Nonfiction Review: Love Among the Archives

Sir George Scharf was a confirmed bachelor, an artistic director, a nearly-professional diner-out, a Victorian sometimes described as "the most boring man in the world." Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol, two English professors, spent 17 years researching, interpreting, and misinterpreting his biography. Love Among the Archives is the story of that time and of George's life—in its many iterations.

Love Among the ArchivesMidway through the second chapter of Love Among the Archives: Writing the Lives of Sir George Scharf, Victorian Bachelor, Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol describe an experience Warhol had in spring of 2011. Warhol was researching George Scharf’s life in London, as usual, as they both had been for the past decade. She was rereading his diaries, this time looking for a relationship they had missed in their initial archival expeditions. As Warhol paged through Scharf’s diaries, she experienced emotions she typically associated with novel reading: anxiety, suspense, shock shared with a protagonist, and disappointment.

I was there that day to meet Robyn for tea in the National Portrait Gallery Café and to witness her, sad and distracted, as she came to the conclusion of Scharf’s great romance. Dear Jack—Scharf, they found late in their research, appeared to be gay—was to be married. Scharf was heartbroken, and so was Robyn.

I was there, too, for an episode Michie and Warhol discuss later on, one in which, presenting on Scharf for the North American Victorian Studies Association, they found that they had misinterpreted one of his illustrations. In a sketch of his patron’s daughter, Michie and Warhol found “with love” written neatly in the folds of her skirt. On the projector screen provided by the conference, these words writ large were obviously, and disappointingly “black lace.” If the prior experience, reading for a romance in the margins of a diary, might be called “archival elation,” this latter, substituting love for lace, is almost certainly one of “archival deflation”—the feeling, so familiar to researchers of any sort, that comes with the disappointing product. The find that is, in the end, nothing special, at all.

Both of these episodes are themselves unusual finds for readers of Victorian life writing, as they are for readers of more conventionally academic tomes. Biographers aren’t generally expected to lay their interpretive mistakes out for readers’ benefit, nor is it common practice to spend as much time thinking about the narratives that help researchers make sense of lives as these two do. For Michie and Warhol, however, process is as much the point of their project as is the life of Sir George Scharf, himself. More than a biography, more even than an archival mystery, though it is both of these, Love Among the Archives is a critical evaluation of how we read and interpret others’ lives, and our own. To the extent that it is an academic metabiography concerned with acts of interpretation, it belongs on a shelf with such works as Jill Lepore’s The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin and Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn. What is more, with its concern for tedium, marginalia, and the middle-class Victorian subject, Love Among the Archives might also be said to be a timely reevaluation of the middles we are rapidly losing.

As for George Scharf, he was a confirmed Victorian bachelor. He cared for his mother and aunt, held dinners at his home and ate, constantly, at those of others’. He was a middle-class public servant who worked for the wealthy and titled, and who worried about his finances. His personal written records—decades worth of diaries— are little more than itemized accounts of the weather, seating charts, and spending.

And yet, George Scharf was Sir George Scharf by the time he died. Though Michie and Warhol read his life in each of four chapters as a diner-out, a romantic partner, the head of a family, and a social climber, they acknowledge that Scharf had other claims to fame as the first Director of the National Portrait Gallery, an art historian, and as an artist himself. His name, like that of his father, litters the footnotes of many scholarly works; what makes a man a footnote, however, is a different thing entirely than what raises him to the level of biographical subject. Scharf has never been famous or exceptional enough to warrant a biography of his own, and Michie and Warhol resist the historian’s urge to make the man they affectionately call George into a representative subject, standing in for an entire class of people. Instead, recognizing that each descriptive identifier—professional, diner, illustrator, son—tells a story that by its nature precludes other kinds of stories, Michie and Warhol have written a biography that avoids fixity, one that reflects their own learning process of 17 years of interpretations and reinterpretations. What they produce is a complex reckoning with Scharf’s life in its many iterations—aiming for a fullness missing in many biographies—as well as a reckoning with their personal investments in Scharf’s biography.

Appropriately for a book organized chronologically by Michie’s and Warhol’s research, which they call “archival time,” Love Among the Archives begins in the archive itself, with a fat and carefully curated album of dining cards and menus from aristocratic houses. The menus bloom extravagant dishes, often including more than 15 servings at every meal and multiple kinds of wine. Though they came to the project through their mutual interest in Victorian food, Michie and Warhol eventually found themselves curious about the album’s compiler. That interest led them from the British Library, to the National Portrait Gallery Archives, to Xanthos in Turkey and the attics of an iconic British country house, and eventually to recreating one of Scharf’s dinner parties in Michie’s home. All are access points to Scharf’s life, providing the pair with new, archival ways of knowing him. In the ephemeral archive they access Scharf through his hobby of dining well. In the institutional archive, through his personal papers, diaries, and letters, and those of his family and employers—Scharf was exceptional enough, at least, to have his things preserved for posterity. And if the monumental archives are relational, chances to measure George’s sketches and descriptions against reality, the visceral archive is, unnervingly enough, for Michie and Warhol a chance to dine on, if not with, George: to experience the weight of the food he ate, to imagine what his body might feel like.

