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Sir Edward Dering (1598-1644), of Pluckley, in Kent, was an antiquary not always scrupulous with his accounts about the past (he concocted a fake ancient Saxon family tree), an M.P., and, as his contemporaries saw it, a political defector who danced nimbly away from royalism when things were looking bad in 1644. ‘A man of levity and vanity’, wrote Edward Hyde, Lord Clarendon in his The History of the Rebellion, ‘easily flattered by being commended.’
Dering compiled an account book listing everything he paid for: ‘A Booke of expences from ye yeare 1619 (being halfe a yeare before I was first marryed); unto ye yeare ’. In tracking his money, Dering built an inventory of his life through the things he purchased. If you’re interested in literature and theatre, there are lots of spectacular entries: the purchase, in 1623, of ‘[Ben] Jhonson’s playes’ at nine shillings, and ‘2 volumes of … Shakespear’s playes’ at two pounds, along with payments for ‘Seeinge play[s]’ in London and once ‘att Maidstone’, and four shillings paid to ‘mr Carington for writing out ye play of K Henry ye fourth’ – a conflation of the two parts of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV. But it’s the quotidian records that, for me, have a surpassing particularity: ‘giuen John ye gardener when he first shewed me how to graft’ (one shilling); ‘Cuttinge ye Cornes on my feete’ (two shillings); ‘A little gallon paile to take up hott water’ (three pence); ‘Given a boy that brought word about my haystacke that itt was falling downe’ (two pence). Quick, Dering, leave your feet – your haystack is falling down!
Here are some of Dering’s entries from 1619.
Tobacco 00 00 02
Oyle of cloves 00 00 02
Quinces and marmalade 00 08 06
Enamellinge a ringe 00 01 00
Settinge a stone in her di<u>amond ringe 00 01 00
Lemmans 00 00 08
Laid out for my wives vse 13-6-0
To mistress Paddy for her <s> husbands bookes of
Heraldry 20 00 00
2 paper bookes 00 05 00
27 playbookes 00 09 00
Sir Iohn Harringtons booke of epigrams 00 00 06
Yorkes booke of heraldry coloured 02 04 00
The country farme 00 08 00
3 bookes for expences, whereof this is one 00 07 06
2 Allmanackes 00 00 04
Tobacco, and marmalade, and Sir John Harrington’s epigrams, and lemons. For the historian interested in commodities, in book prices, in fashion in early-seventeenth-century Kent, in reading tastes, in note-taking, these are valuable nuggets of fact: punctual pieces of the real. Dering paid 5 shillings for 2 blank notebooks. He paid 8 shillings for ‘The country farme’, which sounds like a very small farm until one realises it’s a husbandry guide, Maison Rustique, translated from French in 1616. But to see only facts is to miss the power of Dering’s inventory: there is a drama, here, a sense that these records let slip more than they mean. Off-stage characters (‘mistress Paddy’) are briefly lit up only to leave the scene straight away, and we wish we could follow them. What does Dering’s wife think of the stone set in a diamond ring? And despite the appearance of a kind of anti-literary, straight-forward record keeping, there is a self-reflexivity, too, that produces the effect of eddies of time, as Dering records the cost of the book in which he records the cost the book: ‘3 bookes for expences, whereof this is one’.
The French artist Christian Boltanski (1944-2021), who died two months ago, made a series of Inventories which explore the form. Boltanski’s process was characteristically direct and rule-based: he found an estate sale of someone who had recently died, bought all the items, labelled and classified all the objects and placed them in display cases. He would then produce a small book, listing the contents. After the work was exhibited, everything was destroyed. Boltanski produced lots of these. Early on, he found that dealing with a dead person’s belonging ‘made the work feel too sentimental’, so he instead found individuals willing to loan all their objects. At an installation at MOMA in Oxford in 1973, Boltanksi offered another variant, gathering, curating and then displaying 300 photographs of all the objects – socks, a packet of laundry liquid, a rosary – belonging to a student at Christ Church college, Oxford (‘Inventory of Objects Belonging to a Young Man of Oxford’, 1973, 2014).
The inventory – and I mean Boltanski’s piece, and also the form itself – both suggests and ruthlessly withholds narrative: we have the swarm of things that surround the unnamed young man, but not the young man. Boltanski was interested in precisely the problematic status of narrative within the inventory: he tried to keep each exhibition ‘universal and neutral enough so that it wouldn’t tell an actual story’.
Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry (2009) is something like a novel-as-inventory. It’s concerned with the relationship between narrative and object: with the question of how much of the owner is revealed through a (fictional) auction catalogue of things. In fact, not just a single owner, but a relationship: Shapton’s Important Artifacts provides images and text descriptions of 325 lots for sale, organised through time to track the duration of a relationship, from the first meeting of Lenore and Harold to their final break up. Instead of a story, we have shoes, used paperbacks, post-it notes, pieces of furniture, letters, two aprons, a bunch of burnt sage, a broken mug, and two pairs of shoes. As with Edward Dering’s list of expenses (‘27 playbookes’ at 9 shillings), each object is given a financial value, although here it is a price for sale, rather than a cost incurred: ‘LOT 106. A handwritten notation. A short handwritten notation in ballpoint on a green cocktail napkin. Reads: ‘firstname.lastname@example.org.’ Some wear and creasing. 5x5 in. $15-20.’
Because this is not a novel, but an auction catalogue, Shapton’s text makes the story of Lenore and Harold a consequence of these objects: we start with the things – these are the centre – and only then, and uncertainly, move out to speculate on these two lives which are vital but also peripheral, and which, as we attempt to fill in the gaps, grow more hauntingly absent.
Reviewers of Shapton’s riveting book made claims for its novelty – ‘completely sui generis’, according to The New York Times – but in fact Shapton is finding in the inventory some of the powers that Boltanski (purposefully) and Dering (accidentally) also explored.
Dering’s ‘Booke of expences’ is at the Centre for Kentish Studies (U350 / E4), but there is a transcript of the whole thing by Laetitia Yeandle.
Boltanski talks about his Inventories in Christian Boltankski and Catherine Grenier, The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski (2009).
Leanne Shapton, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry (2009) is back in print and is described here.