What is history really about?

26th September 1997 at 01:00
IN DEFENCE OF HISTORY, By Richard J Evans, Granta Pounds 15.99

Rarely does a dust-jacket snapshot of an author tell us as much as that on this book. In place of the usual smart suit and strained smile, we encounter Cambridge's Professor of Modern History glowering at the camera in a crumpled, open-necked, shirt; the warning implicit in the picture is that this is a tough man on a serious mission - to rescue his discipline from the attacks of contemporary postmodernists. So what do we find when we deconstruct Richard Evans's text?

The answer is an old-fashioned, liberal humanist with a soft spot for Marx, well grounded in modern social and political history and recent debates about the nature of the subject, and with a good memory of those between Tudor and Stuart specialists of a generation ago.

It is enough equipment to do the job, and he undertakes it with gusto, writing in a style lucid and vivacious enough to make the most abstruse philosophical arguments interesting (and intelligible) to the average school student.

In general he employs against the recent critics of history the simple tactic of showing that they do not practise what they preach. They passionately advocate self-reflexivity in others without applying it to themselves. They cast doubt on the value of source material yet meticulously footnote their own work. They demand rigorous analysis of professional practice while themselves confusing theory and method, and being highly selective in their use of evidence. They declare that all theories are equally valid, but somehow expect readers to prefer theirs.

On the positive side of his argument, Evans makes a powerful case, supported by constant use of example, for the independence of source material and the potential for objectivity in the historian.

Much of the fun of the book, however, is that it is not just about abstractions; it's personal.The two foremost British proponents of postmodern arguments against the viability of writing history are Keith Jenkins and Beverley Southgate. Evans fights dirty enough to remind Jenkins that he has never actually had a job in a university (the suggestions being that envy plays a part in his attitudes) and to wonder what Southgate's colleagues in the history department of the University of Hertfordshire make of this apparent comtempt for their teaching methods.

As the dust-jacket photograph warned, Evans is (at least here) a scholar but not a gentleman. There are some wickedly entertaining moments when the elders of the profession get caught out: Arthur Marwick boasting about academic sophistication and then gushing fatuously about the nature of beauty; E H Carr taking as his classic example of a historical fact an event which is probably a fiction. Theodore Zeldin urging young historians to develop "their own vision, their own eccentricities". Evans replies: "Eccentric people, one might argue, produce eccentric history", before proceeding to illustrate the point from Zeldin's own work.

Sometimes the laughs are cheap: Diane Purkiss may indeed mention herself 88 times in the first four pages of her book The Witch in History, but the rest of the volume is devoted to witches. It is hardly fair to fault a scholar for practising just that self-relexivity which most of her postmodernist colleagues are accused of forgetting. Evans's own politics show through the skin of his prose, without any acknowledgement on his part, in a manner which exemplifies the complaints of those who question the possibility of writing objective history.

In the end, it is Evans's generosity of vision, rather than his bitchiness, which scores. He pleads well for the notion that historical studies cover such a broad range of practices that different historians are bound to operate in different ways.

He also celebrates the benefits of postmodernism for his profession: a much extended and enriched field of interests, a reinstatement of history as entertaining literature, and a closer analysis of sources and methods.

This book will probably start a nasty row among theorists, while being received with delight by the majority of teachers of history, at all levels, who will feel reassured that, in all senses, time is on their side after all.

Ronald Hutton is professor of history at the University of Bristol

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