The ultimate in field research

Lawrence Black looks on as scholars accept an invitation to make imaginary journeys back in time

May 22, 2008

Most historians and even non-science fiction fans will have envisaged themselves aboard H.G. Wells's time machine. This appeal, combined with this book's topical and chronological range, will doubtless secure I Wish I'd Been There a popular market. As part of the genre of "what if", or virtual history, it indulges the authors' boyish enthusiasms for the likes of Hannibal's adventures.

But this is not Byron and Theodore's Excellent Adventure. The editors hold that "the heart of the historian's enterprise" is to "think oneself into a situation" so that "it is almost as if one were there". Popular as this conception may be, however, many historians will prefer the analytical and contextual benefits of not being there. The aims and approach here are traditional (Rankean, the introduction avers), but the conceit of an imaginative leap into history's dramas makes this akin to the fictive activity that poststructuralists maintain historians unconsciously practise. If the aim is to humanise history, with social science an unidentified target, dialogue with other approaches is missed. Rather than attempts to rescue the past from modern indifference (history-from-below style) or as (in cultural history) mass observers tracing lost worlds, using rich narratives to anthropologically evoke and reconstruct cultural systems from everyday symbolism or practices, readers will instead encounter a familiar series of moments. There are no cat massacres here.

While inducing some engaging inferences, more often the "informed speculation" that the editors encourage leads contributors to muse on the limitations of evidence. "Did Babylon smell of river, or dust?" Josiah Ober wonders, and others admit to uncertainties about precisely the things that they are supposed to "bring to life".

How this stellar cast interprets the editorial injunction varies. Paul Kennedy casts himself as an uncomprehending local fisherman observing Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile, and Geoffrey Parker conjures himself on to a Spanish Armada Council of War; but Richard Pipes ignores the editors' directive to time-travel himself back to Russia in 1905. Most are conscious that their moments would be significant only to those with a priori knowledge.

How, then, would they conduct themselves? Most maintain a presence as invisible eyewitnesses in order to plug gaps in the evidence. As a "fly on the telescope" eavesdropping on Galileo and other astronomer-philosophers, Freeman Dyson is as interested in misunderstandings as in breakthroughs. Others cannot resist a participatory role. Ross King bemoans the "ludicrous fear of physicality" in the reception of Manet's Le Bain, and Margaret Macmillan cautions the Great War's victors of the legacy of their decisions for Europe and the Middle East. William McNeill admits that Frederick of Prussia would not have been likely to confide in an inconspicuous historian ("Dr who?") but judges this no impediment to observing the extent of the Prince's newfound appreciation of the potato as a staple foodstuff.

The choices say as much about the historians as anything else. The working definition of moments prevails against exploring, for instance, structures, processes, material culture, identity or anything quantitative. Excepting accounts of the peasants' revolt and Florentine resistance to French occupation in 1494, this is a parade of monarchs, popes, emperors, military and political leaders and artistic and scientific luminaries such as Newton and Picasso. Cultural matter is read chiefly in political terms - the late Elizabethan allegories in Richard II at the Globe and Handel's negotiation of the Georgian court. You hardly have to be a Marxist to think it elitist or to wonder why more popular considerations, even guiltier pleasures, scarcely feature. In aiming at a non-academic audience, it's a pity that conventional notions of history are reinforced. Since the conception of the book is playful, why not more fun?

I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events that Changed the World

By Byron Hollinshead and Theodore K. Rabb

Pan Macmillan, 456pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780230528017

Published 21 March 2008

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