February in review

If January bucked the trend of months seeming to zip past in the blink of an eye, February has very much marked a return to business as usual. I can’t quite believe that four working weeks have passed and that it is now six months since I began my Fellowship with the Leverhulme Trust. Yikes!

As ever, this month has been a mixed bag: I feel like I’ve made good progress in some areas and have stalled in others. At the end of January, I set myself the goal of finishing my account of Macintosh’s two decades in the Caribbean by the end of February. That goal was, I now realise, hopelessly optimistic. As I neared 30,000 words of the book’s first empirical chapter, I had only got as far as 1768. I realised that, as I was only just over the half-way point in terms of what I wanted to say about Macintosh’s formation as a political actor in the Caribbean, I needed to split the chapter. Now, I have one chapter (25,863 inclusive of notes) that covers the period between Macintosh’s birth in 1737 and his return to Britain in 1768 to lobby the government over the rights of French Catholics in Grenada and attempt to unseat Robert Melvill as the island’s governor. The second empirical chapter (currently 5,287 inclusive of notes) will follow that story in London and then return with Macintosh to Grenada to witness the aftermath of that lobbying.

I feel happier now that I have restructured this element of the book—in many ways it is endlessly fascinating, but it is also really quite important in terms of understanding how and why Macintosh became drawn into political activity. At the same time, I have become aware that my productivity, if measured crudely in words per day, has been declining month on month. This is, I think, due to a combination of factors. The first, and most significant, is the time invested (20 hours per working week) on home schooling since the beginning of January. There are simply not enough hours in the day to write a book and educate a five-year-old, and the level of fatigue has been creeping up as a result. Still, my phonics and number bonds have come on in leaps and bounds.

Flattening the curve (but in the wrong way).

The second issue is that, as the complexity of the social and political contexts in which Macintosh was involved increases, I am spending proportionally more time researching than writing. This was especially true this month when, earlier than I had expected, I needed to start understanding and writing about the politics of the East India Company. The learning curve has been a steep one, but I think it has allowed me to understand Macintosh and his milieu more fully than I had before and to identify the centrality of Lauchlin Macleane to Macintosh’s activities in the West Indies and British India during the 1770s.

I have also drawn a great deal of inspiration from some of the work I have read this month, particularly Emma Rothschild’s An Infinite History: The Story of a Family in France over Three Centuries and Robert A. Caro’s Working.

Very early in my work on Macintosh, I had read Emma Rothschild’s The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History (2011), ostensibly for a footnote reference to Macintosh that it contained, and was totally blown away by it—I thought it was wonderful. That book follows one Scottish family—the Johnstones—across Britain’s eighteenth-century empire. An Infinite History is also a family story, but one that focuses on five generations of a family from Angoulême in the south west of France (all descendants of one illiterate woman, Marie Aymard) from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Although the source material for An Infinite History is different—drawing largely from civic records and notarial acts and less from correspondence—it is equally compelling and in many ways quite beautiful. (I can also recommend the audiobook, which is excellent).

Macintosh serves as an interesting connection between Rothschild’s books, and the families she discusses; he was a friend of one Johnstone brother (Alexander) and a business partner of another (William) and was involved in Grenadian politics with the man who employed Marie Aymard’s husband, Jean-Alexandre Cazaud. Six degrees of separation, indeed! Together, Rothschild’s books represent the kind of history I aspire to write, but to which I know I will never come close. It matters, though, to have something to aim towards.

Caro’s book, on the other hand, is inspiring in a slightly different way. In his reflections on the lengthy (indeed, very lengthy) process of writing two biographies—one on the roguish “master builder” Robert Moses, the other on Lyndon B. Johnson—Caro makes the ultimate case for slow scholarship. Part of me wishes it were possible for me to follow his example, and to invest another decade in turning every page of Macintosh’s archive and in chasing down every lead, but part of me realises that my work, and this book I am writing, cannot be definitive. It can be as good as I can make it in the time and with the resources I have, but should start a conversation about Macintosh, not be the last word on him.

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