Why Hannah?

Posted by Christina.

Beigh Masters has “devoted eleven years” to the study “of a [single] person”—Hannah Easton Fitch Legge, an interesting but relatively obscure woman dead for three centuries (138). Hannah began as a footnote to Beigh’s search for the elusive Emperor’s Tear, but quickly became her main obsession.

Hannah predicted that “her life would reside in other people’s stories” (199).  Beigh is both a captive audience and compiler of them.  Although they are distantly related, something beyond blood motivates Beigh to assume the task of learning Hannah’s history and perpetuating her memory.  Perhaps, just as Hannah was captivated by the new, “brilliantly hued world[s]” she found herself in, Beigh admiringly views Hannah’s life as a “richer life” than her own (171, 222).Beigh claims that she studies “what happened to Hannah…so that we may predict what will happen to us within our lifetime” (91).  But can Beigh really ever hope to live a life comparable to that of Hannah’s?  Can she even dream of having half the adventures Hannah did? Beigh herself declares that she “was one of those extraordinary lives through which history runs a four-lane highway”, after all (189).

So, in trying to piece Hannah back together—both through research and Venn’s technology—what is Beigh trying to accomplish? Is she, essentially, living vicariously through her Puritan-turned-Salem bibi ancestor? Perhaps, the way Beigh sees it, through Hannah, she has “retrieved [adventures]…from lives I’ve never lived—but…now have” (279).

For, while Beigh claims the role of historian (“I know [Hannah] as well as any scholar has known her subject”), she also suggests that she knows Hannah “like a doctor and a lawyer, like a mother and a daughter” (19).  As Beigh reports Hannah’s story in the past tense, she strays beyond the purely-historical details, speaking as though from Hannah’s psyche—reporting her complex emotions and thoughts as she must have experienced them at the time. The line of distinction between Beigh, the reporter, and Hannah, her subject, is oftentimes quite blurry.

Still, the question nags at Beigh: “How dare you presume to say you know?”, and she wonders “Who am I fooling?” (233,279). How can Beigh presume to truly know Hannah, or to speak on her behalf?  The extent of her research is admittedly impressive, as she dedicates countless hours “to assemble…notes, to make my travels, take my pictures, [and] attend auctions” (277).  But can Beigh reconstruct Hannah accurately given these factual details and the few emotional insights provided by the letters and journals she wrote? For Beigh’s boyfriend Venn to technologically recreate thirty seconds of time takes years of work—and Beigh really believes that she has managed to reconstruct “a life through three continents and thirty years”? (279)

The Hannah whom Beigh has reconstructed is, after all, described rather idealistically.  Little is said about Hannah’s doubts or failures, and Beigh seems to place her on somewhat of a heroine’s pedestal. When details of Hannah’s stories need to be filled in or explained, Beigh describes what “I want to think…[because] I don’t have any other way of explaining what she was about to do, or become” (220).  Throughout the text, Hannah is richly—and overwhelmingly, positively—described by Beigh.  Can this be attributed to Beigh’s research and expertise, or to the combination of Beigh’s imagination and affectionate bias towards Hannah—or both?

And so, the question is raised again: why Hannah?  Why dedicate eleven years of one’s life to the study of a single person?  Why become so emotionally invested in the life of a woman died three hundred years ago?

Dr. William McNeill, a historian, says that, “Without…memory, a person…loses his or her identity”*.  Hannah’s memory is an obscure one that would largely be forgotten were it not for Beigh’s efforts. For Beigh, as McNeill suggests, “[Such a] search into odd corners…of history can develop into a hunt for understandings of one’s own. That is all human minds can do to unravel the mystery of…the world. Not very good, perhaps; simply the best we have in the unending effort to understand …happens and will happen to us and to them.”*  In this context, when Beigh’s studies are understood not just as an effort to preserve Hannah’s memory, but to be more like Hannah herself in today’s world, her connection to and obsession with her seems to make more sense. Maybe, for Beigh, eleven years of research is just preparation for a lifetime of living more like Hannah Legge.

*: “Why Study History” by William H. McNeill, Ph.D., 1985 (http://www.historians.org/pubs/archives/whmcneillwhystudyhistory.htm)

3 responses to “Why Hannah?

  1. In response to the main question, I would have to agree with Dr. McNeill. For Beigh, as McNeill suggests, “[Such a] search into odd corners…of history can develop into a hunt for understandings of one’s own. That is all human minds can do to unravel the mystery of…the world. Not very good, perhaps; simply the best we have in the unending effort to understand …happens and will happen to us and to them.”* Maybe Beigh was using her study of Hannah’s history in order to better understand her own. I mean isn’t that the reason that we have history, and social studies classes in school? How can you know where you are going, unless you understand where you have been?

  2. To answer the title of Christina’s post, I believe that Beigh Masters saw Hannah as extraordinary because she transgressed cultures, continents, and even time. Influenced by Venn’s technological design, Beigh is mesmerized by what Hannah accomplished and represented in her lifetime. Hannah knew Native American customs and medical treatments as an American living in England. In that one statement Hannah is already blurring the boundaries of place and culture. More importantly, however, Hannah is able to reach Beigh three hundred years after her life, and deeply affect Beigh and her life. Beigh herself struggles to explain how strongly Hannah has influenced her, but only tells of all her research into Hannah’s life. What ultimately draws Beigh to Hannah is how a woman in the 17th and 18th centuries is able to accomplish all that she did, much like how Venn is ambitious enough to attempt to create a complete virtual reality. Hannah was a woman for the ages in Beigh’s eyes, and she has devoted her life to discovering all that Hannah did and how she can use this knowledge for the present and the future.

  3. In reading part one of the book I felt that at times Beigh compares herself to Hannah to help satisfy her own longing for adventure. This is exemplified as Beigh examines the miniatures, “[lifting] the final one. I want to memorize every stroke” (Mukherjee, 17). Looking at the details of the miniatures, she tries to put herself in Hannah’s shoes and try to see just what her travels were like. Beigh is enthralled, and seemingly hears the Hannah say, “Fly as long and as hard as you can, my co-dreamer! Scout a fresh site on another hill. Found with me a city where lions lye with lambs, where pity quickens knowledge, where desire dissipates despair” (Mukherjee, 19). Beigh must learn more about Hannah, as she further tries to place herself in those great adventures. That is how Beigh ended up studying Hannah, to be content she is fated to study the Salem Bibi. “There are no accidents. My Yale Thesis on the Puritans did lead to graduate school, but it also took me here. My life with Venn Iyer, father of fractals and designer of inner space, is no accident” (Mukherjee, 19). This is the defining moment, when we know that Beigh would study Hannah even without the search for the Emperor’s Tear, it’s how she’s kept this search up for eleven years. The biggest adventure of Beigh’s life thus far has been searching for the details of another’s life, and that’s what drives her on.

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