Excuse this week’s title, but it’s a phrase I’ve kept coming back to over the last week. I was in the short loan section of the library a couple weeks ago and saw a few people had put Love in the Time of Cholera on hold, which seemed apt and if anything, a little ironic. It perhaps goes hand in hand with other reports that Pandemic is one of the most watched shows on Netflix as of late. It made me think more about dating and long distance relationships in this uncertain time, which, although could be seen as a relatively modern phenomenon, is probably one of the most common types of transnational exchange. If we think about how much of our history is shaped by letters and correspondence, even within our own course and the microhistories, biographies and such we have read- a fair amount has been between people who were in love but could not be together at the time.
Artists, politicians, writers have become famous for the sonnets, songs and poems crafted remotely and because of distance. This reiterates the importance of space within a study of global history, how the fact we write history/books/letters apart shapes the way in which we behave together. It begs the question of what time and distance does to writing, and research and the way in which things are composed. For scholars to work together previously, they would have to relay their ideas between each other, copy out new findings before hoping that it reaches their colleague or friend. The same can be said for academia today perhaps. The situation we find ourselves in will surely change the dynamic of the class because we are no all sat around a table in St Katherine’s Lodge, instead waiting for the audio feedback on Microsoft Teams to die down, and avoid talking over each other from the comfort of our own homes.
But back to the issue of letters, and long-distance transnational relationships. James Joyce wrote famously raunchy letters to his wife Nora Barnacle (which are amusing but perhaps not entirely class appropriate), Frida Kahlo’s letters exposed her more sensitive side, even exposing Oscar Wilde’s forbidden romance with Lord Alfred Douglas. Even my own grandparents. One of my long-standing unfinished projects (maybe I’ll finally get round to it in isolation) is digitising the letters my grandparents sent each other when they were courting for a year in 1960. Having both been trained as librarians, the letters are very well catalogued. It brings up a question I routinely come back to within my research and these blogs, that transnational links are often personal ones. We learn more about these well-known individuals through their letters, as the sources are ones not originally intended for the public eye. In this context, we gain a better understanding of their personalities, which contributes to a more rounded social and cultural history.
A few days ago, a question was posed during one of Boris Johnson’s press conferences, following the call he made to essentially put the UK in lockdown. If one has a significant other, are they allowed to visit/hang out/go on as usual? The response that they should perhaps use this as an opportunity to test their relationship by moving with each other, seemed blunt. I wonder how many couples will plunge their relationships effectively into the deep end. It also made me think about people now separated, by different cities and countries. How will historians map correspondence in the time of coronavirus? Letters are a clear snapshot into how someone is feeling in a particular moment. Yet we cannot capture the videocalls, facetimes and other ways in which people date each other in this modern age in the same way. Zoom has recorded a spike in its downloads and usage, but these statistics tell us little about the sentiment around love in the time of corona. Are we able to link where these people are calling each other, whether or not there has been an increase in letter writing, the usage of online dating apps? How will we remember this pandemic in the future, in the romance novels, action films and memoirs that are written? I wonder if there will be micro historians who look back to our current social contexts and consider those who behaved and those who transgressed, and their reasons for doing so.