Walter Scott at 250: so much more than a great historical novelist

Ulmus Media/Shutterstock

Daniel Cook, University of Dundee

Wander through Edinburgh and you will find glimpses of Scotland’s most famous novelist, Walter Scott, everywhere: pubs named after characters or places in his books, his walking cane and slippers in The Writers’ Museum, and snippets of his work adorning the walkways of Waverley train station – named after his first and most famous novel. And just outside, towering over Princes Street Gardens, his statue stands beneath an elaborate monument affectionately dubbed the “Gothic Rocket”.

Built in 1840, eight years after his death at the age of 61, the Scott Monument captures the immense regard in which Scotland held this international bestselling writer and son of Edinburgh. Scott’s adventurous historical stories, set against a dramatic backdrop of brooding mountains, dark lochs and lush glens, brought a vision of Scotland to the world that captured the popular imagination. The gripping tale of the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy has never been out of print since it was published in 1817.

As his friendly rival Jane Austen once quipped, Scott had two careers in literature. He quickly became Europe’s most famous poet in 1805 with the immediate success of his first narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, the tale of two lovers on opposite sides of a clad feud.

A 1810 book-length versification of King James V’s struggles with the powerful clan Douglas, The Lady of the Lake would have secured his legacy on its own. Selling 25,000 copies in eight months, it broke records for poetry sales and brought its setting, the picturesque Loch Katrine and the Trossachs, to the attention of a fledgling tourism industry.

Stunning winter view of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs from the summit of Ben A'an
Scott’s most famous poem Lady of the Lake is set around Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, and drew people to the area.

Big fat novels

Scott also wrote songs and collected ballads for posterity, but after the success of his poetry, he turned to novel writing in his 40s. For nearly 20 years he produced a series of fat novels, which spread his reputation around the globe further still. Although dabbling in the gothic and picaresque styles popular at the time, Scott favoured historical themes, not only set in Scotland but also England, France, Syria and elsewhere, as far back as the 11th century.

Nobody before Scott had devoted so much space to Scottish characters and interests, on such a massive scale – not even 18th-century novelist and poet Tobias Smollett. Scott traversed the Scotland of 14th-century Perthshire and the Highlands of 1745, and gave a voice to the lairds and rustics alike.

Picture of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh under a bright blue winter's sky.
Edinburgh’s Scott Monument.

These days, Scott’s writing has fallen out of fashion thanks in part to the sheer length of the novels. Arguably his best, The Heart of Midlothian still packs an emotional punch: Jeanie Deans walks from Edinburgh to London to obtain a royal pardon for her sister awaiting execution for the alleged murder of her baby. But, in keeping with the drawn-out journey, the story does suffer from slow pacing.

Waverley, Scott’s exploration of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, lends itself to political as much as literary analysis. And while it delivers stunning set pieces, some of them featuring Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, its first few chapters drag a little. But Scott rewards loyal readers with rich historical detail and sublime settings.

Master of the short story

Fortunately for the casual reader, Scott was more than a novelist. He was also a master of the short story, and wrote 17 or so shorter fictions, many of which have been all but ignored by scholars who prioritise the major novels. Five of his best short pieces can now be read for free online.

Scott contributed at least two stories to Blackwood’s Magazine, the leading literary periodical in Edinburgh: The Alarming Increase of Depravity Among Animals and Phantasmagoria. The first is a sort of true-crime animal fable in which animals are complicit in wrongdoing; the second, a bizarre Gothic pastiche in which the narrator (a sentient shadow) is far more interesting than the benign story it offers.

Another, Wandering Willie’s Tale, is delivered by a blind piper, revolving around the grisly death of a despotic laird and some missing money. A hellish underworld, a demonic monkey, a blatantly biased narrator: such things make the story wildly unpredictable – and far removed from the grand jousts and royal intrigues found in his historical novels.

The Tapestried Chamber is an ingenious ghost story in which the ghost barely features, but it still sends shivers down the spine, such is Scott’s gift for building atmosphere through dialogue. Where novels seek closure, typically with happy endings, short stories can leave plotlines unresolved. Novels comfort us, short stories can confront.

