OCLW lunchtime seminar: Frances Larson on ‘The Things About Henry Wellcome’, 10 March 2015

Exploring the miniature, the gigantic and biographies of scale, anthropologist and writer Frances Larson shared her work on Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) from her 2009 book An Infinity of Things with the OCLW lunchtime seminar.

The talk explored Larson’s use of objects as biographical evidence for Wellcome’s life. Her approach was to view Wellcome’s life through these objects, investigating the form they take and how they cohere around a person in groups and sets.

Henry Wellcome was born in America, but came to the UK in his twenties, where he founded the successful pharmaceutical company Burroughs, Wellcome & Company, which later became Glaxo Smith Klein.  At the time, Burroughs, Wellcome & Company manufactured tablets, ointments, soap, tea, coffee and more.

Wellcome was a businessman, designer and inventor, but he was also a private collector of objects. His holdings were the equivalent of five times the size of the Louvre, or approximately one million objects (a lower estimate). The innumerable objects and relics he collected included, among others, surgical instruments, antiques, scraps, ethnographic objects, cases, masks and weaponry.

Wellcome’s whole work life was taken up with the physical design of objects and patterns of scale. Larson is particularly interested in patterns of scale and she divided her discussion of Wellcome’s life into ‘small things’ and ‘big things.’ Larson argued Wellcome’s life as a businessman fall into the category of ‘small things’. She explained that the anthropological associations with small things are control, transcendence, convenience, privacy and magic. One manifestation of this interest in the small is that Wellcome commissioned the world’s smallest medicine cabinet. It was the size of a penny and held twelve bottles of real medicine. Wellcome coined the term ‘tabloid,’ another term for ‘tablet’ or ‘pill’, and spent a lot of time working to make his products smaller. Larson considered whether Wellcome’s personality matched these objects. He was a fastidious person and a controlling and perfectionist employer. Larson proposed that the creation of small, very perfect things might require a fanatical perfectionist. The person and the objects create each other as time goes on.

The second half of the talk focused on Wellcome’s ‘big things’: his enormous collection. In anthropology, big things are associated with the impenetrable, disorientation, being out of control, the public and the frightening. The same characteristics underlie both sides of Wellcome’s life: perfectionism, discipline, control and secrecy.

Wellcome wanted the prestige of being a big collector. He thought there could be a coherent narrative or ‘final picture’ for an unveiling of his collection. But Larson noted that the collection was simply too overwhelming and complex. It was only possible to make the collection coherent after his death when it was broken up.

Wellcome delegated the acquisition of objects to collecting agents, but he didn’t allow them to interpret it. He was not a small-scale collector who simply could not stop. He wanted the collection to be meticulously big and he delighted in the detail. Wellcome thought that he alone could make his enormous collection small and interpret it.

Larson concluded with the question of whether his large collection made Wellcome feel big or small. She argued that he died amongst the chaos of his objects – without achieving his vision of a cohesive exhibition. And although he did open a museum in his lifetime, he never felt it lived up to his vision. Looking at Wellcome through the lens of his collection of objects undercuts the idea of him as a great man.


Claire Harman: ‘The Suspicions of Mrs Gaskell’, 24 February 2015

Claire Harman, renowned biographer of Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson among others, has a forthcoming biography of Charlotte Brontë. In this talk, Harman instructed her audience in the making and legacy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Brontë. Published in 1857, it was the first, and remains a popular, biography of Charlotte Brontë.

Harman explored Gaskell’s efforts to provide an impression of Brontë’s character. In acquiring and describing this information, Gaskell relied partly on gossip, and partly on fact, constructing her approach through anecdotes and stories.

Brontë herself also had some agency in the creation of the ‘Brontë myth’.[1] Gaskell and Brontë were writing their novels at the same time and place in 1846 in Manchester. Gaskell had written to ‘Currer Bell’ (Brontë’s pen name) to compliment her on her novel Shirley and then the two were introduced by Lady Kay Shuttleworth over a three day visit in the Lake District. After this visit, Gaskell wrote to Catherine Winkworth describing Brontë’s appearance. She appears to Gaskell to be ‘a little lady in a black silk gown. She is, as she calls herself, underdeveloped.’ The letter also described what Haworth (Brontë’s hometown) looked like, and included stories about Patrick, Charlotte’s father, being half-mad. It also included Charlotte Brontë’s anecdotes about the starvation regime at her school and the poverty at home, anecdotes that seemed to be fully crafted, narrated and full of significance. Claire Harman sees these anecdotes from Brontë as something that Brontë gifted to Gaskell, a kind of special nod from one novelist to the other. Gaskell went on to re-use this material in The Life.

After her sisters Anne and Emily Brontë died, Charlotte wrote the preface to the second edition of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights (1850). The preface included biographical information about her sisters, evoking their life in their Moorland home, and the edition was well received. This preface also helped initiate the Brontë myth. Charlotte Brontë was subsequently invited to many London parties, but, extremely reticent, was disgruntled by the attention stemming from her celebrity, and was a difficult dinner guest. Then Brontë met her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was a curate to her father, Patrick Brontë. She was married to Nicholls and, Harman speculates, quickly became pregnant. Gaskell had been abroad, and said that she felt she would have been able to prevent Brontë’s death if only she had been in the country. Claire Harman suggested that Gaskell would have had access to abortion doctors for Brontë and that Gaskell’s confident statement leads us to infer this was a problematic pregnancy. From the symptoms, Harman believes Brontë contracted the severe morning sickness, hyperemesis gravidarum: the same illness the Duchess of Cambridge Katherine Middleton has suffered with in her pregnancies. Unfortunately the care Brontë received was inadequate and Harman assumes Brontë’s death was terribly painful.

