From her sickbed, Rachael de Vienne stirred herself to tell me, through her daughter, that I was wrong. It was just on a tiny supporting fact of a book I was working on and I had only put the fact in so as to give her book a plug. I wasn’t even wrong on the fact—I was wrong on the inference I took from it, she said. I wasn’t even wrong on that, in my opinion. But that’s just it—it was my opinion. ‘Keep your opinions separate from the facts,’ she would have said. ‘There is nothing wrong with drawing inferences, conclusions, and educated guesses. Just label them as such.’ THAT is the kind of historian she was. Sigh—I changed the passage just to suit her, and it probably didn’t.
She wouldn’t review my first book, either, or any of the other ones, though I just asked her to do the first, Tom Irregardless and Me. I mean, I had written a nice review for her book. Finally, with some nagging, she said that she might review mine and asked how I intended to submit it. ‘It’s not done that way,’ she retorted, when I told her. Tweeting with a co-blogger about it, as though on a private phone connection and not a social media platform broadcast to the whole wide world, the co-blogger told her that he wasn’t going to review it, either—‘the first chapter is about Prince, and then in places it is a little “preachy”—not pure fact at all.’ It was too much. I tweeted: “YOU GET ON THAT KEYBOARD AND REVIEW IT RIGHT NOW!” but then had second thoughts and deleted the tweet. See what sort of historians she hung out with?
During her final few months, she interspersed regular tweets with some detailing her illness, at times getting quite graphic, caring not about revealing the personal humiliation you must experience as your own body is betraying you. Imagine—chronicling your own suffering that way—true to her calling to the last. See what sort of an historian she was?
The book that she co-authored with the unwieldy title—as though to make clear that it is scholarly and not a specimen of pop writing—A Separate Identity—Organizational Identity Among Readers of Zion’s Watchtower: 1870-1887’: I admit, I skimmed it. Not through lack of interest—you will never find a more thorough history of non-mainstream events—but through lack of time. I wanted to write a decent and coherent review. I agreed with her (explicitly labeled) speculation that the the reason the Watchtower Society received her completed book without comment after being semi-cooperative in providing source material is that “they are incurious as to their own history.” Yeah. I agree. They are. So am I—I mean, I (and they) am not uninterested—it is just that I am interested in other things more. The ‘Society’ is not rooted in anything, I don’t think. They are progressive. They move on.
Separate Identity is the not the only book that she wrote, and I look forward to curling up to it and others when (more likely if) I ever find the time, because it is excellent, universally praised, except occasionally by some hothead Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves because it does not adhere to the party line—it goes where it goes without regard to who has later been christened hero or villain.
She co-authored a book about Nelson Barbour, too, and this should interest me even more because I once lived about a hundred yards from where he did (also a hundred years). I had written a blog post about Barbour, a well-known “get-outer” preacher of the late 1800s that Charles Taze Russell for a time partnered with, and I observed that there must have been some relationship between he and a well-known Rochester Presbyterian preacher of the same surname, whose wife Elizabeth is listed as ‘excommunicated and expunged’ or words to that effect. Rachael told me that I was wrong on that, too—the two families were entirely separate.
I am not even sure that she liked me, really, but we followed each other on Twitter, and she would occasionally respond to my tweets and even more occasionally initiate some to me. My non-religious semi-serious historical work she let pass with minimal comment. Maybe she was more like my 7th grade social studies teacher, who made everyone literally start every essay paragraph with the phrase in parentheses: “who, what, where, why, how,” so that we would learn to write with substance, and who would say things like ‘Don’t write “In my opinion.” Of course it’s your opinion—you wrote it!’ This doesn’t entirely square with Rachael’s urging, which just goes to show why you mull over all input, but each one must ultimately develop his or her own style.
I always liked it that she found such great comfort from her family, to offset her many years of illness—lifelong, it seems. I miss her. Here is her obit, and the blog lives on in other hands, I believe. You will never find a more rigorous example of niche history, digging up letters, notes, minutia and photos 100 years old.
Let’s end with a review of Separate Identity that says it all. It is reproduced at truthhistory.
“Histories of the early Watch Tower movement tend to fall into two extremes, hagiography and polemic. This is because they are usually written from a range of widely differing theological perspectives, not that of a strict historian. Additionally, they tend to concentrate on the figure of Charles Taze Russell to the virtual exclusion of his contemporaries. This volume redresses that balance, written by two historians with an almost fanatical attention to detail as demonstrated by the voluminous footnotes. They appear to strive hard to keep any personal views out of the picture and go where the evidence takes them. The result is a detailed, even-handed history of Russell and his contemporaries - crucially in the context of their times. Many writers on this subject seem to try and graft 21st century attitudes onto 19th century people, not recognising that the beliefs of Russell and others in the second half of the nineteenth century were often far more mainstream than a modern reader might imagine. Even if one has no direct interest in Russell and what came later from his ministry, several groups today count people like Henry Grew, George Storrs, and John Thomas in their antecedents. These men all feature in this book and, certainly in the case of Storrs, you are unlikely to find as much detailed information on his life and work anywhere else. The writers have previously published a volume on Nelson Barbour: The Millennium’s Forgotten Prophet. That too is well worth reading, although the present volume (that takes history up to 1879) is a stand-alone book.”