Interview With Liza Picard Social Historian Essay

Interview With Liza Picard, Social Historian Essay, Research Paper Literary London, warts and allOn Grub Street, the ghost of Dr Johnson nods approvingly at the writers of recent tomes about London. Historians Roy Porter and Stephen Inwood have penned centuries-wide panoramas; David Kynaston has probed the City as a money mint in four fat volumes.

Interview With Liza Picard, Social Historian Essay, Research Paper

Literary London, warts and allOn Grub Street, the ghost of Dr Johnson nods approvingly at the writers of recent tomes about London. Historians Roy Porter and Stephen Inwood have penned centuries-wide panoramas; David Kynaston has probed the City as a money mint in four fat volumes. There are biographers of legendary Londoners: Adrian Tinniswsood has renovated Wren, and Clare Tomalin is working on Pepys. There are novelist/historians, led by Peter Ackroyd; and novelists proper – Ackroyd again; Sinclair, Moorcock and Beryl Bainbridge. Bainbridge is one of two women at whom Dr Johnson’s ghost might scowl: she has brazenly fictionalised his life in a forthcoming novel. The other is Liza Picard. She has toiled away at a social history of the London Johnson knew as a resident, and dares to say she dislikes the man himself: too much a bellower, a bully and an anti-feminist. But Johnson would applaud Picard’s frank declaration of where she’s coming from: “I am not a properly trained historian. I am a lawyer by trade, and an inquisitive, practical woman by character.” It wasn’t till Picard retired as a lawyer with the Inland Revenue – “I couldn’t wait and neither could they; there were mutual sighs of relief” – that the chance to realise a long-held ambition came. “When I was 21 and very newly called to the Bar, I did write a book. I got £25 for it; it was a rivetting publication called Questions and Answers on Private International Law. It wasn’t very good, and I often wondered if that was to be my one and only book.” It wasn’t, but the book she set to write in her 60s didn’t happen either. Having immersed herself in the many volumes, annotated and unexpurgated, of Pepys’s daily (and nightly) doings, she thought she would try to construct a life of his wife, Elizabeth. She ended up with lots of notes about the domestic side of their household, but not enough for a full life of Mrs Pepys. Another problem arose when she decided to turn her researches into a social history: a guide to practical writing told her to target a group of likely readers, and aim for them. She thought of the Guardian women’s page. But her efforts, she says ruefully, were so awful that she gave up the manual, and decided to write to please herself. The result was the typescript of Restoration London, followed by “a fat pile of rejection slips”, until an agent steered it to Weidenfeld. Elizabethan London, which she is compiling at home in Oxford, will complete the trilogy. Picard, 73, is a bit of a stately matron, but without any pretentiousness. She has turned being a late starter and an unashamedly plodding researcher into virtues. Take her method, “my splendid, old-fashioned card-index”, divided into themed references to churches, philanthropy, poverty, fashions, language, pleasures, beauty – until a big mosaic is built up. These themes then form chapters, each broken down into many small sub-sections. It is a technique she got from writing briefs for counsel, she says: small, manageable pieces that are more reader-friendly than long, written-through chapters. “As far as possible, I use primary sources, which possibly distinguishes my efforts from other books, because it’s very tempting to lift other people’s research. But it doesn’t come to the same thing – if you can possibly get somebody of the time speaking, then it always produces a much more vivid picture, however well an erudite academic has summarised him.” For her first two books, her main guides were Pepys and, for Restoration London , the Gentleman’s Magazine , which seems to have been an even more fecund source of mores and morals than Dr Johnson himself. But though the sources were male, Picard insists that, when it comes to interpreting material, women make the best social historians. “If I may be sexist, I think it’s because women have to be concerned to some extent with cooking and washing and cleaning, and they enjoy dress and cosmetics. The first social historian I read was G M Trevelyan: it was brilliant for the time. The field’s been invaded by women since, but my books are full of fiddling, everyday details.” But delving into old ways of cooking and cleaning haven’t made her a more efficient housekeeper, to allow more time for writing. Home chores, and gardening and entertaining, often go by the board: the books take precedence. Anyway, domestic remedies then and now are often different. In the 18th century, Londoners “were very good on getting rid of bedbugs, but that’s not one of my problems – touch wood”. Picard’s research doesn’t only involve sedentary sessions in libraries. She’s out and about, sleuthing, to find answers. For her next book, she has been to see the wardrobe mistress at the Globe, “who knows about how to make and wear and wash Elizabethan clothes than any living person”. “Now that I’ve had two books published, I feel I’ve got some sort of status, if not of a professional historian, at least of some quirky sort of author,” Picard says. She used to be terrified that professional historians would pick holes in her text. “Now I find that as long as I make it clear that I really have tried to find the answer, and that I’m very greatful for any sources people can point me towards, people are extraordinary helpful.” Her one regret is that there is no contemporary chronicler of the Elizabethan period whose accounts she can pore over. “I wish I could find a nice, long, legible diarist like Pepys – but there isn’t one. There is a marvellous man called Machen who did keep a diary, but unfortunately, he was a funeral provider. So, for a social historian, it’s not very productive.”