the heart of the past



St. John’s in the early morning light (July 2014). Newfoundland – and St. John’s, Bonavista, and Trinity in particular – figure in Alison Light’s Common People. And so I’m adding visual interest to this post by including photos of these three places. Photo: Sonja Boon.

“She lifts another letter. She is hungry not for the past’s facts but for its heart”
(Beth Powning, The Hatbox Letters, 128)

Over the past few months, I’ve been a (very long distance) part of the new Storying the Past (#storypast) initiative, a virtual, Twitter-based reading group that exists to consider the ways that history with a capital H might be written. #storypast folks (are we members? I’m not sure…) read on their own, and then, on a given day, comment on the book via Twitter. For the March 2016 installment, both a Twitter and live event as part of the Social History Society Conference at Lancaster University, we read Alison Light’s book Common People. While I was reading Common People, I also had my nose in Beth Powning’s 2005 novel, The Hatbox Letters, one of the (many) books I’d picked up at the great CFUW used book sale.

On the surface, there is little that unites Beth Powning’s novel and Alison Light’s non-fiction bestseller. One is a fictional retelling of a journey through and with grief, woman’s struggle to come to terms with the death of her husband. The other, meanwhile, uses family history as a basis for telling a much broader history of Britain’s “common people” over the last two centuries. One was written by a novelist and memoirist living in Atlantic Canada. And the other by a scholar living in Britain.


The view from Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. July 2015. Photo: Sonja Boon

And yet I found myself reading the books through one another, and using both to think through my own research.

Both are interested in the past, and in the stories the past might tell. Both are interested in historical documents. Both are interested in memory and its relationship to truth. And both are constructed through a connection to place. But they comment on this in different ways.

Beth Powning’s novel appeared in 2003 to lavish praise. The work is reflective and introspective, as the main character Kate Harding, works through the grief of losing her husband. As part of her journey, she decides to look through a series of hatboxes, bequeathed to her by her family, and in them she finds a treasure trove of archival artefacts, including letters and a diary. Over the course of a next several months, she reads these items, and slowly, piece by piece, reconstructs a hidden family grief that mirrors her own – a lost love from a century past.

Alison Light, appears on the surface to follow a similar method: she grows up hearing family stories and later, much later, uses historical documents to piece together the past. However, Lights’ goal is different. She uses her own family history – the genealogy of names and dates and locations – as a way of charting the broader terrain of a specific social and economic class. In this way, Light locates family history – often spoken disparagingly about by ‘real’ historians – within social history, and makes meaning out of the endless dates and details that fascinate family historians and genealogists by weaving them together with the family lore she grew up with. After all, as she writes, “…tall tales are emotional truths as revealing as the census. The facts of life, however shocking, may convey very little; they are flat and drained, the feeling has haemorrhaged from them” (130). What becomes quickly clear in this book about ‘common people’ – this book constructed out of facts turned into life stories – is how very fickle fortune was – economic security was elusive and, if ultimately achieved, fleeting. [1]


Bonavista, Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo: Sonja Boon

The documents that form the basis of these two books – Powning’s Kate reads letters and a journal while Light works with broader scale population-based documents – lend themselves to different treatments; it is, after all, challenging to find the intimacy in a census record. But that’s not to say that Light’s version of “memory,” if you will, is less lively. In one scene of her book, she takes us on a tour of a particular neighbourhood, pointing to all the different kinds of work people on the street did, and how it all might have fit together. What emerges is a rich, lively story that, while it doesn’t reveal the inner workings of a single family, gives much insight into the nature of a community at a given period of time. While what remains in the archival record are largely impersonal documents, the stories that emerge are those of people who lived, loved, and died in webs of social relations; that is, these are intimate stories of everyday life lived in community. This aspect – the broader community history – is not possibly with the documents that Powning’s Kate Harding explores. Her narrator ‘s documents promote intimacy, in sometime illusory ways, and through them the narrator imagines family scenes, emotions, and feeling.

