Labor improbus; or, D-Day minus two months

It has been two years since the final downhill sprint to my last thesis. When I handed that one in, I knew it was too long and not ready, but I did know that it was good, at least for a college senior. I was keenly aware how much of my self and my lived experience had gone into it; moreover, my advisor had checked the history and had me convinced that somewhere in those too-many pages there were at least one or two things worth saying.

But I was so young then, and so filled with the flush of youth and of my first real piece of history. When I went through the year’s worth of revisions that it took to turn that thesis into an article I began to realize that in academic history there is more to a subject being interesting than simply stating that it is interesting, a fact which haunts me now as I try to turn around the second thesis. I started this one a little later on—when I hand it in it will have been just under two years of work, whereas the first one took two and a half—and knowing what I know now about how to do history has made this one harder rather than easier. I only see how difficult it is to do a credible job in two years with little training (and much less advising: the kind of guidance my excellent undergraduate advisor gave me, considered exemplary by Princeton standards, is here at Oxford dismissed as “hand-holding” tantamount to academic dishonesty). The knowledge of how far the bound product will fall from perfect, and how unlikely it is to live up to particularly English ideals of fine academic work, are more likely to be tear-inducing than anything else. The culture here is punishing: no one tells you that you are doing well for fear of causing excessive self-love; while at Princeton someone might have complained that she was too busy and too tired because she was over-committed to extracurricular activities, here the complaint tends to mean (as someone on my course claimed to be true) that you are working on your thesis sixteen hours a day. For someone like myself already predisposed to low self-esteem this is not a happy place to be, and day after day I go to the library under a black cloud of premonitions of failure—except on the really bad days, when I don’t go to the library at all, and I sit in my room all day crying.

I think it is important to talk about these things because no one in Oxford does, especially at the graduate level; the presumption (and I have been told this) is that if you find any of it difficult, that must be your fault, and a sign you’re not suited to it. It is considered impolite, I believe, to reply that you were admitted to various US PhD programs, have a publication, and so on, and still find it unbelievably difficult. And so—though I hate to say it after all this time since the last thesis, living in and loving England and Oxford—I am counting the days until I go back to America and start over with a US PhD. This relationship with Oxford of over three years’ standing, my longest and truest one, has started to turn abusive, and it’s best to get out now while I’m still relatively unharmed.

But with what time I have I am determined to fight back against this punishing culture: to see people, to carve out domestic space cooking and mending clothes and watching television, to eat lunch in restaurants by myself, to run down to Iffley and visit my friends the three Shetland ponies who live in the field opposite the church. I took up running as another way to punish myself, for my fatness and my ugliness, but I have come to value it as a way to take time away from the computer and take myself out of the city centre without feeling guilty. And (here we come to the point) it was while running this morning—and not while putting in sixteen hours at a desk!—that I came up with a central analytic conceit for the section I’m currently trying to write about Arthur Sidgwick’s marriage. Here is a paragraph I just wrote, which concludes the section:

Most of the evidence we have for the intimate details of Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick’s marriage is written from Arthur’s perspective, and so it is not always easy to know how seriously he took her as an equal, how she felt about her marriage, and—most elusive of all—how willing a participant she was in the ever-present ἀσπασμοί [’embraces’, a euphemism for sex]. But their marriage, falling somewhere between the twin archetypes offered by the much-mythologised stories of Arthur’s siblings [Minnie Sidgwick and E.W. Benson; Henry Sidgwick and Eleanor Balfour], offers a picture of daily liberal life as a pattern of compromises with the strict ideals recorded in published form by Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and others. While people like Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick may have tried to live their lives along with the pages of philosophy, real life—differing access to educational opportunity; differing ideals of fulfilment, both altruistic and personal; the birth of children; the presence or lack of physical desire for each other—may have, and did, intervene.

I realized as I was writing this paragraph that it serves as a really illustrative example of the kind of history I love to do, the kind of history that keeps me caring about history: finding the sites at which ideas and lived experience meet, where the universally human and the historically contingent stare each other in the face, and where compromise—the idea that came to me halfway back from Iffley, but that could probably be said to underlie most of the history I try to write—is the lynchpin that holds together all my claims for interest. John Addington Symonds, Arthur Sidgwick, and all my other elite B-list Victorian men whose elitism and maleness makes me feel guilty do something that we all do: no matter our ideals, we compromise between them and our own self-interest, and more importantly our own happiness. The theses we hand in, the relationships we pursue, and the balance we strike between the two are all compromises, and while they may torture us (they certainly did Symonds, less so Sidgwick), life isn’t worth living if it’s spent in ceaseless mental anguish.

Months ago I said to an American classmate that I wished I had his capacity to let go: to accept that differences between the conventions of British and American history may affect how our theses are evaluated, and to write the thesis I want to write anyway even if it isn’t going to be, numerically, the best—or even as good as my undergraduate thesis was. I’m not there yet, and it saddens me to think that the first rush of passion for Oxford that helped to make that first thesis possible is now just dying embers. But maybe, like accepting a breakup, that’s what letting go means. And maybe that’s what I’m doing—just not in the way that I expected.


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