"The past is another country"

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, February 18, 2008

L. P. Hartley, not one of Tory Historian’s favourite writers, started his best-known book (mostly because of the film with Julie Christie and Alan Bates) with the words: “The past is another country; they do things differently there”.

As it happens, Tory Historian disagrees with that and feels that, maybe, novelists should not make comments about history (unless we are talking about Georgette Heyer). In essence, whatever the details may be, people do not do things differently in the past from the present.

While there is nothing attractive in rose-coloured glasses or, to be precise, in people looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses, the sneering proclamation of the superiority of everything in the present is no better.

These random thoughts appeared during the reading of Anita Desai’s introduction to the Virago edition of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “Turkish Embassy Letters”.

Lady Mary, one of the most attractive letter writers of a period that boasted many such individuals, is patted on the head for “her ability to study and alien culture according to its own values” and for “a rare ability to see herself through the eyes of others”. If only Ms Desai shared these abilities.

She is so horrified by the fact that Lady Mary’s father conducted financial negotiations with her suitor, Edward Wortley Montagu, that she quite forgets to explain why those negotiations came to nothing. Or to tell us how and when were the young people reconciled with the Earl of Kingston, later Marquess of Dorchester.

Altogether Ms Desai is horrified by many things and seems unable to study what she sees as an alien culture, England of the eighteenth century, according to its own values.

All those people, my dear, Alexander Pope, Horace Walpole, Lord Hervey and Lady Mary herself, are so nasty. Oh my smelling salts! Or a lavender-sprinkled handkerchief!

That talent to enjoy was poisoned and distorted by the society in which she moved, what Dervla Murphy calls not the Age of Reason but the Age of Savagery. The attacks made on her by Pope would have dragged him into a court of law for libel nowadays, and Horace Walpole’s insinuation that she suffered from venereal disease (‘the half she yet retains of nose’) would have got him a ruinous fine. In the eighteenth century these jibes were permissible, and Lady Mary’s record as an adversary in the field is not negligible. Her caricature of the hunchbacked Pope could only be acceptable amongst hardened cynics.
On the whole, Tory Historian prefers Lady Mary’s robust attitude and responses to Ms Desai’s vapours, particularly as she shows no knowledge or understanding of the period or of the writers involved.

Her reference to Dervla Murphy, another non-expert in the subject and another lady given to faintness when writing of the nastiness of the past, is to another edition of the Letters, published by Century in 1988. In it, apart from being horrified by the nastiness of all those brutish people, Ms Murphy apparently speculated whether Lady Mary would have been better off born in the twentieth century and being a career woman.

One wonders the reasoning that makes publishers pick such people to introduce eighteenth century letters. Let’s see. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was an English woman writer who travelled eastwards to Constantinople and lived there for a year or so. Anita Desai is an English woman writer who was born in the mysterious Orient of half-Hindu, half-German parentage and Dervla Murphy is an Irish woman traveller and bicyclist who has written books about her adventures. So the last two should be able to write about the first one.

Well, never mind, the letters themselves are very well worth reading.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. It's a not a statement about History, it's a statement about the past - you'll appreciate the critical distinction. You seriously want novelists to refrain from talking about the past? On a mundane level the statement is uncontroversially and obviously true. Of course things were done differently in the past. It's perfectly possible that the relationships, meanings and functions expressed by these actions don't change. That's an interesting possibility, and an intelligent engagement with the book invites reflection would invite reflection on it. By sweeping aside "the details", you've ruled out everything that novelists are traditionally interested in. A novel is precisely about "the details" of life. And even if you still don't think it's true, it doesn't mean it shouldn't have been written. It's a work of prose fiction, narrated by an unreliable narrator. To assume we are meant to accept a statement like this uncritically and unquestioningly as the author's view is a shockingly naive way of treating a novel. Everything in a novel is up for debate. If you're only going to allow true statements in fiction you're going to get some damned boring books.

    If Novelists shouldn't comment on History, perhaps Historians should think twice about commenting on Novels.

  3. And people who do not give names should refrain from commenting altogether, particularly when they have not read the posting, which is about letters not novels.

  4. Anonymous Says:
  5. But the point is still valid.

  6. Anonymous Says:
  7. tsk foreign country. The past is a foreign country.

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