Lord William Bentinck and the Joy of the Archive

For the last two months (before I returned home at the beginning of December) I have been living in Nottingham, working by day in the university archive. The object of my work is the voluminous collection of letters, diaries and records contained within the Portland papers. Of particular fascination are those belonging to Lord William Bentinck, who was for some time the Commander in Chief of British forces in the Mediterranean and de facto governor of Sicily during the Napoleonic Wars. (The man was later to be Governor-General of India, and he had already served as Governor of Madras, but it is his Italian period – which spans a very short time, from 1811 to 1814 – that is most intriguing and pertinent in this enquiry.)

Bentinck’s script is fascinating. I originally found it difficult to discern, but after some work it became and easier to interpret and understand. He wrote in a languid, free-flowing style, one that is reflected both in his handwriting – which is so unhurriedly elegant as to be essentially illegible in places – and his prose, which is collected, mildly repetitious and distinguished by Bentinck’s use of inconsistent abbreviation and idiosyncratic punctuation.

This raises the interesting question of whether a historian ought to impose their own punctuation and spelling on the text upon which they are working. An extended transcript of Bentinck’s diaries which I examined had done so, standardising a script littered with shortenings and symbols and interjected punctuation; yet John Rosselli – the author of the standard English language work on Bentinck’s time in Sicily, Lord William Bentinck and the British Occupation of Sicily 1811-1814 – does not do so conspicuously or in an obvious fashion. Perhaps the question can be avoided by simply quoting from the diary in fragments, thus avoiding the issues which arise from more lengthy and extended quotation.

Rosselli, in the Preface of his biography of Bentinck – William Bentinck: The Making of a Liberal Imperialist – writes on this subject in a manner which deserves to be quoted at length.

It is the fashion among historians of British India, rather more than among modern historians at large, to reproduce the spelling and punctuation of the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century documents. I have not followed this practice. Bentinck for most of his life wrote ‘publick’, ‘controul’, ‘oeconomy’; like other men of his day he capitalised many nouns. To reproduce such features in documents of the modern period is, I think, to meet an antiquarian taste rather than to help comprehension; to follow literally the punctuation of Bentinck’s diary entries – often non-existent – would confuse the reader.

As it happens, I somewhat disagree with Rosselli. Authenticity ought to be the fundamental concern of the chronicler – after all, the character of any collection of private papers is built upon their individuality and idiosyncrasy. Indeed, the lack of punctuation in Bentinck’s case can, I think, actually illuminate – and not obscure – his true opinions and the way his mind worked. I can offer no concrete answers, however, and it remains an engaging (if somewhat tangential) debate.

The content of Bentinck’s dairies and letters is thoroughly engaging – even at a very early stage, for example, I was able to read about the very real possibility of the King being forced to abdicate, to be replaced by his son, the Hereditary Prince. Understandably this episode interested Rosselli, and he peppers his text with a profusion of quotations from the diary; it is an odd and distinctly strange sensation to read passages in a book (in this case a book published in 1956) that one has already – and with great difficulty – transcribed from the original source itself.

A particular preoccupation of Bentinck’s – one which is not communicated in much of the secondary work about him and his achievements – is his habit of writing about more mundane, domestic matters in the margins of his diary; on January 2, 1812, for example, aside from the high politics which make up the main body of his text, he wrote about a riding injury sustained by one Mr. Obins, who ‘had a violent fall with the grey horse’. These flashes of ordinary life give the narrative a new vitality, one which if anything strengthens the apparent importance of the political sphere; after all, no man is a political animal alone, and the interspersion of the personal and the political adds poignancy and colour to the pages of Bentinck’s recollections, which can sometimes resemble little more than a litany of which personage called upon which other and what was discussed in the ensuing meeting. (Luckily, though ‘his heels flew up and Obins’ head came with great violence to the ground’, the man survived. He was met by emissaries from every notable personality in the kingdom, and he made an apparent recovery. In February 1813 Bentinck wrote that ‘Our excellent friend Obins left us’.)

Such insights into the working lives of historical figures can only be gleaned from the sources themselves, and this comparative rarity makes them all the more remarkable. Montaillou, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, which takes as its focus the daily lives of the inhabitants of a small village in Ariège, is all the more fascinating for this reason. The book, which contains a great deal of information about ordinary people in the fourteenth century, captivates and enthrals because it provides a new and fresh perspective; and this charm is derived from intensive work with primary sources.

William Bentinck is not a marginal figure. He is not likely to vanish entirely from recorded history – at least not any time soon. But it is worthwhile to examine a relatively unknown period of his life, and to do so with recourse to the documents themselves. I have not uncovered anything truly revelatory about Bentinck, and I have not discovered any single piece of information which will reshape our understanding of the early nineteenth century, either in Sicily or in Britain. But I have learnt a little about his idiosyncratic writing, his slapdash punctuation, and the evident emotion he recorded when an associate was unfortunately injured. I have, in short, discovered for myself a slice of his humanity; and that, perhaps more than anything else, represents the joy of the archive.