The intimate lives of individuals give a truer understanding of history than social theories, argues Amanda Foreman

“Great abilities are not requisite for a historian” declared Dr. Johnson. “Imagination is not required in any high degree.” Well, he may be right about historians. But he is wrong about history. It is all about imagination. Knowing the rate of inflation during the Elizabethan era is less interesting, and arguably less important, than understanding why Elizabeth clung to her virginity. If that sounds like a posh way of saying “it all boils down to sex,” then so be it.

There are two kinds of history; micro-research by the professional academic and the broader, narrative kind generally written for profit. It’s a pity there is so much mutual contempt between the camps since it is not a zero-sum game. One does not exist at the expense of the other, although the members of both camps sometimes behave as if that were the case. They almost never overlap, and there is no reason why they should. Micro-research the kind that produces “Sunday school reform in Lincolnshire, 1845-47” lays the foundation for narrative history. It is also the best defence against the sweeping orthodoxies which try to force the past into some theoretical straitjacket.

But what micro-history cannot do is explore the human side of history. It has no concept of the emotional or spiritual journeys which form the basis of our existence. I was criticised in some quarters for giving equal weight in my biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire to her love life and domestic traumas. But I never set out to do anything else. The real interest for me, and I believe for most people, lies where hidden motivations are revealed in public actions. Take that away and you have a list of facts.

I have never attended an academic seminar where the speaker didn’t send someone off to sleep. And, to be blunt, most history textbooks read like car manuals only without the practical interest. The problem with much of academic history is that it’s boring. It lacks drama and humanity, and is therefore without meaning for most people. So-called popular history, on the other hand, deliberately seeks to exploit both. The emphasis is on bringing the subject home to the reader, on making it real.

It doesn’t have to be about sex by any means, but the historian does have to make the subject come to life. This is what Antony Beevor`s heartbreaking Stalingrad does so well. It portrays the suffering of the Russian and German armies during the year-long siege in an epic, Tolstoyan manner. Readers of Stalingrad find themselves making a forced-march journey with the author.

But it is no coincidence that much popular history is about sex. It is a rare biography that does not contain a frank investigation into the subject’s private life. One doesn’t need to be a Freudian to notice the obsessive and ominipresent dominance of sex in modern society. But many historians, including myself, would argue that there has never been a time when sex in all its incarnations didn`t play a significant role in society. Of course people are interested in all aspects of human sexual behaviour, from the psychological to the physical. Nor does it matter that the interest is partly narcissistic learning about the private lives of others is a good way of gaining perspective about oneself.

The people who often understand this best are historical novelists and dramatists. They reverse the emphasis so that history becomes the backdrop to human drama. Critics have accused writers who novelise historical events, such as Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer, of turning history into one long sexy romance. Yet Heyer was far more successful in conveying the flavour of 18th-century society than most professional historians of her day. Even now, social histories of Regency high society contain little that an avid reader of Heyer wouldn`t have gleaned from her novels.

Plaidy had a similar knack for conjuring up a sense of time and place. She also knew that a good story is nothing without its human interest factor. Women writers like her, for that is what they tend to be, rescue the past and make it present. They give life to figures in portraits who would otherwise languish. So what if they do it through sex?

After all, history has one distinct advantage over fiction; it is real. The dramas actually took place, something which cannot fail to confer a particular intensity to any story. The Tudors, for example, wouldn`t look out of place in a Greek tragedy or on the front page of a tabloid. They exhibit a broad range of the darker passions; lust, jealousy, anger, fear, fanaticism. They mete out and endure great suffering: sexual abuse, betrayal and even murder. Indeed, they make the most lurid soap opera seem tame, yet they are “just like us”. The “just like us” aspect resides in the sex and drama. The Tudors seem alien or similar depending on how closely they conform to contemporary behaviour. Good history uses the comfort of the similar to explore the differences between societies.

Recently there has been a spate of biographies, novels and films with a Tudor theme. Last year, Peter Ackroyd’s biography The Life of Thomas More dominated the Sunday Times’s bestseller lists for weeks. But it is the enigmatic Queen Elizabeth, who has received most attention, previously in the biopic Elizabeth, starring Kate Blanchett, now in Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love.

It goes without saying that love and romance play a large part in both films. The makers of Elizabeth had no qualms in portraying her as a passionately physical woman who reluctantly became “the virgin queen” because Tudor society wouldn`t otherwise accept her. Most historians would reject such a claim. The Tudor period does not have many certainties, but one of them is that Elizabeth did not have illicit sex after she became queen.

“My life is in the open” she once complained. “I have so many witnesses”. If an army of spies from every court in Europe could not find any evidence of sexual activity, the director Shekhar Kapur’s unsupported assertion to the contrary will not change the record.

But, as Shakespeare’s own history cycles demonstrate, historical dramas do not necessarily require strict accuracy to convey the truth they just need to be true in spirit. Shakespeare in Love, starring Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as his muse, has a premise which is pure fantasy. A real Elizabethan Gwyneth Paltrow would not have got within 10ft of a public stage. Yet, like Elizabeth, the film contains a dramatic truth which resonates with modern audiences, particularly women. Both films have strong feminist themes. Elizabeth is about the seeming impossibility for a woman to hold a position of note and yet retain her femininity. It is something which many contemporary women who have felt forced to choose between their careers and motherhood can understand.

Robert Cecil lamented that Elizabeth’s dilemma twisted and scarred her character. She became “more than a man and, in truth, something less than a woman”. The film illustrates this in the penultimate scene when Blanchett destroys her looks by covering her face in white powder and cutting off her hair. In fact, Elizabeth always used a whitening lotion made from egg whites, powdered eggshell, poppy seeds, borax and alum, because she disliked her swarthy complexion. Nor did she substitute red wigs for her real hair until the colour started to go. However, the details are less important that the broad brush strokes. The film conveys a profound reflection of societal misogyny which no flow chart or examination of Lancashire women’s dowries in the 1580s could ever capture.

George Steiner wrote not long ago: “A cultivation of trained, shared remembrance sets a society in natural touch with its own past. What matters even more, it safeguards the core of individuality. What is committed to memory …. constitutes the ballast of the self.”

It is essential that each generation has access to the thoughts and feelings of previous generations. In order to do this, in spite of what Johnson said, the historian has no choice but to trust to his imaginative sympathy. Deeds and actions have no real meaning without the knowledge of what motivated them. More than a century ago, the poet Ralph Emerson recognised that history was the unravelling of events into its human constituents. “There is properly no history” he wrote, “only biography.” Elizabeth’s reign, for example, can be abstracted into 100 different components. But shared remembrance only happens in societies which share the same historical narrative.

In Elizabeth’s case it is the story of why she became the virgin queen. In every case it is the inclusion of the personal with the public.

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