Surrey research plans

I think I might have died and gone to the most picturesque version of heaven.

Likely, I have idealized everything I’ve seen since I arrived in Woking, Surrey, but whatever, I’m going to go ahead and live in my romantic world for a while.

It all started when my phone wouldn’t pick up a signal at the train station in order that I could load a map and walk to my lodging.  So I decided, hang technology (I decide this as often as possible), I’m going to spring for this old-timey-looking taxi cab.

This was a good idea.

My cab driver was a sweet old man who has lived in Woking for 28 years.  He loved everything about it, and soliloquized on trees, flowers, homes, neighbors, streets, you name it.

He even knew where my homestay was, even though the house doesn’t have a number.  That’s right, it has a name, instead.  There’s a sculpted wooden plaque on the side of the house, partially obscured by petunias, very much on the order of seaside towns in Oregon.

I found the spare key, and fell in love with the house from the second I stepped inside.  There’s a perfectly worn-in galley kitchen that ends in a sunny, glass conservatory full of children’s toys.  From the conservatory, there’s a back deck that leads into a ramshackle garden, complete with tiny, green shed that serves as an art studio.  There’s a dining room, a living room full of oddly matched chairs, and an upstairs, where my room is, all in sage and bright white.  I also discovered a soaking tub.

Right now, I’m sitting out back on the deck.  I just finished the black currant and ginger honey bread that my hosts left me in the fridge, I’m sipping tea under an enormous umbrella, and I’m thinking to myself…how the hell am I going to convince myself to go to the archives tomorrow when there is this much breeze and sweetness at my disposal.

Holy crap, I just leaned back in my deck chair and discovered a spider web under the table right above my knees.  And I don’t even care, because spiders in English gardens are adorable.


(As an aside: this has totally made up for the shitshow that is British customs…that post coming later after I’ve successfully exited the country…)

So, I suppose, the only thing pulling me in to the archives tomorrow will be a) the twenty-minute walk through this stunning little town, and b) the guarantee that I’m going to fall in love with my research all over again as soon as I see the Surrey History Centre.

Actually, I’m kind of falling in love with my research just thinking about it.

Last time I was in Surrey, I documented all the Holloway Sanatorium male case books, spanning from 1880 to about 1910.

A casebook entry consists of the patient name, age, occupation, immediate observation and diagnosis, two corroboratory, certifying letters from outside doctors, a week’s worth of in-depth notes on patient behavior and health, and then following entries which vary in form/date depending on how changeable the patient is, and how quick his dissent/recovery.

(A bee just flew by.  Nope, he’s not going to sting me, because this is Surrey and things don’t sting here, they just buzz happily and make me think of Pooh Bear.)

I also documented annual reports from the sanatorium, holding key statistics on the upkeep of the place.  And I documented attendant records and lists of violent patients.

This time around, I’m going to fill in the gaps in those records by documenting the staff/board meetings and diving into the female case books.  The new case books will provide a necessary gender comparison, since I look at whether or not diseases were assigned in a way that was gender biased (they totally were), and the meeting minutes will bring me one step closer to completing my actor-network.

What is an actor-network?

Well, in a nutshell (and I might have explained this somewhere else, but it’s worth repeating), actor-network theory holds that no one object in a historical analysis should automatically rank above another object–sentient or non-sentient.  In particular, people do not rank above tools–doctors do not rank above patients, nor do they rank above microscopes, architecture, or occupational therapy.

This sort of approach is rhizomatic–it looks at historical moments as vast networks of roots that pop up with visible fruits from time to time.  And this approach is spherical, in that you can connect everything together, turn it every direction, and still come up with an intricately connected, egalitarian analysis.

I have to collect absolutely everything I can on the asylum–architectural plans, doctors notes, attendant observations, patient letters, annual reports, meeting minutes, etc.–in order to build the most complete picture of what life was like for the people and tools of Holloway Sanatorium.  This will allow me to best analyze how those people and tools acted upon each other in a co-constitutive or co-productive manner.  How did the microscope sculpt the diagnosis that sculpts the patient?   How did the patient’s absorption of that diagnosis change the role of the microscope?  The role of the technician using the microscope?  And so on.

My lofty goal for this research trip is to not only build the actor-network for Holloway Sanatorium, but also for at least one working-class asylum, and one wealthy, private asylum.  Comparing those systems would inject a class-based analysis into my already gender-based considerations.

Basically, I have to go back home with material enough to prove that there is a doable project in this topic.  And then I have to come back in the next two years and expand upon that proof for my dissertation.

I’m trying to keep a level head about my research expectations for this trip, which is why I’ve set my sites on just Holloway and two other asylums.  Hopefully, I’ll find that I have more time and I can collect even more information…but the archives are tricky places.

Another aspect of my research plan, oh woe is me to even consider it, is to organize and categorize my files at night…outside…with tea…on this deck.  I’ll sit and sort through the lives of lovely men and women and microscopes and listen to the breeze open and close the latch-key doors throughout the cottage.

Did I mention there is a cupboard under the stairs?

The wind blew it open, and I more than half expected to find Harry Potter living there.

He does not.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

2 thoughts on “Surrey research plans

  1. Great synopsis for us Erin. Thanks and even though I see on Facebook that you took a bit longer to get home I hope that your evening has been productive. Be sure to hold these patients lives in your hands carefully…and speak their stories as only you can. Love you so much Mom

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