Historiography in ‘The History Boys’
Posted on June 5, 2013
This piece is based on Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, and the various historiographies explores in the story.
Historiography, or the philosophies of history, are the ways in which an individual or society choose to report on and analyse historical events. These historiographies can sometimes be influenced by personal experiences or cultural context, and depending on which historiography is adopted, historical accounts can vary greatly through the eyes of different people. Alan Bennett’s intellectual and witty play, The History Boys, introduces many different philosophies of history, expressed through certain characters’ beliefs. Some of the historiographies presented in The History Boys are mainstream and institutional, whereas others are more radical and confronting. Dakin’s subjunctive musings, Mrs Lintott’s feminist or New Historicist perspective and Rudge’s blasé and frank attitude to history all have their valid points but are ultimately fraught with numerous discrepancies and complications (Click beneath to continue reading).
Throughout the play, it becomes evident that Dakin, Cutler Grammar School’s chief Casanova, is a strong believer in analysing history using the subjunctive mood. Dakin has implemented Hector’s teachings in General Studies to his perception of history. Due to this influence, Dakin now champions the idea of subjunctive history, which focuses heavily on musing on the ‘what if’s’ of history, also known as alternate history. Perhaps one of the most salient examples of Dakin’s subjunctive historiography is his analysis of Winston Churchill’s induction as Britain’s wartime Prime Minister. In an essay for Irwin, Dakin retold the proceedings of that fateful day: on the day that the British leader was to be decided, Halifax, the man most likely to be instated as Prime Minister, decided to visit the dentist. This meant that in Halifax’s absence, the War Cabinet elected Winston Churchill as Prime Minister instead. Succinctly summarising the sometimes accidental nature of history, Dakin quips that “If Halifax had had better teeth, we may have lost the war.” (Act 2, Page 90). Clearly, Dakin enjoys to muse on subjunctive history, wondering what the smallest changes in historical events could mean for the course of the world.
This historiography can be invaluable when it comes to appreciating the intricacies of historical events. This allows a better sense of gratefulness for the current circumstances, since it becomes clear how even infinitesimal differences can alter a society. As Irwin stated, this is important because “thinking about what might have happened alerts you to the consequences of what did.” (Act 2, Page 90). Realising the variety of outcomes that are possible from any event can also inspire an individual to change their current condition, since they will be able to recognise that a better situation is possible.
However, subjunctive history’s dangers lie in looking into the mood of possibility excessively. Dwelling on the subjunctive too much is counter-productive because in the end, the outcomes of this alternate history are just that: things that never happened. Subjunctive historiography means that individuals can appreciate all the possible routes that their lives may have taken, but one must also be wary of attributing complex, widespread historical events down to one trivial occurrence. Adhering solely to this historiography would mean that the history books would be filled with musings on what may have happened, rather than recording and discussing what actually happened, meaning far too much focus would be placed on a fantasy world.
Mrs Lintott, a history teacher in the play, powerfully expresses her feminist or New Historicist historiography, primarily through one specific tirade in the play. Feminist history chooses to focus on the role of women throughout history, and New Historicism does much the same by reporting mainly on the culturally marginalised. Mrs Lintott adheres dutifully to this historiography, but demonstrates the dangers of this philosophy by becoming somewhat beguiled by it. She has a largely unfavourable view of men, describing history as “…a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men.” (Act 2, page 85). Feeling that women are often ignored in historical accounts when they are actually the ones who do a bulk of the ‘behind the scenes’ work, Mrs Lintott exclaims that “History is women following behind with the bucket.” (Act 2, page 85). Her historiography is certainly a valid viewpoint, since far too often, women and other minorities are ignored by the historians of the time, deemed to be unimportant. History classes can sometimes be nothing more than a timeline of a particular general’s most significant battles, so it is understandable why Mrs Lintott feels disillusioned when she has to teach about the wars that men have caused throughout time.
