I’m beginning this blog with a very self-indulgent story. If you’re not interested, do feel free to skip the next four paragraphs.
From 2008-9, I embarked on my final “learning for fun” quest, in undertaking, for no particular reason, a Masters in History. I suppose I had loved History at GCSE, and had found few Literature Masters I liked the look of. Truthfully, after four years of stamina reading, I had almost forgotten what reading for enjoyment felt like, and rather wanted to recapture this by fasting from fiction for a short while.
In the long summer between my degree ending and this beginning, I took advantage of my enviably jammy job (theatre box office clerk; the quiet days meant luxurious hours of sneaky reading – sorry to all my managers who told me not to) to read all about a section of history I had never studied before.
I had lived in Ireland for four years, choosing to study in a country lacking in tuition fees (yay!) and student loans (at least for foreigners like me). In my studies and in the many, many jobs I had (such multi-tasking certainly pulled me through my Teach First interview) I had noticed that Irish people (warning: massive generalization coming up) seemed to be much more invested in their history than my English contemporaries. I wondered if this might be partly due to our lack of focus on the history of our own country; or perhaps that history is not compulsory after year 9. I was continually struck in Ireland by the omnipresence of history, and woefully underinformed about the country I had started to call my home.
In my pursuit of an understanding of Irish history, I mostly have the staff of Hodges Figgis to thank. I mean, I was on first-name terms with most of the booksellers in that store; something my new Amazon addiction makes me mournful of. I fumbled blindly in pursuit of even a basic knowledge of that country’s history, and with the help of Hodges Figgis (Dawson Street, Dublin 2) began the course with a more than cursory understanding of it.
What this laborious exercise taught me was the power of self-learning, something I advocate from time to time in my own classroom. The amount we can learn simply by reading, once we have acquired higher levels of literacy, is astonishing. I sought to contextualise my new historical fascination, and even managed to branch out from my country of specialism.
The mighty Hodges Figgis
Yet history isn’t just about places and names and acts. It is also about culture. One of my favourite books is a history book; Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance explores the highlights of Russian culture (including literature, but also music, dance and drama) in the context of its social and political history. Coupled with an exquisite writing style, I would highly recommend this book for anyone even faintly interested in anything to do with Russia.
In my English degree, my most loved lecturer, Dr. Amanda Piesse (Renaissance drama – and no, that didn’t mean very much Shakespeare) talked about New Historicism: the influence of history on a text, but also of a text on history. This pervasive idea in literary criticism strikes me as one very crucial reason that we should all be readers of history.
Far be it for me to expostulate on what a National Curriculum should and should not contain, but should someone more qualified than I suggest a compulsory study of History from the beginning of primary to the end of secondary, I would very much be in favour of this for our budding literary critics.
The purpose of literature is not only decorative; it is also educative. We read not for pure escapism; we read to inhabit other minds, other places and other times. If we are interested and delighted by fiction, we may also find interest and delight in history. We find story-telling not only in fiction.
Our children deserve a broad and balanced curriculum. Can you study literature without history? Can you study literature without Classics? Well, of course you can. But is it as good?