Comfort Zones

unity2Two things have happened recently which set me thinking about comfort zones, now and in the past. First, I gave a talk for Unity Arts as part of their HLF-funded project ‘A Restoration Wyfe – A Saucy London Life’. The talk was called ‘The interior life of the Restoration wife’, and it was about the changing relationship between interiors and women’s lives between the 16th and the 18th Centuries. I started off with the china scene from William Wycherley’s 1675 play The Country Wife, with its blistering run of double entendres:

Mrs Squeamish: Oh Lord I’ll have some china too, good Mr. Horner, don’t think to give other people china, and me none, come in with me too.

Horner: Upon my honour I have none left now.

Mrs Squeamish: Nay, nay I have known you deny your china before now, but you shan’t put me off so, come —

Horner: This Lady had the last there.

Lady Fidget: Yes indeed Madam, to my certain knowledge he has no more left.

(you can watch it here, about half way through the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROI9FhR6URI)

Then we cut back to Thomas Bentley’s 1582 The Monument of Matrons, in which he outlines a routine of early morning prayer in the chamber: ‘Putting on your neerest garment [your clean smock], praie thus:…O cover thou my nakednesse and shame with the fine linnen robe of his righteousnesse and vertue…Yea, make thou my linnen cloaths as white as snowe, and shining like the light’ (pp. 369-71). The point of the talk was to explore how we might get from one chamber to another: how representations of the room changed from a space of pious meditation to one that could be represented as a scene for debauchery, even if it was happening just off stage.

So the barest bones of the talk were the way sixteenth-century halls were ceiled over to provide chambers up above, and the effects this had on the specificity of space – the division of activities between rooms, the creation of rooms that were intended for sleeping and not much else, and the significance of ‘going upstairs’ at night time. And we looked at the development of closets and dressing rooms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – the movement to entertaining in small spaces for more intimate sociabilities – comfortable and comforting rooms filled with women’s personally significant objects. The changing way women decorated chambers revealed a great deal about their ‘interior lives’. We also discussed who was allowed in; the permeability of rooms and houses. Watching early modern comfort zones shift in location and boundaries gave me back something of that shock of the new that you lose when you forget what happens before and after the period you work on.

unity5And the other thing that’s happened is that I’m now the DoRPE in the School of English at Kent or, marginally more attractively, the Director of Research and Public Engagement, which has led me to thinking about how we start conversations about the past with people outside our departments. The way Unity Arts ran this event was fascinating. The talk came after a series of songs from the period sung by costumed singers and a reading from Pepys’ Diary, all at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, where the audience could wander around period rooms before and afterwards. And the whole event was set against the full-sized recreation of a Restoration bed they’d produced, and in the context of the research they’d done on portraits and Restoration wedding documents in the local archive. This was an event with previous form – a culmination of other kinds of exploration – and that really came across. It gave them a range of different ways of getting at a central problem – what was the life of a Restoration wife like? – and what it offered its audience wasn’t a holistic package (a kind of living history where you are supposed to forget you’re in Hoxton in 2013) so much as a variety that kept changing your point of view. Have a look at this video of a previous piece of work, shown again at the Geffrye, for instance – it’s all about view point: http://youtu.be/O0fFJXl1gH8

And speaking in this setting was naturally engaging, both for me and, I hope, for the audience. It couldn’t possibly be a passive event. Talking about place as part of an experience, rather than doing it cold in a lecture theatre, and seeing research as animated – as a performance of words – made a space for understanding domestic experience that was very different to what I’m used to. It made a lecture into a moment at which things might be coaxed into coming together. And it made demands on us all to imagine, and to think of the constraints on imagining too. That’s when things start to happen – when, in talking it through in an inspiring space with an audience who keep asking interesting questions, you start to see the evidence you work with differently. Way outside my academic comfort zone it felt to me as though this was a different kind of ‘located’ engagement. It would be interesting to know what others think…

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4 Comments

Filed under Catherine

4 responses to “Comfort Zones

  1. Lil Warren

    Catherine, I believe this sort of event forms a bridge between the academic world and “the public”. These two communities don’t even circle warily just appear to consider each other exotic. Yet when engagement occurs there is a combustible kind of energy released. I agree we have to find ways to enage, enliven and invigorate interest in research especially in the “I’ll just google it” world. We have found that touching and feeling like a lot of soft skills in the workplace are undervalued as research tools. We know these tools work. We just have to persuade everyone else!

  2. msoftley

    I totally agree that a different level of awareness is invoked when there is an alert and responsive relationship between teachers/students or talkers/listeners ie not passive. Brings a different energy into the space. Was a really fantastic event. I loved how the history just came to life!

  3. Jayne Walters

    For me history is incredibly important to understand who we are in the present and how to move forward positively. Because of this I believe that it is vital that we reach out to young people and deliver history in a way that is alive. The time is right for practitioners from all backgrounds to come together and make this happen. At this event I thought it was wonderful to see young people taking part in engaging the public and the public in turn giving young people some respect.

  4. Sarah Singing

    I am dyslexic and find looking at solid banks of text almost impossible. A dry lecture too. But this as catherine puts it “performance of words” grabbed me and still I remember the words the older lady sang about a woman’s work is ne’er well done. It was almost like the songs and readings got us in the mood for the speaker who was very warm and houmourous so not sure it would work every time. Would need the right coctail of people, venue and subject.

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