Although Scott is rarely thought of as a short story writer today, in 1827 he did produce a collection of short fiction, Chronicles of the Canongate, in which two standout pieces merit a wide audience: The Two Drovers and The Highland Widow. Here, Scott is perhaps at his most political, in the real sense: focused not on battles and courts but on everyday life.

The first follows a Highlander and a Yorkshireman on their journey south into an increasingly hostile environment. Initially their cultural differences are countered by a mutual love of music. But, tired of the casual xenophobia thrown at him, the Highlander kills his colleague. The suddenness of the act startles the reader, especially those used to the slower pacing of the novels.

The Highland Widow captures the conflicted mood of a young lad who, seeking better fortune, enlists in the Black Watch to the fury of his staunchly Gaelic mother. Drugging her son so he misses his appointment, she dooms him to military execution, and herself to a hermit-like existence. Although written in a sentimental style popular at the time, the story finds much to say about national tensions, military occupation, and cultural conflict in the lives of post-Union Scots.

For the modern reader Scott’s short stories are far bleaker than you might imagine, and they are all the more riveting for it. Gothic rocket indeed.The Conversation

Daniel Cook, Reader in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature, University of Dundee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize Longlist

The link below is to an article reporting on the longlist for the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize.

For more visit:

Five historical romances to escape into during a pandemic

Sorrow and Song by Edmund Blair Leighton.
Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives, CC BY-NC

Diana Wallace, University of South Wales

Georgette Heyer kept only one fan letter. It was from a Romanian political prisoner who had raised her cell-mates’ spirits over a 12-year incarceration by retelling the story of Heyer’s Friday’s Child.

“Truly,” she wrote, “your characters managed to awaken smiles, even when hearts were heavy, stomachs empty and the future dark indeed!”

In times of stress, many of us crave a little light relief and, ideally, a happy ending. During the second world war, readers turned to historical romance for a past which seemed more colourful than the dreary present of restrictions and rationing. A young war-worker told the Mass Observation organisation, which recorded everyday experience, that she liked “books dealing with some costume period when smugglers had the rule of the seas. I like books to take me into another world far from the realities of this one”.

This is a genre in which women have excelled, particularly in the 20th century. Indeed, by the mid-20th century the historical novel had become so associated with female writers and readers of “costume romance” that the entire genre was dismissed by critics as merely escapist. It was not until the 1990s that historical fiction began to be taken seriously again.

And yet, as is so often the case with genre fiction, historical novelists have used formulaic plots and tropes to disguise controversial material and smuggle it past the censors.

As during the second world war, we are once again facing a period of great upheaval and as such our reading habits have changed to reflect that. A recent survey found that we are reaching for books that offer comfort in their formulaic narratives.

Historical romance allows us a space of relief from present worries but these novels are more than just escapism. While their narrative arcs may be familiar, they also ask still-crucial questions about the politics of gender, sexuality, class and nationhood.

Here are five great examples:

The Masqueraders (1928) by Georgette Heyer

The Masqueraders book jacket.


Considered the inventor of the Regency romance, Heyer is admired for her authentic period detail. A superb stylist (she described her prose as a mixture of Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson), she is also a brilliant comic writer. The Masqueraders is one of her most engaging novels, not just for the entanglements that ensue when a brother and sister swap clothes to avoid detection as escaped Jacobites but also because it poses questions about gender identity which resonate today. Reading it you may wonder to what extent is gender a matter of costume, a masquerade which we all perform.

Frenchman’s Creek (1941) by Daphne du Maurier

Book jacket of Frenchman's Creek.


My copy is now yellowed with age but each time I dip into it I am transported to Restoration Cornwall and the lush green-shadowed enchantments of a hidden creek in midsummer where a pirate ship is anchored in secret. Just shy of her 30th birthday, Dona St Columb slips away from her husband and children and dresses as a cabin boy to go adventuring with her French pirate lover. Written during war-time, du Maurier’s novel evokes an imagined past as a space of freedom for women who can escape their restrictive domestic responsibilities only “for a night and for a day”.

