‘Crafting metaphors is dangerous for historians’ proposes Will Pooley. We are wary of metaphor—and other stylistic devices too—because the ‘clarification and illustration’ we use to build historical analysis might ‘fade into simplification and emplotment’—into chronology and cliché—narrative history, God forbid, rather than conceptualization and nuanced interpretation.
But Will is being provocative, for even historians cannot avoid metaphor, since ‘language itself is saturated in metaphorical meanings.’ Could we be more self-reflexive in the way we employ metaphor, he asks, and how might we put it to creative use?
A serendipitous typo, when Will first published his post, got me thinking about how I use stylistic devices in the stories I post on this blog for my book on the prison visitor Sarah Martin and the inmates she met at Yarmouth Gaol.
Themetaphors, Will had written, meaning to say ‘The metaphors we use rarely come to us ready made from our sources, and when readers remember the metaphor and not the details, the fiction becomes realer than the facts.’
Themetaphors jumped out at me. Is this the word I’d been looking for? Because Conviction is a book about multiple interconnected lives, style is one of the main techniques I use to pull the book together, particularly through patterns of imagery that suggest themes, connections and dissonances.
Will’s questions about metaphor emerged from reading Adam Thorpe’s epic historical novel Ulverton, the next book for the online reading group Storying the Past. He’s clearly a better reader than me. I’m struggling to attune to the narrative voice in each chapter/story and hadn’t noticed Thorpe’s literary devices, perhaps also because—notes Will—he uses them ‘lightly’. As Will points out, ‘the metaphors that Thorpe crafts are central to how he brings his readers into the minds of the characters he has invented.’ They play a crucial role in making us ‘feel as a reader’—in creating empathy and affect.
And that’s the main reason I’m consciously making use of literary devices in Conviction. In her observations of prisoners, Sarah Martin focused on their character—and how it was belied in their words and actions. But her observations were filtered through her evangelical and moralistic conception of character. To do justice to the prisoners and the teacher, I try to bring readers into the room with them, to experience prison from the inside and see and feel it from different points of view. And I aim to lift them out of the prison and its records, to see individuals as they saw themselves and each other, to show them as personalities—not just as subjects of prison discourse.
To do justice to the prisoners, I also want their stories to captivate readers outside academic history. For this reason, I avoid explicit conceptualization and, as much as possible, reconstruct moments in their lives by showing rather than telling. I rarely use terms like class, gender, and power, for instance, though—of course—these concepts inform how I interpret the sources. Instead, I tell stories by interweaving and juxtaposing scenes that are recreated from different points in a life, drawn from multiple, fragmentary sources.
This is an experiment, then, in using story and style to convey historical meaning and human feeling. Partly I want to discover how far it is possible to go with this approach in writing social history. Might it allow for different stories—and ways of understanding them—to emerge from the archive which conventional modes of analysis overlook? How much is it possible to convey context and interpretation dramatically and what still requires exposition?
I tend to see the sources I use in terms of images, evoked by actions and interactions as well as words and objects. One of the patterns of imagery running through the book, for example, is that of making-and-mending that connects the prison visitor’s employment as a dressmaker, inmates’ reactions to useful work, the make-shift economy of the poor, and Christian reclamation and prisoner rehabilitation as mending ‘broken’ lives. I use it, too, to illustrate my historical method—creating patchwork—as did young prisoners—out of historical fragments, drawing the threads, and loose and broken ends, to make up a life. Patchwork is similarly a way to visualize my use of record linkage and database tables to reveal the patterns linking multiple lives.
I deploy these images, then, not just as metaphor but through a variety of tropes and figures of speech that are neatly summarized here by Wikipedia. I use them especially for ironic effect to expose the gap between what the law and the prison visitor knew about prisoners and the circumstances that constrained their lives. Ironic juxtaposition is one of the main ways I create pathos and empathy.
Ironically, when I read Will’s discussion on metaphor, I was working on a chapter that begins with a rare use of metaphor in the prison visitor’s journals, when she describes a prisoner standing in the dock as the image of grief. Surely this was a literary reference? I’ve searched both Early English Books Online and Google Books but found only six uses of the phrase, including one by the German Romanticist Schiller, and one in Godwin’s novel of sensibility on injustice and imprisonment, Caleb Williams, that Sarah Martin may have read—though that’s another story.
Tellingly, whether or not the prison visitor’s phrase was triggered by latent literary memory, her entry on William Jarvis is one of the most compassionate and empathetic in her journals. It ends, however, with an oddly incongruous observation on the prisoner: I am told he was too fond of skating and lost much time in winter by that. It’s through the conjuncture and contrast between these two arresting images—the prisoner in the dock and the young man skating—that I dramatize William Jarvis’s story and evoke the chapter’s themes of life and death.
We’ll be discussing Ulterton and how historians might use stylistic devices on twitter on Thursday 3rd November, 1-2pm (GMT) via the hashtag #storypast. Feel free to join in, whether or not you have read the novel. Laura Sangha began our conversation with her brilliantly inventive fictional review of Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton. You can also begin exchanges on creative approaches to history writing by using the hashtag #storypast at anytime.
 I am indebted to Berthold Schoene who gave me this phrase which sums up what I am trying to do.