Virtual Special Issue

Virtual Special Issue: Historic Passions

Marybeth Hamilton


This Virtual Issue of History Workshop Journal brings together the first twenty years’ worth of essays published as part of the occasional feature “Historic Passions”.

Although the feature was launched in 1995, the concerns propelling it go back to the journal’s beginnings. A guiding aim of the History Workshop movement had been (in the words of our first editorial) “to bring the boundaries of history closer to people’s lives”, disentangling it from the academy (the experience of history at school put many of our contributors off the subject for years) and framing it as a form of imaginative inquiry, a way of seeing and probing the world. Understood in that way, history became personal; it could be enriching and even transformative. The first issue of the journal featured a section titled “Enthusiasms”, in which Alun Howkins paid homage to the work of George Ewart Evans, whose oral histories of the rural poor he encountered as a disaffected sixteen-year-old farmworker, an experience that enabled him to see himself and his surroundings with new and appreciative eyes. Over time, “Enthusiasms” morphed into a more conventional book review section, but editors’ interest in historical curiosity if anything deepened. The shift from “Enthusiasms” to “Passions” ramped up the stakes of the investigation, reflecting the journal’s growing interest in psychoanalysis and in facets of historical inquiry that are consuming, obsessive, even libidinal, “passionate” in the fullest and most complex sense.

“What states of mind feed historical work?” asks Christine Stansell. To pose that question is to invite reflections that are elliptical and impressionistic, itself of a piece with the journal’s longstanding commitment to publishing forms of writing that break with the conventions of academic discourse. By definition, these essays are personal. Untangling the roots of an engagement with history requires the writer to own the stakes of the investigation, acknowledging and exploring the links between history and the self. For many of our contributors, an early fascination with history was a way of enriching a self that felt fragile or insufficiently grounded. “Perhaps the first impulse of a historical imagination is the need to identify, to find siblings and kindred spirits, and this may be profoundly so in children whose sense of self is inchoate and precarious”, writes Alison Light. For some, like Denise Riley, that quest for kindred spirits was as much political as it was personal, a search for possibilities in the annals of socialist feminism, an exploration of what still could prove useful in the detritus of what might have been. For others, like Luc Sante, the Belgian-born son of singularly unsettled migrants, the past offered a more diffuse sort of refuge. His sense of allegiance owed less to the links between past and present than to the tantalising disjunctures, the seductive singularity of an era’s flavor, “the unnameable synethesia that attaches itself to a time”.

History, then, can provide us with many things: an escape, a resource, a set of ancestors, a language. Precisely what prompts that imaginative investment can be just as varied and hard to predict. “The past worms its way into the soul by devious routes, and we are formed without even being aware of it”, writes Iain Pears. “Our historical perspective is not merely what we know about the past, but what we feel about it, with those feelings generated by countless little fragments.” Performing the part of a child witch in The Crucible can prompt such feelings; so can encountering the story of Davy Crockett, or absorbing the language of the King James Bible, or seeing a dead bird fall from the sky. Some of our contributors pinpoint a moment in childhood; others in adolescence or young adulthood. Sometimes the pivotal event is silence: the tension generated by traumatic events that elders cannot bring themselves to discuss. “There is nothing I cannot bear but lack of information”, writes Philippa Gregory. “I hate not knowing.”

What matters, it seems, is that the event generates a sense of dissonance. “History is born of trouble,” remarks the history teacher who narrates Graham Swift’s novel Waterland. Waking up to a sense of the historical, in other words, is about waking up to a sense of complexity. We know the ending of the story, and something about it eludes us. It tugs at us, nags at us, prompts us to look beneath the surface. Human beings, Swift concludes, are the animals that ask why, that clamor for explanations or stories (as the epigraph to Waterland reminds us, the root word “historia” signifies both). We look forward to publishing more of these rich and evocative stories in the future.


The Virtual Special Issue includes free access pdf downloads of all of the articles listed below. Click on the hyperlinks to access.

Adam Phillips Revolutions and Rebellions39 (Spring 1995)
Mandy Merck Davy Crockett40 (Autumn 1995)
Cora KaplanWitchcraft: A Child's Story41 (Spring 1996)
Christopher HillA First-Class Performer42 (Autumn 1996)
Bernard CanavanThe Edgeworths of Edgeworthstown: a rediscovered heritage43 (Spring 1997)
Denise RileyReflections in the Archive44 (Autumn 1997)
Stan ShipleyLocal Libraries45 (Spring 1998)
Alison LightThe Word Made Flesh46 (Autumn 1998)
Joan ThirskNature vs Nurture47 (Spring 1999)
Iain PearsA Passion for the Pointless49 (Spring 2000)
Bob ChaseOedipus Radicalised51 (Spring 2001)
John SiblonA Case of Mistaken Identity52 (Autumn 2001)
Luc Sante The Past is Another Country54 (Autumn 2002)
Martha FlemingHow Books Go Together and How They Come Apart56 (Autumn 2003)
Chandak SengooptaA Passion for Diphthongs57 (Spring 2004)
Philippa Gregory Born a Writer, Forged as a Historian59 (Spring 2005)
Paula FassA Historian's Many Pasts60 (Autumn 2005)
Tim DeeFlying Words61 (Spring 2006)
Christine StansellDreams62 (Autumn 2006)
Cathy GereAn Experimental Life63 (Spring 2007)
Tim BoonFolk Work: Growing up in the past70 (Autumn 2010)
Luisa PasseriniA Passion for Memory72 (Autumn 2011)
Frances HarrisPuck of Pook's Hill74 (Autumn 2012)
Yael SternhellRoads, Runaways, and Recollections80 (Autumn 2015)

One Comment

  1. Thank you Marybeth for an amazingly insightful contribution.

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