In late April/early May, I presented my paper entitled “‘Madonnas of Prevyse’: Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm as Revolutionary Nurses” at the Northeast MLA (NeMLA) conference in Toronto. It was a fantastic experience to present on Dr. Andrea McKenzie’s panel on Women’s War Images and I learned so much from my panel and the panels of my colleagues. But more importantly, I have to discuss the great yet short trip to McMaster University.
Reading a historical text on women’s war writing, I was surprised to see that somewhere close to me had the diaries of Vera Brittain. The archives at McMaster University, known mainly for housing a larger Bertrand Russell collection, has several large boxes of diaries and photos belonging to Vera Brittain. Since Hamilton is only an hour or so away from downtown Toronto, I made sure to contact the archives so that I may see Brittain’s diaries while in Canada. I was not disappointed. Unfortunately, I cannot share the pictures I took, because of copyright issues.
The archives are located in the basement of the library, have dark brown tables and chairs with small lamps on the tables, and is staffed by very helpful people. I had previously emailed an archivist so that my boxes will be ready — out of 100s of files, I wanted to focus only on Brittain’s war years collection, especially since I had only a day to examine the collection. I must say, I now have even more respect for those who do archival research. Reading, or rather, trying to read, Brittain’s diaries, especially those written during the war, was a very tiring experience. Already, I was in a dark room with no natural light and her handwriting is difficult to discern, but also — no surprise — her diaries were incredibly depressing. I read her entries on the days she found out her fiancé, Roland Leighton, her friends, Victor Richardson and Geoff Thurlow, and her brother, Edward Brittain, were killed. Reading her reactions in her diaries as opposed to her autobiography affected me much more than I imagined. Perhaps it’s not the most professional academic thing to admit, but I felt so much for Brittain and the struggles she faced.
If I wanted to do an archival study, I would have to spend more than a day at McMaster. Either fortunately or unfortunately, my dissertation focuses on the depiction of gender performance in published works. Nonetheless, this experience has awakened some sort of monster who wants to spend lots of time doing archival research.