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.  

Love in the time of Corona

One thought on “Love in the time of Corona

  • March 30, 2020 at 12:50 pm

    Good post! I always find it interesting to think about how the history our day will someday be written, and as it will be in say, 50 or 60 years’ time (hopefully we’ll all still be alive by then), we will be there for its creation. Someday histories will be written about the coronavirus pandemic, the Internet, the use of social media.

    This definitely inspires important questions about the nature of sources and our access to them. This AskHistorians thread brings up important points to consider. As you note, the nature of the Internet may make study of this present (as it will in time be the past) more difficult. The note you make on video chats is an important one, and we’ve already experienced a loss of sources through similar means. Digital media is a lot more fragile than we tend to give it credit for, for all of academia’s embrace of the digital humanities and online databases.

    For instance, technological shifts in terms of how files are stored and viewed may render past records inaccessible. For instance, we can think about all of the countless websites and videos that have been deleted from the Internet, never to be seen again. In the case of things like video chatting, there are all sorts of online interactions that simply don’t leave a tangible record for the future historian to think about and analyze. Countless letters have been destroyed and lost over the ages – perhaps emails, texts, and DMs will go the same path, locked behind inaccessible private accounts or deleted from the Internet entirely. I keep a journal myself, not on paper, but as a Microsoft Word document. I could very easily see it going missing past my lifetime in a way a hard copy of a book would have less of a chance to. The Internet is a difficult source – how will future historians tackle posts made by fabricated accounts? Memes are a constant presence in our everyday lives – how will those be thought and written about by future historians?

    Of course, it will also be interesting to think about how society will change and think about us in the future. It almost goes without saying, but what we think is “progressive” or “conservative” in our day may be thought of completely differently in the future. It’s certainly interesting to think about how our present will someday be somebody else’s past. In a roundabout way, thinking about our present like this forces us to think about how we imagine and judge the past from our own perspectives.

    I really liked this post – I think we all too often forget that historical actors were people too, with their own wants, hopes, fears, desires, and aspirations.

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