Monday 6 May 2019

History -- Off The Shelf -- by Sheena Wilkinson

Like most people, the history I studied at school was mostly about men and wars and politics. Public history, if you like.  I liked it better when we got occasional insights into the mundanities of everyday life. I didn’t always remember dates or get excited by laws and treaties, but I was forever putting my hand up to ask questions like, What did they wear? What were their bathrooms like? What did they eat? 

My personal history bookcase, built up over years, reflects this early preference.  There are a few worthy tomes on political history, mostly things I have bought with good intentions or inherited from my father (who almost certainly didn’t read them either). But mostly it’s social history. Private history, if you like. Books about how ordinary people – and some extraordinary people – lived and loved and looked after their families in earlier centuries. There are books about suffragettes and spinsters, the WI and the Girl Guides, sex and schooling. These books are well-read, often more than once. These books are where I go when I don’t feel like fiction. 

The bookcase has its own history of course. For a start, it was made by my late father. When I photographed it for this blog, I thought I should remove the clutter, but then I realised that these bits and pieces are part of my own history and my family’s. The carriage clock is hideous and doesn’t work, but it was presented to my grandfather on his retirement in 1977 and thus I can’t bear to throw it out. The tweed mouse, favourite toy of a long-dead cat, was made by my best friend from school, Elizabeth. And the little doll, a seventies favourite called Jenny-my-best-schoolfriend, was a Christmas present from my granny when I was eight. And history doesn't stop -- the suffragette doll was a present for my fiftieth birthday last year, and bought to mark my 2017 novel Star by Star. 

So, the history is in the books, but not only in the books. History is never only in the books. 


Susan Price said...

So true! My own interest in history has always been in the practicalities of every day -- what did Vikings carry as a packed lunch? How did reivers carry fire with them? How did you find your way from, say, the tiny village of Birmingham-on-the-hill to Worcester, without maps or sat-navs? It's fun trying to find out.

Miranda Miller said...

I share your fascination with those private details, Sheena, and must tell a story against myself: last week I was in a palazzo in Venice wearing my distance glasses, which aren't good for reading. I read (I thought) that there were unusual paintings in an 18th century bathroom. Aha! I thought, just the kind of detail I need for my novel about 18th century Rome. Excitedly, I asked where this bathroom was to be found. Laughing hysterically, she pointed out that it said "ballroom."