Rewriting hist

A radical text for students sets world events in the context of ordinary people's lives as well as politics. David Walker reports
Click to follow
Nowadays academic historians write only for themselves, the former director of the V&A, Roy Strong, complained recently. They ignore the big picture and don't tell enough of a tale. He was not being wholly disinterested, since he wants to plug his new general history of Britain over the centuries, Our Island Story.

Others have laid a similar charge. Nick Tate, the Government's chief curriculum adviser, has been bemoaning the lack of "narrative" history. In a couple of weeks his wish will be fulfilled. Penguin are launching a huge new "traditional" history of Britain written deliberately for the general reader, sixth formers and undergraduates (with American college students particularly in mind).

Accessibility will be one of the selling points of a multi-volume series running from the Romans to the departure of Lady Thatcher in 1990. The cake will be cut in century-size bites - none of the fashionable French longues durees - and the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the arrival of James VI in London in 1603 will be recognised, whatever revisionists may say, as major turning-points.

The new series is intended as a replacement for the now-dated Pelican History of Britain, the standard fare of generations of school and college students, thanks to ST Bindoff on the Tudors or David Thompson on the 19th century. But behind it lies a growing sense among professional historians that perhaps the traditionalists have a point, in that they have allowed their discipline to become too specialised. There is a sense that history needs to return to the kind of work associated with the likes of Dame Veronica Wedgwood and AJP Taylor - history that was first and foremost readable.

Peter Clarke, professor of history at Cambridge, has written Hope and Glory, one of the two Penguin volumes that inaugurate the series this month. A well-known reviewer and a witty writer, Professor Clarke tells of Britain in the 20th century. "Narrative history has undergone a rehabilitation. In their desire to be thought fully professional historians have perhaps lost sight of history as a story."

What an older generation of historians were often able to convey - and what needs to be recaptured through a vivid and detailed narrative - is "something to give the reader the impression that he or she is learning about events of momentous significance". And that means identifying heroes and heroines, including Churchill and Thatcher, he argues.

But the trick is to avoid implying, as an older generation of narrative historians did, that the story of Britain is great and glorious and had only one outcome - a trap that reviewers have said Roy Strong tumbles into head first.

The other of the first two volumes is Britain under the Stuarts by Mark Kishlansky, an American 17th-century specialist at Harvard. Teaching history in schools and at universities has suffered from "hyperprofessionalisation", he says. But "narrative history is coming back." For him this involves taking the detailed work of the specialists and putting it into "the context of lived lives in the past".

By this he means active sympathy for both sides in the Civil War. "One sees a lot of chance in operation. Outcomes were not predetermined."

According to David Cannadine of Columbia University in New York, the series general editor, the Penguin historians have been chosen simply because they are best. But they clearly also are historians who are not going to do what the controversial Bristol University professor John Vincent tried to do a few years ago, and ignore entirely the contributions of social historians or women, because only politics mattered.

Peter Clarke's history is essentially a narrative of what happened in politics - he pays special attention to election data - but he uses the power struggles as a springboard into demography, culture and the changing lives of ordinary people, including women. His 20th century is Stanley Baldwin and The Waste Land, Clement Attlee and Brief Encounter.

He wanted, he says, to get behind the old style of history where the only question is who is the top nation - which becomes the history of Britain's decline. "That perspective only makes sense if it is defined in competitive economic and political terms, where I wanted to open out a narrative that moves into the hinterland of 'new history' ... a sort of history that is interested in people's ordinary lives."

Contributors to the Penguin series, who will include Linda Colley of Columbia on the 18th century and Professor Cannadine himself on the 19th, have been asked not to take for granted the "our" in Roy Strong's Our Island Story.

As Mark Kishlansky puts it, in the 17th century Britain was only a metaphor. "It is only after the Stuarts that Britain exists as a place, so one of my special problems was balancing the histories of Ireland and Scotland as well as England the quality and quantity of historical writings about the three countries differ so much."

What Mark Kishlansky set out to do in his account of Britain's 17th century was to excite those reading the story for the first time. But the task demands a skill not all historians have - writing plain English well and not letting the story get bogged down in the marsh of historical detail and debate. Teachers and students alike are likely to judge that the first two volumes succeed on that score. They are a good readn

'Hope and Glory. Britain 1900-1990' by Peter Clarke, pounds 25.

'A Monarchy Transformed. Britain 1603-1714' by Mark Kishlansky, pounds 25.