Sunday, 18 September 2016

Tales from the Archives

Alfie Perry-Ward and Katie Sharp undertook work experience at the Conan Doyle Archive in Portsmouth over the summer. Here is their account of their time there - featuring ghosts, mummies, ectoplasm  . . . and much more. 

Monday 18th July
We were first given a tour of the Portsmouth history archive and the Conan Doyle archive as well as the library in general. We were made aware of the high security regarding the archives, which contain some of the only copies of certain materials that exist throughout the world. One thing that struck me was the meticulous nature of storage in the archives which took into consideration the temperature of the room, its humidity and the possibility of chemical damage. The specificity of knowledge required of an archivist is staggering.    
  The Richard Lancelyn Green collection was especially intriguing to me because of its sheer number of objects, articles, letters, phenomena and records that all related to Conan Doyle or Sherlock Holmes. I was both impressed and confused by one or two individual of objects that had been archived. I wondered, for example, what the historical value of a dog that you can dress up as Sherlock Holmes really amounted to. Why would anyone need to study such trivia? It was then brought to my attention that the dog has recently been used in a PhD concerning the investigation of fandom pre-1930. In this context, the dress-up-dog entailed critical historical usefulness.  
 I think it made me realise the significance of things that are seemingly insignificant. We often don’t realise the importance of the mundane objects in our lives that will shape an investigation that a future historian may conduct. Everything that we accumulate and all the things that we write down are instantly primary sources. This only exalts the importance of the archivist, whose dedication to making the primary sources easily accessible expands the possibilities of historical investigation tenfold. The role of the archivist, in a manner of speaking, transcends time as they are directly involved in the investigation of someone who may not even be born yet!
The first day, if anything, made me appreciate such an occupation.

Tuesday 19th July
For the second day, Alfie and I worked on a project to help the production of an app. This app will allow the user to go on a walking tour of Conan Doyle's life in Portsmouth, and while the tech-savvy people create the app, we were tasked with sourcing the pictures to be shown on the tour, using the resources available in the library and the archives.
As we had to find photographs of buildings and streets from the 1880s, we were presented with a few challenges- some stops on the tour had not been photographed, as at the time the houses were insignificant. Some of the other places no longer exist, either due to demolition or bombing, causing us to learn how to cross-reference in the records to find what we were looking for.
We also took a trip to the Portsmouth City Museum to look at their Conan Doyle exhibition, most of which was also taken from Richard Lancelyn Green's collection, which showed us again that he had far too many items to be just a simple fan of Conan Doyle!
All in all, trying to find the pictures was very interesting as it caused us to look through records of our city from over 100 years ago, and we learnt to use initiative to find the tough pictures!

Wednesday 20th July
As well as continuing the walking tour project, we put together an exhibition entitled "Conan Doyle on hols" which showed Doyle's travels and family holidays. We concerned ourselves with the techniques required to carefully handle delicate books in order to prepare them for display. We used acid tape to bind certain pages together and photo albums on certain pages. It was fascinating to flick through photos that are nearly a century old. We felt a great sense of achievement when the exhibition was complete but our efforts seemed belittled by how quickly people observed the exhibition before moving on, rather fleetingly!
We continued collecting photos for the app project which, at times, became a very stressful process. When one spends ages trying to find a single reference with no result it is so frustrating. Equally, when you do find the material it is incredibly rewarding. One thing I did notice was that you can start looking at one thing and end up somewhere completely different which leaves you questioning what your initial intention was. You can get lost in the archives!

In the archives, Alfie and I found a variety of interesting pieces. A shared favourite of ours is Nina Mdivani's book, entitled "The Magnificent Mdivanis". I particularly liked the front cover that she made where she called herself "Princess Nina Mdivani Conan Doyle", and the drawing of a crown on the front of the folder.
I was also interested in the spiritualism section. Here, I found many photographs of spiritualists purportedly producing ectoplasm, with some even showing the ectoplasm lifting a table! There is also a strange photo of a person "holding hands" with some ectoplasm! Most of the ectoplasm photographs are confusing, particularly as the look of the ectoplasm changes in each photo, for example in some the substance looks like cloth, yet in others it looks leathery… This lessens the credibility of all of the pictures of ectoplasm, but it is interesting none the less.
The spirit writings were also interesting, but one that caught my eye was a letter that was supposedly written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so it seemed more relevant in the collection than other spirit writings. The handwriting in the letter is slightly less neat than Conan Doyle's normal handwriting, yet it still does look like his handwriting, and his signature is the same! If the letter was faked, the person who faked it would need to be dedicated to replicating Conan Doyle's handwriting for it to be taken seriously, and as it looks reasonably similar, either the letter was a good fake or Conan Doyle's spirit actually did write a letter!