The Lymond Chronicles (1961-75) by Dorothy Dunnett

Book Jack for The Game of Kings.
The first book from The Lymond Chronicles.

For anyone who has more time to read during lockdown, Dunnett’s six-volume series offers the pleasures of a vast historical canvas stretching across sixteenth-century Europe from Scotland to Russia and North Africa. Genre fiction often allows women writers to ventriloquise male characters and Francis Crawford of Lymond, a charismatic but troubled young Scottish nobleman, is a hero of quicksilver complexity and many disguises. As he negotiates the power politics of Europe, particularly the fractious relationship between Scotland and England, Dunnett traces the beginnings of the modern world in the building of nation-states and the development of new art and culture.

Tipping the Velvet (1998) by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet UK cover


In this subversively sexy picaresque novel set in 1890s London, Waters exploited the conventions of historical romance to slip a lesbian love story into the mainstream. Her appealing narrator Nan King is a working-class oyster girl from Whitstable who becomes a music hall “masher” or male impersonator, then a rent boy and finally the kept “tart” of a wealthy socialite before she finds happiness among a group of socialists. Intelligent, witty and stylish, the novel reimagines a lost lesbian history through vivid sensual detail, evocative period slang (the title is a sexual euphemism) and a satisfyingly complex plot.

The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) by Philippa Gregory

Book cover of The Other Boleyn Girl.


This was the novel which ignited our current passion for the Tudors and recovered the story of Mary Boleyn, mistress to Henry VIII before her more famous sister Anne married him. With two heroines Gregory can negotiate one of the most tricky elements of historical romance: the fact that with “real” historical figures we already know the ending (and who doesn’t know that Anne Boleyn had her head cut off?). The heart of this often contentious novel is the relationship between the two sisters as they choose different ways to negotiate the dangers of the Tudor court and decide whether to marry for ambition or love.The Conversation

Diana Wallace, Professor of English LIterature, University of South Wales

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Dancing the Death Drill’: historical fiction that tells us about today

File 20170728 1117 152dd5p
The Mendi shown here in pre-war days in use as a mail ship.
Courtesy of the John Gribble Collection

Manosa Nthunya, University of the Witwatersrand

In his keynote speech at the recent South African Sunday Times Literary Awards the novelist, Zakes Mda, said that “we write historical fiction to take history to the level of what was it like to be in what happened”. Mda said that as a historical novelist, he writes,

historical fiction to grapple with the present. Great historical fiction is more about the present than it is about the past.

This is a truism that has always informed, I suspect, most practitioners of historical fiction. It is one not different for Fred Khumalo in his latest novel, “Dancing the Death Drill”. Although Khumalo says that he wrote the novel in order to remember black South African soldiers who played a role in World War 1, and those who perished in the SS Mendi ship, this is equally a novel about the present, and the ills that continue to bedevil the country.

While doing his early education, Khumalo’s protagonist tells his teacher, Madame Christine, that,

I want to be a voyager, I want to travel on ships, I want to discover new places, engage in long conversations with strangers, play with ideas, experiment with things.

This is obviously a mind of a precocious teenager; curious about the world and intent in finding out more about it. But this precocity is, inevitably, also naïve. The young Roelof de la Rey, who subsequently changes his name to Pitso Motaung (after he is deserted by his white Afrikaner father), is unfortunately still somewhat unaware that his desire to travel, and meet new people, can never be easily realised due to the sociopolitical landscape that he finds himself in in the early twentieth century.

As Pitso becomes an adult, he begins to realise that there are a lot of things that he has to deal with and that have to do with his identity and how people react to him because of it. He finds himself constantly having to confront the fact that contrary to his desires of only wanting to belong to the Sesotho-speaking tribe, that he is instead seen as a coloured person and consequently treated in this manner in colonial South Africa.

He in fact says to someone, as he does several times in the novel, that,

if you ever call me a coloured person or a mixed-race person, I shall make you swallow your faith, I am Pitso, the son of Motaung. The roaring cub of the Bataung people.

Dominant discourses of the day

It however becomes increasingly clear to Pitso that to be in the world is to be marked and that people’s perceptions of you are dependent on the dominant discourses of the day. Thus against his will, and his constant desire to be regarded in his singularity, or as belonging to a group of his choice, he is forced to learn to accept the impossibility of this desire.

