Friday, 23 January 2009

A Review: The Diary of Edmund Harrold

This is a pre-print of a review commissioned for publication in the Economic History Review ©2009, Economic History Society.

Craig Horner, ed, The diary of Edmund Harrold, wigmaker of Manchester 1712-15 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. Pp. xxxvii + 178. 3 figs. 1 map. ISBN 9780754661726. Hbk. £55)

Reading a diary always feels slightly transgressive; as if you are looking through the front window of a private home on to a domestic scene beyond. Historians have used the intimate nature of these sources to construct a broad narrative of a changing interiority, of the evolution of a modern ‘self’; and to chart the texture and quality of interpersonal relations. And yet, as any dedicated voyeur knows, most domestic scenes observed through a distant window make for very dull viewing. In a similar way diaries are frequently repetitious and frustrating. The events of most lives are made up of petty conflicts, self-serving worries, and banal jealousies. The diary of Edmund Harrold is no exception. A somewhat maudlin and self-pitying drunk, Edmund Harrold made a poor living as a wig maker in early eighteenth-century Manchester – a manufacturer of perhaps the most useless item imaginable, in a world newly committed to making useful things. This particular diary is not very illuminating about the nature of early industrialization, or the economics of innovation. It tells us remarkably little about the social life of Harrold’s all important contemporary generation of Mancunians, and while it does provide a comprehensive account of pretty much everything Harrold read, even this seems to consist almost entirely of the most conventional of religious writings. Nevertheless, this is an important diary, and this edition, scrupulously transcribed, footnoted, and introduced, is a welcome addition to our modern public understanding of the long dead and very private interior world of one early eighteenth-century Mancunian.

The detail many readers will assume sets this diary apart and gives it heightened scholarly interest is Harrold’s record of his sexual relations with both his second and third wives. And it is true that sexual activity is rarely recorded in even the most revealing of diaries, but it is also remarkably unhelpful. Harrold regularly records that he ‘did wife’ or ‘did wife new fashion’. Since he was also father to nine children, however, these bald statements simply repeat the obvious. Of much greater historical significance is Harrold’s record of his courtship of his third wife Ann Horrocks. The inclusion of a record of night visiting, when combined with the birth of his eighth child, John, six months after the wedding, provides new and individualized evidence that this particular style of courtship was accompanied by penetrative sexual activity. But, even more important are the small details of Edmund Harrold’s emotional engagement with his second wife, Sarah. His account of her decline over a period of some three weeks following the birth of their daughter, and her eventual death in Edmund’s arms is both evocative and moving. In combination with the details he gives of his arrangements for his newly orphaned infant child, also named Sarah, and his active and to modern sensibilities, hasty, search for a new wife, the diary makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the pressures felt by a middle aged, down-at-heel member of the middling sort. These separate elements of the diary help to reveal how emotional engagement, affect and hard calculation might co-exist in a single early modern breast.

The diary also helps to give texture to our story of the evolution of ‘self writing’. It seems to partake equally of the seventeenth century tradition of religious self-examination, and a more ‘modern’ secular concern with personal emotional response. Admixt between these covers are endless self-flagellating explorations of Harrold’s religious laxity; a compelling, unself-conscious story of his relations with two wives; and a detailed and essentially secular narrative of the crash and dodgems journey of a chronic alcoholic.

As an edited edition of an eighteenth-century manuscript, this volume is also exemplary. The introduction is clear and informative, and the academic apparatus is extensive (if occasionally slightly too extensive). Four appendixes are also included. The first reproduces a lecture based on the diary given by J.E. Bailey in 1884; the second, a series of copied abstracts from Charles Povey’s Meditation of a divine soul (1703); the third, a comprehensive and very useful list of all works mentioned by Harrold; and the fourth, a hand list of comparable published diaries. The volume concludes with a good, but not exhaustive index. It is perhaps unfortunate that this work has been published as a hard copy edition, rather than online, and in a form where the occasional glancing reference could be more easily located, but Craig Horner should nevertheless be congratulated for an excellent piece of scholarship.

For the inveterate voyeur, dedicated to wandering the shelves in search of an uncurtained window revealing a meaningful scene beyond, this volume provides a few excellent vantage points. It is perhaps not particularly revealing about the changing nature of economic behavior in the early industrial revolution, but it does reveal a single man, caught in a web of culture, of friends and wives, and alcohol.

TIM HITCHCOCK

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