The archival jolt

The Secret Rooms (laboriously subtitled A Castle Filled with Intrigue, a Plotting Duchess and a Mysterious Death) is an archival story. Author Catherine Bailey found, in an enormous trove of ducal diaries and letters, three puzzles. The mysteries themselves range from heartrending to underwhelming, but her portrait of the British upper classes around the time of World War I (luxury, hypocrisy, oddness) and patriotism (powerful, unthinking) is intriguing.

All of which made me think about archives, and about how ink on paper, or photographic light and shadow, can strike in us such a deep sense of wonder.

I was sorting our family archive, reading about my grandfather Mac's wartime surgical work for the Canadian army here and there in his diaries, which are typewritten and neatly bound. My eldest son had just completed his thesis on the photo archive of the patients of pioneering British plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, who developed radical ways to reconstruct injured soldiers' faces during the Great War.

In Mac's diaries another war has begun and ended. Could Gillies have imagined that? Or Mac, who left a farm in southern Saskatchewan to carry stretchers in that earlier war? It is late at night a little after VE Day and Mac has been at dinner in London with fellow surgeons. He is pleased with a present they have given him to mark his contributions, a small silver cigar box inscribed with his name: Brigadier J.A. MacFarlane, Senior Consultant in Surgery, and the date. June 1945.

I looked up from the page to the box on its shelf in my home.

Back to the page: A list.

"Present were," my grandfather wrote... And there was Gillies. 

My son wrote about the Great War work of a surgeon who, 30 years on, had marked, with my son's great-grandfather, the end of the next war.

I recognized what writer and researcher Ted Bishop calls "the archival jolt," the sense that he has "connected with something real" when he makes an archival find.

I was thinking about this yesterday when we were driving through the misty hills here in Gros Morne. I was watching beads of water slide off the car's side mirror when my focus shifted. "Objects," I read, "... are closer than they appear."