If Pitso’s ambitions, as stated earlier, are to travel and see the world, this does in fact happen. But as with most things in life, this happens by chance. Pitso and other young men hear from the South African government that they need to go and defend the British against Germany. They’re promised that if they do this, they will be well paid and that when they return to their country, the government will offer black people more freedoms than they currently enjoy.

It’s on this journey to France, in the SS Mendi troop ship, that Pitso and his countrymen encounter a crisis; the sinking of the ship, that was carrying 802 men of the South African Native Labour Corps, and the unimaginable suffering this brings. This was after colliding with a British merchant ship on 21 February 1917 – a total of 618 men drowned in the icy Atlantic.

It’s one of the tragic histories that is rarely spoken about in South Africa and the act of writing this novel, then, should be seen as an important archival project since it brings a repressed and difficult history into the spotlight.

A time rife with complexity

One of the strengths of Khumalo’s novel is that it shows the early twentieth century, similar to other times, as a time that was rife with complexity. This means that while a reader might expect the black soldiers in the novel to be portrayed as mere victims – without any agency – this is in fact not the case.

It is clear enough in the novel that Khumalo is deeply aware of time, and of the ways in which it shapes identity and one’s experience of the world. This does not however mean that those who were dispossessed did not also work to manipulate time in order to lessen their suffering. In the novel this is most clear when the ship starts sinking.

Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha starts preaching to his fellow soldiers that:

I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.

It’s from this that they start dancing the death drill,

Not crying, not panicking, not screaming at the approach of death. In Africa, even in the times of death, people celebrate. Death becomes a spectacular, moment of defiance, the defiance of death itself.

It’s with such understanding that the soldiers approach their unexpected catastrophe with grace. It’s reported that more than 600 black soldiers lost their lives when the ship sank. Pitso survives this tragedy and it’s his narrative that drives much of the plot after this event.

One of the obvious challenges of the times that we live in is that we are coming to the realisation that Hegel long taught us, which is that “we learn from history that we do not learn from history”.

What then, with this in mind, might be the purpose of historical fiction? Perhaps it’s not so much that there’s something to “learn” from it. Perhaps the goal is a much more humble and subtle one which is to recognise and pay tribute to lives that came before us.

The ConversationIn doing so to connect the past with the present and to allow readers to recognise how much of their lives have changed and unavoidably, to pay attention to the many things, and ills, that remain the same. “Dancing the Death Drill” is a fine glimpse into this turbulent historical period in South Africa’s calendar and what is done with this narrative, as the cliché goes, is entirely up to the living.

Manosa Nthunya, PhD Candidate, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Historians and novelists fight turf wars – let's flip the narrative

Christopher Kremmer, UNSW Australia

This article is the fourth in a series examining the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Read part one here, part two here and part three here.

We all love history. It helps us get our bearings, comforts us with the knowledge that we are part of the larger human narrative. But our love of history is often a jealous one that seeks to control the story and license those permitted to write it.

In 2006, at the height of the mudslinging that began when Kate Grenville allegedly claimed her novel The Secret River (2005) was a new form of historiography, historian Inga Clendinnen countered that the novelist’s only “binding contract” with their readers was “not to instruct or to reform, but to delight”.

The message was clear: if it’s reliable history you’re after, trust the experts (historians), not liberty-taking literary artists.

But is the line between truth and fiction really so clear when it comes to history? And if not, is there scope for historians and novelists to re-engage, with a view to learning from – rather than bludgeoning – each other?

It is difficult for many to imagine a solution to any practical difficulty arising from within the annals of literary theory. Yet the work of two great scholars with a literary bent – the late Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin, and the very much alive historian and critic Hayden White – provides scope for a rapprochement.

Let it be said immediately that a large measure of contention is a healthy thing in intellectual and public discourse. In a sense, that is the point that this reading of Bakhtin and White’s work on historiography seeks to make.

