On writing about the dead
“What is the historical imagination? It’s the ability to see small and think big. Just thinking big leads you to Spenglerian melodrama and fantasy; just seeing small makes you miss history altogether while seeming to study it.”
Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, January 16 2012
I’m writing a book about a Victorian woman. Well, that’s slightly misleading. I think I’m probably writing a book ‘about’ faith, morality, adventure, Africa, love and death. But it does centre around a woman named Rebecca Wakefield (1844 – 1873), who was the first Englishwoman to travel as a missionary to the part of East Africa that is now Kenya.
In the early weeks of researching the period, I felt as though I had zeroed in on a very special and particular slice of history: familiar and yet utterly strange, teetering on the cusp of the modern age. Rebecca Wakefield travelled to East Africa just before the light bulb, Greenwich Mean Time, and the Suez Canal. She took tremendous risks – which led directly to her death in the “mission field” along with her infant son – in pursuit of an ideal of service and sustained by a type of faith that seem utterly alien to me. Yet her voice, which speaks unmediated from her letters and diary entries across the intervening 150 years, is familiar and entirely human; she’s someone with whom I can easily imagine having a conversation.
More recently, I’ve realised that many if not most biographers must feel this way about their pet period: this enthralling mixture of alienation and belonging. To exercise our historical imagination is to call forth individuals out of the vast generalities of the past, in an effort to understand those generalities; in Adam Gopnik’s words, to “see small and think big”.
In the traditional philosophies of East Africa, time is not a linear process – past, present, future. Instead, time as a concept exists in two fields: small time, which encompasses the day-to-day life of the community and its living memories; and big time, which contains the whole of history and the whole of the future. When a person dies, they stay ‘alive’ in small time for as long as people talk about him or her by name. After four generations or so, their spirit passes into big time and becomes nameless, a blurred echo.
Rebecca Wakefield was not a particularly important or distinguished woman: not a philosopher, a politician or a saint. But her individual identity is for me a touchpoint, a way in to understanding the larger picture of the past. And so I am conjuring her back from the small time departure lounge, before she disappears entirely into the soup of history.