February 19, 2024

What is history

As you flick through the endless TV channels looking for something to entertain you, you will find an array of successful and popular TV series many of which blur the lines between creativity, real characters, history and costume drama.

In many ways Downton Abbey is one of the most straightforward of these. The Granthams are a fictional family, the scenery is gorgeous, the clothes often works of art and, whilst it spurs off the idea of how times have changed, it is a wonderful costume drama. The storylines are reassuring, enough to keep us watching with lines which make us laugh out loud but nothing too disturbing and of course it features a beautiful iconic castle.

Something like “The Crown” is very different. It is an imagining or rereading of real lives and hooks onto the most challenging times in those lives which are or were often intensely private. Having watched it, many people think it represents the wholesale truth of what happened causing reality and legacy to become muddled. There are many other examples but ultimately it shows that whoever owns or controls the narrative often directs thought and opinion.

It is not hard to guess that I think history matters. I spend much of my time sharing the visible history of an antique home and farmland here at Highclere through visual media, through my books and though talks and podcasts.

The way in which our “entertainment” helps to mould some of our historical perspective has changed little from the past. Our predecessors also communicated and shared their thoughts and experiences through books, music and plays. For example, Shakespeare’s historical plays were written during the reign of a successful dynasty whose roots lay in battle and the defeat of their opponents. Thus, although he delved into larger universal themes, he was also careful to always support those currently in power not least in his play Richard III.

A little book lies negligently on top of a waterfall bookcase in my room  – it is a slim, highly regarded book entitled “What is history?”  by EH Carr. It does demand a certain mental effort to read it and is therefore a book I look at admiringly at more than read. It has, however, over the decades since it was written, provided a point of discussion for many students and historian.

EH Carr understood history as a problem-solving discipline, one that helped explore and explain the relationship between the past and the present. It is an effort to understand and wonder if there are lessons or patterns from which one can learn whether it is about people, actions or decisions. History can reveal the complexity and plurality in which people lived in the past, how they thought and how they related to the world around them.

Much of our lives can be a slightly chaotic muddle of half done thoughts and tasks but a narrative version shapes it and allows us to process it and try to understand it. Experience and comparison help us to create and justify our political systems, structure leadership and lay the basis for a kind society with a diverse economy and a thriving culture. It also gives us parameters by which to legitimise or discredit actions, events and individuals in the present.

Without the research to understand the times in which the characters in my books lived, I could not create the narrative. After all, it was the events, culture and ideas of their times which shaped the lives of my predecessors here and their friends and largely dictated who they chose to listen to and talk to in the world in which they lived.