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Amateurs

A Royal Affinity

by Constance Wright
Scribners, 309 pp., $6.50

First Gentleman of the Bed Chamber

by Hubert Cole
Viking, 310 pp., $6.95

A Royal Spy

by Edna Nixon
Reynal, 260 pp., $5.75

Three hundred years ago history suffered no division. Academics and amateurs were happy with the same mixture of fable and truth. King Lud lurked in the mists of London’s antiquity: and Brit, hoary, woad-stained, festooned with improbable legends, remained a convenient island terminus for the British Kings’ genealogy on its remorseful journey back through David, Noah, and so to Adam and the first thunderclaps that started it all in 4004 B. C. True, skepticism had been spawned, and throughout Western Europe grave and dedicated men were poring over charters, deeds, and cartularies, and casting a jaundiced eye on those monkish tales that had done service for history for nearly a thousand years. By 1600 the professional historical world had started and the grosser forms of historical fable were being pushed into children’s books, but the day of the amateur was far from over. Disentanglement, in fact, has never been achieved. Indeed the true professional was a rare bird before the late nineteenth century, at least in the English-speaking world. History remained literature: the domain of gentlemen who could read, write, and think. Even the great classics of our historical literature—Gibbon, Macaulay, Prescott, Parkman, Motley, and the rest were written by men who, by German standards, possessed next to no historical training and, apart from Gibbon, showed it clearly enough. Now all is changed: the gulf between professional and amateur is so wide that it is immediately discernable. The difference does not lie in type of historical activity. The story of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, for example, possesses obviously resounding popular appeal and has attracted amateurs like butterflies to sedum, yet it was a professional, Garrett Mattingly, who produced the most widely read, the most deservedly popular piece of historical literature on the subject, not by rejecting his professional training and standards or even vulgarizing them, but by using them as the basis of his art and so giving it a depth, a profundity, a truth that no amateur could match.

And historical truth, it would now seem, can rarely be achieved outside the professional world. Certainly these three books under review lack it. In spite of their parade of unpublished manuscript sources and bibliographies replete with learned articles, they are incurably amateur. What scholarship they have, they tend to wear askew, as if a child had hurriedly dressed in its parents’ clothes. They are not all as bad as Miss Wright, who has scarcely had time to cover the nakedness of her historical knowledge with a few shreds and patches of bibliographical patter. She solemnly refers several times to the London Bureau of Records and its unpublished manuscripts. There is no such place. Whether a major work of scholarship is in or out of her bibliography must be based on either whim or ignorance. J. F. Chance’s monumental works on the diplomatic history of Western Europe in the early eighteenth century has obviously not been read, although very germane to Miss Wright’s purpose if she ever wished to understand the complexities of Anglo-Prussian relations and the proposed marriage alliances. And there are endless other omissions such as no candidate for an M. A. would make. The two other bibliographies are not much better. Amateur historians would be well advised to give up printing bibliographies. They may by that parade deceive the unlearned but they can convince no one else. They are a waste of the paper they are printed on. If amateurs are to go in for scholarly apparatus, let them do it thoroughly, each quotation footnoted, each reference precisely given, not as in these books where such techniques are scattered about haphazardly for the sake of effect.

And, of course, in all these books there are errors of fact. Still, professional scholars make them from time to time: sheer ignorance of the historical background irritates more profoundly. Miss Wright’s grasp of the complex issues economic, dynastic, strategic that involved the whole of Western Europe is feebler even than Mr. Cole’s. But one can forgive them that; after all each of these authors is primarily concerned with a personal story in a historical setting: even if the setting is awry, something valuable may still be there—perception into human motive or indeed just the capacity to tell an exciting and colorful personal drama, anchored in truth. There comes the rub. None of these authors, it seems to me, knows how to use an historical source critically. Mrs. Nixon wanders with bland insouciance in the inextricably tangled web of lies that Eon wrote about his life, accepting happily quotations from manuscripts made a generation ago but not, it would seem, bothering to consult them herself. True, the documentation of the Chevalier d’Eon is a nightmare that would scare the boldest professional but, at least, one would have expected an attempt to seek out the truth of the wilder stories. Mr. Cole is a little better: he has discovered a new source of Richelieu MSS, checked La Vie Privée with the letters discovered; because, however, a number of letters were accurately transcribed in La Vie Privée he is willing to accept almost all the stories it recounts! As for Miss Wright one has only to read her account of the visit of Peter the Great to Frederick William to realize that she will accept anything.

The history could all be distorted and the documents used uncritically yet the books might possess truth; insight, for example, into a human situation as true and as revealing as one might find in fiction. Do any of these qualify at that level? Miss Wright may be rejected at once. She never explores the sexual nature of Frederick the Great or his sister Wilhelmina, yet this story is about their very deep attachment to each other. It seems never to have occurred to her that Frederick was a homosexual. Mr. Cole does a better job. At least on the surface his Richelieu is believable; the little dapper handsome man, aggressive through inferiority, courageous through fear of effeminacy, rash through a need to be noticed, a typical manikin with false hair on the chest, but he accepts Richelieu too easily at his own face value, does not separate fantasy from fact, and so loses several dimensions from his story. Yet his is a good effort and makes the book readable and so, perhaps, worth while. And the same is true of Mrs. Nixon. She tries to get to the truth about Eon—at least the psychological if not the historical truth and she has done her homework on transvestism, its auto-erotic overtones and homosexual undertones. And after all this, weird as it is, is a true story: the detail may be wrong but Eon lived his life partly as a woman yet always a man and never, it would seem, anything but a virgin. Hard to make that unreadable!

And so we come to the heart of the matter: the reason why, despised and rejected by the world of historical scholarship, such books go on being written and being read—eagerly, perhaps wolfishly. To the professional historian, the childhood of Frederick the Great, his love for his sister, his possible homosexuality, would all be minor matters compared with the formidable historical role that Frederick played. The questions that they would ask and want answered would be linked with economic forces, social structures, and strategic decisions. And so with Richelieu, and even Eon if they ever bothered to think about him. The personal problem, even when, as with a Frederick or a Napoleon, it may have had important historical consequences, is not one which the professional historian tackles readily. There are graver matters that demand his attention, and get it.

So there is a small but significant part of the past which amateurs have nearly to themselves. The result usually bears about as much relation to history as housemaids’ fiction does to Tolstoy, yet, as with the former, these books fulfill a human need—curiosity, a sop to boredom, the furtive glance at a true figure as odd as themselves (books on historical homosexuals always have a steady sale), a suburban longing for culture at the duplex level. It’s a pity, for many of these human situations call for a Tolstoy, for a professional treatment at the highest level, for a Mattingly, a Neale, a Morrison: latched firmly to their historical background, treated with the dimensions that a professional literary historian has at his command, they can be made to comment more profoundly on human destiny than the best fiction. And yet the professionals so rarely try: a few do and they usually succeed both absolutely and commercially. More should. Many an instructor in the red wastes of Oklahoma would be better engaged in writing about Frederick and his sister, or the Chevalier d’Eon, or Richelieu, or Casanova than churning out unreadable monographs on insignificant professional themes. The public yearns for history: it gets a great deal of splendid writing from the top professionals but there is still too much left to amateurs as ignorant of the processes of scholarship as of the nature of history. A few are good, but the bulk are worthless, purveying a mockery of history to a gullible public. Apart from Miss Wright, these three books are better than the majority which, perhaps, is the most serious indictment we could make of this type of popular historical writing.

Letters

For the Record August 5, 1965

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