For White, historians should be more mindful of the effect their use of narrative storytelling techniques adapted from fiction can have on their non-fictional stories about the past. Narrativisation, in White’s words:

represents a mode of praxis which serves as the immediate base of all cultural activity … even of science itself. We are no longer compelled, therefore, to believe – as historians in the post-Romantic period had to believe – that fiction is the antithesis of fact (in the way that superstition or magic is the antithesis of science).

Put simply, a set of ten facts may be capable of sustaining a variety of meanings depending up how they are narrativised and interpreted. The facts of a long-lost past do not speak for themselves. Though the archive is rich, it is patchy in parts and full of lacunae. If we can’t know all the facts, how can we know the whole truth?

White resists the assertion that only historians have a legitimate role. Novelists, poets and playwrights too have a concern with observable events of the past, but unlike historians they also deal with “imagined, hypothetical and invented ones”. He calls neo-historical fiction “the dominant genre and mode of postmodernist writing”.

Openness to history’s failings and the possibilities of historical fiction is often associated with a kind of anti-historical nihilism ascribed to postmodernist thought.

A reading of White’s Tropics of Discourse (1985), in which he pillories Michel Foucault’s approach to history as an attempt “to destroy it as a discipline, as a mode of consciousness, and as a mode of (social) existence”, suggests this is not necessarily the case.

Celebrated critic David Lodge once suggested the work of Mikhail Bakhtin could provide a way out of the opposition between humanist and postmodernist thought.

Bakhtin challenged the structuralist concept of language as a system of signs, positing it instead as a social activity in which the meaning of words is generated in the flux of human polyphony.

Along the way, he insisted that dialogic discourses were impossible unless orientated towards referential objects, such as the events of history. He lauded the novel as a revolutionary successor to the anachronistic epic with its “single and unified world view, obligatory and indubitably true for heroes as well as for authors and audiences”.

Taken at face value, Bakhtin’s dislike of epic literature seems contradictory. Is not epic another legitimate voice? But his real grouse was his view that epic expunged inconvenient or dissenting viewpoints. Our recent orgy of commemoration of the abortive attack on Turkish territory at Gallipoli in 1915 – and the sacking of a journalist who dissented from it – would, to Bakhtin, have seemed emblematic of the dark side of epic history.

This month’s premiere of the television adaptation of The Secret River is a timely reminder that once the binary concept of true and false histories is admitted, history “wars” inevitably follow, eerily mimicking the real wars that histories chronicle.

In truth, most historians and novelists admire each other’s work, and well understand how it differs and what it shares in common. But headline-grabbing history warriors have conveyed a different impression, conflating what should be thoughtful discussions about the many ways we write history with existential anxieties about postmodernism.

It is galling, but inevitable, that the work of a good historian who cannot write well will enjoy less salience than that of an amateur historian who happily constructs and publishes heavily mythologised epics. The ability to narrativise is the key to literary, social and political power, for better or worse.

Rather than engaging in turf wars, historians and novelists might more usefully share a dialogue about that.

This article is based on an essay published in the academic journal Text and is the fourth in our series, Writing History. Keep an eye out for more in the coming days.

The Conversation

Christopher Kremmer is Senior Lecturer in Journalism, School of the Arts & Media at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Historical texts as literature? We do well to praise EP Thompson

Ann Curthoys, University of Sydney

This article is the third in a series examining the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Read part one here and part two here.

Of the vast number of historical texts available to us, only a few acquire a reputation as literature. Older examples include Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1782) and Thomas Macaulay’s The History of England (1848).

A more recent example is EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, first published in 1963. What is it about this text that leads so many to praise its literary qualities?

Vintage Books

The Making of the English Working Class tells the story of how English working people, who between 1790 and 1832 were experiencing the effects of the agrarian and industrial revolutions and of an authoritarian and oppressive political system, gradually came to have a sense of identity as a working class.

It is a historical drama, in which people find their old collectivities challenged and dispersed under conditions of massive technological, economic, political, and cultural change, and respond by forming new ones.

Against both sociological conceptions of class as a static category and economic determinist forms of Marxism, The Making of the English Working Class asserts the primacy of human action, or agency, in specific political, economic, and cultural contexts. Part of the attraction for generations of history students lies in the flow and rhythm of the writing, so wonderfully quotable in an essay:

The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.

