Monday, 2 May 2011

On resolving a question that has plagued me for nearly half my life

Okay, so 'plagued' may convey slightly too dramatic an impression of my relationship with this question, but I hope my readers will forgive my resorting to hyperbole given the circumstances.

As long as fourteen or fifteen years ago, when starting my GCSE history course I was asked why I seemed drawn to 'important' history, to dictators and king's and queens, rather than the social history that my political and social views seemed more akin with. At the time I struggled to come up with a suitable answer - suitable to me, at least -  and in the intervening years, through a History and Politics degree, and a History MA, I returned occasionally to the question, frustrated by my inability to provide a succinct answer. How, for instance, can I profess a belief that history is written by the common person at least as much as it is the head of state, while focusing my study on that head of state? Why, if my favourite history book is John Reed's observations of the atmosphere and revolutionary milieu of the common people during the Russian Revolution in Ten Days that Shook the World, am I then so keen to return to studies of Lenin and Trotsky and the like? Why, when it is through everyday fiction that I advocate the most effective means of recounting history - I'm a big advocate of Rudyard Kipling's sentiments that "if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten" - did I not delve deeper into the real life stories that these books fictionalised?

At the time my best explanation was that I was interested in the personification of ideas, of the origins of those self same ideas and the lives that inspired them. This remains true, but today I revised it further, and perhaps came as close as I ever will to explaining to myself just what it is in history that interests me.

I am interested in personal stories. It is as simple as that. History, to me, provides a near bottomless resource thereof, and it is these personal stories, connected to an identifiable individual, that engross me. The more complex and in depth they are, the better. Popular history rarely provides such characters through which to view life, and as such, I struggle to identify with it. There is only so much interest I can show in the artifacts of everyday life, if they are not tied into a wider story of someone else's life. I like fiction because it enables me - who finds empathy so difficult - to gain insight into other lives, and much the same can be said of history. Disconnected objects require faculty in said empathy, which being so absent in me means that the objects essentially remain simply objects. They stand for nothing more than they are.

High history, on the other hand, is replete with strong, interesting, and emotive characters with whom to identify (one need not like, to identify with, or to be interested by their story). Because so many histories, biographies, and contemporary accounts have been written about them, their lives are vivid, thorough, and fully fleshed out. They are characters as might exist in a novel: full of strengths and weaknesses and, above all, to those who dig deep enough, human. That is what attracts me to them, the search for this humanity, the desire for someone to lay their persona out for me and let me imagine them as real people.

The sad truth is that, in general, there are few such recorded everyday characters. Were this not the case, I would undoubtedly be drawn to them over their overlords, and revel in being so. It is individual human stories I crave. History has to live to interest me and while inanimate objects, social groups, or even ideas may hold their own attractions to others, they can never compete with the individual characters that dominated my study of history.

This self-discovery, while irrelevant to most, is a big step in understanding the motives that often remain hidden to me. It came while reading Charlotte Bronte's largely unheralded novel, The Professor, and will, I suspect, remain inextricably linked with that book hitherto. Just another example of the awesome capabilities of the story.


Anonymous said...

Many of the books I love have everyday characters that are affected by large events around them. I just finished "The Redbreast" by jo Nesbo which did require a good knowledge of wartime Norway and how it had a bearing on the lives of a group of veterans. But I love 'small' as well - Like Michael Wood's series on Kibworth, or Adam Thorpe's "Ulverton" or Barbara Willard's "Mantlemass" series, a history of how the ordinary people lived and loved. And largely overlooked by world events. Dave has hundreds of modern history books, but I find it difficult to read were I have no empathy. I did enjoy Paul Murray Kendall's "Richard III" though.

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Susan. I'm interested to read that you find it difficult to read where you have no empathy. Do you mean that if you don't like the person then you can't like the history. If so, then that is very sensible and logical!!

Sadly I'm not quite so logical. It doesn't matter whether I like or don't like the person, so long as they are a person through whom I can see history. What I can't be interested in is disembodied history: that of inanimate objects or ideologies when they are not explored through the life of a single person.

Anonymous said...

Cool post! It sheds light, too (I think) on the fascination with celebrities--"low history," if you will.

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks Helen. I think you're right about the celebrity aspect too. Simon Armitage was saying similar in an interview I did with him a couple of weeks ago when he said that we're all really most keen of all on stories. I think he's right.