The jury is out

Published by: mike on 11th Nov 2017 | View all blogs by mike


The jury is out.  A blind historian and classicist too!


      How not to interest a literary agent!  Nothing to send anyway.   I have posted this as I had raised an issue and have come to some sort of conclusion.This is over a few blogs I posted recently about memory and blindness.  I know very little on the subject and only consider it from the viewpoint of literary biography.  RNIB gives a figure of over two million sufferers of blindness in England, but I am considering blindness in 1853 when partial blindness became total blindess, though this might hsve occured in 1846.

    In my mind, I see a blind historian, on a stage, recalling a trip down the Nile in 1832.   I have seen many recent London productions and there are imaginative possibilities in theatre that are not available to prose.  

      The  historian  has an entry in the ‘Dictionary of National Biography‘ but I am trying to view the character from the perspective of a great, great grandson.  For the past month I have been a bit housebound and spent the time trying to get close to a Regency figure. Language is a bit of a barrier but he can seem very modern. He was of the progressive left and much of their agenda is now law.   I wonder how many LGBT issues are implicit in a Chartism? (I came across this in separate research on the year 1846.)  The French Revolution is the key event and the historian was an admirer of Rousseau.  How did all this effect his view of the Nile?  Was his view changed by encroaching blindness?  More to the point, what did Arabs think of him?  This would be the play’s agenda.  


    A historian can pursue a career when suffering from blindness. This may be somewhat pedantic but there must be a difference between being completely blind and partially sighted. (In his later years, Joyce was partially sighted. He could still write with a crayon.)    If you are completely blind memory, surely, must come into play?   Borges is mentioned in this respect and Homer.

      In the case of the blind historian, Milton is the key figure. If it were drama, he would be the plot point.   He wrote ‘Paradise Lost’ when completely blind though he had written much beforehand.

       The historian wrote a history of Ancient Greece which was published in 1842.   In his introduction, he admits seeing things ‘obscurely as though a mist.’  Due to the action of sun, dust and the Arabian desert, blindness has encroached. He then adds: ‘Homer, however, and Aeschylus, with Plato and Demosthenes, will though the voices of my children - voices more cheerful and willing than ministered to the old age and blindness in Milton - to project their beauty into my soul.’

    His children had acted as amanuenses. Four sons were journalists.  I am not sure what the aside about Milton means? It seems Milton’s young daughters were not enamored over ‘Paradise Lost’

   In 1848 the blind journalist wrote introductions notes, footnotes;. etc - for a six volume edition of Milton’s prose works.   I made an error in thinking the historian had been a Victorian.  He was a Georgian and, to someone on the progressive left, Milton must be a key figure.  I have no idea how he accomplished readin the texts, but he must have known Milton’s works in detail or had them read out aloud.  Braille had been invented but was it much in use in the 1840’s?      He ends his introduction to the history of Ancient Greece with: “Had things been otherwise ordered, I might have continued these researches. As it is, I take leave of them here. Our friend, Mr. Keightley, who has visited Italy for the purpose, will perform for the Romans what I have endeavoured to accomplish for the Greeks” 

    The suggestion is that encroaching blindness had made research difficult. Travel might have been a problem too,

    Mr Thomas Keightley did publish ‘The History of Rome to the End of the Republic.’ The publication date is 1858.

    While looking into this I had been reading Mary Beard’s recent ‘History of Ancient Rome.‘  It did occur to me that she might be on the same wavelength as the blind historian/classicist.  Some of you may have come across Mary Beard on TV.  She tries to bring the lives of ordinary Romans to life by examining archaeological evidence.   Women, slaves, the working classes and children are seldom mentioned in ancient texts.   Her historical forebear, the blind historian writes:

   "It has been my aim to open up, as far as possible, a prospect into the domestic economy of a Grecian family; the arts, comforts, conveniences, and regulations affecting the condition of private life; and those customs and manners which communicated a peculiar character and colour to the daily intercourse of Greek citizens.’ 

    The ‘Spectator of Saturday nov 19,1842  comments:”.....It is......about the first successful attempt to popularize classical archaeology, in such a way as to make it attractive to the general reader whilst it conveys learned information to all but the very learned.”

     When the historian revisited the Nile in his imagination, and published the book in 1853, it seems he had lost his eyesight completely.  This  is confirmed by three memories written by fellow journalists. One of these  memoirs mentions that he ran the political department of a newspaper when blind.

    ‘A Life of Walter Raleigh‘ was published  in 1868.  Almost thirty years had passed since the onset of blindness.  I had thought the historian might have been partially sighted - as how could  primary sources be consulted?  This is not the case and another son had acted as his amanuensis.

          I can see that writing a life of Walter Raleigh might not be affected by a writer’s blindness but personal recollections of Arabia could be different category?  It seems that these memories are why he is mentioned in footnotes on books of Egyptian history,  He had tried to record the lives of ordinary Egyptians.  This was more uncommon at the time as archaeology had been the major interest.

       Two contemporary recollections of the journalist recall his love of Arabia and his telling of stories about his time there.  I think it is in these memories that Milton is relevant and memory comes into play.

       This is purely speculation but during the Georgian period, there had been much interest in Ancient Greece which centered on ancient Greek and Latin texts.  This might well have been conducted in an Oxbridge environment.   The blind historian came from a different background,  He was the son of a blacksmith in a small Welsh village. He was a new kid on the block!  However.  I suspect Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ had been the historical model for the time.







1 Comment

  • mike
    by mike 7 months ago
    Sui generis. Can a historian solve this?

    sui generis. The reviewer of ‘The spectator writes: ‘It will be seen from these examples, that.. the work is pretty much sui generis . According to the O.E.D the use of the word had not changed. ‘unique of its kind.’ Can you have a sui generis history book? Surely each historian enters into a dialogue with the historians of the past. Mary Beard, you are needed! If the work is su generis it is quite achievement for someone who sees things ‘as through a mist‘ I think Mary Beard might say the history book was a product of enlightenment?
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