After Brontë’s death, Gaskell received a letter from Patrick Brontë asking her to write the official and ‘truthful’ biography. This would turn out not to be a traditional ‘life and letters’ biography, a ‘portrait’ of an author, but a novelist’s view of a character. Gaskell did seek out letters and anecdotes for the biography, however, including the letters from Brontë to her married mentor in Brussels, Constantin Héger. Gaskell had not realized Héger was such a meaningful figure in Brontë’s life until Gaskell visited him in Belgium on a trip for research. Gaskell soon realized she could not use this story of unrequited love in the biography. It was too revealing and diverged from the character of Brontë she was trying to represent.

After the publication of the first edition (1857) of Gaskell’s biography of Brontë, there was what Claire Harman called a ‘shaking up of material, a loosening of anecdotes’. The second and third editions of the biography have ‘odd lacunae’ where Gaskell rescinded material that Patrick Brontë objected to about himself, mostly accounts that suggested he was controlling of his wife’s and his children’s behavior. Harman thinks that what has remained then in these subsequent editions must therefore have been reliable, like the report that Brontë’s mother Mariah wasn’t pretty.

The anecdotes that make up Gaskell’s biography helped form the idea that its subject is a character within a wider story. Claire Harman took her rapt audience through some of these anecdotes and the process that Gaskell underwent in constructing this lasting and popular biography of Charlotte Brontë.

[1] To see more on this term, see Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth (2001)

Margaret MacMillan: ‘Sometimes it matters who is in power’

For the fourth and final talk in the Weinrebe lecture series, world-renowned historian Margaret MacMillan joined us to share her reflections on the topic of moments when it matters who is in power.

Professor MacMillan began by talking about what drew her to history: a sense of curiosity about the past which extends to people and personalities, emotions and values. She suggested that biographers and historians tend to ask different questions of their subjects and this can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.

She argued that there was a time when history, misinterpreting Carlyle, wasn’t interested in people: the logical extreme of this is cliometrics, where the focus is on numbers not individuals. But the rise of social history – recovering the lost voices of the past – and then cultural history – exploring meanings – has brought the focus back to people. Biography is relevant in this context, she suggested, because you cannot understand the history of the twentieth century without understanding Hitler, Stalin or Mao. These people may not ‘make’ history in the way that expression is commonly used, but they do ‘catch the currents of history,’ in Professor MacMillan’s phrase, and come to ’embody’ history.

Historians of the twentieth century have often turned to biography to express their ideas.  They start as social historians of a particular time and place but end up focusing on the individuals at the apex of that regime. These people bring up counterfactual questions for historians: if this particular individual was not there, what difference would it have made? Professor MacMillan argued that history would have been very different if, say, Hitler had died in World War One, Churchill had died in an accident in New York, or Stalin had died while having his appendix out.

She also suggested that there are moments in history when it matters who is is holding a particular office and decides whether or not to go to war: examples include not only the Kaiser, considering war in 1914, but more recently George Bush and Tony Blair in 2001. Those choices could have been made very differently by another person in power at that moment: there was nothing inevitable about them. As such, we cannot get away from the significance of these key individuals, though they also need context, and a careful consideration of the relationship between the person and their times. These means reflecting on the ‘unspoken assumptions of any time’ such as what is taught in schools, the prevailing beliefs and values, and contemporary conceptions of ideals such as manliness and honour.

Nevertheless, there are individuals who not just products of their time but actually transcend and shape those times. Bismarck is the class example of this phenomenon: modern Germany would not exist in the same form without his unique combination of brilliance and ambition – though of course, Prussian nationalism, growing economy and military strength also played a crucial role. But there are drawbacks to this model of leadership: Bismarck created a system which perhaps only he could run.

There are a number of leaders who might fairly, perhaps, be described as the only individual who could have done what they did. Nixon is a good example: with his staunch anti-communist background, he was perhaps the only person who could achieve a rapprochement with China. Margaret Thatcher is also relevant here: she was lucky in that the time was right for her brand of politics; but she did not just ride the tide but rather pushed British politics in a particular direction. FDR is another example: would there have been another US president who could persuade the public of the need for an internationalist outlook and to support Britain in its greatest hour of need? At the other extreme are Hitler and Stalin: other German and Soviet leaders might not have been so utterly ruthless in pursuit of their goals. Biographers of these figures generally agree that without their presence, history would have been very different. Having focused on key decisions at critical moment, Professor MacMillan paused to ask how much history is shaped by indecisiveness: for example, Gordon Brown’s failure to call an election early in his term.

Professor MacMillan concluded by suggesting that there are huge personalities who are able to seize power by capturing the mood of their time. But there have to be forces at work within society that allow that person to operate. This balance between the personal and the political seems the ideal thought with which to conclude this fascinating lecture series.

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