History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 May 2012

Goodbye to All That

I was something of a history snob in my youth. My snobbery was entirely chronological. The older it was, the more worthy of study. You’d think this sort of attitude would fit one for a career in Classics, but, like Shakespeare I had little Latin and less Greek. My Latin is of the “Cornelia et Flavia cantant sub arbore” variety (points to you if you recognize the reference!) and my Greek is only useful if you want someone to recite the first verse of the Odyssey or talk about Dikaiopolis's ill-fated attempts to make it to the Festival.

So, by process of elimination, I fished up in sixteenth century Britain.

 Occasionally, I would go slumming in eighteenth century France, or hang out with Wellesley (not yet Wellington) in India, but on one thing I was very clear: anything after 1815 Just Didn’t Count. Sure, one might read the odd novel set in Victorian England or thrill to M.M. Kaye’s tales of India in the days of the Raj, or, of course, cackle maniacally at the antics of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster, but that was for recreation, not study. Everything just got dull, dull, dull post-industrialization. Mechanized warfare? Killed off Romance entirely.

The entire stretch of twentieth century history was a blind spot for me. I knew the rough outlines—what school child didn’t?—and could confidently recite archducal assassinations, alliances, and ententes, but the cultural history of the time held no interest for me. I squirmed my way grudgingly through my Modern Britain field in grad school, grumbling about being forced to spend so much time in the twentieth century at the expense of the eighteenth. What was khaki compared to knee breeches?

That was until I found my imagination caught by Kenya in the 1920s and started work on a novel that bounces between 1910s and 20s England and 1920s Kenya. It quickly became clear that World War I, even if I avoided the war itself, was a pivot point in the novel, changing my characters and the world around them. I started reading up on that period directly before and after World War I and found myself ashamed that I had never done so before.

There are a wealth of excellent primary and secondary sources available. I’d grown up on Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, but added to it Juliet Nicholson’s far more intimate portrait of the old world just before it exploded: The Perfect Summer, a social history of the summer of 1911 which contrasts vividly to its sequel, The Great Silence, an examination of the immediate aftermath of the war. Part of what makes reading the pair together quite so effective is that the author follows up on many of the same sources, providing a direct before and after in the lives of specific individuals.

The work that left the deepest impact on me, however, was Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That, his recollection of his experiences during the Great War. Reading it, one could understand fully just what sent that generation of young men reeling—not just the shell shock, but the mad inanity of it all, the sense of lack of purpose and direction, the gross incompetence. Small wonder that so many talented young men began to question the world in which they’d been raised, or found themselves emotional wrecks, forever scarred by what they had seen and experienced. As I was writing The Ashford Affair, many of Graves’s experiences became those of my hero, Frederick.

What are your historical blind spots?


Blogger Carole Rae said...

mhhmmmmm the early 1900s I would say. Also 1600s...once Elizabeth I's reign was over my interest in the 1600s is dashed. haha. Great post! I really had to contemplate this.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Honestly, my blind spot is America history. I’m conversant with large swaths of European history, up to and including the two world wars. I know quite a bit about Japanese history too (my dad and his buddies are all Japanophiles, so I grew up watching Shichinin no samurai and Chūshingura). But American history mostly just wasn’t of interest to me, or it actually offended me (slavery, the genocide of the Native Americans). I do a lot of re-enactment, but it’s all European. I have zero interest in Rev or Civ war events.

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to get muddled during the Cromwell years and after that until the Georges started.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I suppose Russian history for me is a blindspot. I think I was scarred for life reading Nicholas and Alexandra and then reading the movie. Also ancient history apart from Cleopatra. A huge chunk from about 33 AD to 1066 is a gigantic blank for me apart from a few Roman emperors.

9:37 AM  
Blogger SharonA said...

I grew up an anglophile - any and all English history was fascinating to me. And as I studied French, I brushed up on my French history, too. Then I had an English writing professor who was fascinated by China, and China was our topic of study for the entire writing course, so I have more than the average knowledge there. Sadly, American history is where I've missed the most. I think I've learned about the 18th century at every level - 5th grade through college - but not enough on the 19th century and hardly any of the 20th. Because of my own interest, I've studied a lot of WWII history. So I, too, would put the early 20th century and WWI as the place where I have gaps.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I can't really say--I find all aspects of history in all sorts of countries fascinating, so my blind spots are only when I don't know something. I do have biases though, so I'm not really enamored of British history after the Stuarts and before the Victorians.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

LOL, Evangeline. I'm not all that interested in the Stuarts or the Victorians, so we can do a Jack sprat and his wife kind of thing.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Anything south of the Equator. Other than a few rough ideas about when European colonization and liberation occurred (mostly thanks to ripple effects in Europe), I have very little idea what was going on in South America or Africa.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

My blind spot is definitely American History and for the same reasons Isobel mentioned. I admire the Founding Fathers for all of sacrifices they made to bring this country into existence. But for all intents and purposes, those gentlemen were British subjects and still maintained many of the ideas of honor and gentility the best part of Britain espoused.

British history is my obsession. Particularly the 18th and 19th centuries. Not overly fond of the Victorian age or anything after that really.

I also have a penchant for the Ancient World - Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome.

11:59 AM  

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