Thursday, January 22, 2009

History close enough to touch?

Those of you who have followed this blog over the last couple of years will be familiar with my interest (obsession?) with the life and works of David Douglas, botanist and plant collector 1799-1834. I have followed him around the world, including to sub-arctic Canada last summer and am making a TV documentary on his life. One of my themes is that history, far from being a dry and dusty subject which happened long long ago, can be surprisingly close.

Now let me tell you about Eugenie Fraser. Born Yevgheniya Ghermanovna Scholts, in Archangel, of Russian-Scots parents she died only in 2002, aged 96, in Edinburgh. Her obituary is on Times Online and her story of her life is available on Amazon. As a newborn baby in 1905 she was taken by sledge, swaddled in furs against the Archangel winter, to the house of an old family retainer, Nanny Shalovchika. Nanny professed herself content that she had now nursed four generations of the same family.

But the point about Nanny Shalovchika is that she was 105, born in 1800. She remembered seeing Napoleon’s troops fleeing down the roads of Smolensk after the battle of Smolensk in 1812 (she was already 12!), and had a son killed in the Crimean war.

In the lives of just two people, one of whom died only six years ago, we can reach back right to 1800 (David Douglas was born in 1799). History is indeed sometimes almost close enough to touch.

More on Douglas shortly, including his own gloomy assessment of his life expectancy, back in 1826.

But for the meantime, tomorrow, was serfdom alive and well in the UK as late as 1961?

No comments: