Curiosity in the Archive

Dr Daphna Oren-Magidor

“Don’t you ask a lot of questions?” says Matthew Clairmont irritably to historian Diana Bishop in the recent TV adaptation of Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches.

“Hmm…” answers Bishop, with a barely-apologetic shrug. “It’s the historian in me.”

For historians – as for most scholars – questions are a fundamental tool. This is not a platitude. We’re encouraged to approach proposals and research projects with a clearly articulated question in mind, ideally one which is insightful, sophisticated, and in dialogue with the existing scholarship in the field.

But the truth is that not every research project starts with a smart, sophisticated question. Sometimes – maybe even often – we find a set of sources or a piece of evidence that simply makes us stop and ask some variation of “what the heck?!” This kind of basic curiosity doesn’t necessarily look good on a grant proposal, but it can be the starting point for exciting research that takes us in new scholarly directions.

It was exactly such a “what the heck?” moment that led me to write the article “Sleep Etiquette and the Education of a Reluctant Gentlewoman in Seventeenth-Century England”, which tells the story of a young gentlewoman named Mary Evelyn, who lived on estate named Wotton in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

I met Mary Evelyn in the manuscript reading room of the British Library. I wasn’t there to research the Evelyn family, nor was I studying early modern sleep habits, parent-child relationships, or the education of young women. Rather, I had just finished writing my first book, and was collecting materials for the next big project, a study of the relationships between adult sisters in the seventeenth century, based on their letters to each other. Archival catalogues are often vague about who is writing letters to whom, so to get a good coverage of sisters’ letters, I needed to look at every piece of seventeenth-century personal correspondence that was in some way tied to a woman. Which was why when I came across a set of letters catalogued as “the correspondence of Mary Evelyn of Wotton (1648-1723)”, I ordered it up.

An example of George Evelyn’s letters to Mary

At the time, I knew nothing of Mary Evelyn, beyond the assumption that she was related to the well-known diarist, gardener, and mathematician John Evelyn (her uncle). All I knew was that this was a set of letters connected to a woman, and therefore it needed to be examined. The catalogue entry itself didn’t do much to excite the imagination. “Apart from family news and household matters,” it read, “the letters concern her clothes and conduct and her reluctance to marry.”  The last sentence evoked mild curiosity, but there wasn’t really much here to indicate that I was about to go down a rabbit-hole that would lead me in new scholarly directions and result in two articles. When I started reading the letters, my first reaction was disappointment, because it quickly became obvious that Mary Evelyn would have no correspondence with a sister. Her only sister died in infancy.

As I kept leafing through the pages, however, disappointment was replaced with excitement, as I realized what was actually in my hands: seventy-seven letters written by father George Evelyn to his daughter Mary over a period of ten years. George had to write to Mary because, as a member of Parliament, he usually spent much of the Autumn and Winter in London, while his daughter remained on the family estate in Surrey. During the Spring months, on the other hand, Mary would go up to London to visit her aunts, or go with them to their country estates. In other words, a good portion of their interaction took place in writing. I wasn’t just looking at the evidence two family members keeping in touch, but at the record of a father raising his daughter to become a woman. Realizing this was something special that had received little scholarly attention before, I photographed the entire collection, and took it home to transcribe, read, and analyze.

The letters made it clear that Mary Evelyn had not given her father an easy time. Flouting the standard expectations from an early modern gentlewoman, she didn’t care about housewifery, she was a poor hostess and an unpopular guest, and – as the catalogue entry suggested – she was also reluctant to marry. Or rather, she flat-out refused to marry, until a change in her circumstances later in life made this refusal untenable. It was fascinating to read an exasperated father’s attempt to bring his unruly daughter into line, but that wasn’t what really drew me to this project. Instead, it was the fact that although George was concerned about Mary’s refusal to wed, he only mentioned marriage in a handful of his letters to her. And while he certainly attempted to push and prod her to be “a good hussy” by taking an interest in the management of the estate, this too was not his central concern. What did bother George, to the point of absolute rage, was the fact that Mary went to bed very late at night, and therefore failed to rise until late in the morning.

