Dust, the Archive, and _The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane_ (Katherine Howe, 2009)

August 2, 2013 at 2:11 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

Caroline Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Rutgers U. P., 2002) traces the origins of Derrida’s “archive fever” back to the Victorians.  She describes  “exceImagessive attention to the bed, an irresistible anxiety about the hundreds who have slept there  before you, leaving their dust and debris in the fibres of the blankets, greasing the surface of the heavy, slippery counterpane” (17).  In this description, she conflates a strong bodily awareness of objects’ history with the historian’s professional preoccupation with finding traces of the past.  By locating this “anxiety” in the bedroom, Steedman makes it personal, and intimate in a way that is almost sexual.

Steedman’s analysis places this attention to dust–to the personal, physical traces of bodies that can be found in the archive–in a variety of nineteenth-century sources.  She’s looking at the work of Michelet, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s works, among others.  In my dissertation, I am equally focused on the nineteenth century. I’m looking at how memories and physical relics can be assembled to create the impression of a living presence that, although it is built upon the body of the author, ultimately transcends the physical.

As I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into this project (so deep, in fact, that it’s finally almost done!), I’ve actually been caught by surprise.  The intersection between bodies and memory that’s caught my interest in Victorian texts is turning up in unexpected places.

Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dance didn’t fit into my dissertation; it’s not VictoriImagean (being published about 110 years too late) and it’s also not neo-Victorian, since the protagonist is studying the Salem Witch Trials.  I ran across The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in our local library a couple of weeks ago, though, and picked it up out of curiosity.  Hey, I have a weakness for historical novels!  This particular novel features a grad student who, in researching the 17th century, finds herself drawn into a more personal relationship with the past. (No, not time travel!  Although I have something of a weakness for time travel novels, too…) Anyway, the story sounded compelling, and I picked it up.  For better recaps than I can give in a few words, check out the ever-reliable Amazon.

So, in the interests of full disclosure, I did enjoy the book.  My enjoyment was somewhat mitigated by the magical powers which the heroine develops–it didn’t work for me, although I’ve read and loved my fair share of fantasy novels.  But here’s what I found really interesting, in terms of my recent research on historical memory and the reanimation of bodies:  This magic first manifests itself as an ability to experience a tactile relationship with the bodies of the past.

A few examples:

As her fingertip touched the surface of the page, Connie saw with stunning clarity the image of a smiling woman’s face, freckled, shaded by a broad straw hat.  She was old, her blue eyes lidded and soft, and she was laughing at something.  Then just as instantly the impression vanished, and Connie felt like the breath had been squeezed out of her chest.  The intensity of the effect was staggering.  Connie no longer felt like she could explain it to herself as a daydream;the sensation was utterly different, like having the real world replaced with a bright cellophane film still, overlying her field of vision. (76)


Connie stared at the document for a few minutes, thoughts simmering.  She closed her eyes and began to construct a picture of the stark rooms that would have been the scene of Deliverance’s life.  She began with an imprecise, standard pattern of the interior of a late-seventeenth-century house, wooden-floored, large hearth, empty.  Slowly, the paper revealed clues that Connie painted into her mind’s picture, building layers of detail, as an artist shades in blocks of color. (96)


 The house had soaked up the summer heat while she was away at the archive, filtering it though the layers of wood and plaster and horsehair insulation until warmth filled each corner of every room.  It seemed especially thick in the entry near the stairs, like a wall; crossing the threshold into the house always gave Connie a measure of pause.  But  now her hypothesis buzzed in her head, and the tingling heat of the house on her skin melded with the energy in her nerves until her whole being felt alert, watchful.  (107)


Under the table Connie tugged on each gloved fingertip, slipped her left hand out its warm cotton cover, and crept the naked hand across the desk to brush her skin over the handwriting on he page.  Prudence’s own hand hand moved over that same page, pressed into the paper.  The ink carried little ancient flecks of her skin where she had licked her quill tip, or had rubbed out a word.  Connie tried to reach into the realm that Prudence and Mercy had occupied, tried to conjure the sensation that would illuminate Prudence’s vanished self.  Her fingers came to rest on a narrow block of passages written at the end of the page, words cramped together like little ants disassembling a beetle.  (162)

In each of these passages, the book–the literary relic of a long-dead writer–produces the body of its author.  The heroine’s ability to function as a historian depends upon her capacity to reconstruct the past.  In and of itself, this seems self-evident: any construction of history must present a re-assembled version of the past.  In The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, however, as in many of the nineteenth-century works that I’ve been studying, the assembly of the past takes place through the interaction of the historical subject’s body with that of the historian.   I’m identifying a progression in these passages: first, Connie [the heroine] merely sees a vision of a woman–clearly spectral–but by the last passage, she actively seeks the traces of her subject’s body in the handwritten text on the page.  She’s finding the traces of Steedman’s “dust” in the archive, and she’s turning it into a body that can itself be read. 



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