Trudi Tate is a Fellow and Tutor of Clare Hall, Cambridge, and teaches in the Faculty of English. Her publications include Modernism, History and the First World War and The Silent Morning: Culture and Memory after the Armistice.
What initially sparked your interest in the Crimean War?
I had written a lot about the First World War, with a particular interest in the ways in which writers bear witness to that war. I studied how the war was reported, and misreported, in the press, and how people felt about the newspapers in the early twentieth century.
This made me curious to know more about how war was represented earlier, in the Victorian period. The Crimean War (1854-56) is the most important conflict of the mid-Victorian period and we can still learn an enormous amount from it. Its very name is misleading, actually – at the time, it was known as the Russian War, or the war in the East. Important parts of the war took place far away from the Crimea, in the Baltic Sea. Historian Andrew Lambert has done ground-breaking work on the naval campaigns, and my book builds upon his insights to rethink the social and cultural effects of the war.
Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
The rise of the press in the nineteenth century is very important, but the material found in the newspapers – and in any media – needs to be handled with a certain amount of suspicion. Writers and artists often have interesting things to say about the history of their own time. I am interested to understand literary and artistic works within their particular historical context, and to see how those works can enrich our understanding of that context.
There are many fascinating individuals to study in the Crimean War. William Howard Russell was the first modern war journalist, reporting events such as the Charge of the Light Brigade. James Robertson and Roger Fenton were the world’s first war photographers. Robertson’s photos of the fall of Sebastopol are still very moving today. Tennyson and Dickens had interesting things to say about the war in their literary works. On the Russian side, Tolstoy wrote about the siege of Sebastopol, which he witnessed first hand. French poet Baudelaire was deeply impressed by the Crimea drawings of Constantin Guys, and referred to the war as a ‘great epic poem’. British artists such as William Simpson and Henry Clifford produced many drawings and paintings of the war. These were often exhibited to interested crowds in London. Then there were some colourful military figures such as Lord Cardigan of the Light Brigade, cavalry man Captain Nolan and Vice-Admiral Napier of the Baltic Fleet. Florence Nightingale and her nurses cared for thousands of injured and sick men at Scutari. Closer to the front lines, Jamaican doctoress and caterer Mary Seacole offered food and medical help.
Meanwhile, back at home, MPs John Bright and Richard Cobden argued strongly against the war and in favour of free trade and a commitment to peace.
Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
We need to look more critically at the ways in which wars have been represented for the past 150 years. We tend to be quite naïve today, and to accept images and reports at face value. People in earlier periods were often more sceptical – in this sense, more mature and intelligent about the things they found in the media – than we are today.
Which figure in history would you like to go back in time to meet and why?
It would be fascinating to talk to ordinary soldiers and sailors who served in the Crimea and the Baltic, or nurses who worked with Florence Nightingale. Most of their experiences were never recorded.
Among more famous historical figures, it would be interesting to hear Queen Victoria reflect upon her long life and reign.
What is your favourite book?
I find I return to Trevor Wilson’s history of the First World War, Myriad Faces of War, and Eric Hobsbawm’s wide-ranging account of the twentieth century, Age of Extremes. Among the many fine Crimean War histories (Palmer, Baumgart, Figes, Anderson, and others), Andrew Lambert’s The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy against Russia is hugely important.
Novelists I particularly admire include George Eliot, Woolf, Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, Kazuo Ishiguro and Rose Tremain. I am also interested in contemporary Vietnamese-American writers, including Andrew Pham and Thuy Le. ■
Modernism, History and the First World War (Manchester University Press, 1998)
The Listening Watch: Australian Memories of Viet Nam (forthcoming 2013)
Women’s Fiction and the First World War (co-edited with Suzanne Raitt) (Oxford University Press, 1997)
Literature, Science, Psychoanalysis (co-edited with Helen Small) (Oxford University Press, 2003)
The Silent Morning: Culture and Memory after the Armistice (co-edited with Kate Kennedy) (Manchester University Press, 2013)