20 October 2012

Stories, and the History of History

I found myself sitting back behind a desk at university this week. If you’d asked me when I left university the first time if I thought I’d ever return, I can’t guarantee I could publish my reply here ad verbatim without causing offence. But nonetheless there I was, older, hopefully wiser, and feeling like I belonged like I never did before.

This time was different. My lecturer didn’t explain the English legal ramifications of finding a decomposing snail in a bottle of ginger beer – a bottle which you hadn’t bought yourself. This of course would give rise to a fascinating question – how can the manufacturer be liable without a contract of sale? Did I grab your attention? I thought not. I digress.

Armada Portrait: Picture in the Public Domain
This time I found out why my favourite subject at school was history. Well; I did already know that – but my understanding was not a deep one. I knew it was about the stories – the human stories devoid of legal disputes over rotting snails and ginger beer. I far preferred listening to stories about the antics of Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, than I did reading an Elizabethan statute on the Poor Law of the 1590’s. And there it is; stories. There are stories to tell about the Elizabethan Poor Law, but you won’t find them in a statute; and those are the stories which would interest me. The statute will hint at those stories, provide clues, but not answers. What was life like for the Elizabethan poor man who couldn’t write his own story down? What happened to him after he found he could no longer feed his family? Did he turn to crime? Did he turn his life around, and how did he do that through all the struggles of the time? Those are the stories I want to tell. Not the first thing you think of when you pick up a text book at school perhaps – all those dry facts and memorising of dates. For me history is about so much more than that. History is what made us who we are; and I want to make that history come alive. We understand ourselves from understanding who and what went before; the lives of our ancestors. Not a set of meaningless facts – their actual lives.

At my university desk, I was starting a short course on writing historic fiction – but you probably guessed that already. I wanted some like minded camaraderie while I write my novel “Eternity”, a quirky story set in the 1920’s. I felt at home at my new desk – I belonged. And to my astonishment I was taught some hard facts which fascinated me:

history noun. Known before 1393 as historie: story, legend, biography... borrowed from old French histoire, and old Latin historia meaning narrative, account, tale, story...” - Chamber’s Dictionary of Etymology.

So it seems the word history evolved from the words for stories. The first historians were story tellers – history began with story-telling. History is the subject of the story teller.

In the same way Chamber’s Dictionary of Etymology cites the same Latin word “historia” in the history of the word “story”, and also cites “probably before 1200—storie historical narrative or writing”.

I now have a much clearer understanding of who I am and why. I love history, and I love stories – both reading and telling. I loved history because of my love for stories. I’m attracted to feature article writing because I love telling stories – true stories in that instance. This blog is in a sense a story – the story of life’s journey. My love for history doesn’t belong in academia, dissecting the facts and interpreting the “witness statements” in the same way as I would have done when a reluctant lawyer. I’m more than capable of doing that, but it will never make me happy. My love for history belongs in the stories, taking that interpretation one stage further, and making it live again. Had I lived in a by – gone age, I would have been one of those early story tellers of history. In a sense when we write the news and feature articles today, we are creating historical documents – telling stories which will become the history of the future. A love of history and a love of story-telling share the same roots, and those roots are inside of me – with many stems.

My own character drew me to all the separate disciplines necessary for telling good stories – the English language, history and psychology. Following my loves led me to the thing I was born to do. For the first time ever I relished completing my homework – a Victorian short story involving a cellar, a fife and a dead housemaid... a Victorian story based on real reported facts.

What were you born to do? Have your own instincts led you there? Why not leave a comment and share your story? My readers and I would love to hear from you – you know we love stories!

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1 comment:

Ellephantastic said...

As you know it was my ME that lead me back to my first love drawing and other crafts. I also always enjoyed a good story. Maybe because we were read to every night as kids? At school i hated history especially in secondary school. Now Im totally fascinated like you about the stories surrounding both Elizabeth and Victoria. I love reading you posts. You're inspiring me to do and be more :-) xx