Thursday 21st July
After searching through CALM, the archive database, I found two other pieces in the archive that I thought were interesting. Both of these pieces were to do with Nina Mdivani (who married Conan Doyle's son, Denis), who I only learnt about during this week.
The first piece that I found today was Nina's cuttings book/scrapbook. In this book, there were letters, cards and telegrams stuck to the pages. Most of the letters and telegrams in the book were from Tony, Nina's husband after Denis died, to Nina, and almost all of the correspondence here was Tony professing his undying love to his "darling Nina", which is how he opens each letter. My favourite letter in the book from Tony reads: "Darling- you have given me all the happiness in the world- how many times over."
At the back of the scrapbook there are a couple of Valentine's cards that aren't stuck down, however neither of them have any writing on them so it is hard to tell who they are from (though you would guess that they were from Nina's husband if she kept them).
The other piece that I found interesting was a collection of four of Nina's notebooks. The first notebook is an engagement diary, however she only wrote in for the last week of December and the first week of January (which suggests that she got the book as a Christmas gift that she then forgot about after the holidays).
The second notebook is written entirely in French and is just Nina's notes and lists, for example she writes down the materials that would be needed to make a hat. This notebook was also labelled "Mrs Conan Doyle", which would suggest that the notebook was from before 1955, when Denis Conan Doyle died.
The third notebook only has the first few pages filled, and it is just calculations of money with no explanation of what it is for.
The fourth notebook is completely empty apart from two pages which have pressed flowers in, and the notebook is made of a soft material with a flowery pattern on.
I think that the pieces in the archive on Nina are very interesting as I knew nothing about her previously, and it also shows the dedication that Richard Lancelyn Green had towards his collection relating to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Friday 22nd July
Having spent the week looking through the archive, we picked out material that we took a particular interest in. Katie examined the notebooks of Nina Mdivani (the wife of Conan Doyle's Son, Dennis) while I concerned myself with Conan Doyle's interest in spiritualism.
I found many letters to Conan Doyle from people all round the world vividly detailing their spiritualistic experiences. There were two from America; one from New York requesting that they meet Doyle and the other from Boston who reckoned that he was communicating with his dead son.
The most interesting (and most disturbing) account was a collection of diary entries from a woman named E.Brackenbury (No first name was written, but there were constant references to "My husband"). The location of E.Brackenbury's residence is unknown because no address was written on them. This infers that Brackenbury sent it in an envelope with an accompanying letter.
The content of the diary entries entailed Brackenbury's dreams over the course of a few days in mid-April 1923. She notes one day that she bought an Egyptian Mummy's head from a 'curiosity' store in Hampstead. The head supposedly belonged to an old man who was interested in Egyptian curios. He passed away many years ago. The night that she took it home, the nightmares started.
She recalls initially "lying upon warm sand" in a desert like setting when suddenly she "became conscious that two brown hands had seized me by the back of the neck." This being pushed her along violently, gradually tightening its grip until it directed her into a dark hollow cave. She notes that "The whole atmosphere was so evil and terrifying that I forgot the hands on my neck and tried to run only to find myself unable to move." After gasping for air she dreamt of passing out and "falling through space for what seemed interminable ages and waking up with a jump still gasping for breath and soaked in perspiration." She asked her husband to open the window.
After talking and smoking with her husband until 4am, she fell back asleep and entered a second "not so clear and consecutive" dream in which she was in the same cave but sitting round a fire with an old woman. She gives a vivid description of the woman, who had a "wide grinning toothless mouth, [a] black wrinkled face and bedraggled wisps of grey hair hanging limply over a shrivelled dried up body." Brackenbury continues: "Then she spoke, apparently to some unseen person, and these were the words I heard between each peal of laughter, 'see he has brought her death … Death! Death! Death!"
She moves on and writes that the woman's "flesh round her mouth and across her forehead slowly cracked and fell away leaving nothing but a ghastly grinning skull." The dream continued in this manner until she woke at 6:45, but she shortly fell back asleep. In the next dream, it becomes more violent.
It starts, again, in a desert of hot sand and blue sky that stretched for miles without any sign of life or other people. "I was overwhelmed by a feeling of utter loneliness that almost amounted to panic. I thought I was the last living being in the whole universe; if I cried out no one would hear; if I ran no human being would ever cross my path. Complete loneliness and desolation surrounded and engulfed me."
She then became detached from herself in an existential experience within the dream. She remembers looking at herself and then seeing a single tent and just outside was a brown man who was crying with his head in his hands. Two black slaves then lifted the tent flaps up and she saw herself lying unconscious in the tent. Soon after, the brown man was carrying her unconscious body across the desert with the slaves trailing behind him. The journey ended when they reached the entrance of a cave.
"Carrying me in he laid me upon a flat slab of stone which slopped a little at the end. The two slaves then entered and knelt down, one either side. One held knife with which he made an incision in the left side of [Brackenberry's] abdomen." She then describes how a man dressed in a white robe, whose face she was unable to see, "inserted his hand and pulled out the intestines. I remember a strong smell of incense filling the cave, but could not tell where it came from."
This was but one disturbing set of dreams over the course of the few days. I was amazed at how much trust this woman put in Doyle, and I would be intrigued as to what he made of the dreams. It is certainly frightening at how much of an impression the Mummy's head had on her experience. It made me aware of the attraction of spiritualism that may provide answers to those experiences that are seemingly unexplainable.

It was.... an experience to read such material.  

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