Writing Radically

How do we write the history of our lifetimes?

In commissioning this feature, editorial fellow Rachel Moss asked contributors: how can we radically re-imagine the writing of history? Over the next few weeks, our contributors reply with creative new methods, sources and forms that they are using to reshape what history writing can look like. In this instalment, Helen Kingstone imagines a less linear contemporary history. 

One of the challenges of narrating living memory as history is how to create a story that is both sufficiently rich and sufficiently clear. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie highlights ‘the danger of the single story’, but we’ve seen in recent years how the political Right has leveraged the power of a clear story (‘our island story’ and a need to ‘take back control’) to great effect. A simple narrative is seductive because it is easy to understand.

“Take back control” was central to the Vote Leave campaign. Vote Leave leaflet, 2016.

Writing narratives of events within living memory, and particularly our own living memory, is often challenging. Those events are still proximate and controversial, so we need (but lack) a sense of overview on them. There is also typically more material around than can be distilled into any usable narrative, and – again because of that proximity – it is difficult to know what best to select.

I feel this pressure as much as anyone, so in my past research I’ve given myself a century or so of hindsight by examining how people dealt with these issues in the nineteenth century. Writing contemporary history became both urgent and challenging in that period, in the wake of the French Revolution and during continuing industrial revolution and colonial expansion. These upheavals increased people’s need for historical narratives that could make sense of ‘modernity’ by joining it up with longer historical timeframes, but also made such narratives difficult to produce. As I have found, Victorian historians often avoided writing contemporary history. Especially in the second half of the nineteenth century when History was becoming established as an academic discipline, historians’ desire for professional credibility was best met by studies of medieval and early modern Britain. If you tried to come to conclusions about events whose outcomes were still uncertain, you would basically be writing books with a short shelf-life. As a result, their ‘Histories of England’ tended to come to a screeching halt 50 or even 100 years from the present, or retreat into narrow lists of political events.

Key to a panorama of the Battle of Waterloo (1815) from the following year. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Archives & Special Collections

Instead, other genres and media took up the baton: during the French Revolutionary Wars and after, huge 360° panorama paintings (and later scroll-based variants) mediated recent military events to an eager public. In the mid-nineteenth century, novelists drew upon their own memories of provincial childhoods – and Walter Scott’s example – to set their stories 20-40 years in the past. To us, Jane Eyre (1847), Great Expectations (1861), Middlemarch (1871-2) and others might read as generic ‘Victorian’ novels of bonnets and breeches, but for their first readers these books drew pointed comparisons between the eras of setting and writing, contributing to contemporary debates about progress or decline. Towards the end of the century, utopian/dystopian writers including William Morris, Richard Jefferies and H. G. Wells approached the same issues by setting their fictions into the future, giving them imaginary hindsight on their Victorian present. And huge collective biography projects such as the British Dictionary of National Biography attempted to select and summarise thousands of recent as well as distant lives. These were impressive and inventive ways to tussle with the task of contemporary history-writing then – but what about now?

Avoiding linear narratives

Let me give you an example from my teaching which demonstrates the danger of seeing the past as a linear narrative where things started as X and have gradually changed (often: improved) to become Y. My students often expect to find, in the nineteenth-century novels we discuss together, something called ‘the traditional woman’. But the ‘Angel in the House’ was a new ideal at the time, and a specifically middle-class one. I am repeatedly surprised at the scale of variation in nineteenth-century life-courses. For example, early in the century, over half of first births were likely conceived before marriage, so sex before marriage was very common. We also tend to think that women married very early, but records show that there was much more variation (see figure 2). This graph shows that women in 1851 and 1911 had a wide range of marriage ages, whereas in 1951 the process was concentrated into women’s early twenties. The ‘norm’ of early marriage only became a norm in the mid-20th century, before rising again.

Graph from Michael Anderson ‘The Social Implications of Demographic Change’. In The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750–1950, ed. F. M. L. Thompson (Cambridge UP, 1990), 1–70, p. 68.

Collaborative oral history

My new project includes an oral history programme with two innovations that are methodologically somewhat radical (or foolish?). It asks upfront about generational concepts, and trains schoolchildren and young adults to be interviewers.

Oral history interviewing is inherently a collaborative way of recording the history of our lifetimes. But it is a tricky intersubjective balance between the priorities of the interviewer and interviewee. Generational questions have not often been foregrounded in oral history interviews, for the good reason that people do not necessarily think of themselves in these abstract categories. I want of course to preserve the integrity of people’s memories in the form they remember and value them – but I also want to invite interviewees to think about their experiences in ways they might not have done at the time or since: about the relationship between their individual life and ‘historic’ events they lived through, and about their sense of generational affiliation and experience of intergenerational dynamics.

Oral history methodology is already multi-generational (in that older people are typically interviewed by younger people), but previous projects have not sought to harness its potential for intergenerational reciprocity. Meanwhile, intergenerational practice, which deliberately brings together people from different generations, is a burgeoning area in responding to our ageing populations and age-segregated societies (see the Scottish and US charities Generations Working Together and Generations United, and many inspiring projects showcased on their websites). Practitioners suggest that in building intergenerational connections, the specific activity itself is less important than its ethos. However, it seems worthwhile to deploy the meaningful tools of the extended narrative and life-story interview to deepen the impact of this intergenerational contact.

In my intended project, the younger and older participants will interview – and learn from – each other, making the oral history interview a research tool and a tool of intergenerational practice. The programme will bring older people in sheltered housing and care homes into regular communication with younger people from a local primary school, secondary school and university, to record these interviews and then collaborate on a joint mini-exhibition.

Linear narratives are easy to remember, and shadow figures of ‘the traditional woman’, or what ‘British people’ means in the past, are powerful. That is why contemporary history is so difficult to write, and so necessary.

One Comment

  1. Really enjoyed this article. As a historian also engaged in the writing of near-contemporary history, in my case homelessness under the New Labour administrations (1997-2010), and also conducting work grounded in oral testimonies, it strongly resonated with my own hopes and concerns. It seems to me, at a time when the value of history and the humanities is being called into question by the incumbent government, the importance of historians applying their discipline to contemporary events, or indeed, daring to envisage that their discipline may have something to say about future developments, has never been more important. As you point out, this makes us highly anxious. Not only because we fear assigning significance to developments that later appear tangential, or missing crucial conjunctions completely , but because within the discipline itself we have shed belief in meta-historical theories, and (quite rightly), having become aware of the diversity and specificity of lived experience, have come to doubt history’s capacity to reveal patterns of change over time. The ‘fear of the single story’ is a point well made. However, although we may be correct to have such doubts, for better reasons than merely the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and looking foolish, I strongly believe that our discipline does have unique insights to bring to bear on contemporary events, and a role to play in envisioning the future. Thanks for your article Helen. As part of an interdisciplinary group of historians, philosophers, literature researchers and sociologists that meets weekly to debate ‘future history’ in the light of the pandemic – If you’ve got an hour or so spare on Thursday evenings after 6.30 – we’d love to have you drop in!

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