‘Why I believe history is never boring’
Television dramas, video games and novels: every historian has a different story about what brought the adventures of the past alive to them, as they embark on their quest for the truth.
I admit it. There is some evidence that suggests history can be boring. Studying the League of Nations at GCSE does seem not likely to set many students hearts afire. But history is the source of all great stories – of love and battle, of scientific invention and murder mystery. And even the history of the League of Nations is about big things that matter to us all.
At some point in our lives we all become aware that the physical world around us is not the only world that is, or has ever, existed. Professor Michael Questier discovered the past with the ‘very Whiggish’ Ladybird history series. For many others, a love of history began with a work of the imagination. For me it was the Viking novels of Henry Treece. Sue Doran, a research fellow at Jesus, Oxford, was gripped by the English Civil War-inspired TV series, Children of the New Forest. My three sons, who all studied history at university, played the video game Medieval: Total War.
Most TV viewers and gamers will not go on to become professors of history or even history graduates. But, spurred on by curiosity, many adults do swap fiction for popular history. Publishers, anxious to play up the entertainment aspect, frequently give such books the same covers as novels. The rose on the cover of my dynastic history Tudor: The Family Story was used earlier for Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. But what readers want from books like mine is the true story of the real people they first discovered outside a history book.
what readers want from books like mine is true stories of real people first discovered outside history books
As an editor once told me, readers don’t like uncertainty. A ‘true’ story is clear about what really happened, and so I avoid littering my text with ‘on the one hand this and on the other hand that’. My arguments and my reasoning are more often in the footnotes than on the page. But increasingly – I am happy to say – readers read footnotes, and now that transcribed manuscripts are also being published online, they can check them, too.
In their hearts most readers know there is no true story, not in my book or that of anyone else. With history it is the quest that is important. The quest for the truth that never ends, but is passionately fought for as each generation engages with the past, trying to understand it anew. In the process we understand ourselves better, for historians have to question their own assumptions and be aware of the prejudices of their predecessors and ancestors.
So history is not just about stories. It is an adventure we can actually live, a voyage of discovery and self-discovery that helps us to understand humanity in all its glory and its shame. Even the history of the League of Nations has much to tell us about that. Here is a tale of the desire for peace, of the pull to war, of national rivalries and the deaths of innocents. A story about us now, as well as others, then: it’s not really boring at all.
*Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle is published by Chatto & Windus, £20. As the Mail on Sunday put it: ‘Europe has produced no family saga that could match the Tudors. Rarely has that story been so well told as here’.
- Do you have a favourite TV show, film, game or novel about history?
- Interview a historian (it could be a teacher or someone else who studied history at university) about what draws them to the past, and write up or video their answers.
- League of Nations
- A body set up after the first world war to promote international cooperation and preserve world peace. The first organisation of its kind, it was effective in resolving some international disputes but powerless to prevent the second world war. In 1946 it was disbanded and replaced with the United Nations.
- An idea of history as inevitable progression towards freedom and enlightenment, liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy.
- English Civil War
- The struggle (1642–1651) of Parliament and its puritan ‘Roundheads’ against Catholic King Charles I (supported by royalist ‘Cavaliers’) which resulted in Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Commonwealth’ and ‘Protectorate’ until 1658; the monarchy was restored in 1660 with Charles II.
- Wolf Hall
- Acclaimed historical novel by English author Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate), made into a successful BBC TV series, depicting the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII.
- Transcribed manuscripts
- Historical documents available online including from for example The British Library — see Become An Expert for an instance.