Lists, researching, and writing

My posts on the dead cheese master may have made one thing about me as a researcher very clear: whenever I come across a list—of people, of things, of places—I am drawn to copy it. Last summer, as I started work on my project on Gatchina, I obviously copied down a fair number of lists, like those of the dead cheese master’s possessions that appear in several earlier posts. I did manage to stop myself from copying down every plant and tree in the gardens of Gatchina palace at the time Nicholas I inherited it from his mother, but there were many, many other lists that made it into my notes. There’s something about them that make places and people feel more known. Through them I see the sometimes unexpected variety of names that actually existed in a particular place (yesterday I found two Kleopatras and two Olimpiadas in early 19th century Vladimir province), or the foods bought for a noble family’s table (asparagus bought every day in May), or household goods left behind by a serf or a merchant (surprisingly long lists of icons).

I’m drawn to lists as I sit in the archives. As an academic writer, though, I always find them very difficult to use. I sometimes wonder if things would be different if I were writing different kinds of prose. One of the things that I particularly appreciated about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is the way she incorporates things like these sorts of documents into her narrative. It’s most explicit here, in a passage from Wolf Hall:

He rubs his eyes. Sifts his papers. What is this? A list. A meticulous clerk’s hand, legible but making scant sense.

Two carpets. One cut in pieces
7 sheets. 2 pillows. 1 bolster.
2 platters, 4 dishes, 2 saucers.
One small basin, weight 12lbs @ 4d the pound; my Lady Prioress has it, paid 4 shillings.

Mantel is completely right. Lists like these make scant sense. Or, rather, in one way they make completely literal sense: this is a list of things that were, that existed, at this point in time (always assuming the list maker was telling the truth, and not hiding a thing of greater value or inflating the cost of a small basin). That may explain the attraction of lists—they seem to be history in its purest form, a recovery of an actual lived past.

But that’s not quite enough, I think, to make sense of lists like these. Instead, such lists really bring home the fact that viewing the past as a mere collection of things and people that existed only gets you so far. Mantel shows this, with Thomas Cromwell making sense of the list:

He turns the paper over, trying to find its origin. He sees that he is looking at the inventory of Elizabeth Barton’s goods, left behind at her nunnery. All this is forfeit to the king, the personal property of a traitor: a piece of plank which serves as a table, three pillowcases, two candlesticks, a coat valued at five shillings. An old mantle has been given in charity to the youngest nun in her convent. Another nun, a Dame Alice, has received a bedcover.

He had said to More, prophecy didn’t make her rich. He makes a memorandum to himself: “Dame Elizabeth Barton to have money to fee the hangman.”

Here Cromwell, familiar with the context of this list, finds it easy to interpret: a meager set of possessions, all forfeit, leaving a woman with no resources to ensure a decent death. And it would seem that the novelist has more flexibility in using lists and documents like these—Mantel describes other lists, say of building materials, that give depth to her characters’ physical worlds. I’ll admit, though, that few of the lists that I’ve copied down have actually ended up in things I’ve written. I often can’t quite figure out how to talk about them, how to have them be more than just the lists themselves.

I’m writing about this right now because yesterday I came upon a list that I’d like to share, but I’m not entirely sure it will ever be part of even my larger work (or works) on Gatchina. It does, however, oddly fit into the recent turn this blog has taken. Here it is:

GARF f. 615, op. 1, d. 14, ll. 22-22ob.
July 24, 1915.
I have the honor to inform Your Excellency [M. V. Golenishcheva-Kutuzova], that in the 1914-1915 school year the students at the school I oversee [the Gatchina girls’ school] have completed the following work:

For the Gatchina Committee of the Red Cross they have sewn:
457 shirts
292 pairs of drawers
50 sheets
50 kerchiefs

At the request of the police chief during the weekly collection of linens:
42 warm vests
36 pairs of drawers

For the Zemstvo union … they have knitted:
93 pairs of stockings
79 scarves
58 pairs of wristlets
3 pairs of gloves
56 shirts
62 vests

At the request of the women’s circle of the 23rd artillery brigade they have sewn:
224 pairs of drawers
38 shirts

Donated by the staff of the school and by the students:
40 shirts
793 pouches

191 shirts
103 pairs of drawers
23 vests
43 stomach warmers
19 scarves
129 earmuffs
45 pairs of gloves
24 pairs of mittens
50 arshiny of cheesecloth and 14 bandages
1 funt of hygroscopic cotton batting
6 packs of paper
20 funts of shag tobacco
10 funts of baranki (hard baked dough rings)
3 bags of rusks
bags of candy and several packages with warm things and linens, newspapers, paper and so on

I find this list compelling. Another page in the file tells me that the school had 220 students in 1913. I wonder who made what. Did the smallest girls make pouches, simple and small to sew by hand? The knitter in mе wonders what pattern they used for the stockings and scarves, and nods knowingly at the fact that they produced relatively few pairs of gloves, with their tricky fingers. My eyebrow raises at the tobacco (makhorka)—surely that was appreciated by the troops, but who bought it? Surely not one of the girls at the school—a teacher? A caretaker?

I suppose, in the end, that is my problem with lists. They are compelling because they lead to so many more questions—and they are frustrating for exactly the same reason.

About Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History; Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)
This entry was posted in Imperial Russia, Research & Practice, World War I. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Lists, researching, and writing

  1. Alexander Martin says:

    Thank you for this post. I completely share your fascination with lists. Years ago, I read stacks of petition filed by Muscovites petitioning for government assistance to rebuild after the fire of 1812. Many contained detailed lists of household possessions, and I copied out a lot of them in full. I only ended up using a few in my published work, but it was fascinating to try to imagine these people’s lives based on the things they owned. I think you’re right, Alison, that fiction writers may be in a better position than historians to to grapple with the “recherche du temps perdu” element that draws us to these lists.

    • Alison Smith says:

      Thanks for your comment, Alex! Yes, I have moments when I think my fascination with lists is based in my childhood fascination with books like the Little House on the Prairie books, that had an ability to place you in a physical environment of the past. I also just came across this blog post via historiann, about making academic history more accessible, which seems relevant. It may be making too big a distinction between more popular history and academic history, but it strikes me as interesting to think about the fact that in academic history writing, we both find it hard to incorporate these kinds of materials that do the real work of immersing readers into an experience that this article and other tell us to do.

  2. Svetlana Rasmussen says:

    Thank you very much for this fascinating post. I am wondering if makhorka is actually samosad, something they grew in the garden. It is just a guess based on reading Kataev’s “Syn polka” a long time ago. After reading the blogpost you recommended I would put the challenge of the lists as a necessity to put together the story and the argument. Lists present a very basic story that a historian need not only to expand for the benefit of his or her lay readers, but also fit into a particular argument they are making for their professional audience.

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