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Understanding history is easier if it’s personal

I’ve always had trouble remembering the exact (or even approximate) dates when it comes to the big events of history.

When I read a passage in a textbook at school, my eyes used to glaze over when I read about a significant date hundreds of years ago, or even relatively recently.

Even last year when I was lucky enough to travel to Europe, and I made a concerted effort to understand when the gladiators fought at the Colosseum or Julius Caesar walked the streets of the Roman Forum, the numbers remained slippery.

Clearly, I am not someone why can learn history by numbers.

It is a completely different matter when it comes to the more personal side of history. Last night I lay in bed to read Jane Austen’s Persuasion and found there was an introduction describing Jane’s life and the world she inhabited.

I looked forward to learning more about the time in which Jane and her family lived in the novel. While it is a work of fiction, I expect to gain a whole new understand of the social mores and lifestyles in this part of England in the early 1800s by reading Austen’s work.

Similarly, I recently read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and loved immersing myself in New York society in the 1870s. Watching the movie only enhances the understanding of the life of the time, including the ornate dresses worn to the opera and the drawing rooms where heirachy of New York’s elite was established and maintained.

In Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, it is possible to recognise the beauty of the canals, but glimpsed through the eyes of an ageing writer sunning himself on a lido and watching children in the bathing costumes of the early 1900s.

I love how these novels are genuine artefacts of their time. The language that is used reflects the actual way that people spoke and wrote at the time – it is almost as if people who lived hundreds of years ago can speak directly to us of their lives and concerns.

I can’t help but feel privileged to have the opportunity to be invited into this world by one who was there.

It can also be fascinating to hear about a time from someone who was there; while these books might have been written after the time, it can still evoke the feelings and experience in a way that is difficult to grasp in a less personal history.

I was stricken by the reality of Heather Morris’s Three Women – a book about three sisters’ experience of the Holocaust – when I heard the voice of one of the sisters who had told her story to the author.

I couldn’t believe that this extraordinary story of survival could be true, yet here was one of the women attesting to its truth and accuracy. Historical fiction allowed the reader to enter this woman’s life and learn about her experiences in a way that is hard to emulate in any other way.

Fiction has also provided me with a whole new understanding of the opioid epidemic that crippled parts of the US, through Barbera Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead and the television series, Dopesick. No matter how many articles I read on the problem, I could not have grasped the reality of the time without these fictionalised accounts.

I remember gaining a similar understanding of The Emergency in India through A Fine Balance, and of the poverty of working class Glasgow in the 1980s in Shuggie Bain.

Not only do these stories help make the reader aware of a time or event, but they also, crucially, can make them care.

I knew and cared little about post-revolutionary Russia, I was fascinated by the events depicted in Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. I’m certain I wouldn’t be the only reader introduced to, and interested in, this time in history as a result of Towles’ novel.

Interestingly, I have even learnt far more from a book about an event that was far closer to home and in my own time, through Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist. Even very recent history can become clearer when it is seen and interpreted through the eyes of a writer. Again, the personal perspective gives away far more than a date or an article in the newspaper.

I’m looking forward to finding out more about Regency England – along with the very readable story that Austen is known for – in Persuasion. Just don’t blame me if I entirely forget the year in which it all took place.

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