Fostering a Love of History – My Response

Lucy Inglis has been musing on some of the origins of her interest in history over at her her blog, www.georgianlondon.com, and I was intrigued that historical fiction featured large as a factor, something that was picked up in many of the comments as well. It got me to thinking about what it was that piqued my interest in history and why its been an ever-present, if sometimes only subtle, interest in my life.

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To be frank I was surprised that historical fiction, and specifically it seems historical novels, were so important in nurturing a love of history in people. My immediate reaction was to think that I myself had never picked up a work of historical fiction in my life. I remember when my mum realised that I was interested in 17th Century history at secondary school, she tried very hard to get me to read ‘Children of the New Forest’ by Frederick Marryat as she had read it as a child, but despite trying hard to get through it I found I could not get past the first few pages. Ever since then I have steadfastly avoided any historical novel (except one very recently which I will return to later). So why do I dislike the idea of historical novels? Firstly, I think that the fact that I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about history and reading non-fiction on the subject, makes the idea somewhat akin to a busman’s holiday. Secondly, and probably most importantly, the way in which I remember history is quite visual. I’m not very good at retaining facts, I never remember names and events, which probably makes me utterly unsuited to academic history. How it works for me is that I remember ideas, concepts and an image in my head of the period I’m interested in and I can  usually then pin some facts to that as I go. So, my fear is always that a vivid, fictionalised account would interfere with the way in which I remember history and anyway I’ve got my own version in my head. It would be interesting to know if anyone else feels that they remember history, not just recall the facts and dates etc.

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I can’t put myself in the historical novels bracket, but the more I’ve thought about it the more I realised that historical fiction in other formats definitely did have an impact on my ingrained love of history (what is the term for that by the way; cliophilia? Sounds oddly rude). Here is one key example:

Obelix & Dogmatix from the Asterix Comics

The Asterix comics introduced me to lots of historical milieus and like all good history popped interesting and understandable characters within those settings. I’m not saying Asterix is good history, but it certainly taught me who Caesar was. Aside from the written world there was fictionalised T.V. accounts of history, in programmes like Blackadder and Sharpe, and the many black and white 1940s ‘medieval’ films that I’d watch at weekends and in the holidays.

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Lord of the Rings - Dresden Codak ©2005-2009 (visit his site for great illustrations and web comics)

A couple of comments on Lucy’s post also mentioned the role fantasy fiction played in nurturing their interest and I would agree with that too. More than anything else, excepting my next example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s work instilled in me a taste for the epic sweep of history and despite not being ‘real’ history the depth of his folklore breathes historical life into the tales. The next key influence is an historical artefact in itself, but as literature it includes a heady mix of historical fiction, mythology and fact: The Bible. I do not consider myself a Christian anymore, but as a regular Church of England attendee through my youth and coming from a highly committed religious family, the bible has weaved in and out of my imagination for my entire life and I think it had a definite influence on my interest in history. For all its madness the bible contains some of the best stories and runs through real (and fake) epochs in history. From Sunday School onward I was intrigued by when this all happened and what everyone else in the world was doing while these crazy chosen people were arguing over temples and sacrifices and arks. While it wasn’t planned this was clearly why I ended up studying biblical Jewish history whilst undertaking a Masters in Jewish History and Culture. I’m sure I will write a post on Jewish history at some point, but just to quickly say following this one group through almost the entirety of written history is a fascinating pursuit.

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The more I’ve thought about it the more I realise that all this fiction clearly did have an impact on my academic interest in history, but oddly I think the key influence was a non-literary one; archaeology. To begin with, there was:

Indiana Jones and the Desktop of Peril

Indiana Jones started my interest in archaeology but the the Channel 4 show Time Team really imbedded that interest in me. For those of you who are not familiar with Time Team it is a show in which a group of archaeologists are given a three day race against time to dig a site (normally nominated by a member of the public) and reveal its story. That description doesn’t do it justice, mainly because I’ve missed out the key element, which is Tony Robinson. Tony Robinson is the actor who played Baldrick in Blackadder, he is also an exceptional storyteller and presenter with a highly enthusiastic, visual style (for example see Blood and Honey). It was the mix of Tony Robinson, the supposed wide eyed everyman, with the archaeologists and historians that made the show for me. Every Sunday I would be transfixed by not just the visceral pleasure of archaeology itself  but by the historical story that was so quickly built up around it, which Tony Robinson would explain usually via running around a field waving his hands about. Actually, what makes the show so brilliant is that the archaeologists never agree with each other, or the historians, but the process is fascinating enough as it is. It might seem odd that an interest in history was bred through archaeology, but archaeology and history while different are essentially the same. Both disciplines require skill and patience in discovering items from the past, recording them and interpreting them into a cohesive narrative.