And yet, both works offer intriguing meditations on the past and the stories and myths we construct around that past. Light’s voice is largely that of an historian whose fictionalizing instinct is tempered by her ethical responsibility to her research subjects. “Every census starts a story,” she writes. “Not for the first time I feel the urge to fictionalize these people, these Edwardians. How did John Ashford, a metal sheet turner (finisher) born in Birmingham, about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in England, come to marry Nellie from Newcastle upon Tyne on the furthest edge of England’s north-east coast? Did they meet in Wolverhampton, where their oldest child was born? Was Jessie Gwilliam really Louisa Minton’s daughter? Did Louisa marry her mysterious lodger Yet ultimately I prefer the frustration of not knowing to the omniscience of a novelist. Whenever a reverie begins, chance encounters with other searchers in family history websites pull me up short; they remind me that each person, a name on the page, was somebody’s ancestor, great-grandfather, grandmother. There are limits to the liberties I can take” (45).

And I confess to similar urges in my own work – how to fill in the blanks that remain, make sense of fragments? How do I deal with an ancestor’s name on a Dutch Treasury document designed to assure proper compensation for a slave owner? How do I make sense of names and skin colours listed on colonial indenture records, or odd bits of family trees written in a plantation owner’s record book? How can I read the entries in a ship’s log? How can I make a full story out of something that resists an easy telling? And how do I do this while remaining true to those who lived those pasts? These are the things that I continue to struggle with in my current research project.


Boavista Lighthouse. Photo:  Sonja Boon

Beth Powning’s Kate Harding finds herself also struggling with the past and its stories: “the more often a story is told, the less of its feeling remains. Its quicksilver essence is lost, it becomes like a pressed rose, pale, with only the faintest scent. And it evolves, as stories do, with every telling. It becomes not memory but history” (138). Memory and history. For Powning’s lead character, one is fluid and alive; the other is fixed, permanent, and in this way, concrete. Memory remains something intangible, floating always just outside of reach, foggy. History, meanwhile, is something that can be measured, traced through facts, set down on paper. And yet, this binary is ultimately unsatisfying; this novel reveals that there’s a complex interplay between memory, history, and story. Kate Harding reads letters and a diary – fixed documents that leave “only the faintest scent” – but draws on them not only to imagine the past, but also to pull her own grief together. What is she doing when she cobbles fact (letters) and fiction (imagination) together? And how does this long past touch and shape her present, and further, change her memories of the ancestors whose words she has been reading?

It is, as numerous writers of fiction will tell you, much easier to create a story than to recreate one; fictional characters aren’t bound by history. But History is, itself, a problematic construction, the archives themselves shaped as they are by the politics of class, race, gender, and more. It’s easy to tell stories when the stories exist; those who leave diaries and journals and letters make storytelling a relatively straightforward affair. But what of those who had nothing to leave behind, those whose stories emerge only in immigration records, ships’ logs, census records, plantation compensation documents? How do we tell the stories of “those who do not write,” to follow Philippe Lejeune? And how do we tell such stories in robust, thoughtful, ethical ways?

As Katy Simpson Smith writes, in a blog post about the fictionalizing of the past, “[h]istorians of the marginalized have to get creative, to read between the lines, to be attuned to subtleties rather than statements. Sometimes, heaven help us, all that’s left to do is speculate. Recovering the full emotional lives of those who left few documents is an exercise in frustration, but we keep doing it because the alternative—erasure—is unacceptable.”


Boavista lighthouse. Photo: Sonja Boon

What, then, is the role of the historian – or the narrator – of these pasts? Where does the researcher fit in (and here, I include Powning’s lead character, Kate Harding, as a family historian, the researcher of her own past). Kate Harding allows herself to be seduced by the documents and through them, imagines her family history into being. At the very beginning of the book, Powning introduces the hat boxes that carry Harding’s family stories as sites of embodied memory: “Their smell has begun to permeate the room even though the windows are open. It is the smell of her grandparents’ attic, a smell she has not forgotten but thought vanished, like the past itself” (1).