However, Mrs Lintott’s philosophy of history has certain implications associated with it. When recording history, a historian must be careful not to inject modern values on the past, since some principles are simply not applicable to people of a bygone era. Hence, Mrs Lintott’s Feminist/New Historicist historiography presents problems because it seeks to represent the unrepresented, which would have been incomprehensible in the past. Modern historians must be careful not to glorify the voiceless disproportionately, as an attempt to make amends for past injustices. After exerting so much contemporary influence on the past, the result will inevitably be a biased and skewed account of history. Also, neglecting the male side of the story is still just as biased and unfair as neglecting the female perspective. To achieve true equality, everyone’s stories and opinions must be included, and not just the disenfranchised should be represented. This is not the only trace of hypocrisy in Mrs Lintott’s philosophy. She expresses further hypocrisy when remarking on Irwin’s teaching style, which she describes as “the bow-wow school of history” (Act 2, page 84). However, her own historical methodology seeks to find the answer first, and then establish evidence and sources around that particular agenda. A true historian should attempt to discover the truths of history and not choose one specific agenda that they must tailor evidence to. In this sense, Mrs Lintott is doing just what she criticised Irwin for doing, further degrading her own philosophy by reporting on history in the wrong manner. Mrs Lintott’s Feminist/New Historicist historiography can present a unique viewpoint on historical events, but it can easily result in a glorified representation of certain figures in the past, resulting in prejudiced and misleading histories.
The play’s least intellectual character, Rudge, believes in a historiography that seems to dismiss history as something that can only be skimmed over at face value. Frankly stating that “It’s just one f***ing thing after another” (Act 2, Page 85), Rudge clearly does not see why history is, or should be, anything more than a chronological account of significant events. Such a dismissive historiography supports the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo procter hoc; that is, event B followed A, which must mean that A caused B. It is clear how Rudge came to adopt this historiography, since his admission into Oxford itself can be seen as a manifestation of post hoc, ergo procter hoc. The events of history had “come full circle” (Act 2, Page 98) for Rudge, since his admission at the university was influenced by the fact that his father had been a college servant. However, as much as the reasons for Rudge’s mindset are understandable, the philosophy itself has huge implications for society.
History is far more than a battle at point A on the timeline and an election at point B. There are all sorts of catalysts and watersheds in between, everything from subtle cultural changes, such as a greater degree of freedom in what you choose to wear, to revolutionary upheavals of society, such as women’s suffrage or racial equality. As American historian William Lund states, “We study the past to understand the present; we understand the present to guide the future.” (Permanent Culture Now, 2013). Events in the past dictate how our present lives unfold, and appreciating that our current actions will affect the future means that we can act responsibly and productively. History extends beyond the subject on the school curriculum, and acts upon our daily lives. The word ‘history’ is simply a capsule that embodies every aspect of our current world, our societies and our individual selves. The implications of dismissing history, as Rudge does, can be disastrous. For example, if historians only reported the basic facts about the Holocaust, like the exact dates that it began and ended, rather than analysed the reasons and intricacies embedded in the event, we would never entirely understand why it happened. Thus, a society would not be able to recognise the warning signs or prevent a similar tragedy from occurring. The memories of the victims would be lost forever, and certain flaws in society, such as the racism and hastiness that contributed to the Holocaust, would never be corrected. The historiography of neglecting history would also mean that society would not be able to comprehend, appreciate and recycle the positive elements of human history. One society would not learn from positive elements in another society, such as looking at examples of countries that have brought themselves out of poverty, or being inspired by inspirational leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Historian and philosopher Voltaire succinctly describes the importance of learning from history when he wrote that “History should be written as philosophy.” (Philosophy Quotes, 2011). History must be appreciated on the scale of philosophy, as a compass to guide our future decisions, as well as understanding what led to our current condition. As much as Rudge’s frustration with history can be understood, the implications of his historiography are far too great to ignore. The historiography of seeing the past simply on face value as one event after another means that societies will repeat mistakes eternally and ignore the lessons that others have to teach them.
The History Boys and its many opinionated characters express a range of different historiographies. Three of the most notable historiographies, Dakin’s appreciation of subjunctive history, Mrs Lintott’s Feminist/New Historicist historiography and Rudge’s dismissive historiography, all have their valid points but are ultimately fraught with numerous discrepancies and complications that mean they should not be used exclusively when analysing history.
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