshire. Almost twenty years later, faced with the impending loss of her job and the prospect of seeing Lily’s father at a museum gala, Jane does something I’d call regrettable: she runs away, back to where Lily disappeared. Upon her arrival, she tries to solve another puzzle from her past—in studying asylum records while getting her archives and records management degree, Jane learned of another disappearance in the same area in 1877. The records of the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics in Yorkshire describe the disappearance of a young woman, referred to only as “the girl N—”. N was one of three people who escaped the asylum one day, walking to a local estate where she vanished. The other two were found and returned, but N seems to have left no trace. The identities of the ghosts are murky at first, but they are clearly invested in Jane’s research of Whitmore. Unaware of these companions, and with the constant memory of Lily, Jane becomes obsessed with finding N and embarks on a path of deception (well, she tells some pretty big fibs to more than one person) to access the records she needs. The “thrill of the chase” element to Jane’s search should be familiar to any archivist who has gotten a little too involved with a subject or a collection, not to mention the “it shouldn’t be there, but there it is” territoriality towards her subject. One of the best parts was in the acknowledgments, where Hunter explains that the escape of the three inmates from Whitmore was based on a real incident. Where in the book the inmates receive the hospitality of a local gentleman/botanist/explorer, in real life the surprised host was poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His letter to the asylum about the incident, held at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, served as an inspiration for The World Before Us. Is anyone out there keeping a list of items in archives that inspired books or movies? I think we should start. (I also think SAA should have an award for fiction based on archival research, but one thing at a time, right?) I made some remarks in the previous column about how Jane’s “sexual spree” with a 19-year-old was referred to as out of character for an archivist in a book review by Penelope Lively in The New York Times. As far as this hook-up goes, I kept waiting to see if perhaps Jane’s thoughts would include sentiments to the effect of “I’m an archivist, so no flings for me!” thinking that might have prompted Lively’s remark, but no. Jane’s just human, with needs and obsessions. Fittingly, these qualities make her a thorough researcher, which is exactly why the ghosts need her. Do you know of any authors who use or are inspired by archives in their books? Tell Caryn Radick at email@example.com.
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