One of my friends from college days just posted an image on Instagram of what she’s doing now that she’s on semester break (she’s an English/writing professor now). It was a still life of romantic Christmas stories, spiced Glögg, and cute mug in front of a Christmas tree. She’s the type of person who finds joy in simple pleasures, who’s enthusiastic about life and invests herself fully in the projects she takes on — even if that project is just relaxation.
I’m not yet on vacation; as a freelancer, I’m never really on vacation because I’ll take work when I get it. Hence, I spent our summer vacation editing and when we had guests, I found myself formatting. Have computer, will travel. That being said, I’m still on a school schedule due to my after-school tutoring and, of course, my own children. Winter vacation is just around the corner for me, too! I realized I had already started my own version of winter spiced wine by the books I was obsessively downloading on my Kindle. Comfort books. Not necessarily Christmas or winter related, but still my own version of crack: history, biography, and autobiography.
Most history books I pick by subject rather than author, with the exception of Liza Picard’s books. I love her writing. She has four books out that I know of: Restoration London, Dr. Johnson’s London, Elizabeth’s London, and Victorian London. Somehow, I’d skipped Restoration London. This is one of my favorite points of history. The restoration of the British crown. The plague. The Great Fire. The explosion of developments in science and literature. Dr. Johnson’s London is the long tail of this Enlightenment period of British history; I have that book in print and have read it dozens of times. In the interest of interconnectedness, the professor I mentioned above studied the Long British Enlightenment with me in our heady college days. We were hooked by the hundred of years or so that make up this moment in history.
But why are Liza Picard’s books so engaging to me? She says it best in her foreword:
I have a practical mind. I have always been interested in how people lived. The practical details are rarely covered in social history books [she’s right about this, though it’s not 100%]…
I am not a historian. I am a lawyer. I have a liking for primary evidence — not what someone wrote long afterwards, or what someone has concluded from a selection of documents that I have not seen, but what someone said who was there at the time. This has led me down interesting detours, while I reinvented the wheel, and read as many contemporary documents as I could find.
In other words, she’s writing history the way I would if I took up that occupation: as the end result of uncountable hours worth of detours while immersed in primary documents — and all to discover those fine details of how people actually lived. And it’s not just the practical details that you get from primary documents. You get a view into the minds of history’s greatest thinkers, unfiltered by scholars who have to write the edgiest or most unique take on them in journals published by universities. Scholars have an unfortunate need to be yet more subversive than the last one was. This is no doubt the scholarly version of click-bait or sensationalist headlines, but with a lot more polysyllabic words.
Being that I have only so many primary documents at my disposal, Liza Picard is a good second-best. Of course, she’s going to put her own spin on things. As she noted herself: she’s practical. And more than that, she’s a lawyer by trade. Lawyers are trained to couch their language in a particularly convincing fashion, to make their case, in other words. I’m okay with it, despite that reading her books is like crack to me and I have no natural defenses against a divers look at infectious diseases during the last great bout of plague.
All told, she provides a wealth of information and anecdota in her books. This one is heavily filtered through the diaries of Samuel Pepys, which I haven’t read in a long time. I’m already feeling warmer and cozier, despite the freezing fog blanketing the world today, and the lack of any actual hot spiced wine, I’m sorry to say.