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Academic treasure hunts

Friday, October 16, 2009

One of the things I mentioned early on is how difficult it is to know who was actually writing all these personal ads. I think most of the people fall into the middle class somewhere, for a variety of reasons (Bertram being a good example, as always), but of course I can't prove that. I can only guess and speculate, and sadly speculation only takes you so far - especially when writing a dissertation. In which case, speculation gets you nowhere.

So, in order to make my point, I have to find little clues. And this ad from 1872 is a good example of a little clue that might give a lot of information:

Corisande - If in the city, where can I see you? Lothair.

If you'd never heard of Lothair and Corisande before, you're probably not alone. But the names interested me enough to go look them up, and I discovered that Lothair is the name of an 1870 novel by Benjamin Disraeli, who was, among other things, the Prime Minister of England twice. Now, I've never read Lothair, because there's only so much time in the world to spend, but I know enough about to say one thing for certain: this wasn't a novel being read by working-class people. Novel reading, in general, was still a middle-class pursuit. Plus, this wasn't pulp fiction. It's really, really long. And I've read bits and pieces; Disraeli makes a Charles Dickens novel read like Hemingway.

Okay, I exaggerate, but the point is that the people who were reading this novel were almost certainly from a particular class. Which means the people who chose those names for their pseudonyms were also from a particular class. So that is a clue.

Ultimately, by itself that doesn't mean much. I can hardly claim that everyone using personal ads was middle class because two people borrowed the names of the title characters from a (bad) literary novel. But you combine this kind of clue with other kinds of clues that point to the same conclusion, and you can...well, you can speculate with a little bit more authority.

It's not much, but when you're writing about sources this anonymous, every Lothair counts.

©2009 Pam Epstein


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