In defence of the narrative in history

Jane Austen once famously said about the main character of her novel ‘Emma’, that ‘she is a character who no-one but myself will much like’. I find myself thinking similar thoughts about the book I’m currently writing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a book that no-one but myself will much like (or read), but I’m writing it anyway.

The idea for the book germinated a while ago, when I despaired of finding a KS3 history textbook to my liking. Most of them were either ‘knowledge-light’ or seemed to treat children with condescension, turning historical characters into caricatures and filling their pages with cartoon graphics. So for instance, King James I has been depicted as ‘James the Scruffy’ and lampooned for his poor hygiene. The idea being, that this kind of detail will ‘hook’ children and help to make history relevant to them. In my view, nothing could be further than the truth.

Wherever I’ve looked, the thing that drew me to history most when I was younger – the narrative – is mostly missing. For a historical narrative to work, there needs to be enough rich detail and continuity to build the thread of a story on. The history textbook that I envision is one that tells stories of people and events that have helped to shape the world we live in. What I find fascinating about history is the juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar. Often, looking at actions and events from many centuries ago, we encounter behaviours that we recognise in our experiences today. It’s that shared human experience that connects us with the historical characters we study. G.M Trevelyan expressed this much better than me when he said:

My textbook is going to be text rich, and told as a narrative. There will be plenty of sources along the way, presenting ambiguous and contradictory evidence for children to discuss and get their heads around in class. My narrative is not intended to brainwash children into one narrow interpretation of history. Obviously, my judgement will colour the way the stories are presented. The narrative will be my interpretation of history, but I am careful to use language that conveys lack of certainty and leaves room for alternative interpretations. The words ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’ feature heavily in my narrative.  I am also buoyed by Michael Fordham’s recent blog, which champions the use in schools of history books that speak with the author’s voice. That is exactly what I plan to do.

And yes, it will be text rich. History is an academic subject, best consumed in the written word. There is no getting around it. Again, let me re-quote Paul Lay in History Today:

‘For all the efforts of popularisers to match the study of the past with a short attention span, history remains hard, intellectually challenging work – still best consumed in the written word… Historians, like test match cricketers and classical musicians, live in a world increasingly at odds with their profession. But they also offer a vision of a deeper, richer world, a path to a culture that counters crude banalities.’

I hope to offer that vision of a deeper, richer world in my writing. It’s a long and arduous task, which has made me realise just how much subject knowledge is needed to write a history book. I thought I knew enough, but I find myself going back and revising chapters with new ideas and information as I go along. I’m enjoying this process tremendously. At the end of it, I hope to produce a book that pleases me. Whether it pleases others, is another matter entirely.

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  1. Tempe

    Hi – Your book sounds wonderful. I am always on the lookout for good history textbooks to read to/with my kids. I hope your book is published (even self published) and will be on offer to buy. I want the narrative (in chronological order) without all the cartoons and silly hooks, too. Best of luck with it.

    1. historylover

      Thank you. I will probably self-publish, as it’s very easy to do and it allows me total editorial control. Now for the hard graft!

  2. F J Murphy

    I am not a professional historian but hope I don’t sound immodest if I say that I am well read in history, a subject which has long been a source of great pleasure and fascination for me. From my amateur point of view, history is a story and should therefore be told in narrative form. When I studied history at school, the text books were full of text (hence the name) and there was no tyranny of the double-page spread. I could read a text book with pleasure, but, from what I have seen of contemporary books aimed at schools, I could hardly say that with much conviction, not to mention all the mistakes which even I can spot in these poorly written and inadequately edited texts. Although the focus on sources is relatively new, I can see that it is a worthwhile development, but the cartoons (unless from Punch) and pointless illustrations are an example of the infantilisation of the subject. Good luck in your project!
    P.S. You may have seen me following you on Twitter as Gradgrind@ThomGradgrind. I teach chemistry, maths & physics.

    1. historylover

      Thank you.

  3. Tempe

    Love history and love your blogs.

  4. Pingback: In defence of the narrative in history | The Echo Chamber

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