Historical Fiction and the ‘Pastness’ of the Way People Think

Mark Hailwood

Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about the story telling techniques that historians use in their writing.

This was not a long time ago, and nor was it far away – you can read it here in fact. Inspired by the ‘Storying the Past’ reading group, and a series of ‘Creative Histories’ events, the post reflected on some of the ways academic historians draw on the writing methods associated with more creative genres, and considered how they might fruitfully do more of this.

One example of the latter that I discussed was Philip Ziegler’s attempt at an ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of the experience of the Black Death in a medieval English village. In essence it is a piece of creative writing, informed by historical evidence, intended to ‘evoke the atmosphere’ of that moment in time. As Ziegler himself put it, he was essentially borrowing the approach of the ‘historical novelist’ to try and recover an aspect of the past that his cold, hard analysis of the facts – the supposed purview of the historian – could not: how people at the time felt about their villages being ravaged by the plague.

But can the approach of the historical novelist really bridge this gap? Continue reading

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“As I Went Forth One Summer’s Day”: Putting the Story in Early Modern History

Mark Hailwood

Twas the night before Christmas, in the year 1681, and one Soloman Reddatt was drinking in the Nag’s Head in Reading, with his sister, Elizabeth, and a friend, George Parfitt, when, at around 9pm, their sociability was disturbed by the shattering of glass. Moments earlier, Debora Allen had burst into the alehouse in search of her husband Edward. After locating him in the kitchen drinking with the alehousekeeper, William Newbury, she flew into a rage, picking up a quart pot and throwing it through a window. As a startled Reddatt and his companions looked up from their drinks, Debora Allen emerged from the kitchen into the room where they were drinking, where the angry wife ‘levelled her passion’ against Sara Newbury, the alehousekeeper’s wife, who was busy serving customers. Debora Allen called Sara Newbury a whore and a bawd, and accused her of running the alehouse as a bawdy house, before turning her fire onto the alehousekeeper William Newbury, labelling him a cuckold. The furious Debora Allen repeated the accusations several times, both within the alehouse and at the street door, ensuring that her opinion of this alehouse and its proprietors received a public airing.


A version of this vignette appears at the start of a chapter that I have written for a forthcoming Bloomsbury textbook on the cultural history of alcohol in the early modern world. The focus of the chapter is the relationship between gender, sexuality and alcohol in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and I use an analysis of this opening anecdote to highlight several of the themes that run through the essay: the gendered character of alcohol retailing; the extent and character of women’s public consumption of alcohol; the complex relationship between masculinity and drinking; and so on.

It is a classic technique of historians in my field – that is, the social history of early modern England – to start an article or a chapter with a story; a telling anecdote that draws the reader in and sets up the analysis that is to follow. Indeed, I have just used it here. More often than not, though, the storytelling ends there – the historian steps out of the role of fireside narrator, and proceeds to offer up their analysis in a cool, detached, ‘academic’ register, deemed more suitable for the pages of a peer-reviewed journal or academic monograph.

This is a writing convention that I myself have followed many times, and one that I relatively uncritically absorbed and mimicked from my own academic mentors and inspirations. But the endeavours of the ‘Storying the Past’ virtual reading group, and associated ‘Creative Histories’ events, have encouraged me to become more reflective about the storytelling techniques that I use in my writing as an academic historian, and those employed in my particular field of academic history.


What storytelling techniques, other than the trusty opening anecdote, do the historians that I spend most of my time reading deploy? Continue reading

Creative history is … ?

Laura Sangha

This post was inspired by the conversations, presentations, exhibitions and performances at ‘Creative Histories’, Bristol Zoo, 19-21 July 2017. The conference was organised by Will Pooley, and you can read more of the posts that came out of the conference here.

 

Creative history is…?[1]

not a luxury[2]

an active part of the historical process at every stage of the process[3]

a way to uncover and reveal the research process[4]

a way to work out how others look and see[5]

a curiosity, a delight[6] Continue reading

A ‘Creative Histories’ Mini-Series

Mark Hailwood & Laura Sangha

Over the past couple of years the pair of us have had the pleasure of being involved in a series of events around the theme of ‘creative histories’, curated by the fertile brains behind the Storying the Past reading group.

Put simply, the aim of these conversations has been to encourage participants – which have included academic historians, authors, singer-songwriters, teachers, filmmakers and many others – to talk and think about the creative elements of historical research, writing, teaching, and consumption.

If this sounds like your kind of thing then you can read a whole host of blog posts that have emerged from these events, over at the Storying the Past blog. No need to do anything creative at this stage, simply click here.

But we thought it might be nice to collate the contributions that we have made to these conversations into a monster mini-series, to draw them to the attention of any of our readers who might have missed them, and hopefully to whet your appetite for reading more over at Storying the Past.

So, this week we will be re-blogging our posts here, as follows: Continue reading

A Page in the Life of John Dane: A Tailor Tempted by Dancing

[In our series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Brodie Waddell offers a glimpse of the autobiography of a tradesman and emigrant who struggled to resist a variety of worldly temptations.]

Around the year 1630, a headstrong young tailor named John Dane decided to defy his godly parents and ‘went to a dansing scoll to larne to dans’. When his father found out, he was soundly beaten. So, Dane resolved to leave the family home behind and set out across Hertfordshire.

When he sat down to write his autobiography over fifty years later, he described what happened next: Continue reading

A Page in the Life of Elizabeth Jeake: unfeigned love among mercantile matters

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Anne Murphy offers a loving letter from a seventeenth-century merchant’s wife, who Anne has discussed in more detail in a recent article and whose letters will be included in a forthcoming edition.]

I first encountered Samuel Jeake through his Astrological Diary, edited by Michael Hunter and Annabel Gregory. As the only ordinary investor in the financial revolution of the 1690s who had left a record of his actions, he formed an invaluable case study for my PhD.

Later, when I needed a sample module to talk about at job interviews, ‘The Jeakes’ seemed a perfect fit. A module exploring the seventeenth century through the eyes of an ordinary family looked great presented on one side of A4. When I got a job and actually had to start teaching the module I quickly realised I was going to need much more than was contained in the diary, so I turned to the family’s letters. There are hundreds of them preserved in the East Sussex Record Office and the Rye Museum Archive.

And the more I read, the more I realised the family, especially its female members, offered fascinating insights into early modern life. I encountered Frances Hartridge, Samuel’s mother, who resisted marriage and insisted on a contract before agreeing to a betrothal. Then came Barbara Hartshorne, his mother-in-law, who struggled to keep her teenaged son from the gallows, a task that left her ‘afflicted tormented without any relief’.[1] And there was Samuel’s wife, Elizabeth Hartshorne, a thirteen-year-old bride, whose labour was essential to every aspect of the marital economy. For this post, I have chosen to focus on a page in Elizabeth Hartshorne’s life.

Rye, Sussex null by William Daniell 1769-1837

The Jeakes’ hometown of Rye, from William Daniell, A Voyage Round Great Britain (1815-25)

In the absence of her own writings and her virtual absence from the many pages of Samuel’s writings,  Elizabeth’s life can only be reconstructed from the letters she left behind, both those she wrote and those she received. Much can be recovered from these letters. Like most early modern correspondence, they covered a wide variety of topics. Family matters sat easily alongside business and were generally intertwined with spiritual contemplation, an ever-present concern for the health of all correspondents and their connections, and the exchange of news, especially on religious or political matters. Yet, emotions have been somewhat harder to find. The Jeakes rarely wrote of love and never exchanged letters just for the sake of being in touch. Continue reading