It is a fact that most people who have known me pre- and post-college think I was an English major. It’s understandable. My Instagram is 80% books (the other 20% is evenly split between architecture and my niece Cora). I also may have been pompous about books at some points (I’m sorry that I get so adamant about the book being better than the movie versions). I almost did study English in undergrad, and I did end up studying it now in grad school. But in my last year of high school I completely changed my long-time plan to study English and decided to study history, a subject that I had always hated and actually knew quite less about than I did literature.
I fell in love with history rather unexpectedly. I grew up loving stories, but hating history. History was dates and geography, which I learned how to rattle off for a test, and bolded names and events, which pulled me out of every chapter in my textbook. In third grade, when my history textbook was just snapshots of famous Americans, I liked history, or rather the people of history. I read then about Squanto and George Washington Carver, Clara Barton and Louisa May Alcott, Abraham Lincoln and Booker T. Washington. What I remembered was a hodge-podge of details, like the story of how Lincoln kept his beard because a little girl recommended it, or how Booker T. Washington grew up on scraps of food from the slavemaster, or how Squanto returned from Europe to find all his tribe dead of smallpox. I re-read that textbook and I looked ahead in it even when the assigned chapter was over. But after that history became events condensed together with only bolded keywords to break up the tedium.
Yet while I dreaded history textbooks and insisted history was boring, I devoured historical fiction. I was just barely literate when I tried to read Happy Birthday, Molly!. I remember sounding out words and being mystified when Molly’s mother tells her, “Nooooo.” Was she trying to say noodle? Did that have anything to do with the story? I decided to ignore that. But I understood that Emily, the girl from England, had left a country under attack to come to 1940s America, and was horrified by Molly’s fascination with bomb shelters. I could hardly follow the dialogue of Felicity Saves the Day, but I understood why young Ben wanted to go fight for the colonies in the American Revolution and why Felicity’s Loyalist grandfather hated Ben. I also read the Dear America books with more dedication than I probably give to my adult job, which is why I can tell you all about what it was like to work in a 19th century mill (So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl), be a Russian mail order bride (A Coal Miner’s Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska), or be taken from your Sioux tribe and forced to assimilate into Anglo-American culture (My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl). Even as I read these, the very same subjects in my history textbook bored me immensely.(1)
In high school, I read Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which is the story of Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne Boleyn, the mother of Elizabeth I, who was executed by her husband Henry VIII. I had read versions of those characters before, in the Royal Diaries of Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor and Doomed Queen Anne by Carolyn Meyer, both of which provided a sympathetic perspective on Anne Boleyn and a glimpse at the personage of Henry VIII. Gregory dug deeper in The Other Boleyn Girl, taking the Boleyn family and presenting their choices starkly. This was a family, like others at court, that pushed both their young daughters into affairs with a volatile and lustful king so as to gain political advantage. And yet, the Boleyn girls were both women who took control of their situations. Those who know some history are aware that marriages among royals were often arranged and women had the choice to be a wife or a nun or a whore, and would be judged harshly no matter what. Mary Boleyn was married when she became Henry VIII’s mistress, but was encouraged by her family, who gained titles and wealth by association. Yet when Henry VIII tired of her and her husband died, Mary married a commoner out of love and was banished from court. Her sister Anne was punished when she tried to choose her own love match, but also encouraged to become Henry’s mistress. Anne’s decision to pressure the king into marrying her if he wanted to bed her was unsupported by her family and lent to England’s schism with the Roman Catholic Church. I couldn’t get Anne and Mary out of my head. I read up on them on Wikipedia, trawling enough websites to find non-fictional works that would tell me their stories completely. Who they were had become bigger to me than Gregory or Meyer’s portrayals and I felt I could only find them in a detailed account like Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
I found myself carting around that massive tome and getting to know these people better. From this stemmed my fascination with Henry VIII, whose head many historical fiction writers avoid, preferring to focus on those around him. But in non-fiction like Weir’s Henry VIII: The King and His Court, I got to delve into this long-dead person who seemed very real. When all the facts of his life were laid out before me, I could almost understand the choices he made. This is a man who divorced his first wife because she gave him no sons, executed his second wife on rumors of adultery, eleven days later married a third wife who died in childbirth, divorced his fourth wife because she was too ugly, executed his teenaged fifth wife because she had an affair, and died before his final sixth wife. That being said, this was also a man who had never been raised or trained to be king and only became the heir as a preteen when his older brother died, so was unfit to be kind in terms of petty and cruel behavior, but was also loved by his people. This was a person driven by a desire to be respected and admired, and had convinced himself that God had chosen him to be special. The complexities of the “character”were so hard for writers to capture because he was real, and the facts don’t line up quite the way they would if someone had made him up for a novel.
