Penny Summerfield is Emeritus Professor of Modern History at the University of Manchester and Honorary Vice-President of the Social History Society. To coincide with the publication of her new book, Histories of the Self: personal narratives and historical practice (published by Routledge on 12 July 2018), she’s been in conversation with the Social History Exchange editor, George Campbell Gosling.
Penny, this new book picks up on some of the themes around subjectivity in the study of History that you discussed in the plenary roundtable of the Social History Society conference back in 2016. These are obviously ideas you’ve been thinking about for some time. What inspired you to start exploring these issues and ultimately to write this book?
At Manchester Uni I taught a course, first to undergrads then to masters students, on personal testimony and historical research, which focused largely on theory. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. But the last time I taught it I realised that I should have done more on the ways that historians have actually used personal narratives in their published work. So I thought ‘well, I won’t be teaching the course again, but I could write a book!’
Historical research rarely unfolds as expected, so did the research for this book take you to any unexpected places?
It certainly did, in intellectual terms. A lot of my own work, using oral history as well as material from the Mass Observation Archive, has focused on the British home front in the Second World War. But, of course, historians have used personal narratives as sources for the history of a huge variety of times and places, so I had to read widely.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Reading histories focused on the personal that illuminate societies and cultures all over the world from the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries. It was also fascinating to scrutinise the ways historians put theory into practice in their work. So, for example, I enjoyed exploring how historians have used the idea that letters construct the self and the other, or that a memoir rethinks the past for the present, or that a diary works as a ‘technology of the self’, or that evasions and silences in oral history have meanings that can be understood.
What did you find hardest?
Probably being critical! I needed to bring out any inconsistencies or weaknesses in the historical work that I used as case studies, as well as making comparisons between different examples. My critiques are very respectful. I really admire the courage and adventurousness of historians who have taken the personal turn.
You’ve written quite a number of well-received and influential books and articles over the years. How does this book relate to that wider body of work?
I used oral history in several of my books (Out of the Cage, with Gail Braybon; Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives; and Contesting Home Defence, with Corinna Peniston-Bird). I was co-editor of Feminism and Autobiography (with Tess Cosslett and Celia Lury) and I’d written several articles on the theory and method of oral history. Writing Histories of the Self gave me a chance to reflect on those books and articles in the context of the trend towards the personal in history of which they are a part. It made me realise how significant the cultural turn, feminism, post-colonialism and psychoanalysis have been for historians’ engagement with subjectivity and the self in the past.
Did you approach writing this differently to those other books?
Yes, because it is largely historiographical rather than archive based. Sometimes I pined for the archive and I’m looking forward to getting back to it. But when research involves reading lots of books and articles and analysing the historical practice underpinning them, it makes it highly portable, so I could take it on holiday with me (although this could be a bit controversial with the family).
What are you working on next?
I’ve returned to the Second World War and I’m applying some of the ideas drawn from the book to primary sources that I haven’t used before. My idea is to show how using a variety of different approaches to personal narratives deepens and broadens our understanding of subjectivities in their historical contexts. But don’t forget that I’ve retired (from my academic job, if not from academic work). I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I like when I feel like it!