For most of my academic career, reading at speed, and always off to the next book on the list, I have skipped and skimmed the ‘additional pages’ – the Roman-numbered ones at the beginning and end of a volume, containing the preface and index. More recently, though, I have become a little obsessed. First of all, I started looking at the index of any book I was reading, to see whether they had anything to say about women (in the case of Legal History books, the answer was very often no). Then, more recently, I have started to read prefaces. A particular feature seems to be the ‘minimising and patronising thanks’ motif – especially the brief, duty-bound, mention of women who no doubt did more than the transcription and typing credited to them. The attitude conveyed is one of arrogance and self-importance, seeking to emphasise the author’s own struggle, importance and genius. A particular gem turned up in my reading today, featuring not only women-minimising, but also something of an under-estimate of the others involved in bringing a book to press.
In Selden Society vol. 62, C.T. Flower, Introduction to the Curia Regis Rolls (London,. 1944), Preface, viii, Our Cyril (as I am sure he was known) informs his reader that ‘This book has been read in proof by my colleague, Mr. L. C. Hector, who has made numerous suggestions, of which I have used a very large proportion. I am greatly indebted to Mr. Stuart Moore for his unfailing encouragement, and to Professor Plucknett for his careful scrutiny of the proof sheets. My wife has made my task much easier by typing more than half the text, although she was at the time crippled by an accident. A last word of thanks is due to the printers, on whom the times in which we are living must have imposed great difficulties, of which they seldom made me aware.’
So what sets my teeth on edge here? Well, first of all it is the bit about his wife. No name. It’s his wife and he can’t even be bothered to include her name. According to his ODNB entry, it was Helen Mary Harding, before she married Cyril. Thereafter, apparently, ‘my wife’ sufficed. Then there is the ‘more than half the text’ – was it really necessary to go into proportions? And finally, the implications of this poor woman typing away whilst badly injured (we will pass over ‘crippled’: vile though it is, it was probably not out of the ordinary at that time). The idea that, during WWII, it was thought to be so urgent a matter to get out a volume on medieval legal records that a very-injured woman was called upon to type it up suggests both a lack of perspective and also a less-than-healthy partnership. The dismissal of the printers and their ‘great difficulties’ in a few bland words also seems jarring – and is there a hint that they sometimes did make him aware of problems (uppity little tradesmen! Don’t they know how important the work of a learned society is? Hitler will look upon my disussion of essoins in thirteenth century records and despair!)?
I shall continue to seek out dodgy preface remarks: they seem to be an interesting window into the mental world and self-regard of earlier scholars, and the lives of Legal Historians’ Wives. There seem to be so many ways to go wrong in a preface – self-indulgence, boasting, performative thanking, general dullness – that I do wonder whether we might not do away with them and just, you know, write the book. Which is what I am supposed to be doing now.