Saturday 16 July 2011

Sue Purkiss: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ (LP Hartley: The Go-Between)

I’ll bet you recognise this quotation. I was firmly convinced I knew it by heart, and yet when I looked it up in Hartley’s novel I saw that I’d got it wrong. I'd thought it was ‘The past is another country’ (and to be honest, my version still sounds better to me!). Out of curiosity, I looked it up on Google, and found that many others have made the same mistake. I think perhaps it’s been conflated with another familiar quote, from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, which is something like: ‘… but that was in another country, and beside, the wench is dead.’
Whatever – it’s an example of the shivering sands of memory: we think we
know things, but we don’t. But I think perhaps the point I want to make is almost the opposite one: that we actually know more than we think we do about the way things were in the past. Let’s look at the assertion made in the second part of this quotation: ‘they do things differently there.’ Is it true? Did they do things differently in that other country which is the past?
In many ways the answer is outstandingly obvious: of course they did things differently there. They didn’t have mobile phones, for a start. But in terms of how people thought, what they cared about, how they related to each other, what they were afraid of, how they felt about life – in those terms, were they so very different from us?

My first historical novel was Warrior King, and it’s about Alfred the Great. When I go into schools and talk about it, this is the story I tell them about how I came to write it. I needed to check the story of how he burnt the cakes, I say, just for a detail in some other story I was writing (Finnegan’s Cake, since you ask, about a time-travelling dog. Still inexplicably unpublished, still available…) Obviously, the first thing I did was to turn to Google. Then I realised that the location of Alfred’s unfortunate early attempt at Masterchef was Athelney, which is only about forty minutes’ drive from where I live. I thought that Athelney would be to Alfred as Tintagel is to Arthur. At the very least there would be a bakery or a cafe called Alfred the Cake, and an array of books about the only monarch in British history to be called ‘the Great’ – so off I went.
But there were no itsy witsy shops with punning names, no explanatory pamphlets. Just a discreet plaque, an unimpressive Victorian monument – and an astonishingly evocative landscape of water and willows and glittering birds, which could hardly have changed in the eleven hundred odd years since Alfred fled to the Somerset marshes to take shelter from the Vikings.
It’s an extraordinary story. We know what happened – we know that he emerged to defeat the Danes, and then made a peace which lasted long enough for him to create a country which was stronger and safer for his people. But people then didn’t know that this was what was going to happen. He had only a few men with him – ‘a small troop’ as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it. The Vikings had conquered every other part of England apart from Wessex, and with Alfred out of the way they ‘over-rode and occupied the land of Wessex, and drove many of the people across the sea’. Surely no-one would have put money on Alfred’s chances of surviving, let alone managing to gather an army together and emerge from the marshes to defeat the Northmen.But he did. A number of things intrigued me about this. One was the drama of it: this was a real turning point – if Alfred hadn’t managed to pull it off, England would have been ruled entirely by the Danes, and today we’d be living in a different country and speaking a different language. Another was that here was an extraordinary leader – remarkable and unexpected in many ways which I haven’t space here to go into (read the book!) – and yet today, very few people know anything about him. And yet everyone’s heard of Arthur, who didn’t even exist!
But the other thing was – what was he like? What motivated him? (Apart, obviously, from the understandable wish to stay alive.) He was the youngest of five children, four of them boys. He was clever, sensitive and thoughtful. Would he ever have expected that he would become king? It seems unlikely, given his place in the family. Was he prepared for it? What went through his mind during those weeks when he was holed up in the marshes? How did he manage to persuade other people – and himself – that he could defeat Guthrum, despite all appearances? Where were his family, his wife and children, while all this was going on?
And then I wondered about the ordinary people. What effect did the endless series of battles have on them? Did they care about who ruled them, or were they too busy trying to survive to even think about it?

I wanted to explore what life was like for all these people in that other country which is the past.
They were faced with very different situations and dilemmas, but I don’t think they were so very different from us. I think it’s possible to imagine how they felt, what they thought.
But of course, I could be completely wrong. Now, how is it you can you never find a time-travelling dog when you need one…?
Sue Purkiss


H.M. Castor said...

I, too, had misremembered that quotation! And I think this is such a good point, excellently made... can human nature have changed so very much in what, for evolution, is barely even the blink of an eye? I'm with you, Sue.

catdownunder said...

