What do we know and what can we prove?

Posted by Tory Historian Friday, June 26, 2009 , ,

Seeing Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” in its first revival since 1993 sent Tory Historian into a frenzy of musing about research, evidence and the obvious difficulty all historians face of how much of what we know we actually do know and how much of it we can prove.

This, one hastens to add, is only one of the themes in what is probably Stoppard’s most intellectual and, possibly, finest play. (An unreserved recommendation to anyone who might get a chance to see it: do so as soon as you can.)

As just about everyone knows the play shows events taking place in the same stately home in Derbyshire at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth or, in this production, the beginning of the twenty-first, the latter centred on an investigation of what happened in the former. Because we can see what “really” happened in the earlier part we can see where the later researchers, literary historians and a scientific mathematician, may be going wrong and when they begin to see the “truth”. Assuming, of course that it is the truth, something the play leaves, if not in dark, at least in crepuscular dusk.

In the modern section there are two literary historians. One is an amateur who had written a supposedly revisionist but probably quite silly book about Lady Caroline Lamb; the other a hard-nosed, arrogant and ambitious don, who is genuinely appreciative of Byron’s poetry but knows that it is the man’s private life that will bring him the fame he craves. (Actually, Byron would have understood that craving.)

Interestingly enough, it is the professional, Bernard Nightingale, who proceeds largely on his intuition that sometimes proves to be right and sometimes wrong; Hannah Jarvis, the amateur, demands a stricter standard of proof in which she is at one with the scientist Valentine, a descendant of the family we see in the earlier segments.

As we watch the two literary historians spar we realize that, as it happens, neither of them is a particularly good researcher. They seem to have little idea of where one can find information to support their assumptions apart from the accidentally preserved letter. Does an historian of literary life in the early nineteenth century really not bother to find out who edited the various London magazines?

On the other hand, as R. G. Collingwood has pointed out, among others, one cannot research without having some idea of what one is looking for, even if the subsequent research proves that idea wrong partly or in whole.

Sometimes the idea appears as happenstance. Bernard’s feeling that Byron must have stayed in Sidley Park is vindicated by Valentine mentioning that the poet is listed as a guest who shot in the game book, a valuable document that neither Bernard nor Hannah are aware of. As it happens, even the game book can be inaccurate and this we know from our view of what “really” happened in the years 1809 – 1812 in Sidley Park.

This piece of information sends Bernard into a frenzy of speculation until he comes up with an elaborate, entirely plausible but completely wrong theory about Byron’s behaviour. This theory brings him temporary fame and promises of more until Hannah, going through the garden book of the period (another valuable source of information) finds an entry about some flowers that had been sent from Martinique by the then Lady Croom's brother. This provides definite proof that Bernard’s theory is completely wrong and explains, at least partly, what happened. (The other part we shall never know as Septimus Hodge, the tutor, has burnt Byron’s note to himself without reading it.)

The point is that the entry Hannah finds would have had little significance if Bernard had not, some time previously, found several letters in a book that, at some point, belonged to Byron and drawn several entirely wrong inferences from them, which sent him scurrying to Sidley Park where she was researching the existence of a possible hermit in the artificial hermitage in the first half of the nineteenth century. Confused? Well, that’s research for you.

What do we know and what can we prove?


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