Jan. 26th, 2016

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Still feeling spacy; I have a head cold that just won't quit, and though I'm getting 7 hours of sleep a night, for at least a week they've been interrupted by either my coughs or by Ciro getting in or out of bed to leave early for work or stay up late to finish a podcast, or last night it was tooth pain. January is generally my least favorite month, even though I like its name; it's the month that's cold and dark and has no holidays, plus everyone's dieting or budgeting carefully or staying home to finish up things they neglected in December. I'm not exactly an exception to this; both Ciro and I are working like crazy to get our savings back to a "safe" level. (I say "no holidays" but our wedding anniversary was two days ago. We were not in a position to do much, but we did eat a fancy pastry with lots of rum in it.)

My current doomed quest is, I'm working on an article for Atlas Obscura about William Beatty, the surgeon responsible for transporting Admiral Horatio Nelson's body back to London from Trafalgar. He's a dead interesting guy, and to a certain extent this is an essay I could write in my sleep. I've been fascinated with Nelson since I visited the H.M.S. Victory when I was 8, and I've been obsessed with funerary preservation practices for a lot longer than that. (I saw a dumb meme on Tumblr that asked "were you a space kid or a dinosaur kid?" First of all, both. [That's why it's stupid.] But secondly, has everyone forgotten about pyramids suddenly?) However...

However, there is a contention I've seen in several secondary sources and Beatty's own autobiography, which claims he was roundly (and wrongly) criticized by the British press for his choice of preservatory liquid. However, nobody quotes one of these alleged criticisms directly. It has the air of a cross between "my nan told me" and "I felt underpraised." I want it to be true. It may be true. But I don't feel I can say absolutely that it was true until I see it in print in a newspaper that was issued in November or December of 1805. And really, in order to figure out how widespread this attitude was (if it did exist), I'd need to check all the major newspapers.

So basically to do this properly involves original research that would take about a year, during which I'd need to live in London and Portsmouth and maybe Norwitch so I could access a lot of non-digital archives, and afterward I'd be the sole living expert on the subject and would probably be issued a doctorate in media studies. It's not an appropriate level of effort for one sentence in a 1500-word pop history piece.

Nevetheless, I've sent lots of e-mails to lots of archivists at lots of British libraries, some of whom have been very polite and helpful (special shout-out to the National Maritime History Museum in Greenwitch), as well as my relevant connections in academia and the library field. I've promised myself I'll settle for simply filling in the variable x in the sentence "In those two months, there were X items in The Times of London concerning the Victory's progress toward home." It's not really what I'm looking for, but it seems achievable since I can probably (for a fee) get online access to the relevant archive, and it would contextualize the sense of pressure and attendant performance anxiety one might expect from Beatty.

I have sensibly agreed to a file date that's two weeks out so that I can't let the research take over my life. Not that I necessarily use my time that well otherwise; my main focus over the weekend was Absurdist yet literary fanfiction about Yoko Ono. But this is the reason I can't manage longform historical fiction; I get hung up on figuring out the mineral content of the drinking water in Manchester in 1915 and how that influenced the taste of different tea blends.


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