French connections

January 30, 1998

Historian and thinker Theodore Zeldin talks to Harriet Swain about his love for the French, women and his ceaseless search for links in life that make it more meaningful.

There is something very un-English about Theodore Zeldin, historian at St Anthony's College, Oxford since 1955 and general thinker. Wiry and intense,wearing a pair of brown trainers, he talks with liberal waves of the arms (he has written about use of hand gestures in conversation) and listens with a dazzling stare - he has written about listening too. Describing himself, without apology and with a trace of indefinable accent, as an intellectual, he pronounces thinking "a sensual as well as cerebral activity". He wants his work to enable people to "look at the whole of human experience" and delves into private lives as intimately as people will let him. His terms of reference are as vague as wanting "to study happiness". In all, he is not a very restrained kind of chap. He says things like: "I see ideas as bees, buzzing around."

But it is hardly possible to define Zeldin in national terms when he has shown what an inadequate guide this is. His popular book, The French, published 15 years ago, concluded there was really no such thing. Under his examination, the French became an amorphous body of individuals and France an imaginary concept. In it he concludes: "No two individual Frenchmen interpret their national identity in the same way, and no two have quite the same combination of background, of culture or aspirationsI The French are human beings." He does not regret spending several years chasing the subject, since he considers the book really a work of anthropology. "I met these people who happened to be living in France," he says. "From my book, many countries may draw conclusions about themselves." The only satisfactory way to categorise people, he finds, is between the warm and the cold. "Warm people are those with whom I feel I have established human contact and with whom I can share emotions; cold people are those who hide behind masks and whom I do not feel I have really met."

He likes intimacy. And he likes to get close to history's traditional themes, too, breaking down the overall picture they give into the dots of an Impressionist painting or the cells of a body. That way, as he writes in his History of French Passions, he "disengages the facts from what holds them together and makes one conscious of the independent existence of interpretations placed on facts".

For Zeldin does not want to be restrained. He does not believe in boundaries. He likes people to tell him things they do not normally talk about. His aim is to shift people's views of the world outside conventional limits. He wants them to be able to draw on parallels in the past and present, on the experiences of women as well as of men, on lessons from disciplines usually distinct, such as science, history and philosophy. In his latest book, The Intimate History of Humanity, he talks about "the art of making life meaningful and beautiful, which involves finding connections between what seems to have no connection, linking people and places, desires and memories, through details whose implications have gone unnoticed".

So, while breaking down some subjects into tiny parts, he sweeps his gaze over others. For him, nothing should be neglected if people could find it useful since he wants his history to have an effect. He loves receiving letters from people who say his books have helped them in their private or public lives. "What I would like my books to do is to give people courage," he says. "If I call myself anything it's a manufacturer of courage."

To this end, in the Intimate History, he courageously tackles in a couple of pages, or paragraphs, topics which have taken up the lives of several fellow academics: he dashes through the last couple of thousand years of Indian religious history in his chapter on tolerance; he includes an intricate examination of the heartbeat of the waterflea in a chapter on time and then refocuses his gaze dizzyingly from this microscopic view to the general, concluding: "Technology has been a rapid heartbeat, compressing housework, travel, entertainment, squeezing more and more into the allotted span. Nobody expected that it would create the feeling that life moves too fast."

For Zeldin, at the beginning at least, life did move quickly. Born in Egypt 64 years ago, he finished school at 15 and went to Birkbeck College, where he took a first-class degree in philosophy, Latin and history in two years. His explanation for this whirlwind education? "I work fast." He moved on to Christ Church, Oxford, for another degree, this time in modern history and then started a doctorate at St Antony's College on politics in France's Second Empire (1852-1870). He completed it in two years, after an eye-opening period of research in France. Immediately offered a job at Harvard, he turned it down after securing a life tenure to stay at St Anthony's and concentrate on research. He has been there ever since, furiously reading and thinking and writing. He did spend some time teaching in Oxford - "things I knew nothing about". Employed as an expert on French history, he decided to teach historical geography. "It's a mistake to think you should teach what you know about," he says. "I would read the same books as my students and then we would talk about them together." He also played a significant part in the development of St Anthony's with a place on the governing body, where, he says, he "tasted power and got fed up with it".

