A Short History Lesson


In England history has always been considered a manifestation of literature rather than of scholarship. There has been a blurring of formal boundaries, quite unlike the more disciplined or theoretical historical enquiries of France and Germany.

The sixteenth-century theatre, for example, witnessed the particularly English manifestation of the “history play,” and the models for nineteenth-century history painting were derived as much from fiction (Walter Scott) as from history (Lecky). No account of the English imagination is complete without an understanding of this strange yet very practical conflation in which myth or fiction is mingled with observed facts and details. It is the most expeditious way of creating a narrative, nobly exemplified by John Milton, who, in his History of England, declared “that which hath received approbation from so many, I have chosen not to omit. Certain or uncertain, be that upon the credit of those whom I must follow . . . I refuse not, as the due and proper subject of story.” There is so strong a consonance in the English language between story and history that no one seemed able or willing to distinguish one from another. Indeed Milton also declared: “I have therefore determined to bestow the telling over ev’n of these reputed Tales; be it for nothing else but in favour of our English Poets, who by their Art will know, how to use them judiciously.”

Bede is the father of English historiography, but he also possesses the moral and literary intent which shapes his historical imagination. “If history records good things of good men,” he wrote, “the thoughtful reader is encouraged to imitate what is good . . .”1 There is a story of a “Briton” named Lucas who, in the twelfth century, incited an army “to fight to avenge their fallen comrades by relating history to them”;2 this must represent one of the most practical instances of the historical imagination at work. As one historian has put it, “History was fundamental to medieval English experience and thought,”3 whether in the form of verse or chronicle.

The verse fiction concerned with Arthur, Layamon’s Brut, became “the standard vernacular history text-book of late medieval England,” 4 and the human past itself became a repository of stories and adventures of an exemplary nature. As C. S. Lewis has remarked in his study of the medieval period, The Discarded Image, “the question of belief or disbelief ” was not of paramount concern; the true significance of reading history was simply “to learn the story.”5 If the historical past differed from the present, it was only in the fact of its being better and more glorious. These habits of thought may change their forms, but they do not wholly die.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, the resources of English history were considered material for tragedy rather than heroic fable. Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World includes the passage “Thou hast drawn together all the far-fetched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it over with those two narrow words, Hic Jacet”; the historical imagination is united here for a moment with English melancholy. That private note, almost one of self-communing, persists in seventeenth-century historical writing, most notably in Clarendon’s The True Historical Narrative of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England and Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Times where autobiography, biography and historical narrative are effortlessly mingled in what are truly literary texts. The historian duly recorded events that occurred, according to his discrimination and judgement, but the dry exactitude of continental accounts was singularly missing.

It has often been said that “pure” history began to be composed in the eighteenth century, but this is to overlook the mixed nature of the enterprise. Historians of the Whiggish tendency were eager to create a history of progress and gradual enlightenment, particularly in social and governmental affairs, and were, albeit unconsciously, translating into institutional terms Bede’s injunction to record “good things of good men” so that “the thoughtful reader is encouraged to imitate what is good.” Other historians of the period sought for general “laws” of society and human activity, which could then be transmitted in didactic fashion; their emphasis is not so different from that of medieval saints’ lives, where the exemplary patterns of history are considered of most importance. Eighteenth-century history has in fact been described as “philosophy, teaching by example.”6Clarendon and Gibbon both wrote autobiography as well as history; the novelists Tobias Smollett and Oliver Goldsmith both composed histories as well as fictions. Gibbon’s great work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, shares with Johnson’s Dictionary the general desire for moral education, to elevate and to purify the reader, but the creative impulse is as pervasive and as significant as the didactic or historical.

In eighteenth-century England history painting was considered to be the highest and most noble of painterly genres. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his Discourses at the Royal Academy, defined it as the summation of all art. It was the “Great Style” which, in its emphasis upon significant and virtuous form, covered epochs as disparate as the classical and the medieval; if the subject was in any way ancient, it was creditable. Of course the preoccupation with historical themes was not unique to England, but in this country it was taken up with most enthusiasm. As an eminent historian of English art has put it, “historical painting was more in accord with the Anglo-Saxon temperament”;7 indeed there were many compositions upon specifically Anglo-Saxon subjects such as Alfred and Vortigern. The eighteenth-century painter James Barry expressed the national ideal when he suggested that history painting and sculpture “should be the main views of any people desirous of gaining honours by the arts. These are the tests by which the national character will be tried in after-ages.” It is a broad statement but, in a period when the power of history had seized the English imagination, it was considered to be no less than truth.

