‘The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History’ by Linda Colley

colley_ordeal

303 p. & notes, 2007

Now THIS is the sort of history I want to write!  I’ve had this book on my shelves for years, ever since I began writing my thesis.  It takes just the approach that I want to use:

…this is a book that ranges between biography, family history, British and imperial history, and global histories in the plural.  Because of the tendencies of our own times, historians have become increasingly concerned to attempt seeing the world as a whole.  This has encouraged an understandable curiosity about very large-scale phenomena: the influence of shifting weather systems on world history, ecological change over time, patterns of forced and voluntary migration, the movement of capital, or commodities, or disease over continents, the transmission of ideas and print, the workings of vast overland and oceanic networks of trade, the impact of conflicting imperial systems and so on.  These, and other such grand transcontinental forces, were and are massively important.  Yet they have never just been simply and inhumanly there.  They have impacted on people, who have understood them (or not), and adapted to them (or not), but who have invariably interpreted them in very many different ways.  Writings on world and global history (to which I stand enormously indebted) sometimes seem as aggressively impersonal as globalization can itself.

In this book, by contrast, I am concerned to explore how the lives of a group of individuals, and especially the existence of one particular unsophisticated but not unperceptive woman, were informed and tormented by changes that were viewed at the time as transnational, and transcontinental, and even as pan-global, to an unprecedented degree.  I seek to tack between the individual and world histories ‘in such a way as to bring them into simultaneous view’. (p. xxxi)

Linda Colley is an acclaimed historian of Britain and empire.  Her book Britons is heavily cited in discussions of Britishness ( although may I admit in a very small voice that I have this book on my shelves, too, waiting to be read?)  She writes big histories, but in this book she brings it back to individuals and their families.

So who was Elizabeth Marsh?  As in many cases when writing biography of a person who is not a public figure, the source material is patchy and in several instances, contestable.  From genealogical sources, Elizabeth Marsh can be located as a woman who lived from 1735 to 1785, who had two children, and was a wife, daughter and niece.  From her own writing in published travel narratives, we know that she was kidnapped by the Moroccan Sultan, Sidi Muhammed, and that she travelled extensively along the eastern coast of India.  From her uncle’s scrapbooks and journals, we learn of her extensive family networks and its mobility across the world.  A map on the opening pages of the book shows just how wide-ranging these family travels were: the Caribbean, the Americans, Britain, France, Spain Italy, Brussels, Hamburg, Menorca and Madiera, India, New South Wales, Marrakech, Tunis, Cairo, Sierra Leone and the west coast of Africa.

And yet there is so much that we don’t know about her, right down to the question of her appearance.  Her mother was Jamaican, but there is no way of knowing whether Elizabeth or her mother were coloured.  Elizabeth tells us that she was not sexually compromised during her kidnapping but can we believe her? She is largely silent on the nature of her relationship with George Smith, who accompanied her on her travels in India.  Nor can we know how her marriage to James Crisp, her fellow-abductee in Morocco, worked.  Colley speculates and imagines but she is upfront about the guesswork and supposition that she has utilized in piecing together Elizabeth Marsh’s life.

The book commences with a short introductory summary of Elizabeth Marsh’s life and clear identification of the themes that run through it:  her life; her family; her worlds; herself; history and her story.  There- it can be done in just thirteen pages!!  (says she, whose introduction threatens to engulf the whole thesis].   There are only six chapters and a conclusion, organized chronologically and each taking up a separate continent on her travels.   Without fail, each time I thought “Jeez, I could use a map here”, I turned the page and there it was.

But the book is much more than a biography (i.e. writing about the life of an individual) : it is history in its own right, with much to say about mobility, networks,  sea-consciousness and the British navy, trade and the intersection of the domestic and intimate with the commercial.  Each step of Elizabeth’s own life is embroidered with contextual and supplementary information so that as a reader you’re better able to judge the exceptionality or conventionality of what you have just read.  Is this distracting? Possibly, if you’re after a straight biography, but there was only one occasion where I felt that she was wandering a bit too far offtopic.

At times Colley moves into the present tense when describing Elizabeth’s lived experience, returning to past tense in her analysis,  with occasional shifts back into the present tense when describing her own insights as researcher and investigator.  These changes in tense are handled so adroitly that you’re barely aware of them.  They add to the immediacy of the narrative, and the feeling as if you’re being addressed by a researcher steeped in expertise and well in control of her material and eager to share it with you.

Do I regret leaving it so long to read this book?  Not really. I think that I would have been intimidated by it earlier in my own research, and reading it at the stage I’m at inspires me with an example, right there on the page, of the type of historian I’d like to be.

Other reviews (by a veritable Who’s Who of authors):

Claire Tomalin in the Guardian

Megan Marshall in The New York Times

Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books (a lengthy but excellent review)

Lisa Jardine in the Times Higher Education Supplement

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3 responses to “‘The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History’ by Linda Colley

  1. Pingback: Bombay Anna and Elizabeth Marsh | Adventures in Biography

  2. Pingback: AHA Conference 9 July | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  3. Pingback: Podcast: Linda Colley on Magna Carta | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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