Let us begin by considering a series of letters written in 1863 by Max Vigne, a humble imperial surveyor in India, to his wife at home in England. In the course of his affectionate and finely observed correspondence, Vigne comes to think of himself for the first time as a naturalist. He recounts his growing fascination with botany, particularly the new field of plant geography, and he expresses a keen desire to share this new knowledge—and his newfound identity—with his faraway wife, Clara.
Everything I am seeing and doing is so new . . . When I lie down to sleep everything spins in my brain. I can only make sense of my life the way I have made sense of everything, since we first met: by describing it to you. That great gift you have always had of listening, asking such excellent questions—when I tell you enough to let you imagine me clearly, then I can imagine myself.
In these lines Vigne is proposing what might strike us at first as a surprising connection between scientific observation and private life. He seems to derive his standard of clear description—the backbone of his scientific work as a naturalist—not from professional norms or philosophical reflections, but rather from an ideal of intimacy. In subsequent letters Vigne makes clear that his study of the geographical relations among plants is part of a more personal quest for knowledge: an attempt to make sense of the persistence of his own identity during his transformative experiences of travel. “Only now do I begin to grasp the principles of growth and change in the plants I learned to name in the woods, those we have grown at home—there is a science
to this. Something that transcends mere identification.” He likens the plant's essential and enduring form to the bond he shares with Clara:
The point, dear heart, is that through all these transformations one can still discern the original morphology; the original character is altered yet not lost. In our separation our lives are changing, our bond to each other is changing. Yet still we are essentially the same.
These letters never reached Vigne's wife, because neither he, nor Clara, nor the letters themselves ever really existed. They are fictions, penned not by a nineteenth-century naturalist but by the twenty-first-century novelist, Andrea Barrett. Why begin a historiographical essay with fiction? In part because in very few cases have historians yet gone to the trouble of reconstructing such profound resonances between familial and scientific experiences. As historians, we are not yet sure how to read domestic documents as sources for the history of knowledge production. “Flimsy lists of things to do, large parchment mortgages, ‘private letters of no consequence’”—these are among the historical documents that we need to learn to read for their clues to intellectual history.