I have been asked a deceptively simple question about this blog: ‘is it the truth?’
This is one of those questions which it is much easier to ask than to answer. Historians have struggled about how to write history since the dawn of time.
Fact in history
A common rhetorical cliché states, “History is written by the winners“. This phrase suggests but does not examine the use of facts in the writing of history.
E. H. Carr in his 1961 volume, What is History?, argues that the inherent biases from the gathering of facts makes the objective truth of any historical perspective idealistic and impossible.
“Study the historian before you begin to study the facts… When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.”
My use of facts in this blog
Thomas Gradgrind said ‘Fact, fact, fact – you are never to fancy’. But Alice said ‘What’s the use of a book without pictures or conversations?’ A wise ‘Anon’ said: ‘A historian is someone who has more imagination than a statistician, but less than a poet’. That sounds like the golden mean to aim for.
But in order to make bricks, you need straw. If there is little straw (or few facts) available, then you either abandon the attempt or construct what you can with the material available.
Our main aim on this website is to identify and document the lives of those on the roll of honour. We are attempting to write the closest approximation to ‘the truth’ that we can, given the facts available to us. Having said that, we admit that the objective truth is an elusive target.
A subsidiary, but important, aim is to make the result interesting and appealing to read.
Some, or if we are very lucky, all of the following may be available:
Birth, marriage and death records. Census records. Property ownership and map records. Trade directories. Telephone directories. Professional directories. Genealogical records. War Office and Admiralty records, ranging from very brief medal cards to full service papers and pension records. Extracts from newspapers. Other material in National Archives and Hampshire Record Office.
Ask yourself whether an account of your own lives based solely on these records would provide a true picture of you. I suggest that it might provide information that was true, and nothing but the truth, but that it would be a very one-dimensional portrait.
In most posts it is apparent where I am writing from my imagination – for example I have no documentary evidence of what anyone was thinking on any particular day. Where it is not obvious what the source of my information is, I will normally include this in a note at the end of the post.
If you have a question about the source of anything in the posts, please ask in the comments.
My primary aim is an act of homage to those who took part in the First World War.
My secondary aim is to interest as many people as possible in the history of this village and the people who lived here, and to stimulate further involvement and research.
My third aim is to produce a view of a large-scale international event seen through the eyes of a small community.
Using my knowledge of the Bourne Valley in particular, and life in general, I am attempting to depict the essence of the people I write about.
I draw inferences which seem reasonable from the facts of their lives. If someone has borne 14 children, of whom 6 died before adulthood, I infer that this is a source of unhappiness in her life.
More controversially, I suggest inferences about relationships based on the available facts. For example, the sisters-in-law Frances Selfe and Eleanor Black-Hawkins seem unlikely from their backgrounds to be kindred spirits and I am writing about them having made that judgement.
In the first case, I am confident that the inference is correct. In the second, I am aware that the judgement is more subjective but would plead se non è vero, è ben trovato.
But, whatever their angle, all historians are trying to describe the iceberg from what they can see above the water line, only able to guess at what lies below.
I think you make it pretty clear – without making it blindingly obvious – where you are making inferences, Laura. Richard Evans (in “In Defence of History”) makes distinctions between 3 types of approaches to historical information & historical writing, parallel to the potential attitudes of baseball/cricket umpires when they make decisions:
The 1st says: “It was out”
The 2nd says: “I think it was out”
The 3rd says: “It’s nothing until I call it!”
In essence there are no uninterpreted “facts” & no information without a context. Richard himself is an excellent example of a contemporary historian who writes attractive & persuasive narrative (i.e. stories like your own in this blog) and who makes distinctions between inferences (whether his own or those of others) and foundational information upon which those inferences – whether 1st- or 2nd-order – are based. He is also skilled at both generalist (including top-down) history – e.g. his trilogy on Nazi Germany – and close-read (often bottom-up) history – e.g. his masterpiece on cholera in Hamburg at the turn of the 19th century.
Don’t stop, and don’t worry about inquiries about the “truth” of what you are writing. I suggest accuracy, honesty & fluency are far more important 🙂
Thank-you very much for this, Simon. And thank-you for the link to Richard Evans, whose work I don’t know but obviously should and look forward to exploring. (I would particularly like to find someone who is writing the same degree of ‘faction’ as mine, with a degree of success!)
From subsequent off-blog comments from the friend who asked me the question about truth, I think what is really niggling at him is the thought that not all that I say is kind. On this point, I do plead guilty. He, you and I are all trying to live based on Christian principles and I admit that some of my remarks are less than charitable.
My favourite English writer is Jane Austen, and her character whom I probably most resemble is Emma, said to be based on Jane herself. She was unkind to Miss Bates, as I suppose I am being, or am likely to be before the blog is finished. My only defence is that Emma’s Miss Bates was alive to feel the jibe, whereas my subjects are not.
Also there is the greatest good of greatest number defence – but I admit this is possibly morally dubious!
I suppose it boils down to the question, will the world be (infinitesimally!) better off or worse off if I continue? My answer would be, while mindful of the moral pitfalls, I am writing in the hope and belief that the world will be better off.
*Definitely* better off, Laura 🙂
Thank-you, I shall hold on to that endorsement :>)
You cannot please all the people all the time Laura. Keep going
I think this is a good lesson to bear in mind. I must ‘man up’ – why does it sound funny to say ‘woman up’?!