- Love Among the Archives: Writing the Lives of Sir George Scharf, Victorian Bachelor by Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol
who is sir george scharf?
On a bad day, for Victorianists Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol, he is "the most boring man in the world" (6). For the rest of us—a group that may include scholars of Victorian literature and culture, historians, art critics, archivists, and avid readers of biography and biographical metafiction—he is the first director of London's National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Does this titled position, which led to Scharf being appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, differentiating him from his father George Scharf, the German immigrant artist whose vocation the NPG website lists as "miniature painter, draughtsman and lithographer," make Sir George any less boring? Possibly. Although the biography of such a person may be categorized as niche, there are a number of reasons to write a life of Sir George Scharf. Michie and Warhol mention some of these, including Scharf's contributions to portrait identification and display techniques, for example. But out of the authors' self-professed limitations of training—both are literary critics—comes something more ambitious and expansive. Despite its entrenchment in Victorian literary scholarship, Love Among the Archives belongs to the ever-expanding category of experimental life writing, distinguished by the refusal of prescriptive narratives and the embrace of narrative twists, turns, and surprises. Michie and Warhol's book neatly undresses three characteristic plots in nineteenth-century fiction—the romance plot, the family [End Page 517] romance, and the search for vocation—as the plots enable and inform their experience of working with Scharf's archive. Although the specific application of these plots will be most interesting to scholars of nineteenth-century literature, those reading and working more broadly in the field of biography will appreciate the book's attention to everyday details that might otherwise fall into obscurity, resisting narrative altogether. A torn piece of waistcoat, a blotch on a letter, a meticulously preserved set of dinner menus—these things all come to life and have their place in the authors' search for a subject who refuses complete knowability.
Love Among the Archives deftly employs three temporal modes to bring Scharf's experiences to life: story time, discourse time, and archive time (52). A story, as Michie and Warhol point out, links events through causation, and Scharf's diaries seldom provide evidence for why certain entries appear side by side, and even less evidence for what Scharf might have been feeling when he recorded them. Story time, as such, follows the narrative(s) that the authors have imagined and constructed for Scharf, based on what they intuit from their own experiences with his papers; it is not linear or chronological. Those needing a more organized chronology can look to the vita provided before the preface, which is divided into the seven decades of Scharf's life (as with the book as a whole, the vita does not end with Scharf's death, but unlike the book, the vita ends with the relocation of the NPG collection to its current space, and thus asserts Scharf's professional legacy). The vita merges Michie and Warhol's story time observations with events that might structure a more chronologically driven account of Scharf's life, such as Charles Dickens's private visit to the NPG in 1861. Next to events such as these are story time occurrences like "the piano wars," a set of occasions where Scharf attempts to drown out a neighbor's loud piano-playing with noisemaking of his own. Reading the vita emphasizes how story time events signify within the archivists' reconstruction of Scharf's Victorian bachelor world, rather than on their own terms—on Scharf's terms, that is. Discourse time refers to recursive moments in Scharf's diaries and letters, including daily records, mentions of memorial anniversaries, and summaries of annual expenditures and professional accomplishments. The third category, archive time, encompasses...