What with one thing and another, I come across a fair few number of young historians and writers in my daily rounds…and novelists and aspiring novelists and historical authors and all that…and I read a fair number of historical blogs too, some of which are utterly superb.
(I’m always so grateful when someone has written about something I need to know! It’s very much a case of my cup runneth over kind of thing for me…)
But one thing I’m noticing a lot is an emphasis or reliance on facts and nothing but the facts approach. And that, in my estimation, has the effect of de-humanising history and reducing the lives of those who lived before us to something about as deep as onion-skin or parchment.
This can be most acute with timelines, for example–not that I’m suggesting that one shouldn’t learn the facts, the names and dates and all that. It’s essential. Obviously, I think that. I mean without it, you’ve got no framework upon which to hang the understanding of the events and people!
But the thing is…the thing is…
How can I put this?
Well, the other day, I was talking with a student of history–focusing on the Tudors at the minute–and she was ranting about how much she can’t stand the blighters. All well and good, but one of the reasons she gave was that Henry VIII stank so badly. According to her one could get a whiff of his Majesty from a mile away.
(Which seems hyperbolic to me, even on a windy day…but I digress.)
So I felt forced to say, “Hang a tick,” (not because I like the Tudors, because I don’t), “but I think you’re leaving out an important element here–you’re forgetting that they were human”. I’m not saying that the Tudors don’t deserve a degree of mockery–as I said, I don’t much care for them.
“And whatever you do”, I continued, “Never let anyone make you forget that however different they were to us, they were human. And allow them the dignity of being human–not just a name and a series of dates.”
Probably, my comment went in one ear and out the other–but I tried. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
But it is a thing, you know…there are so many histories and works of historical fiction or romance where the authors seem to have no clue as to the humanity of those about whom they’re writing.
They’re not human, they’re not people–these figures who people the pages–they’re names or titles with a set of posh clothes. Which makes them a named clothes’ horse–not a person. These characters or historical figures are nothing more than cardboard cutouts–you can’t imagine them having a lie-in of a Sunday morning, or preferring sausage to streaky rashers with their cooked breakfast.
But without some sense of character, of likes and dislikes, of what makes them smile or laugh, well, without that…I don’t know…history is reduced to this dry as late autumn leaves affair, with the life crushed out of it. (Hence, it’s no wonder that today’s students perhaps think history is boring.)
You see, we’ve got to go beyond the recitation of names and dates to the details that define the individuals. And not just because it makes for more informative and more interesting reading, but because otherwise we are in danger of missing out on the great wonder and endless variety and sesquisuperlativeness of the human race.
Take the Viscount Castlereagh, for example.
I mean, yes, he did all sorts of politically amazing things and he was Foreign Secretary from 1812 until his death and led the fight against Napoleon and was a chief mover and shaker at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and probably one of the greatest Foreign Secretary’s ever…all of which is important, but…
…he also had a thing about renovating kitchens. No, really, he did. And every time he bought a new house for himself and Lady Castlereagh, the first thing he did was have the kitchen expanded and remodelled.
I mean, how is that for quirky? (Frankly, it sounds just like some friends of ours…)
I don’t know whether he did it because he was a devoted foodie and an early Hugh Fearnley Whittingsall. I don’t know if he had the kitchens expanded because he was concerned for the health and safety of his cook and thought cooking in a crabby little badly-vented kitchen was bad for her health. I don’t know if he did it because he was keen as mustard on the new kitchen ranges that were being manufactured at the time and he couldn’t wait to install the newest version…maybe all of the above.
But every time he bought a house–both Number 18 St. James’s Square and the farmhouse at North Cray in Kent, he redesigned the kitchen and had the walls pushed out until it was all modern and convenient (in the early 1800’s–how funny is that?) and they didn’t move in until the builders had done their work.
Beethoven’s another one. Did you know he had deep dimples in his cheeks, and when he smiled broadly, his cheeks had these great whorls in them? And that he had a wildly flowered dressing gown which he used to wear in the mornings, and the Viennese used to see him through the open window of his flat in Vienna and laugh at him in it–that’s how garish it was. And he loved it.
Or Charles Vane Stewart, Castlereagh’s younger half-brother. The brothers in that family, in general, seemed to be prone to bouts of depression. (If they’re sounding quite modern–that’s because I think they are–or maybe they’re just human?) Anyway, the same month that saw their younger brother killed in action in the Peninsula, also saw Stewart’s wife die after an operation to remove a brain tumour…
Stewart sank into a bout of deep depression–he really did love her…
And it was at that point that their son came to live with Castlereagh and Lady Castlereagh, because young Charles simply couldn’t pull himself together after her loss. He never returned to the Peninsula, but was attached to the Allies from August 1813 as they pushed Napoleon back and back and back, all the way to the gates of Paris.
Afterwards, he was a diplomatic envoy in Vienna, for the Congress there, and is notorious for drinking heavily (was he self-medicating?), having an affaire with the Princess Bagratian, spending heaps of money, and wearing yellow boots. And having large parties and rowing with people. Sounds remarkably like a lot of folk one could mention…
Or Lady Castlereagh…yes, she was a Patroness of Almack’s. So? One of the great loves of her life was wild animals–I mean, she was mad for them in the way people today have a thing about elephants or tigers…
(I know, you didn’t see that one coming…)
And at their farm at North Cray, she had built a vast aviary and a menagerie, in which she kept ostriches, kangaroos, llamas, a zebra and even a lion. She was also a seriously switched-on exotic gardener–O’Brian’s Dr. Maturin would have been her kind of guy–so she had this great exotic hothouse constructed so that she could grown the tropical plants which were sent to her from all over the world…And she really knew her botany…I mean, how cool is that? How real? How genuine?
Another one–a person I don’t much talk about–is Lady Caroline Lamb. Yes, there are all the famous stories about her chasing after Byron and all sorts. But, she also lost two children. I don’t know if it was a case of miscarriage or still-birth, but I do know that she suffered terribly with depression after the loss of those babies. Her husband, William, was equally cast down, bless him.
And all those stories about her slitting her wrists or swallowing shattered glass–do those not hint at a girl who–however rich and titled–just couldn’t cope and who was self-harming?
(It sort of changes the way you look at her, doesn’t it? It brings her closer…and makes her more understandable…even one of us.)
Beau Brummell loved dogs. Really loved them. It was one of the things that drew him to Chatsworth, where he was friends with the Duchess of Devonshire–she had lots and lots of dogs. And, dogs loved him…Which tells you a lot more about his character than that he wore a high cravat–if you see what I mean…
So there you go…look for the detail, the individuality…it will bring history to life in all its glorious Technicolor delight.
Because, I don’t know about you, but I am definitely more than my date of birth and where I went to school…and it seems to me that since I’d like to be known for more than that, the least I can do for those friends who’ve gone before, is to get to know them as I would wish to be known…