Saturday, 28 October 2017

History Today (and in 1844)

My latest column for History Today can be read in this month's magazine, and at this link. Here's a taste:

Over the summer, I read an 1844 novel called Abbeychurch by the prolific Victorian writer Charlotte Yonge. She was a very popular author in her day and, though little read now, she is a fascinating guide to the tastes and interests of a certain class of bright, intellectually engaged young women of the 19th century. One of those tastes is a fervent passion for history and in Abbeychurch two characters – clever, well-read girls of 16 or so – have a conversation of just the kind to catch a historian’s attention.

One is making a collection of ‘true knights’ throughout history – men who exemplify her ideal of chivalric perfection, from Alfred the Great to Philip Sidney. It is a romantic and motley collection, inspired as much by the novels of Walter Scott as by more sober works of history, but the girls discuss with real insight how far they should allow the standards of different historical periods to modify their ideal of ‘knighthood’. Is it right to include in the collection men who committed acts of cruelty which would be unacceptable in the 19th century, since the views of an earlier age were different?

These girls find their own way to a critical approach, balancing the impulse to hero worship or to condemn with an understanding of historical context and how ideas change over time. The simpler instinct, though, never goes out of fashion: the idea that history is about identifying heroes and villains, singling out individuals as prophets or enemies of ‘progress’. We see many examples of this tendency today and it is, perhaps, akin to the desire to plunder history for analogies for modern politics; recently, for instance, we have heard how analogies for Brexit can apparently be found in the Norman Conquest, the Reformation, Dunkirk and probably every historical moment you can think of. Few of these parallels ever turn out to be very enlightening and they are all too often solipsistic – they make history all about us, belying the complexities of the past to suit the arguments of the present.

And then I talk about medieval morality plays, because even two sentences about supposed historical links to Brexit is more than I can really bear at one time. (They're always so bad! There was another one in yesterday's Guardian - Brexit and the Reformation and Luther or something...)

Anyway, much more importantly, I'm pleased to have got in a mention of Charlotte Yonge. She's one of my favourite writers, and I think more people should read her. Abbeychurch is almost her earliest work (she was only 21 when it was published) and it's more of a curiosity than anything, though an endearing one - it reads a bit like she was trying to be Austen-without-the-romance, before she found her own style. But many of her later novels are just wonderful, endlessly detailed and observant about character, family relationships, and the times she lived in. Her writing career spanned more than fifty years of the nineteenth century, and throughout her life she was passionately concerned with education of all kinds, especially the education of young women. To read from Abbeychurch all the way up to her novels of the 1890s is to see social change as perceived by a keen observer, one especially attuned to the changing lives and experiences of the generations of girls who passed before her eye. The energetic history-loving teenage heroine of Abbeychurch is a vicar's daughter, who devotes her time to teaching in the village school, single-handedly managing the charities of her father's parish, and home-educating herself through a broad if rather haphazard curriculum; by the 1890s, Yonge's equivalent heroines are working for Cambridge entrance exams and deciding to train as nurses in London slums. And these girls, like all her characters, ring completely true to life.

Links to downloads of Yonge's many, many novels can be found via the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship website. The Heir of Redclyffe was her bestseller, but it's not completely to my taste; my own favourites are the more unsparing Heartsease (1854), The Pillars of the House (1873), and Chantry House (1886) - I learned more 19th-century history from the last book alone than from anything I ever studied in school... ;) Those would be my top recommendations - and the good news is that if you like them, there are about fifty more to enjoy!

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