Dale Smith, Department of History
My research focuses on the historiographical culture of early modern Britain, particularly during the period 1740-1837. In my work I examine various forms and genres of "contemporary history" during this period, and inquire into how the present was represented and, as I argue, understood in historiographical terms. This argument is presented in two substantial parts. The first section focuses on "narrations" of the present, and moves from an introduction to the practice and reception of contemporary history around the middle of the eighteenth century, to a close examination of a variety of contemporary histories of Hanoverian Britain from the 1750s to the late 1830s. A badly neglected subgenre of British and European historical writing during this period, an attempt is made to establish its significance within an emerging historicist framework. This first section also includes chapters on contemporary histories of British commerce and imperial expansion, contemporary biography and anecdotal forms of historical narration, and the "historical register" periodicals that attempted to track and record the everyday transactions of the moment.
The second half of the dissertation takes the "survey" discourse of the period as its starting point. In particular, I argue that the proliferation and increasing refinement of "statistical surveys" and related works during the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth century should be re-interpreted as (often nationally focused) historiographical projects. Indeed, the chapters in this section trace the statistical survey to its origins within the antiquarian and historical traditions of early modern Britain. Included in this genealogy are geographical grammars, political arithmetics, and the ubiquitous 'present state' genre. I argue that the statistical survey movement of late eighteenth-century Britain, of which Sir John Sinclair's Statistical Account of Scotland is a notable example among many that I consider, is a form of contemporary history that developed out of earlier antiquarian projects both in England and Scotland.
The bulk of this section is an attempt to reconstruct this larger historiographical project and its various facets. In Scotland, for example, rival projects competed against each other in attempting to fashion a particular view of not only the Scottish past, but of its future and, in counterpoise to both, a detailed snapshot of its contemporary configurations. On a wider British scale, I examine the establishment and early history of the Board of Agriculture (1793), and the sense in which it served as a vehicle through which to carry out an incomplete statistical survey of English and Welsh counties similar to the Scottish parochial surveys. The final chapters look at statistical surveys in the early nineteenth century (in Ireland and the wider British colonial empire), as well as the increasing phenomenon of "statistical histories" in the 1830s.
The problem of contemporary history as a neglected and little-understood form of historiographical activity need not be constrained by the chronological limits established in my dissertation (although I do believe strongly that the period I have identified is clearly a site of high tension in this regard). I expect that my work in the Centre would help to define ways in which I might expand my research diachronically back into the seventeenth century and ahead into the Victorian period, but also synchronically into different national and cultural contexts of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe and North America, and perhaps most interestingly into a wider array of historical discourses (including visual culture) and forms of cultural memory.