One of the common pitfalls a person interested in history finds themselves in is the mistaken belief that they can ever fully understand or recreate history.
I’ve done it lots of times, walking down Fleet Street, picturing the hustle and bustle of eighteenth century London; the noise, the smell, the people pushing you out the way so they can ‘take the wall’ and stay clean…Or is that modern London?
Sometimes I kid myself that when I am reading an eighteenth century novel, I am entering the world of the original reader, especially when I’ve read a few in a row. I read the afternotes with a knowing smugness, pre-empting the information and adding other titbits the editor has not mentioned.
Another thing I see other people doing, is to pick apart something (a film, a book, a costume) and focus on the little details that are anachronistic, or chosen for aesthetic rather than strictly historical reasons.
But it’s all nonsense – a person today can have no more than a conversation with history, even last year was experienced in a completely different set of expectations and references and mental links.
This becomes even more pronounced when reading old fiction – it’s hard not to link characters to ones we as a reader have experienced first, and feel to be an original despite the fact that they may have been written before and actually be a template for the character we have encountered before.
Even harder to appreciate is the literary/popular and cultural references in a book. We may have read Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy or Horace’s Epistles – but there is no way we read it as our forbears would have. We can’t have made the intellectual links that they would have, because our intellectual culture is completely different and the ways of thinking have changed.
It becomes clearer to me as I go on, that an interest in history is not a strict religion of authentic orthodoxy, but a living engagement between the past and the present. A chat. A lark. A giggle.
An interest in the past is just one of many tools that can colour and add variety to a person’s thinking, but it opens up a whole palette of textures and techniques that many people have ignored/not been made aware of.
Nobody can live in the past, no matter how much they may want to, but we can bring that past into the present and make both sing with possibility.