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I  haven’t mentioned history lessons at School. It’s a recurring theme in comments that people are not interested in ‘history’ and were put off by ‘history’ during school. I’m ambivalent on this issue, I was predisposed to like history I suspect, and so got a fair amount out of history lessons at School despite them being generally dry. While I had encouraging teachers I wouldn’t say that any of them were inspirational and I think it was a pre-existing interest that helped me do well. It’s encouraging that people who had bad experiences of history at school find history blogs refreshing, perhaps there is a lesson there (pardon the pun) for those involved in historical pedagogy. History is about empathy, if you can empathise with those around you you should get something out of history. I’m comfortable with history for the sake of history, the academic end of the spectrum if you like. But strictly academic history on its own cannot survive in a world that wants output for all its investment (I’m looking at you Mandelson). If history as a discipline wants to survive it needs to work on all levels, from the monograph to the Twitter device. I’m surprised by the lack of blogs and tweets by academic historians, but I suppose it leaves a niche for part-timers like me and proper historians like Lucy.

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This post has ended up being a little longer than I planned, but I hope its been of some interest as a response to Lucy’s post. I guess us historians come in all different shapes and sizes and the discipline is probably better off for that. Ah, and back to historical novels, the one exception I plan to make is Caroline Rance’s (@quackwriter) ‘Kill Grief‘, which is on my Amazon list and damnit is going to get moved up the list after writing this post (now ordered and in the post). Who knows perhaps it’ll be the start of a new literary adventure.

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7 thoughts on “Fostering a Love of History – My Response

  1. stilettostorytime

    I completely understand where you are coming from, I think it’s a personal choice and also has to do with the way we learn and the way we process information.
    Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres but it takes a lot to satisfy me. The writer must transport me to that time and be extremely well versed in the time period. That is very hard to do even for the greatest authors. That being said, historical fiction is one my of favorite ways to keep the study of “history” going in my life. I love to read and historical fiction allows me a story to go along with the history…it also helps me remember periods of history and other interesting facts about certain time periods, I might not have otherwise come across in non-fiction. For historical fiction I would have to say Margaret George and Edward Rutherfurd are very good and very researched writers. Also for more modern…try Patricia Falvey’s The Yellow House which I found spectacular and recently reviewed on my site.

    Thanks for the wonderful post..It made me think! I love that!

    Courtney
    Stiletto Storytime

    Reply
  2. SarahSiddons

    An interesting view of how one becomes interested/involved in history and its ramifications for us. I admit to being a lover of historical novels – the only downside is if they have anachronisms or inaccuracies which drive me mad.

    I’m not a historian. I’m not an academician. Merely someone who is fascinated by our land, our people and how events have shaped us as we are now. Thank you for a most interesting blogpost

    Reply
  3. Caroline

    Really interesting post, and I agree about the ‘busman’s holiday’ aspect of reading historical fiction. I read it as part of the job of being a historical novelist but it often feels too close to home and it’s difficult for me to enjoy it without analysing how the writer has approached things and noticing all the ways in which they’re better than me.

    I’m thrilled you’ve bought Kill-Grief and I now feel the weight of responsibility that it could put you off historical fiction for EVER! ;-) I hope you enjoy it though, and that it doesn’t put you off gin either…

    Reply
  4. Beckybim

    I think you have put this so eloquently. I can identify completely with learning through visual stimuli. Although historical novels are well researched and thought through, they are not conducive for every mind. We should not read anything for a worthiness alone, that’s not what the writer wants. Authors are entertainers and storytellers just as actors and directors. Story telling is the link to the past and it’s as ancient as language itself. The human mind enjoys the bedtime tale whether it’s Eastenders, a radio play or indeed a good book. The way we select this information is as different as our dna, (despite the broadcaster’s efforts to define us). We have so much to hand now, we can all choose to learn, as you suggest, from a three minute blog or an illustrated novel. The key is, we’re not stupid, we want to know, and we can also make the difference between Caesar and a cartoon!

    Reply
  5. thegentlemanadministrator Post author

    Thanks for the positive and and insightful comments, it’s great to hear your reactions to the post. It’s an interesting thing how different people learn and process information.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: In Praise of Treorchy Library @ Marginalia

  7. Pingback: Bibliophilia: Gandalf the Historian « In Pursuit of History

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