No, I haven’t started an indie rock band or a hipster micro-brewery. I’m talking, my friends, about a problem I first encountered many years ago but which, I’m coming to realise, affects more of us than I had previously imagined. I’m talking about racehorses.
Yes, you heard that right.
So, you’re at the start of a new research project or chapter. You’re about to wade into the wide, wonderful world of the digital archive to see what hidden gems you can uncover about your topic from the newspapers, letters, diaries, and parliamentary speeches of the nineteenth century. We’ve all done this, right? Gleefully, nerdily pursuing the answer to questions like: ‘What did the Victorians think about [delete as appropriate] the ancient world / science and medicine / humour and comedy / gender and the New Woman / the lesser-read novels of the Brontës / politics’?
You input your search terms and, LO AND BEHOLD, a slew of results. Maybe even a spike just where you’d hoped. But as you dig deeper, you start to realise that all is not as it seems. You hear the ghostly clatter of hooves on the road behind as it dawns on you that this search term may also be the name of a nineteenth-century racehorse!
My own personal horsey haunting came while I was researching my book on Ancient Rome and Victorian Masculinity. Like a chariot from Ben Hur, though, my archival search was violently derailed by a rogue thoroughbred called Julius Caesar who, by the way, sounds like some hellish, Hannibal-Lecter-esque nightmare of a stallion:
Julius Caesar ‘came out wearing a hood, blinkers, and a muzzle, and was led down the course, nor was he mounted until the rest of the field has taken their preliminary canters. He seems to be developing into a savage brute, and must be an unpleasant horse either to ride or to handle.’
The Saturday Review (November 23, 1878), p.658.