I hope I’ll be forgiven a rather longer and more personal post this month. For most of the year I seem to have been moaning about the difficulties of being a historical writer, and as the family time of Christmas looms closer it occurs to me there’s something even worse.
Living with one.
My own husband, Paul, is a hero for doing it. When he found me wandering about with a rucksack of rocks on my back and I explained I wanted to know what a 17th century hunchback felt like, he only said ‘Uh-huh,’ and went to make the tea. When he caught me crying over my computer because a young sergeant had died in the Charge of the Light Brigade, he gave me a hug. When I was trying to master 17th century rapier work and made a hole in the ceiling, he just fetched a ladder and started to mend it.
He’s not perfect. He used to help me work out fencing movements, but stopped when I was writing ‘Honour and the Sword’ and asked him to stand a little lower so I could see if I could feasibly knee him in the balls. But I’d still say he’s a hero for putting up with me, and would guess there are many others making similar sacrifices every day.
The hardest thing, I think, is having to deal with the disengagement. The reality of cohabiting with a historical writer is that you’re living with someone who’s only half in the same world.
Here’s an example of such a writer, a diary entry from a Cambridge historian who was working on a book called ‘The Parting of Friends’, about the Wilberforces and Henry Manning:
"I was so absorbed in my work this morning that I forgot my name! When I went to the parlour for coffee, I looked at the list to tick off my name and was puzzled that I could not find it. I was looking for ‘Wilberforce’!"
I can identify with this, but I also know how irritating it is to live with. I know, because the historian’s name was David Newsome, and he was my father.
|First page of the diary he kept until his death in 2004
It is a strange thing to read your own father’s diaries, but I’m his Literary Executor and it’s part of my job. My sister Janet and I have just published some of his early lectures and articles, and the process was strangely humbling. I’d read his books, of course, but he was still 'my dad', and I’d never quite taken in what a giant he was in his own world. Academic histories don’t attract big sales figures, and although he won the Whitbread Best Biography in 1980, I hadn’t fully appreciated what that meant.
It was only when I read the quotation from A.N. Wilson we chose for our back cover that I had my first real glimpse of the truth: ‘The most engagingly readable, the most sympathetic, the most intelligent historian of the nineteenth century’.
I’d kill for a review like that.
But at the time I often found his absorption with history an irritation. We had a father who knew Cardinal Newman died on the 11th of August, but struggled to remember our birthdays. And he had always been like that. When he was doing an Officer Initiative Test on National Service, the sergeant-major apparently caught him deep in conversation about some abstruse mediaeval philosophy, said just ‘Gawd!’, and passed on. My father used to relate this anecdote with great delight, but I confess my sympathies were often with the sergeant-major.
And perhaps I was wrong.
In one of the essays we’ve reprinted in 'Historical Vignettes', he wrote of historians:
‘In order to understand the past, they must do their utmost to obliterate all thoughts about the present. They have to shed their contemporary outlook in order to immerse themselves in a relatively alien world.’
I’d bet I’m not the only one feeling a pang of recognition at that. When I was struggling with a passage on 17th century torture and a telephone caller identified himself as ‘British Gas’, I can still remember the agonizing seconds of silence while my brain was thinking ‘What???’ I was in a world where there was no such thing, no such concept, no such reality at all.
It doesn’t mean we don’t care about this world, only that at times the other is just as real. I was oddly reassured as a daughter to read this rather sad little passage in my father’s diary when my mother had taken us away for a few days:
“In the course of a dull and lonely day did 17 pages. But felt strangely depressed at times, recovered by the evening and the thought of my family returning. Had the oddest supper of cornflakes and hot milk and pork pie...”
What we want, of course, is to have both, and sometimes we try to take our families with us into the other world. I doubt I’m the only one who’s dragged her husband off the beach to plunge into a dark museum, with promises of ‘Honestly, you’ll enjoy it when you get there’. My dad did it too, but more subtly. Part of his love of history was almost nostalgic, especially for the Edwardian age, and he shared it with us all:
|David Newsome, aka 'my dad
“Afterwards we cleared the lounge so that I could dance with the children to Harry Davidson’s ‘Those were the Days!’ A superb evening with the ‘Circus Girl’ and ‘Arcadians’ and ‘Count of Luxemburg’; also ‘Hello, Hello, who’s your lady friend?’ Why do I love these things so? Part of a world that is quite gone.” (October 31st 1964)
In case it isn’t screamingly obvious, by the way, I absolutely adored my father.
But there’s a danger in it. When we live in the hinterland, there is always a risk of the boundaries between worlds becoming blurred. Domestic priorities rub shoulders with historical ones, and we see nothing wrong in the juxtaposition of the two. One of my dad’s diary entries devotes as much space to the day’s discussions with his students (one on Hildebrand, one on Plato) as it does to the domestic upheaval accompanying my own birth.
“A most eventful day. a) Lotty had her litter. She escaped during the night, had the kittens in the pram! b) The Queen’s visit....she was very easy to talk with. Talked about the fashion of beard growing...also said the Shah of Persia was a “very serious man”. She was dressed in pink.” (May 8th 1959)
It’s only a problem when the two worlds overlap in our minds, and a) and b) lose their distinction. It’s at night we’re most vulnerable. We’re thinking over our current writing, but the real world intervenes to create a surreal blend of the two. My dad had long been mulling over the relative merits of Cardinals Newman and Manning, and when he was a Cambridge don this manifested itself in a dream in which Newman scored a First Class degree and Manning a lowly Third.
I’ve had similar experiences. When I was writing ‘In the Name of the King’ I was wrestling with the story question of how my hero could track down the villain who had ruined and humiliated him, and somewhere in my sleep I rejoiced to find the answer. It was only when I woke that it occurred to me it was unlikely a 17th century nobleman would have had access to Google Search.
I’ll never be in my father’s league as a writer, but I’ve inherited the irritating bits and at last I understand them. A historical writer stands with a foot in each of two worlds – and is always in imminent danger of doing the splits. I was never sufficiently sympathetic to my father, who died long before I published my own first book, but I wish I could go back now and tell him I understand. I am so very grateful that my husband does.
Which is why finally this post isn’t dedicated to my dad, but to Paul and all his fellow sufferers. To the poor partners, siblings and children of other History Girls, to the History-Widowers and History-Orphans who have to live with someone who spends half their time in a different century. We’ll all have our own stories about this, and I do hope some of the other History Girls will share theirs.
All I can say for myself to all of these victims is – Salut. You are the real heroes, and our only justification is that you must be as mad as we are to put up with it...