The depth is in the detail…

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…

33 comments on “The depth is in the detail…

  1. I don’t have a lot to say to make a contribution other than absolutely spot on. The above quirks are one of the reasons I so love researching historical fiction. It’s like finding the difference between the real person and the waxwork image.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      That is one of the very best descriptions of the situation–the difference between the real person and the waxwork image. Love it!

      • Rappleyea says:

        Speaking of real people… I’m about 2/3 of the way through Ms. Chadwick’s For the King’s Favor, and I look up, and there she is!! Thud! (I’m a real fan-girl).

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Ya, this is the place! Ha ha.

  2. Fascinating as always, Em. And so very true. History is about REAL people. Without that, it’s just a list of dates and titles.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ha ha ha. And now, because of this I’ve been puzzling all night over the idea of Castlereagh as foodie or Castlereagh as really keen on the latest kitchen ranges…

  3. Your post shows the difference between those who write non-fiction history (just the facts, ma’am) and those who interpret those who made history (and all their peccadilloes, favourite pastimes, unusual passions and so on). I think that must be why so many readers love historical fiction but not history per se.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, there are some historians who absolutely bring their subjects wholly to life and I find them rivetting reading. (Yes, that’s me, up at 3 ayem, eyes glued to the page of a Dominic Lieven history about Russia!) I’d say Ian Kelly’s biographies really get inside the head and the period as well. Gregor Dallas is utterly superb too…But good historical fiction, well, obviously, I’m all for that! When done well, it’s the absolute best.

  4. Sandra Byrd says:

    A hmm. Although I do love the Tudors … I do agree with you, M. Read an interesting quote yesterday by John R H Moorman, “All history that is worthy of the name is biased, because every writer who is a true historian and not merely an annalist, must have a point of view which will inevitably reveal itself in his pages.”

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I think we do try to keep our agendas out of the business, but one would hope that we bring a degree of sagacity about the human heart and mind to our work. There was a comment about two years ago by Charles Moore: “In studying history, you must imagine yourself into the truly difficult choices people had to make in the past…” And for me, that really covers it.

  5. Yes! Their idiosyncrasies make them even more fascinating.

  6. That’s interesting – I’ve often wondered why Stewart was wont to appropriate other commanders’ cavalry regiments on a whim and order them on wildly impossible charges against the French.

    Obviously had a death wish at one time.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      He’s a really interesting man, Stewart. He was incredibly impulsive and hot-headed, while at the same time utterly devoted to his elder brother, and they were incredibly close. Whilst he was serving under Wellesley, he wrote to his brother often, which is why Castlereagh had such a firm grasp of what was going on there–though often Stewart was cross with Wellesley because he didn’t feel Wellesley valued what Castlereagh was doing for him and didn’t value Castlereagh’s wise oversight at the War Office and then the Foreign Office.

      But also, he really did go off on a bender with his wife’s death. And I doubt he ever fully recovered from that. I mean, every body drank a lot in those days, but it’s after her death that people really start noticing his drunken behaviour.

      Yet despite the alcoholism, he made a significant contribution to the war effort in 1813, when he was assigned as a diplomatic aide to the Allied monarchs. They liked him, the Prussian high command liked him–he got on very well with Blucher–and he was a soldier’s soldier. He was, like Blucher, recklessly brave and led from the front and was fierce in his hatred of the French. And his letters back to his brother meant that Castlereagh had a personal window on what was happening rather than having to rely on diplomatic channels.

  7. I heard something the other day (said in a rather derisive tone) about Queen Anne having been enormously fat. My first thought was, poor woman, didn’t she lose ALL of her children? Maybe she ate to comfort herself, and who could blame her?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Queen Anne was very large. She also drank a lot.

      But you’re absolutely right. She lost 17 children–either miscarried, stillborn or died before the age of four. I can’t even fathom how she could physically endure that many pregnancies–that alone does my head in.

      And certainly thousands of people have taken to over-eating or drinking for a great deal less than that–so I’m not certain why we have such double standards about how we view people today and how little slack we cut those who lived before…I mean we seem to have almost no human compassion, it seems to me…

  8. What a great post! Totally agree, it’s the presentation of the human being behind the facts that makes the difference between a humdrum textbook and an engrossing read.

  9. Mea culpa! I have used this “just the facts” approach, in the interest of time, space and other poor excuses. You have raised a wonderful point, and I will do better. Thank you!

  10. Grace Elliot says:

    What a great post!
    I hated history at school, in fact I begged to give it up – but it was the facts and figures, dates and treatises type history. It was only as an adult I discovered social history and how fascinating that is. I applaud the young person who hates Henry VIII because of his smell – it has provoked a reaction in her and so someone has recreated a small part of that era enough to make her think and feel.
    Grace x

  11. Your thoughts were echoed in interview on Sunday’s CBS 60 Minutes program (US) with popular American history writer David McCullough. I would insert link if the interview was available in text format, but one has to sit through the video presentation. One of the things he said about writing history or about history, “the only way” is not “just a chronology” but to capture the human events, operative word human. Now…that is just a bare brushstroke of his sentiments expressed in that interview. If interested, you might find it at site for CBS 60 Minutes, broadcast Nov 4, 2012. Please know I am not promoting books or programs. I am just a fan of M.M. Bennetts.

  12. M. M. I too will try harder to personalize the character whose biography I am writing but it is extremely hard to do when the subject is 180 years dead and not well-known. In the latter case, lacking any personal papers or writings about him by other people, and adhering scrupulously to the truth, one is pretty well constrained. I wish I were writing historical fiction instead! I will, however, try harder.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Charles, I am entirely with you. The next book contains a number of characters (real historical chappies) who were either Russian or Prussian and wholly unknown to the English field. I’m getting some handle on the various Prussian generals…but I keep running into stone walls about the Russian heroes–the problem being, of course, the information (what there is of it) is all in Russian! Which does me no good…So I’m beginning to think I shall have to find some Russian scholars to pester. Ha ha ha.

  13. Rappleyea says:

    M. M. – utterly fascinating post and look at some of our favorite characters. I love the idea of Castlereagh modernizing kitchens.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ya, I’m rather fond of that myself. It makes him seem so ‘contemporary’, do you know what I mean? It’s too funny. And it proves that that whole concept we have of having invented everything in the last 50 years is just a complete nonsense. Ha ha.

      • rappleyea says:

        There’s a popular email that regularly makes the rounds that makes the point – “kids in college don’t know what a record player is, an eight track, etc., etc. It’s pretty funny and true! I can only imagine from the perspective of another 200 years how antiquated we’ll look.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Ha ha ha! And yet it’s equally funny how much hasn’t or doesn’t change–though it always amazes the youth of whatever generation to learn that their grandparents knew about ________.

  14. […] The depth is in the detail… ( […]

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