‘Tis in my memory lock’d…

December 23, 2008 at 8:39 pm 7 comments

I’ve read a few books in the past month or so, mainly topping off half-read books that have collected dust over the past two years. While none of them seemed to really merit their own post, I sat and tried to think of some meaningful common theme or thread that would connect them and thus allow me to post about all of them at once. I’ll give you their titles and you tell me if you can come up with one: Peter the Great: A Biography, The Museum Guard and The Forest. Anything? I was stuck in a similar situation of no continuity. The best and most pathetic result of my thinking was “history.” The common thread of history. Pitiful, I know.

Or is it really so? Forgive me, but I would argue that the common thread of history connects much more than three books pretty obviously about that subject. The Forest by Edward Rutherford aptly illustrates this perhaps obvious point. It is an epic work of historic nonfiction that fascinatingly traipses through centuries of English history focused in and around the New Forest in southern England (near Salisbury, the setting of one of his other wonderful and similarly formatted books, Sarum). The book moves through the centuries briefly pausing every two hundred years or so to look in on the evolution of a given place, a few chosen families and the country’s broader history. The book is comprised of little snapshots and while each chapter is equally interesting and Rutherford undeniably excels at quickly creating fully-formed characters one can’t help but care about, the broader point the book makes is that while we all go about our lives and seem so unrelated and so different, a common history unites us all, and oftentimes even more common and closer than you think. Rutherford makes the subtle point that history is more important than just for studying; it shapes who we are and who we become as a people, as individuals and as families. Even without active knowledge of the past—a mode in which most of his characters blithely exist—history undeniably moves us.

The Museum Guard by Howard Norman concurs with the point that history is very much an active presence. His book is more character study than novel and tells the story of DeFoe Russett, a museum guard of a small, local art museum in Halifax called the Glace Museum. DeFoe’s simple existence is utterly unraveled (seriously, our even-keeled art lover is by the end of the book to be found in prison) when a certain painting arrives at the Glace Museum. The painting depicts a woman standing outside of a hotel in Amsterdam holding a loaf of bread and it proceeds to change all the character’s life in ways big and small. The book broadly deals with the onset of World War II, jewishness and how art can affect our lives, but DeFoe is most moved by two things: the premature death of his parents in a local zeppelin crash and the strange transformation undergone by his lover inspired by the painting. Both these events are deeply rooted in history: the zeppelin crash that killed his parents becomes part of the local history, dehumanizing the event for DeFoe even as he most sorely still personally feels the aftermath, and his lover retreats from reality into the historical moment portrayed in the painting. History is another character in the book; the common local history, the feeling throughout the book clearly felt by all the characters that they are witnessing history as Hitler begins his rampage through Europe and the actual withdrawal into history by DeFoe’s lover all reiterate the point that history is no passive afterthought. History is everywhere, informing decisions, moving action and forcing retrospection.

Of these three books, perhaps no protagonist (or subject, in this case) most sorely feels the pull and judgment of history than Peter in Peter the Great: A Biography by Lindsey Hughes. Of all the people in the books, Peter is by far the most aware of history as an entity. Rutherford’s characters primarily simply exist, at best only partially informed of what has come before through folklore or rumor. Norman’s DeFoe is primarily uninformed and only speaks to the history that he himself has experienced. But, as Hughes argues, Peter the Great was extremely conscious of the importance of history and strove constantly to make sure he was remembered properly and regarded well in the annals of history that came thereafter. Not only that, Hughes makes the argument at the end of her book that while Peter himself was involved in his own making of history, the Romanovs who held the throne after him were very much aware of the political importance and usefulness of history, using Peter’s memory and image well into the twentieth century to prove to their followers (and detractors) how good they really were for Russia. History was seen and used as a legitimization of the present because it still felt so relevant and so real. History was not something mustily confined to books no one read. History was real and it was everywhere.

Call this review an attempt to proselytize by a former history major, but history is too often mistaken for something unimportant, easily forgotten and rarely studied. I believe it is far more relevant to today than most people would give it credit for. As Rutherford shows through his study of the centuries, history is undeniably everywhere, even in the commonest or simplest story. Every moment is history. Life is entirely made up of interlocking disciplines and to forget any one among them, history particularly in my opinion, or to dismiss any one as irrelevant to the present, is not simply lamentable, it is inexplicable. Anything can create a connection and history does daily.


Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction.

Power to the Sisterhood — I guess? And guess what, Jane? Fairy tales aren’t real.

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  December 24, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    Really interesting! I always thought of literature, anyway, as a kind of history of thought, a recording of what people thought was important and what their mindsets and ideologies were at the time. But reading about how these three books treat the idea of history itself is intriguing :P

  • 2. Corey  |  December 28, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    Yay! Glad you liked it! I tried so hard to come up with a theme, but then I just found it really invigorating to create an argument around how the three books looked at history as a thing.

    That said, Edward Rutherford quite simply rocks and you should really try him out! He’s in the middle of a series on Ireland at the moment. :)

  • 3. KT  |  December 29, 2008 at 1:11 am

    YES. I remember hearing about him! I might have to check him out when I go to Barnes and Noble tomorrow — his Dublin book seems like something I should read just so I can say I have :P And Sarum was way popular, right? That title I definitely recognize.

  • 4. Corey  |  January 7, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Definitely check him out! I’m kind of telling everyone I know to read Rutherford at the moment, so perhaps there will be some (to him) unexplained surge in sales as a result! (Doubtful considering the paltry number of people I know, but still a possibility.)

  • 5. KT  |  January 7, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    I almost bought his London with a Barnes and Noble gift card. Then I realized I had to spend $14 on Jemima J for class and therefore couldn't use the card on Rutherford. You can imagine my rage >:(

  • 6. Corey  |  January 7, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Whoa. You had to buy “Jemima J” for a class?! What class are you taking? Anyway, having read your review and then some Rutherford, I think it’s safe to say Rutherford wins out!

  • 7. KT  |  January 8, 2009 at 11:04 am

    It’s for Core — it’s Chick Lit week. I also had to read Confessions of a Shopaholic, PS I Love You, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Seeing as how chick lit depresses the ever-loving crap out of me, and it’s coming on the tail end of Romance week (which depresses me further), you can see how it’s been a weird week :\ I can hardly wait to get to class and hear everyone get on their high horses about it…especially since none of them have actually bothered to read for class today…


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