I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.
Like any other relationship, it [class] is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomise its structure.

Yet Thompson’s Marxism leads him into questions of structure, too, especially the changing character of the economy and its complex relations with politics and culture.

Just as frequently quoted are Thompson’s warnings against teleological and moralistic readings of history: of writing history too rigidly in light of our current preoccupations. In what have become The Making’s most memorable sentences, he writes:

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying.

Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not.

There has been no more stirring call to respect the aspirations, and to attempt to understand the experiences, of the people of the past.

Where narrative meets analysis

One of the most striking features of The Making is the way it mixes narrative and analysis. The text moves constantly from one to the other.

This happens in two ways. Sometimes the text begins with an anecdote, or story, about an individual person or event, and then pulls back to draw out the broader implications and context of this story, to illuminate some large-scale social processes.

In chapter one, for example, we read about the first meeting of a radical group called the London Corresponding Society in 1792, learning about its individual members and its rules. Then the text quickly widens the focus to comment on the nature of class relations at this time: the protagonists were, he writes, “rehearsing in curiously personal encounters the massive impersonal encounters of the future”.

Thompson’s technique here is similar to that of the historical novel, pioneered by women writers such as Maria Edgeworth and made famous by Walter Scott.

As often, though, the text reverses this process, and immerses us in a historiographical debate, perhaps even a discussion of problems of sources, before giving us a detailed narrative of particular events.

In the book’s extended section on Luddism, for example, we have a lengthy meditation on the limitations of the sources and the ongoing contest over the meaning of Luddism before we have any detailed story of the Luddite outbreaks. Whichever comes first, there is continual movement between the individual case study and the broad sweep of history.

Character studies

Readable history is novelistic and filmic, requiring not only plenty of action, a sense of agency, but also of character. For the narrative to matter, we have to care about what happens to these historical actors, and get a sense of their individuality and aspirations, their quirks and passions.

The Making has many characters, some well known, others not.

An 1831 portrait of William Cobbett by George Cooke.
Wikimedia Commons

For some, such as William Cobbett, journalist and leading radical reformer of the first few decades of the 19th century, we have extensive information and the reader gets to know Cobbett well through the book.

For others, there are only brief references, such as attendance at a meeting or participation in a riot. Yet whether mentioned fleetingly or in considerable detail, these historical figures are always treated as characters, influencing the course of history in some way.

Quotations short and long appear throughout the text, bringing the narrative and the characters to life and reassuring the reader of the plausibility of its interpretation.

One of the charms of the book, to my mind, is its welcoming of historical disputation, seeing historical explanations as necessarily provisional and always open to revision.

It acknowledges the essentially collaborative nature of history, where historians develop knowledge and understanding jointly, bit by bit. “I by no means suppose that […] I have always uncovered the truth”, Thompson writes in the 1968 postscript.

“No single historian can hope to cover, in any detail, all this ground.” These are attractive ideas for a historian, perhaps for any non-fiction writer: share with your readers the nature and sources of your knowledge and the processes of exploring and extending it.

The Making’s focus was firmly on England and it assumed considerable familiarity (perhaps too much for many readers) with English history. Subsequent commentary has pointed to its limitations in giving so little attention, for example, to the wider British imperial context, even though it concerns a period in which imperial adventures were flourishing.

Thompson did, however, see English history as relevant beyond England’s borders, hoping his book would provide lessons for the developing world as it underwent industrialisation. “Causes”, he wrote in the preface “which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won”.

As it turned out, the lessons readers have actually drawn from The Making have had less to do with industrialisation than with historical method and conceptions of class and culture.

Even while we may challenge its particular arguments, and some of its lacunae on questions of empire, race, and gender, we can admire a text that combines originality of argument, depth of scholarship, and captivating writing. Little wonder, then, that it has become an enduring and inspiring international classic.

This article is based on an essay published in the academic journal Text and is the third in our series, Writing History. Keep an eye out for more in the coming days.

The Conversation

Ann Curthoys is Honorary Professor in History at University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.