Light treads….well… lightly. Sometimes she is actively present, but more often, she allows the documents to speak, and arranges them for us from somewhere behind the scenes, emerging for the reader through the knowledge that these are members of Light’s own family. A ‘behind-the-scenes’ approach has, to a large extent, been the rule for historical writing. It can work brilliantly, especially when the primary source documents themselves are lively. But such an approach can also, especially when the documents themselves are dull, also be stultifyingly boring (and this, even if the results that emerge from the researcher’s work are actually quite interesting).


Trinity, Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo: Sonja Boon

Furthermore, in an age of much more critical reflexivity in many social science and humanities disciplines, does such distancing create the conditions of “objectivity” it is meant to perform?

As at least one participant in the ‘real life’ version of March’s #storypast pointed out (I’m basing this on the twitter feed, as I wasn’t there in person), oral historians, feminist scholars, and anthropologists, among those to embrace the critically reflexive voice early in the game, use reflexivity to acknowledge the researcher’s active role in shaping the narratives that emerge from the archives. After all, archives, as anyone working in them knows, are not neutral spaces. Once a researcher gets her grubby paws (or white gloves) on archival materials, they are even less so. It could then be argued that erasing the researcher’s presence in favour of “what the archival materials say” is a disingenuous, and possibly even ethically dishonest gesture, that transparency is only possible through ‘deep objectivity’ – that is, through the active positioning of the researcher within the research. (To be fair, I am not suggesting that this is what Light does; she does include her own voice, and she interrogates her own assumptions as she moves through the book; rather, this is a broader commentary on the methodological assumptions that still underpin much scholarly work).


The house across from the fish and chips place at the harbour in Trinity. Looks like a truly lovely place to call home. Photo: Sonja Boon.

And so, whither the researcher? Should she just hide behind the apparent objectivity of her data? Or should she be present, lumps, warts, and all? How much of her should we see, if we invite her in? Where do we as researchers fit into the bigger picture of the book? Where might we present ourselves and how? How much of the research process should be present in the book itself?

Light brings us into her research journey – she takes us on the train, and into archival spaces. But she also brings us into her mind, asking what role a researcher might play, and what responsibilities a researcher has to the past. Light also brings us her imagination – at least, as far as she feels comfortable. Powning’s narrator imagines the past, using her creative faculties to build stories that allow her to manage the grief of her present. Which stories are true? Which stories are fictional? What do we do with the spaces between the facts? Where does memory fit in? Finding this balance between memory, history, past, present, and story is, I think, something that all of us who work with archival materials need to tangle with. There’s no easy answer, as far as I can tell, and even if we were to find one, no answer that would suit all situations at all times. Perhaps, then, we might consider the critical – and creative – potential of remaining unfixed, unmoored, unsettled in our writing and our thinking…


gratuitous iceberg photo. Just because. Giant cathedral berg lodged off Cape Spear, Newfoundland and Labrador, in June 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon.


[1] If there is one thing that disappoints in Light’s book, it is her limited engagement with the world beyond the British Isles. Thus, for example, she opens the book musing on the great distances her ancestors travelled to seek their fortunes, tracing journeys between different cities in the UK. So, too, does she give her readers fascinating insights into the underlife of nineteenth-century English cities, where the poor and working classes lived and toiled. The level of detail is remarkable and through it, we as readers come to understand the intricate web of inter-relations that shaped the social and economic lives of the “common people.” She does not, however, offer this same level of detail or insight into her ancestors’ journeys across the seas. Newfoundland remains surprisingly unexamined and unexplored, a fact I note, perhaps, because it’s where I live. The communities of St. John’s, Trinity and Bonavista, all thriving merchant communities throughout the nineteenth century, remain foreign, closed, remote. This whole section of the book lacks the critical and creative engagement of the rest. But if anyone with a historical bent is thinking of visiting, be aware that Newfoundland is alive with stories and histories, and often you can’t tell the difference!



Light, Alison. Common People: The History of an English Family. London & New York: Penguin, 2014.

Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Trans. Katherine Leary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Powning, Beth. The Hatbox Letters.  Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2005.

Smith, Katy Simpson. “Who Can Fictionalize Slavery?” Literary Hub ( Accessed 4 April 2016.

© Sonja Boon (sboon @,  2016




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