For her new book, ‘Mother’, the feminist and historian Professor Sarah Knott chose the striking sub-title ‘An Unconventional History’. Here she explains her choice, the boundaries between conventional and unconventional history, and how the form of her historical writing was shaped by experience.
On Thursday 9 May, Sarah will be taking part in ‘New approaches to writing history’, a panel discussion (along with Costa Book winner Professor Bart Van Es and Professor Barbara Taylor of Queen Mary, London), jointly organised by the Institute of Historical Research and the Raphael Samuel History Centre.
To call a history ‘unconventional’ is to trail notions of convention in its wake. So perhaps that is the place to start, with some of our conventional protocols at the end of the 21st century’s second decade. Here are three, oversimplifying for clarity: to seek change over time, to tell narrative, and to write in the third person. Conventional history writing is particularly effective at identifying overarching chronologies, offering a convincing narrative, and adopting a clear distance from the investigation.
My subject? Mother is a history of maternity – read pregnancy, birth and the encounter with an infant, read the living mothering of a living child – that draws on the terrain of Britain and North America from the 17th century to the close of 20th. That’s a deliberately large expanse. The worlds of Cree or Ojibwe peoples compare to those of enslaved men and women on plantations in South Carolina or Virginia, or white tenant farmers in Appalachia, tenement dwellers in Liverpool and Boston, or black womanists in New York and women’s liberationists in London.
For sources, the research drew on scholarship in history, demography, sociology and anthropology. I canvassed Native story-telling and lost languages, slave narratives and government reports, family letters, diaries and maternal memoirs. The aim was to pluralise and to specify — the phrase is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s – experiences that are sometimes seen as too similar, or too mundane, to be worthy of historical analysis. I was interested in dignifying the domestic and the visceral with a sustained curiosity.
‘I found myself matching form and function: creating a genre of my own that best suited both the topic and the nature of the research.’
In so doing, I found myself matching form and function: creating a genre of my own that best suited both the topic and the nature of the research. I emphasised exploring variety of experience over establishing change. I pursued anecdote over narrative. And I wrote in a first-person voice.
Why so? Several elements compressed: One was the fragmentary, piecemeal nature of archival traces of mothering, both hands typically having been needed to hold the baby. Even among the most privileged care-givers, anecdote trumps narrative. ‘Motherhood lends itself to anecdote,’ writes contemporary theorist Lisa Baraitser, because of ‘the constant attack on narrative that the child performs.’ A small child continually breaks into maternal speech.
Another element was the difficulty of distilling solid claims of change over time from archival fragments – especially given the importance of decentering the story of white middle-class women which has been the West’s main maternal heritage.
And then there was always my own sleep-deprived, interruptive state, with one baby and then another on hand, which made sustained thinking and long-form writing into temporary impossibilities, as well as my sympathy for a reader who might be similarly sleep deprived and similarly interrupted, likewise needing to be able to pick up and put down her thoughts.
Slowly, in fits and starts, the genre emerged. Form met function in a first-person account that moved continuously between past and present, interpreting history less via the accumulation of a narrative as much as an account of historical variety and the process of researching and mothering.
‘Stricken with sleep deprivation, I was indignant at the absence of mothers in the historiography of sleep.’
It’s not that there was no value to locating change over time: piecemeal chronologies certainly did emerge. The decline of wet nursing, which was done with by the late 19th century, is one. The medicalisation of maternal and infant care is another.
It’s rather that by letting go of certain standard conventions other elements of the past became newly visible and claimed a fuller place. How else to give a history to the sound of an infant cry, or to the experience of being continually interrupted? How else to be absorbed in the matter of cloth, or to notice the differences between caring for a newborn and attending to a big baby? Stricken with sleep deprivation, I was indignant at the absence of mothers in the historiography of sleep, despite the sometimes almost continuous experience of maternity among adult women in some past times and places.
The resulting match of form and function was at once analytic and aesthetic, empirical and practical. I don’t expect to write another book quite like it, but I do expect to match form and function again.
Sarah Knott is associate professor of history at Indiana University, where she is a research fellow of the Kinsey Institute. In 2018–19 she is a senior visiting research fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford. She is the author of Sensibility and the American Revolution (2009) and Mother: An Unconventional History (2019) as well as articles in the American Historical Review, William and Mary Quarterly, and the Guardian. She is co-editor of Women, Gender and Enlightenment (2005), a former editor of the AHR and serves on the editorial board of Past and Present.
New approaches to writing history
With Bart Van Es, Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor
6.30pm, Thursday 9 May, Clore Lecture Theatre, Birkbeck, University of London. Tickets are free but booking is essential.
Bart Van Es is professor of English literature at the University of Oxford. His latest book, The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found (Penguin), won the 2018 Costa Book award.
Sarah Knott is associate professor in history at Indiana University and the author of Mother. An Unconventional History, published by Penguin in March 2019.
Barbara Taylor is professor of humanities at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of The Last Asylum. A Memoir of Madness in our Times(Penguin, 2014).