The young artists of the second half of the eighteenth century were possessed by the ideas and ideals of the past; one need only look at the records of the Royal Academy exhibitions to comprehend the extraordinary confluence of taste. In 1763 Robert Edge Pine received a hundred-guinea prize for his painting of Canute, while in the same year John Hamilton Mortimer completed his portrait of the humiliation of Queen Emma. There were portraits of Edward III, Earl Godwin, Cymbeline and Ethelred; there were historical engravings executed on a subscription basis such as Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and Bowyer’s Historic Gallery. The obsession was in turn aligned to a movement in theatrical taste, with the introduction of “period costume” upon the stage, and the production of such dramas as John Brown’s Athelstan, Richard Glover’s Boadicea and Thomas Arne’s Alfred.

The lines between history and myth—or, more crudely, between fact and fable—became increasingly difficult to unravel, but so powerful was the hold of historicity upon the English imagination that no serious effort to accomplish this was even undertaken. As Jonathan Richardson put it in his Essay on the Theory of Painting, “as to paint a History, a Man ought to have the main qualities of a good Historian, and something more; he must yet go higher, and have the Talents requisite to be a good poet; the rules for the conduct of a Picture being much the same with those to be observed in writing a poem.” It might be added, in parenthesis, that the rules for the composition of history were also much the same as those for poetry itself.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, the first volume of which was published in 1776, anticipates by a decade or so that fascination with the mysterious and the primitive which marked the beginning of “romanticism”; it is also the harbinger of Gothic and of the “sensational” in literary fiction. Like all great historians, Gibbon was preoccupied with style. His mode of composition was to “cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen ’til I had given the last polish to my work.” This was to be partly the procedure of Charles Dickens, who wrote A Child’s History of England with a thoroughly nineteenth-century emphasis upon what the Victorians termed “the battle of life.” It was a narrative of conflict and desire, manifested in certain key words such as “turbulent,” “relentless” and “dreadful.” It was animated, too, by what the nineteenth-century historian J. A. Froude described as the central principle of historiography: “One lesson, and only one, history may be said to repeat with distinctness; that the world is built somehow on moral foundations; that, in the long run, it is well with the good; in the long run, it is ill with the wicked.” This is also the message of Bede and of the other Anglo-Saxon historians who considered “history as veiled revelation full of intimations, mutually confirmative, of an ever-present divine plan.”8 It also repeats the methodology and purpose of the medieval chroniclers and poets.

Dickens’s emphasis upon the “battle of life” is related to other Victorian themes. There are many connections and associations between the author of The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, for example, and the writer of Great Expectations and Hard Times. Just as Charles Darwin read Milton and Dryden, so in turn his theoretical text was read by George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. Darwin also read contemporary fiction, sent by post from the London Library, in order to mitigate the symptoms of his nervous complaints; in the process he thoroughly absorbed the mechanism of their plots. He also read Henry Buckle’s History of Civilisation in England and Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. The Origin of Species itself begins like a novel—“When on board the H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America”—and then proceeds to depict a dark world dominated by struggle and sexuality, by the necessity of labour and the appetite for power. Marx condemned The Origin of Species as a harsh “satire” upon the possibilities of mankind, and that literary or generic reference is the best possible introduction to what is essentially a work of fiction, even if the fiction is concealed within Darwin’s scientific transcriptions. The darkness and complexity of Darwin’s world are matched by the description of London in Dickens’s Bleak House. And why should it not be so? The blurring of boundaries and of genres, so instinct and vital an aspect of the English imagination, also reveals a profound truth. It discloses the power of language itself. To force divisions within the English language is to work against its capacious and accommodating nature. To expect a writer to produce only novels, or histories, is equivalent to demanding from a composer that he or she write only string quartets, or only piano sonatas. Music is music; writing is writing. All of them are contained within English music.

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