His work has developed over time from traditional studies of French politics, to tackle wider social themes and then more philosophical questions. He has proved adept at picking up innovative historical movements starting in French academia and transporting them to England with his own spin. His determination to escape from strictly political accounts of the past recalls the Annales school of French historians such as Braudel. But whereas the Annales historians became preoccupied with economic and social issues and the mentalities of classes and groups, he says his approach is more fragmentary, taking the individual as his subject.

For him, the breakthrough was his History of French Passions, which explored the history of France from 1858 to 1945 through six themes: ambition, love, politics, intellect, taste and anxiety. The book questioned the idea that politics dominated the behaviour of people in the past to the extent normally assumed and showed that categories such as family, class and national identity became meaningless under close scrutiny. All were riven by internal rivalries and cross-currents derived from the temperaments and experiences of individuals.

The book, which took Zeldin 20 years to write, made him a kind of star, especially in France. He became a darling of television interviews and was invited to give talks, telling French people all about themselves. The attention he received brought him into contact with a whole new set of interesting people. One result was The French, published in 1983, which proved even more popular - "an airport favourite", says one envious fellow historian. It includes information gleaned from conversations with French people, reflecting on their ambitions, their relationships, their work and what makes them happy. He extends the technique in An Intimate History of Humanity, published more than ten years later. Each chapter, dealing with subjects as broad as freedom, loneliness and food, starts with an interview, which works as a springboard to discuss his general themes.

A striking aspect of the Intimate History is that all the people he speaks to are women - French women. He feels historians must redress the balance after generations in which women's views have been neglected. A member of the audience at Britain's first feminist meeting, held in Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1970, he says he has always been interested in the woman's point of view. Most of his friends are intelligent women. "Young women are the real revolutionaries of our time," he says. If their views are aired, things may change. Today's different relations between men and women offer the chance of making links never made before. Several years ago he decided to explore this theme - and the limits of his imagination - by writing a historical novel with his wife, each writing alternate chapters. She wrote the love part and he wrote the history. "We respected each other's peculiarities," he said. Unfortunately it was rejected by the publisher who said the author knew nothing at all about the period, post-revolutionary France.

Other historians speak of Zeldin with affection, sometimes bemused by the energy of his imagination but generally respectful about what it turns up. Douglas Johnson, emeritus professor of French history at University College London, describes his books as "refreshing and stimulating", although he does not agree with all his methods, particularly the use of opinion polls. "He wants to put sentiment into statistics, which I don't think is quite right," he says. Zeldin loves polls, scattering them through his books without much back-up information. He also makes sweeping statements, some inspiring, some bewildering. He is unrepentant. People should take from his books what is interesting to them. As for Zeldin, he is interested in everything. Each chapter of the Intimate History carries a bibliography of perhaps 100 titles as a mere sample of suggested reading.The chapter on food and sex takes in both Margarine: A History 1868-1969 and John Byron's Portrait of a Chinese Paradise: Erotica and Sexual Customs of the late Qing Period. "Every time I read a book my ideas change and go in a different direction," he says. Gradually, he will see a pattern emerge and then he will find the answer.

Work is to be the subject of his next book. He is reading about every profession and talking to careers advisers to discover how it can be made more enjoyable. He wants to discover whether it is possible to invent a kind of education that creates generalists rather than specialists and to find out how work and study can be combined more effectively. "Most people do jobs which aren't very enjoyable," he says. "I'm trying to have a vision of what work could be in the future."

This is not a problem for Zeldin who cannot distinguish between work and pleasure. "I only do things which I'm excited by, which are revelations to me," he says. This does not seem to leave out much. He set up the Oxford food symposium because he decided gastronomy was worthy of discussion. He decided to write about sleep after pondering the way he slept. At the end of the interview, he turned the tables and questioned me, scribbling away in a tiny notebook. What did I think about my work? What sort of people were my friends? What sort of person was I? - nodding at the answers. It was a strangely intrusive feeling to be questioned in exactly the way I had been questioning him. But as I left, I discovered my head was buzzing with thoughts, like bees.

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