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Temptation in the archives

By George Wigmore, on 18 January 2013

‘Constantijn Huygens and his Clerk’,
painted by Thomas de Keyser in 1627.

I knew before even I turned up at the wood-panelled Gustav Tuck lecture theatre that it was going to be packed. People were anxiously waiting outside the doors to see if there was any available space, with those queuing up the steps politely told that they could watch the lecture live downstairs in the Garden Room.

The truth is that Professor Lisa Jardine is a big draw, whether through her work as a historian, on BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View, or the countless other things that she either chairs or directs, and it’s clear that not only is she incredibly well known, but also highly respected.

Professor Jardine’s lecture itself concerned a story about a paper chase that eventually yielded a 17th century letter. It was also a cautionary tale about the trust that historians place on evidence, illustrating the essential uncertainly that comes with archival research in the humanities.

What the lecture essentially came down to was a date: 1625, a mysterious letter, a 19th century archivist called Mary-Anne Everett Green, and a number of key characters related to the Dutch and English royal families. These included Constantijn Huygens, a Dutch Golden Age poet and composer; Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia; and Margaret ‘Madge’ Croft, who was maid of honour to Elizabeth.

While I was admittedly new to that period of Anglo-Dutch history, Professor Jardine told the story beautifully, as she deftly handled the potentially complex and confusing material, while still managing to weave in funny anecdotes and interesting digressions.

What made the talk so interesting weren’t just the relationships, but the manner in which they were uncovered. What really shone through was the incredible work done by Mary-Anne Everett Green who, in her role as calendars editor, was instrumental in the mid-19th century initiative to establish a centralised national archive.

All this amazing work was juggled while raising four children and looking after her disabled husband.

However, this letter by Margaret Croft, and the respective roles played by Green and Professor Jardine, illustrate the fact that not every avenue that academics pursue bears fruit, because after all the effort of tracking down the letter and transcribing it, ultimately, it was a disappointment.

But the message is also more nuanced that that. While the letter closed several research avenues, it also opened up others that perhaps were not visible before.

This one letter tells us much about the nature of archives, while also revealing much about figures such as Mary-Anne Green, whose vital work made all historical research into this period possible and helped uncover the hidden voices of women in the archive.

While the lecture documented the intricate lives, pictures and letters (some unintelligible and full of awful spelling) that give insight to these amazing lives, it also provided a glimpse into the lives of learned women interacting with men on a less facetious level in an era in which they are traditionally obscured from view.

In many ways Professor Jardine is much like Mary-Anne Everett Green: not only carrying on her work uncovering historical heroines, but also continuing the trade of the archivist.

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