It’s only later in their story, after years of reading, eating, and presenting papers on Scharf at conference after conference—amassing an academic, George Scharf fan club of sorts—that Michie and Warhol begin to think more closely about how they have been interpreting his life. As they came to recognize that Sir George Scharf was not the aristocrat implied by his title, and that his professional identity was the product of much upward climbing, they also realized that the signifiers they had been relying upon were poor guideposts to his biography. What came out of this moment of clarity, in addition to a dinner party, were reassessments of the dominant narratives, located in novels but also in life, that come to stand in for nuance and specificity, and which often blind us to reality: the marriage plot, the coming of age, and the professional rise. It’s not so much that life imitates art, they show, but that we want it to.

Michie and Warhol, consummate novel readers and interpreters that they are, sought out a marriage plot almost from the moment they opened Scharf’s diaries. As the two somewhat shamefacedly admit, they persevered through the tedium that made up Sharf’s accounts because of a “lurking conviction that everyone, no matter how unremarkable, has a story you can find if you just pay close enough attention.” Subscribing to dominant Victorian cultural narratives, they looked for love in every mention of a single woman—to no avail. Only later did they realize that, instead of reading Scharf’s largely plotless diaries for plot, they “had to follow food, recursive time and (especially) money” to find where Scharf had expended effort, emotional or otherwise. There, they found Jack, the heartbreaker, among other live-in partners: they found a story that runs contrary to virtually all knowledge scholars have of homosexual men in the decades before Oscar Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name.”

So it goes, too, for the other narratives Michie and Warhol find themselves grafting onto Scharf’s life: the coming of age narrative, the professional success narrative, even the country house narrative. Michie and Warhol undermine each of their initial interpretations, finding without fail that, when they focus on the minutia often glossed over in traditional biography, they reach an understanding of Scharf that undermines the résumé’s short-hand. Instead of growing up and moving out of his parents’ household, Scharf moves his aged relatives in with him. Instead of becoming financially independent, his accounts are always in straightened circumstances. Instead of staying in the middle-class place delineated by his mixed home and financial precarcity, he becomes the dear friend and almost family member of aristocrats, ensconced within the family quarters in their homes. And he entangles his professional life, permanently, with his personal life, far contrary to the way we imagine Victorian middle-class men to have lived. The reality of Scharf’s life continually exceeds the stories that have been told about him—even their own. And this, Michie and Warhol admit, remains true despite the fact that their knowledge can only ever be partial: dependent on their investments in him as well as incomplete.

Tacit throughout their readings is the assumption that most people approach each other thus, that we are all guilty of ignoring the details that make life both interesting and rich. So too is the assumption that there is real benefit in reading closely. Though Michie and Warhol don’t quite come out and say it, their book, in probing the semi-exceptional for the mediocre, becomes an essay against exceptionalism itself. To put Michie’s and Warhol’s work in the context of the dominant cultural narratives of their own time and place, a time when the American middle class is widely known to be shrinking, Love Among the Archives is a testament to the value of middles themselves: of messy stories; of stories that seem singular but which turn out to be many; of the times in life when the story itself is unclear. As they tell it:

“Our adventures in the Scharf archive did not begin at the beginning of his life, and they took up a large chunk of our own middle years. We seemed always to find ourselves in the middle of writing, gathering information, and of the record of Scharf’s life. Of the thousands of pages of diaries and letters we read that were composed during Scharf’s middle age, the segment of life when long repetition establishes the patterns by which one is likely to continue to live.”

George’s story, Michie and Warhol know, is intimately tied to their own stories, and it is so in part because his story is that of a middle-class individual in a time of great change, more complexly told than those stories usually are. His narrative, like so many others, is one that sounds better when told broadly: otherwise, it’s uneasy and crowded with detail, not unlike those of middle class families today. Those stories, Michie and Warhol emphasize, have at least as much value as the master narratives that continually obscure them. Through their quest to “abandon canonical stories” in pursuit of the day-to-day and to consider how Scharf was “visible” to his friends and colleagues, Michie and Warhol ask us to reconsider how we all might be visible, or invisible, to those around us. Who, after all, gets to be seen?

“This book is a love story—no matter how embarrassing these words are to write or, perhaps, to read,” so begins Michie’s and Warhol’s introduction. “Love,” especially when divorced from the master narratives that speak to its grandeur, falls into the class of middling things that capture these authors’ interests. This book, however, is proof of that love’s value. For all Love Among the Archives’ engagement with Victorian history, lifewriting, or metabiography—and these are many and significant—love for their project and, as they say “even for each other” lies behind its every sentence. As Warhol and Michie acknowledge, that the book exists at all is a testament to the broader love and keener interest in a middle-aged, middle-class Victorian man shared by the many academic colleagues who helped prepare grandiose Victorian dinners, listened to conference presentations, pushed back upon their interpretations and pushed them to ready George Scharf, in his many iterations, for public consumption.

Embarrassing perhaps because fickle, because oh-so-prosaic, “love” is a word we use when we aren’t quite good at words: “I love her,” “I love that,” and, if we are lucky, “I love my job.” Even if we feel love deeply, strive for love, it’s hard not to recognize that, as cultural prestige goes, love is the domain of the teenage pop star or the Disney movie. Michie and Warhol show, however, that love for the ordinary and even repetitious manages to avoid mundanity. Scharf’s love for Jack, his work, and his friends, not unlike Michie’s and Warhol’s many loves, is surprisingly delicious.

Love Among the Archives: Writing the Lives of George Scharf, Victorian Bachelor by Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol (Edinburgh University Press, 2015)

Reviewer: Cecily Erin Hill writes about literature, culture, and narrative from her home base in Columbus, Ohio. As Director of Marketing and Communications for [email protected], a public humanities nonprofit, she edits the blog, The Notebook.

Submit a comment