A Magical Day Out

 Harrington blue plaque. Photograph by John Gurney.

Harrington blue plaque. Photograph by John Gurney.

In my memory, 25 July 2013 has taken on a special, magical quality. It was a great day in its own right, but its place in my memory is particularly treasured because it can never now be repeated. I was staying with my husband, John Gurney, and our two young children at my parents’ house. It was the beginning of the long summer holiday, the weather was good, and my parents had agreed to look after the children in order to give John and I a rare day alone together. The original idea had been just to go out for lunch, but John (like me an historian) had other plans. He had realised that James Harrington, a seventeenth-century political thinker central to my research, had links to several Northamptonshire villages near to where my parents lived. John had started to get interested in Harrington himself and so we decided to go on a pilgrimage to look at some of the houses, churches and plaques relating to Harrington and his family, before lunching in a pub. This may not sound like everyone’s idea of a treat, but for John and me it was perfect. It gave us the opportunity to escape the constant demands of life with young children for a few hours and to rekindle the foundations on which our relationship was built: our mutual interest in seventeenth-century history; our passion for talking about and sharing our ideas; and our love of visiting historical places (as well as our enjoyment of large pub lunches). There was also the sense that this might be the first of many such days. With our youngest child due to start primary school the following September, the possibility of spending a bit more time on our own together was starting to open up.

 Harrington's house at Milton Malsor, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

Harrington's house at Milton Malsor, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

Little did I know at that point that far from being the first summer of the rest of our lives, 2013 would be my penultimate summer with my wonderful husband, and the last one before our lives would be torn apart by John’s cancer diagnosis. John died just fifteen months later on 8 December 2014. Nothing prepares you for a tragedy of this nature. Before John’s diagnosis I was always amazed by the ability of others in dire circumstances to cope and carry on. All too suddenly I found myself on the other side of the mirror and, of course, I too coped and found others amazed by my resilience. Yet to me it didn’t feel like coping. That implied a conscious choice. Whereas with two children and a job that I couldn’t give up (even if I had wanted to) the only option was to get out of bed each morning and continue. In a funny way I think the urge to carry on actually provided me with the means to do so. There were, however, other lifelines that I instinctively reached out for in those early months. One that proved particularly important to me was my, at times unhealthy, obsession with grief literature. I devoured Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life (by far the cream of this niche genre) in one evening’s sitting. I also read a whole host of material of a more varied quality: memoirs, fiction, blogs, newspaper articles - anything I could get my hands on. The authors of these works helped me to feel less alone. They reminded me that my situation is actually more ‘normal’ than it sometimes feels out there in the real world. These works also aroused within me an insatiable desire to deal with my own grief in a creative way. I had no illusions about writing a blockbuster memoir. Julian Barnes was a great novelist long before his wife died. It wasn’t this experience that made him one. Following this logic, the obvious outlet for my creative yearning was to write something historical. I had been an historian before I had met John and my status as an historian was not (outwardly at least) affected by his death. It was one of the few constants in my identity at a time when everything else seemed to have been turned upside down and I was having to come to terms with new labels that I had not chosen for myself. Moreover, John had left me a kind of signpost for the direction that this work might take.

 Upton Church, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

Upton Church, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

Both before and after our magical day in Northamptonshire, John had been making notes on Harrington. Using the research skills he had honed first as a DPhil student at Sussex University and later at the Historical Manuscripts Commission, he had tracked down all kinds of  information about Harrington’s family connections, his activities during the Civil War, his friends and associates. By the time he died, John had produced hundreds of pages of hand-written notes and references detailing this research. We had talked a bit about his findings both on our day out and afterwards. We had vague ideas of writing a book together, with John researching and writing the sections on Harrington’s life and me contributing chapters on his ideas. When it became clear that the treatment wasn’t working, and that John had very little time for any more historical writing, we talked more about this project. In one of many poignant conversations that we had in John’s last weeks, he mentioned these notes, told me where they were, and made clear that they were mine to do what I wanted with after he was gone. They were an odd parting gift in many respects, but they were very much in keeping with our relationship. Those notes provided me with a lasting link to my husband’s talents and passions. In working through them I was, paradoxically, both drawn closer to him and also given the means to continue my journey as an historian alone. They acted as a bridge between our old life and my new one, and as a bridge they protected me from the yawning chasm below which might otherwise have swallowed me up.

While I knew where the notes were, and while I knew that I wanted to work through them, I did not feel strong enough to do so until about six months after John had died. Even then it was, to begin with, an extremely painful experience. I had not realised before just how evocative of personality handwriting can be. To begin with just reading the notes made me cry. Quite quickly, though, it became comforting, a way of feeling close to John while continuing with my work. Of course at times it was also a deeply frustrating experience. John’s handwriting was not easily legible at the best of times, and when he was scribbling down references on scraps of paper to remind himself of what he had found, it could become almost completely indecipherable. What made it worse was the abbreviations. John evidently had a whole catalogue of acronyms in his head that he regularly used, particularly for the titles of key sources. Some I worked out relatively quickly, but others, including A&O for Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum flummoxed me for some time. On numerous occasions I sat and wept because I could not simply run downstairs to John’s study to ask him what a seemingly random series of letters meant. On the other hand when I finally worked out the meaning of a particular short-hand term, I felt a small rush of triumph as the cypher suddenly disclosed a whole raft of new information to follow up.

 Plaque commemorating James Harrington in Upton Church, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

Plaque commemorating James Harrington in Upton Church, Northants. Photograph by John Gurney.

As I slowly worked through John’s notes I began to realise that they could act as a bridge in another way too. They provided me with a whole new way of seeing Harrington: one that challenges the conventional republican reading of him and reveals previously hidden aspects of his life and thought for investigation. This new vision of Harrington has also led me to new formats and modes of communication, not least as a reflection of Harrington’s own playful and experimental attitude towards genre and form. This blog is just one facet of my exploration of this new territory. I will use it to present elements of my new interpretation of Harrington (though this will be developed in full in the book on which I am currently working). It will also be a vehicle for reflecting on the range of sources that I’m using in my research: what can be gained from them; and some of the quirky information I’ve found in them. Finally, it will allow me to log this journey that John set up for me, but which I must travel alone.