I had a teacher at school who would insist that narrative history was the finest art known to civilized man, and the only truly commendable form of historical writing. He certainly had good taste: he passed me his copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, but also recommended Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and most of all James McPherson’s superlative single-volume history of the American Civil War, The Battle Cry of Freedom. (It was surpassed, he said, only by Shelby Foote’s towering three-volume history. I’ve never managed to wade through that, though, so alas cannot yet pass judgement.)
Though I might part company with him on the virtues (or lack thereof) of analytical history, there is no doubt in my mind that he was onto something about the artistic skill involved in writing narrative: a good narrative is of very difficult to draw from disparate primary sources and disputed secondary texts without over-simplification or straight-out error. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Blair Worden’s The English Civil Wars, published this year and, as discussed previously on this blog, reviewed favourably by another recent narrativist, Michael Braddick.
Worden’s text gives itself a shorter space in which to cover 20 years of one of the most complicated periods of English history than John Adamson gave over to the footnotes of his Noble Revolt, a book which covers merely the period’s first two. Inevitably, it is very short on detail, and Worden is noticeably constrained by space in his section on the 1650s, the weakest section of his book. Astoundingly, though, he is extremely good on the war’s origins and on the moves towards Restoration; he also gives a very commendable broad brush outline of the wars themselves, which whilst lacking much new for the specialist achieves brilliantly his aim of providing, at last, a new, concise and readable introduction for the outsider.
The book’s success in dextrously handling difficult subjects without doing them a disservice brings to mind, very unfavourably, Diane Purkiss’s The English Civil War: A People’s History, which covers just half of Worden’s ground in more than twice the space – and does so without achieving either greater depth or clarity. Worden’s work is masterful, and if he is modish in his conclusion that the wars achieved nothing, he somehow manages to squeeze enough context in the book for it to be an honest introduction to the scholarship. As a very small example of the grace of Worden’s narrative art, his couple of sentences on Milton’s responses to the regicide are both more accurate and more compelling than Purkiss’s confused and conventional effort: “As the title implied, Milton [in Eikonoklastes] was eager to align Charles’s death with the iconoclasm that for some had been the whole point of the war. But the moment was over by the time it was printed, and new winds were blowing.” [pg. 562]
Worden’s account, on the other hand, neither resorts to cliché nor suffers from a ‘my print run is larger than yours’ tunnel vision, and always makes clear where he is making his own argument and where he is summarising others’. Narrative history is an art which does not allow the poet’s license; my old teacher would have approved.