One of the greatest moments in historical research is when you discover there is a file of documents in an archive that relates to some aspect of the story you’re trying to uncover. You don’t yet know what is in it, but from the moment you learn that the file exists you begin to dream about what secrets may found there. Perhaps there is a key that will unlock an entire new path.
Getting to that material is not always– or even usually– easy. If the archive is in another state or country–and isn’t it always?– you either have to travel, to find a local researcher to help or to pay the institution to make scans. All of these are time consuming and sometimes cost prohibitive. The very difficulty of the task makes the file seem indispensable.
I am enjoying a moment of anticipation at the moment, as I wait for a 91 page document to be scanned and sent to me from the UK. Will it provide the missing piece of the puzzle that will answer all of my remaining questions about that enigmatic con artists from the Wilde circle, Maurice Schwabe? Or will it be a big nothing?
In the course of researching Oscar’s Ghost, and in my continuing search for Schwabe, I’ve driven across states to read rare books that had nothing particularly relevant in them. On the other hand, there was a wonderful moment when a bankruptcy file provided the only example I have of Schwabe telling his own story in his own handwriting.
Early on in my research I learned (through a note in a review of a book on Gilbert and Sullivan) that Lucas D’Oyly Carte, the son of the impressario Richard D’Oyly Carte, had kept a diary during his time at the Winchester school. I knew that he and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas had been students at the same time and that Bosie and Lucas had had a relationship throughout their school days that Neil McKenna described as “a tortured love affair.” Love letters from young Lucas had been stolen by blackmailers and used against Bosie.
Bosie wrote a poem inspired by Lucas:
To L —
Thou that wast once my loved and loving friend,
A friend no more, I had forgot thee quite,
Why hast thou come to trouble my delight
With memories ? Oh ! I had clean made end
Of all that time, I had made haste to send
My soul into red places, and to light
A torch of pleasure to burn up my night.
What I have woven hast thou come to rend ?
In silent acres of forgetful flowers,
Crowned as of old with happy daffodils,
Long time my wounded soul has been a-straying,
Alas! it has chanced now on sombre hours
Of hard remembrances and sad delaying,
Leaving green valleys for the bitter hills
A diary could be very revealing indeed. So where was it?
As it happened, I could not get my hands on a copy of the Gilbert and Sullivan book, or track down its author. So I wrote to the author of the review who contacted the author and asked about the diary. He said it was in the British Library, so I contacted them. They told me that it was not, and they directed me to another institution in New York with a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection. That institution directed me back to the British Library. By now a year had passed, and I wrote back to the author of the original review explaining my troubles and asking if he had any more information for me. He went back to the author who said that he had interviewed the man who had owned the diary and that he was certain he had donated it to to the British Library but that it was part of a large Gilbert and Sullivan collection which had not been cataloged yet.
Armed with this information, I went back to the British Library (through e-mail), and the very helpful librarian there confirmed that they had received a collection which was not yet cataloged but she couldn’t give me any idea of when that might happen.
A couple of years had gone by and I wrote back to the original reviewer to tell him about my lack of progress. He finally put me in touch, directly, with the Gilbert and Sullivan book’s author. He told me that while the diary was still in a private collection, he’d had a chance to scan it. He confirmed that the diary did mention Bosie, and he offered to send the scan to me.
At long last, after three years of searching, I would finally have the diary of Lucas D’Oyly Carte and I could read for myself what he had to say about Bosie…
Which was, as it happened, not much.
Lucas D’Oyly Carte liked to report on the weather and the time he took breakfast (usually 9:30). When Bosie appears it is usually in reference to sport. For example, “Very showery all the afternoon…Bosie made 50 odd runs, I made 7…”
What I learned from all of that searching was that it sometimes rained when the boys were students and they sometimes played sports.
Yet somehow experiences like these have failed to dim my excitement over archives and the documents they contain– cataloged and not yet cataloged.