Universiteit Leiden

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NIAS grant for research into 19th century bohemians and their love for anarchistic assassins

It was a remarkable trend in 19th-century London: middle-class bourgeois bohemians falling in love with anarchism and its assassins. University lecturer Michael Newton has been awarded a NIAS subsidy to reconstruct the lives of three of these families.

‘I wrote a book about assassinations: from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan,’ Newton begins. ‘So it goes from a president murdered by an actor in a theatre, to a president who had been a Hollywood actor being shot by someone trying to impress Jodie Foster, a Hollywood actress. That book is quite a tome, but I still had to leave things out. In particular, I’m interested in a network of interconnected families, especially the Rossettis and the Garnetts, in turn of the century London who became involved in anarchism, nihilism, and Indian nationalism. They were into writing and painting, but at the same time they were deeply radical. They wanted to bring down the government.’

Newton decided to delve deeper into the lives of three of these families. He soon discovered their anarchistic activities were quite innocent: the teenage Rossettis ran an anarchist magazine from the basement of their luxurious home, while others translated Russian literature. Their friends, however, were a lot more radical. ‘Basically, all these people fell in love with assassins,’ he says. One lost his heart to an Indian nationalist assassin, another to a Russian nihilist who killed a tsarist general. ‘Anarchism was as popular as communism, so these London middle-class bohemians considered these assassins idealistic, noble figures. Killing a tyrant was a good thing.’

A story that tells itself

Anarchists, assassins, and beautiful homes: Newton’s topic sounds like a costume drama. ‘I think I’m partly interested in this topic because it’s such a great story,’ he admits. ‘The lives of these families were quite different, but there was also a lot of overlap. It almost seems like a plot. At the same time, I like the thought that a story contains more resonances and more truths than a rather neutral or distant interpretation of politics in that period, because it’s personal.’

From micro-steps to immersion

Over the past few years, Newton has done a lot of archival research and written ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of pages of notes. The really big, vibrant story, however, he has yet to write. He believes that the NIAS grant he recently received will help him do just that. His teaching duties will be taken over by a substitute for a period of five months. ‘I often tell my students, the way to write something when you’re busy is by doing it in micro-steps. If you write for half an hour every morning, you can achieve a lot in a year. The only problem is that you can’t immerse yourself in the material. There’s a huge value to just giving yourself over to the book and the research and not having to think about the other twelve things you have on your mind when you are teaching. It’s wonderful that NIAS and Leiden University have offered me this opportunity.’

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