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History and Telling Stories: Graham Swift's 'Waterland'

John Brewer and Stella Tillyard evaluate a book both historical and fictional.

Ruminating on the nature of history is one of the occupational diseases of the historian. Like so many serious complaints, it usually strikes in late middle age. Many historians, usually at the peak of a career during which they have written books of great elegance and erudition, have sought to justify prudent scholarship by speculative inquiry into the nature and meaning of writing history. The studies which emerge from this new passion are invariably clothed in the full panoply of scholarship. But it is easy to see through this academic padding to the naked desire of the author to explain and justify a lifetime devoted to unravelling the secrets of the past. As this compulsion reveals, practicing history is not enough, because the writing and teaching of history does not explicitly answer those nagging questions – what can we know about the past? what do we need to know about the past, and what is the value of our knowing? – whose unsuccessful resolution can put a lifetime of historical endeavour in doubt. This recognition, this desire to confront fundamental questions which are usually held in abeyance as scholars ferret in archives and while pedagogues instruct their pupils, explains why some historians – usually the best and brightest of their generation – desert history for the confessional world of autobiography and the abstract sphere of philosophy. E.H. Carr, Richard Cobb, G.R. Elton, Peter Gay, J.H. Hexter and Sir John Plumb are all distinguished historians who have followed this path.

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