In late high school, as I embarked on additional independent research projects into the lives of William Shakespeare (2) and Leo Tolstoy, I realized that it was history that was absorbing me so much. I began to slow down and really read and think about my assigned history textbook. The stories were in there too, albeit summarized and abridged. I remember the awe I first felt for Washington and Hamilton, when I started thinking about the choices these men made, and the impact that had on the future.(3) I had always loved people, and once I saw these real nearly tangible people in history, I knew I couldn’t study English. That all seemed so contained and tame. History is a wild subject that is not only always growing, but is changing continuously. How we view the past shifts, and new angles come out more prominently. We forget certain details and others become more important.
It is common to say that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. Yet history will, in some essence, always repeat itself, as the other old saying goes. History is not a timeline of sequential events, following one another in a neat row, but a tangled mass of events that affect and counteract with each other in ways that we will often never see except in retrospect–and by then most of the details will be forgotten.
It is no coincidence that two of the most well-known works of historical study, Herodotus’ Histories and Thomas Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, attempt to trace the past with hopes to not just benefit the reader of the time, but readers in the future, for whom much more may have been forgotten. Herodotus’ primary reason for writing his Histories was “to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of [the Greeks] and the Asiatic people” (p. 14). Gibbon in his own fastidious way does the same, apologizing for any condensing he has done to get the story across. Herodotus and Gibbon are hardly hailed for their accuracy now, and are considered to exaggerate to make their points and fit their own agendas–which to be fair is something all historians are to some extent guilty of.
In truth, it is impossible to write history without bias because it will always be a story when it’s re-told. The pure unadulterated truth already occurred, and like a retelling of a memory, even with as much facts as can be gathered, it will acquire different shades and angles over time. A good historian accepts that. It is a bad one that pretends they are merely a reporter of facts. A historian is a storyteller, because history is a story, with characters and events and settings and plot twists. A reader of history can tell you that most of the best-written fictional works out there borrowed from history–fantasy novels included. J.R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings owes a lot to Welsh and Celtic history and language. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire borrows directly from events in Scottish history (the Red Wedding was inspired by the Black Dinner and the Massacre of Glencoe). J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series rings true when it reminds us of the Holocaust and the rise of Hitler.(4) History holds so many stories that when told are almost unbelievable because they are stranger than fiction will at times allow itself to be.
Throughout every college history class, I was hungrily taking in the stories. It wasn’t like reading novels. When reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, you can’t look for a villain, because it is about how regular Polish citizens consented to bringing about the Holocaust in Poland. If you read Kate Brown’s Biography of No Place looking for a reason why entire ethnic communities are destroyed and forgotten in the name of nationalism, you will be disappointed. The brutality of war crimes by Allied Forces against Nazi Germany, which are depicted in detail in Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War, are sickening and eye-opening. Historical works like the latter can bring one down. But it was in those books that I found hope. Life goes on–not technically infinitely, but back into unknown past, and into our indeterminate future. As horrible as the past has gotten, we have persevered. People have overcome difficulties many of us who have the leisure to peruse history will never experience.
And despite the differences in circumstances, historical figures were little different from us. They had thoughts and feelings and loves and hungers. They made mistakes, many of which are remembered more than yours might be, but it’s hard to say what you or I would do in Marie Antoinette or Richard III’s situations. The study of history should make you question yourself, just as much as it challenges your perceptions of the world. When you neglect to study history, you are ignoring the most complex characters and bizarre stories. You will never learn about Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese pilot who bombed Pearl Harbor and later came to America to evangelize, or Martin Luther, the great Reformer and ex-monk who married an ex-nun, or Empress Matilda, an English Crown Princess who spent over a decade leading a civil war to claim the English throne from a male cousin and once escaped her enemies by running over a frozen river, or Pope Alexander VI, who placed all his illegitimate children in prominent positions throughout Rome. People watch Hamilton and are amazed that history can have those kinds of stories and scandals and drama and emotions, but history is overflowing with all of that.
History does not need to be boring. Rudyard Kipling once said that “If history was taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Textbooks won’t do that. But there are countless snapshots of historical figures’ lives or major historical moments that are rich and amusing enough to appeal to any lover of stories. Slow down. Focus on some smaller piece of history. It has made an imprint on today, like every little detail–recorded and unrecorded–has. The future is indeterminate, but we can see better where we are going if we remember how we began.
(1)It’s relevant to note that the majority of my history textbooks were hyper-conservative, pro-Confederacy, and utterly indifferent to the struggles of blacks and Native Americans, except as highlights of “aw how sad”, which were dismissed with reminders that the civilization and education they eventually received was enough compensation. But even the more liberal textbooks I have seen when teaching history in NYC public schools favor a dull relay of information over an emphasis on story and depth.
(2)Forever thank you to Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare for making me feel like I had a stake in historical research. More on that in a pro-Stratford Shakespeare post eventually.
(3)How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower, somehow defeat a global superpower? Honestly, I got a better answer from Hamilton than that textbook.
(4)This is one of those interesting cases where we can learn from history and from fantasy–if you can shudder at Hitler or Voldemort’s unexpected rise to power, you ought to feel apprehensive about America’s future.
Brittany Ann Zayas