Rice’s Michie receives top book honor from national Victorian studies organization

Two English professors — Rice’s Helena Michie and The Ohio State University’s Robyn Warhol — spent 17 years researching, interpreting and – just as importantly, according to them – misinterpreting the life and times of Sir George Scharf, the founding director of the National Portrait Gallery in London. The fruit of their labor resulted in a book, “Love Among the Archives: Writing the Lives of George Scharf, Victorian Bachelor,” which was recently selected for the Best Book of the Year Award from the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA).

HELENA MICHIE

HELENA MICHIE

The association, which provides a forum for the discussion of the Victorian period among American and Canadian scholars, will honor the book with a special session featuring Michie and Warhol at its annual conference in Phoenix in early November. “In their imagination, originality, tenderness and skill, Michie and Warhol teach us all how to rethink the archive,” said NAVSA’s judges. “They make their love (for Scharf, for the archives, for each other) ours as well.”

Published by Edinburgh University Press in 2015, the 256-page book is part biography, part detective novel, part love story and a critical evaluation of how people read and interpret others’ lives.

The authors stumbled upon their subject by happenstance one day in the National Portrait Gallery archives when they discovered Scharf’s scrapbook of menus and invitations from England’s most stately homes, dating from the mid-19th century.

“It was just this enormous book with invitations and menus pasted on it,” said Michie, who is the author of five books in Victorian studies and the study of gender and sexuality. “Some of these invitations fold up into cute little boxes, and there are pages and pages of adorable cardboard things with these descriptions of these long, 20-course meals from the biggest and most famous country houses in England.

“We kept turning the pages of the album, and it took us a long time to ask the question, ‘Who put this album together and why?’ It took us a couple of days to even think about that because we were so excited by these objects. We found out it had been put together by Sir George Scharf. We looked him up in the Dictionary of National Biography, and it turned out he was the founding director of the National Portrait Gallery. And we were ashamed: We’d never heard of the man. We got less ashamed when we started talking to our friends. Even our friends in museum studies hadn’t heard of him. We thought, ‘Isn’t that interesting? What can we know about him?’”

Who was Sir George Scharf really?

And so began their adventures in the archives of London, searching Scharf’s diaries covering 50 years of daily entries, sketchbooks and letters of the man who so loved dining out.

“Our first impression was: This man is so boring,” Michie said. “These are not diaries; these are lists of expenses. We found out that he had bought cream or shoe laces and what that had cost. We were going to give up on this project.”

0822_MICHIE_IIOne day, however, they made a startling discovery. Instead of finding a traditional marriage or love plot, they discovered Scharf, the self-educated son of a poor immigrant artist, had a passionate attachment to a younger man, Jack.

“Four or five years into casually going into the archive, we started to see that we had a glimpse into something that is very rare in our field, which is a household of two men who are not explicitly lovers, but it’s a household. Most of the history of homosexuality in the Victorian period either focuses on street culture … and also relationships between aristocrats and working class men. There are just very few examples of sustained middle-class relationships.”

The relationship was not meant to last. Jack had hidden from Scharf a secret engagement. Scharf was heartbroken and yet gave a speech at Jack’s wedding. “We only have the draft (of the wedding speech),” Michie said. “There are all of these lines crossed out. He’s not a crosser-outer, George, but this one had so many lines crossed out. He would say, “We all so deeply regret’ and then he’d cross it out and say, ‘We’re all a tiny bit regretful.’ Just so unbelievable to see this draft of the document in the files.”

Scharf died in 1895 at the age of 75, after nearly four decades at the helm of the National Portrait Gallery. A couple of years ago Warhol and Michie paid special tribute to Scharf. They hosted a dinner party at Michie’s house consisting of eight courses for a dozen guests. It was a recreation of one Scharf had eaten more than 130 years earlier as a guest at one of England’s grandest country houses.

John Bowen, professor of 19th-century literature at the University of York, called the book “superb” in a review. “Warhol and Michie’s ‘Love Among the Archives’ is a triumph of a book, that reinvents academic biography and tells a compelling story of the passions and mysteries of Victorian lives and archives,” he said. “Inventive, witty and knowing, it is both an important reflection on biographical method and a joy to read.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.