The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
‘Year books’ may be trendy – but they dumb down history
Simon Heffer laments the rise and rise of volumes that reduce history to isolated snapshots of a single year
At the opening of his book 1599, James Shapiro explains that it is about the year in which Shakespeare completed Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It, and made the first draft of Hamlet. But this 2005 study is also about what else was going on in the British Isles in that year, the 41st of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I: an Irish rebellion, a new attempt by a Spanish Armada to attack the country, and the rise of the East India Company.
Shapiro argues that for someone who routinely taught Shakespeare’s plays, as he did before writing 1599, he ought to have known more of the background against which they were written. It certainly was a combustible time, and Shakespeare would need to have been a peculiarly isolated figure if the events that affected England did not have some bearing on his work. But the same is true in reverse. As someone who also writes history, I find that the main political events are illuminated, or at least cast into some relief, by discussing the cultural achievements of the same period. Otherwise history becomes one-dimensional and inaccurate. Different contemporaneous events do not exist in vacuums separate from each other.
The broader question raised by Shapiro’s book is how effective the study of an individual year is in enlightening people about history. Shapiro’s 1599, the first of his two books on Shakespeare’s life and times (the other looked at 1606, when he wrote King Lear), is nominated for this week’s Baillie Gifford Winner of Winners Award, which celebrates the best of 25 years of the non-fiction prize. It is one of two such nominees out of six, the second being the rather questionablytitled Paris 1919 by Margaret Macmillan: when this book originally appeared in 2001, it was called Peacemakers, being about the Versailles conference, but it too now follows the commercial line of naming itself after the year
in which the events took place.
In recent decades, there have been many more of these books: Eric Cline’s 1177 BC, Giusto Traina’s 428 AD, Valerie Hansen’s The Year 1000, Charles Mann’s 1491, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s 1492, Ray Huang’s 1587, Rebecca Rideal’s 1666, John Willis’s 1688, Charles Emmerson’s 1913, any number of books on 1914, David Stevenson’s 1917 and his With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918
(a year that also inspired several other authors), Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius: 1922, Robert Kee on 1939, Richard Overy on the same, and Peter Caddick-Adams on 1945 – to name but a few. In an age when publishers find the serious but easily digestible history book commercially attractive, presenting a year as the subject matter, rather than an event, a person or a movement, offers novice readers something easily digestible and comprehensible.
Shapiro, fortunately, does not strictly confine himself to 1599. He sets the scene for Shakespeare’s annus mirabilis by describing some of the events that preceded it: the development of his company of players, his canon, the London theatres where his work was put on, and the death of his son Hamnet. Similarly, Christopher Clark’s Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849, one of the history books of this year so far, may ostensibly focus on a period of a little more than 12 months, but in fact it devotes much space and detail to the events of the 1830s and early 1840s that pitched Europe into a revolutionary temper by early 1848. Rightly so: Clark’s book would not otherwise be able to tell the story, or interpret the events, correctly and comprehensibly.
History is a continuum, and if describing the sense of that continuum is to be done accurately, it needs context going beyond a few months. Take two of the most important years in English history, 1066 and 1914. Neither happened out of the blue. A book on the former could certainly concentrate on Harold Godwinson – how he won at Stamford Bridge but then found himself beaten at Hastings. But it would also need to trace the reign and death of Edward the Confessor and why there was an uncertain succession, which would need to go back to at least 1042 and possibly further, while to give an accurate picture of the Normans, you would need to begin in early 10th-century Norway. So the best that can be offered in a 12-month survey is a snapshot within a vaster context.
That said, some years work
– just about – when it comes to presenting history. This is either because they are relatively
self-contained in terms of the events they describe (1665 and the Great Plague or 1666 and the Great Fire of London), or because the changes they describe happen over a relatively short period. Hence the popularity of 1914 in British history: the old, Victorian “liberal England” is transformed into a land of near total war from summer to late autumn. Although books detailing the causes of that war can start with the AustroHungarian annexation of Bosnia in 1908 – or the Congress of Berlin in 1878, or the proclamation of the Second Reich in 1871, or the 1866 conflict between Prussia and Austria – Britain went from regarding the events following Franz Ferdinand’s assassination as a regrettable local difficulty to an international nightmare in about eight days at the end of that July.
Still, in our own history, a book on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 might need to start with the Restoration of 1660, or the execution of Charles I in 1649, or the Union of the Crowns in 1603, or the death of Bloody Mary in 1558, or the death of Edward VI in 1553, or the establishment of the Church of England in 1534, or Martin Luther’s nailing his theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517, or the death of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s elder brother, in 1502, which propelled to the throne an adulterer who used the Reformation to obtain a divorce, or for that matter the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, which put the Tudor dynasty in power. It illustrates that history is a continuum – and, indeed, any of
History is so addictive to read, and to write, because one thing always leads to another
the 10 years I have just listed could be made into a book on its own, with a claim to be pivotal. The claim would be both true and false: pivotal these years are in their own right, yes, but they are contingent on other pivots before them to achieve the significance they did.
Shapiro’s work on 1599, like his book 1606, is meticulously researched and history of the highest quality, and for all we know it might well become the Baillie Gifford Winner of Winners this week – but it is just another brick in the wall. Some of us find history so addictive to read, and to write, because one thing inevitably leads to another. It can be served up in convenient chunks for an audience that, happily, is growing – the more people who know some history the better, provided the history they know is accurately told – but it is to delude that audience if they are to be persuaded to swallow the notion that it comes in easily demarcated compartments. It doesn’t, it never has, and it never will.