This is what I miss so much about not living in the UK. I would return tomorrow if I had the right to live there simply for the sense of history which is my history. Australia has a history of course but my family were not pioneers and the real history belongs to another group of people who invaded the country thousands of years before Captain Cook arrived.
For us the past really is a foreign country and they did (and do) things very differently.

Sue Purkiss said...

That's interesting, Cat - and it shows how very UK-centric my thinking is!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Great post, Sue!

I used that exact same quote in an article I wrote last month for Scottish Book Trust called Seven Tips for Writing Historical Fiction...

Check it out!

Alex said...

Great Post. I enjoyed reading it. Also, I love the quote, I say it to myself all the time for various reasons, but I also remembered it as foreign not another.

Sue Purkiss said...

I enjoyed your post very much, Caroline! I didn't actually talk to re-enactors when I was writing about Alfred, but I did find one of their websites - Regia Anglorum - very useful.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great quote Sue. I'm like catdownunder here and can' claim past history. I'm always in awe of people growing up in Britain who seem to have such an intimate knowledge of their own history and who they are.

Nicky said...

I misquoted this earlier in my blog and said so earlier today. Don't know what happened to my post.
I have a bit of a soft spot for Alfred myself.
( my Warriors of Ethandun was Alfred the Great ish)
Interesting period and interesting post!

Sue Purkiss said...

I must read it, Nicky. I went to Ethandun - it's Eddington, now, I think, but Ethandun sounds much better. If you stand by the church, you can absolutely imagine what it must have been like for Guthrum to look up at the ridge and see Alfred's army there. I can just imagine him muttering the Danish equivalent of 'Oh, drat!' (Or something a little stronger!)

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Sorry for typo. Much later I see that can' should be can't.

Leslie Wilson said...

Very good post, Sue. I am just catching up on HG blogs, having been on holiday..I think there are two more things to say about this issue, but maybe I'll say them next month, if nobody else has..

Stroppy Author said...

As a medievalist (originally) I would say of course people were essentially the same, and have been for a very long time, but they *did* things differently, they just *weren't* different. I think LP Hartley's point was that the response to an affair between a wealthy woman and working man was different, but the feelings were the same, which is why the had the affair in the first place.

Isn't that what makes history interesting and historical fiction relevant and exciting? People are the same but society is different.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with this quote. It narrows 'History' down to one of its negative connotations: history being something old, irrelevant, boring facts, etc.
People forget it alot, but a story of the past and research on that past are both called history. So calling history in general a foreign country is actually stripping the word of its second meaning.

'The past is a foreign country' I could agree with, but 'History is a foreign country' is just plain ingnorance.

James Bryant said...

One of the most moving accounts of Alfred is often overlooked today, epic poetry not being all that popular, and G K Chesterton too long dead to be much remembered but too young to be resurrected, but "The Ballad of the White Horse" is wonderful. Read it at

Unknown said...

‘The past is a foreign country: they DO things differently there.’

Mark that LP Hartley (purposefully?) wrote "DO" and not "DID"!

I always felt that gave/gives an extra thrill, depth and cutting edge to the quote.

At the one hand Hartley admits that past people's behaviour WAS different, but by "pulling" this realisation up into the present, he suggests that past behaviour still has relevance now...

Because it invites us to question our own present deep motivations?

Unknown said...

The quote is used at the beginning of one of cognitive moral psychologist Steven Pinker's recent books, I believe it is the monumental book, Enlightenment Now. I am surprised that some of your commentators take the comment literally. I immediately took it as clever irony. That is, we often think of ourselves as so smart, modern, trendy and therefore superior to other people. In fact, humans don't evolve that fast. We are often doing the same things as ancient people. Confucius and Buddha, for example, were trying to develop a higher system and sense of morality because they were surrounded by polarizing politics in which people were insulting and belittling each other, and calling the members of their group to arms to "fight the prejudices" and immoral behavior of the opposing group. The groups were fighting for the moral high ground and "social justice" Sound familiar.
I taught Psychology at various Universities for a couple of decades, and I would often open a Social Psychology course with a similarly minded quote that was not ironic. I don't remember to the exact wording now, but it went something like this. "We often think of people from long ago as completely different than our modern world, but did they not love and cry and have joy just as we do now?" The kicker was the date of the quote, which I revealed after a pregnant moment. The quote was from about 900 AD.
What history, anthropology and psychology show is that when strip away the anachronistic language and details of custom, the past is not so foreign and they acted much like we do. Jeclav