And here was my “what the heck?” moment.

Why, of all of the things George could have found objectionable in his daughter’s behavior, did he care so much about her sleep? Why did he mention it in no fewer than 40 letters? Why was he so enraged about Mary’s sleep habits that he threatened “never to see” her again if she didn’t change her ways?

This simple “why” question became the driving force behind this project. I found myself learning about the history of sleep and its meanings in this period, about the sociology of sleep more generally, and even about modern medical views of sleep disorders. I looked at how letters were written and what they might be expected to convey. An insightful comment from a colleague led me to consider how this might relate to time, and the transition between using natural time and clock time. Then, when the histories of sleep and time did not provide enough context to understand the letter, I looked more broadly into children’s education, parent-child relationships, and the lives of early modern gentlewomen, married and unmarried. Finally, I came up with an explanation. To put it briefly, the reason George was so worried about sleep, was that poor sleep affected everything else that Mary did. It prevented her from going to church in the morning, made it difficult for her to supervise the servants at their work, and made her a truly terrible hostess who kept her guests waiting hungry until she arrived at dinner. But George also targeted sleep, because he thought it was something that could be fixed, and if they could fix Mary’s sleep problems, maybe everything else about her conduct would fall into line.

The problem with this kind of research is that “what the heck?” does not easily lend itself to being phrased as a concise thesis statement in an article. I wasn’t the only person who found Mary’s story fascinating. Every reviewer who read a version of the article agreed that it was interesting and evocative. Any time I gave a paper about it, or even mentioned it in passing, the immediate response was avid curiosity. It wasn’t difficult to convince people that this was good research. But making it fit the categories that many journals require for publication was not trivial. Unusual cases do not easily tick the “what contribution does this make to historiography?” box.

I was immensely pleased when Cultural and Social History accepted the article, but the process has left me wondering how the historical profession can make room for this kind of research. How should we deal with the kind of scholarship that doesn’t start with a sophisticated question or a clear historiographical contribution, but rather with a more fundamental curiosity?

This scholarship can lead to new stories being told, stories that may eventually lead to bigger historical contributions. In fact, when I presented this research another question that kept coming up concerned what Mary actually was doing when she stayed up until the small hours of the night? She wasn’t binging on TV shows, watching cat videos, or spending too much time arguing with random strangers on the internet, so what was it? This question proved to be something of a Rorschach test for my audience. When I talked about the research with literary scholars they wondered if perhaps Mary was writing. When I discussed it with historians of sexuality they suggested an affair, perhaps with another woman – given her disinclination to marriage. When I mentioned it to feminist scholars they wondered if she was a proto-feminist practicing her independence. Perhaps someday someone will enter the British Library with their own question: what the heck was Mary Evelyn doing in that room all night?


Read more in the Cultural & Social History article

SHS members can access the journal via this website here.

Read more blog posts by CASH authors here.


About the author: Dr. Daphna Oren-Magidor is a historian of gender and the family in early modern England. She is the author of Infertility in Early Modern England (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2017), as well as several articles on the history of reproduction and the history of the family in early modern period. Currently she is exploring several case studies relating to parent-child relationships in the seventeenth century, while also working on a larger book project about the role of adult sisters in creating and maintaining early modern kinship networks. She is the author of Sleep Etiquette and the Education of a Reluctant Gentlewoman in Seventeenth-Century England, published online on April 28, 2019.

3 responses to “Curiosity in the Archive

  1. As a fellow night owl, I totally sympathize with poor Mary Evelyn. It’s still not easy being a night person in our morning-person world; it was even harder in Mary’s time. (My guess as to what she was doing late at night: why, reading, of course. Is it possible to examine the financial records of the family to see if they spent a disproportionate sum on novels?)

    1. Her father occaisonally noted sending her a novel or a play to read, but not to an extent that suggests to me that Mary was a voracious reader. Also, he does suggest that staying up late wastes candles and firewood, but again, not to the degree I would expect if she was using candles for reading all night long.

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