Thursday, June 5, 2014

Stint at SOAS Library

In front of the School of Oriental and African Studies - aka SOAS - is a statue of the ancient Tamil poet and philosopher Thiruva’l’luvar. Naturally, I had to consult him on how best to approach my day’s work.
 At first, I was not so sure that he had been much help. At the front desk of SOAS, I was curtly informed by a clerk - whose job it was to be as curt as possible - that my entry to the library was impossible. Apparently, the library and archives would be closed for the rest of this week to give students more space during the lead up to their final exams. Long story short, I finally did make it through the turnstile.

Once at the library front desk, there was one staff person who was dubious about my ability to be granted entry, and a second who was regretful, but after I produced two letters attesting to my bona fides as a legitimate researcher, it turned out that there was indeed one other option. Apparently, I could become a member for a month, but it would cost me £30. After this, there was one more glitch. No sooner had I ponied up the coin and signed the forms, than I found out that the archives – my main interest – are always closed on Wednesdays, one of my three available days. Note to self: read archive websites thoroughly before booking flights.

Now that my research there is done, I can tell you that my £30 was money well spent. The archives of Charles Stewart Addis, which were my main reason for being there, start in 1881 when he was in London, and continue for several decades after 1883 when he started with HSBC in the Far East. Like his mentor, Thomas Jackson, Addis was later knighted for his service to the British Empire. Also like his mentor, it seems that he was a kind and thoughtful man – a real mensch. Had I more time, I would have read every entry in his dozens of diaries. As it was, I read enough of them to feel as if he was beside me – peering over my shoulder - wanting me to understand him and his times. And I felt as if I did, at least a little.

On his 28th birthday, he agonized about not having amounted to much. A few years later, he fretted over how much he was in need of a wife to steady him. As I read on, partly in a focused manner, and partly at random, I realized how rudimentary the indexing of the diaries was. Although it had been a useful start and I had used it to note all mentions of Jackson, even so reading through several of the diaries, just for the fun of it, I discovered many more mentions.

Addis didn’t just dine occasionally with Jackson, as the index had lead me to believe, but often they were together night after night. No wonder that Jackson, who frequently referred to Addis as a disciple, would later become a godfather to Addis’ son Thomas – the choice of name is telling, and when Jackson died in 1915 at his desk on Lombard Street, it was Addis who broke the sad news to Amelia who was up in Stansted. Addis then took on all the work of arranging for the funeral, not a simple task when the War was on, and the Jackson boys were all in uniform, some on the front.

The other aspect in the diaries which surprised me was Addis’s social life. Yes, he and his fellow bachelor bank staff did go to the race track, play never-ending games of billiards, and threw themselves into activities such as rowing, cricket, rugby and such, but by far their most frequent activity was their after-dinner walks. These included hours of substantial chat. They didn’t just gossip and natter on about bank business. More often than not, talks with Addis turned to philosophy, theology, and Chinese culture. He was one of those exceptional men of his time who had taken pains to learn the languages. In fact, like Thiruva’l’luvar, Addis was known to his fellow bankers as something of a philosopher himself.

Last mail brought me a thunderbolt.
Addis the philosopher engaged to be married.
What next – almost as bad as Mills.
You are one of my very dear old boys and I wish you all and every happiness – give my warmest feelings to Mrs. Addis (she will be when this reaches you)
I hope soon to make her acquaintance.
Letter from Jackson to Addis, May 24, 1894.

The letters collection was just as absorbing as the diaries had been. The thing is that for much of human history the women are usually the hardest to learn much about, and Jackson’s wife, Amelia, was no exception. She may have been a force in her own right, but truth be told, the feel for her life had eluded me – that is until I had parted with my £30. It was worth every penny to be able to hold a handful of her letters as I read and absorbed them. Curiously, her penmanship is very much like her husband’s – assertive, without ornament.

In one of them she talked about the opening of the Women’s Pavilion at the Ladies Club in Hong Kong.
I write a line to tell you that the Pavilion at the Ladies Club will be ready for use on or after Thursday next.

The date of the opening of the Pavilion has always been uncertain – see a post on Gwulo -  and even though the letter where Amelia mentions its opening is undated, she also mentions in the same letter the loss of Sir Harry Parkes. He had died of malarial fever on March 21, 1885, so this means that her letter was likely sent sometime late in March of 1885, hence we now have a likely date for the Pavilion opening as well as a sense for how central her fund-raising efforts had been – since this was a letter of thanks.

Like the diaries, it is not only the individual letters that matter so much, but the feel of them when read in the order in which they were written. Like so many woman in her circumstance, she agonized about where to live when the needs of her children’s schooling lay in England, while the needs of her husband’s career lay in Hong Kong. When her husband had to return to the Far East, after a brief retirement, she agonized over what to do. It was the advice of her older brother Julius – a bachelor - which helped her to decide.

Regrettably, since she followed Julius’ advice to stay with the children in England, she never did see him again. He died two years later in Yokohama of cholera, as did their mother who had nursed him through his illness.

Meanwhile, Thomas couldn’t even move back into Creggan, their family home on The Peak in Hong Kong. It had been already emptied out when they had all left eighteen months earlier with the expectation that Jackson would serve the Bank in its London offices. The costs of refurbishing it felt exorbitant for just one person. For several years, he then made his home at the bank’s official residence in downtown Hong Kong, living solo.

One tragedy, from a research perspective, is that most of the letters between Amelia and her husband – and they wrote at least once a week – have all disappeared. We know from the letters in this archive that Thomas had saved many of these and other letters amongst his treasures but the only family letters that I have been able to unearth so far are the ones on my website, of which 77 of them were supposedly found in a bog – literally unearthed. The letters saved by Addis are the first that I have seen from Amelia at all.

It is from these letters that I was able to catch a glimpse of the lives of their children:

Kathleen has gone to Dresden for a year to learn language, music, paintings &c – what is called finishing I believe – Amy is at School here, and doing very well, she is especially losing all traces of “the fiddle” of bygone days. Tommy is at Cheltenham. Bee and Julius at school here – Dot the queen of the house. ….Tommy is just a regular school boy & a frightful chatterbox.

Through the letters, we can also catch a glimpse of the nature of the marriage which Thomas and Amelia shared – and shared  is the operative word. I felt something of the ache that Amelia must have felt when Thomas was in Hong Kong and she lived at their home at Chiselhurst in Oakbank south of London:

I lead a very quiet life now that my husband is away – so different to Hong Kong – but I should like it very much if he were here. We have a nice house & the country about it beautiful, especially just now with the AutumnI know he works hard everyone tells me, the time will pass quickly but I doubt it. I do not at all like the idea of his being as long out there without a home…

Tomorrow, I will be flying home, and will match the information gleaned from these letters and diaries with other bits that I have found elsewhere. This aspect of the work reminds me of those days when my husband and I used to spend hours in our basement darkroom developing film. We would slide the blank sheet of paper into the developing solution, breathing as one, transfixed, as we watched the picture emerge.

The picture which will emerge in my manuscript over the next year will not be at all like the  Thiruva’l’luvar's works dating from 30BC. Even so, I will definitely take the time to look up his Tirukkuṛaḷ/Kurals.   If nothing else, I would like to channel that sense of serenity which the sculptor captured in his image of him.

1 comment:

  1. You look very serene as you pose beside the Tamil philosopher! Lovely photo. Your research adventures remind me of the days I spent in libraries working on my MA and PhD thesis.