Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2018, part 20: Lesley Hall

The Pleasures of Reading 2018
by Lesley Hall

Thinking about this, I realized that 2018 was a year in which I returned to a form of reading that I find extremely pleasurable but which I had not indulged in for some years, that is, library and archival research. While over the past few years I have given a number of papers and written and published a few articles and chapters, these were all using materials I had already gathered over the years and did not involve going out to collect new material.

This hiatus on the research front was partly due to life events, but also to finding myself falling down the time- and energy-consuming rabbit-hole that was writing The Comfortable Courtesan, initially as a daily blog-serial (which gave me a certain insight into the processes of Victorian novelists writing for serial publication!).

The main narrative, the Memoirs of Clorinda Cathcart, for some several years a Lady of the Town and subsequently elevated to Aristocratic Rank, came to a natural close and has now been self-published in ebook and POD formats in 12 volumes under the imprint of Sleepy Wombatt Press, details available at However, the world and the characters have now generated a number of pendant narratives which may also be published in due course. [/end of plug]

I was kickstarted into resuming more active historical research by an approach to contribute a chapter on the response to a late nineteenth century obscenity trial to an edited collection of essays. While I had written something about this case before, the digitization of newspapers now makes it possible to make a much more extensive analysis of press reportage and response than would ever have been feasible in the days of the British Library Newspaper Collection at Colindale, of unlamented memory.

By Chesdovi - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

Preliminary searches revealed that the case was reported rather more widely than I would have anticipated, if not in any great detail, in the mainstream national and local press. However, while I was able to accomplish this in the comfort of my own home at my own computer, I guessed, correctly, that there would be more discussion in niche publications of the contemporary radical fringe of secularists, freethinkers, anarchists, socialists and birth control advocates, which have mostly not yet been included in digitization projects, so off I went to the British Library and the University of London Library at Senate House. These days, unlike in days gone by, with some exceptions it is possible to take photographs for later perusal, which is a great boon.

I also made trips to look at legal records, which turned out to be frustratingly meagre, in the London Metropolitan Archives and at The National Archives. An unforeseen and agreeable byproduct of this process was the very frequent bumping into friends and acquaintances in these palaces of knowledge.

This was all really immensely pleasurable, with a lot of ‘Aha’ moments.

I also had the very fortunate opportunity, while I was in the USA in the early summer, between Wiscon and another conference, to spend a week at Indiana University in the Kinsey Institute archives taking up a project I had done a very preliminary scoping exercise for some years ago.

Because of the sensitivity of so much of the material accrued by Kinsey and his team it is not permitted to take photographs, so I was obliged to take notes, which I did extremely copiously. Lots of exciting discoveries, but alas, so much very rich material that I didn’t get to the end of what I wanted to consult by the time I had to leave, so I think another visit must be planned. The staff there are wonderful, it is an amazing collection: it is just a pity that it is somewhat of an arduous pilgrimage to get there (even if you’re not starting from London, I think?).

So my really top reading experiences of 2018 were old newspapers and other people’s letters!

Lesley Hall was born in the seaside resort and channel port of Folkestone, Kent, and now lives in north London. She recently retired from a career as an archivist of over 40 years. She has published several books and numerous articles on issues of gender and sexuality in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, and is currently researching British interwar progressive movements and individuals. She has also published a volume in the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces series, Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of her life and work (2007).She has been reading science fiction and fantasy since childhood and cannot remember a time when she was not a feminist. Her reviews have appeared in Strange Horizons, Vector, and Foundation, and she has been a judge for the Tiptree and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. She has had short stories published in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women (1996) and The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women (1995). Visit Lesley's website.

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