The Lives of Others

To imagine the beliefs and desires of our fellow beings is fundamental to the pursuit of history. Such empathy is needed now more than ever.

Reading, by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1877 © Bridgeman Images.

‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other’, says the heroine of Jane Austen’s Emma, playfully trying to reassure her ever-anxious father that other people can enjoy amusements he would never himself like. In Austen’s novel, Emma is often wrong, but she is certainly right about this. Over the past few months, it has been evident that there are some people for whom the pleasures of their fellow human beings are not only unappealing, but incomprehensible. As our society, like those across the world, has undergone rapid and disorienting changes within a short space of time, many have lost, at least for a period, access to the mundane pleasures that give joy to daily life.

Publicly acknowledging the painful, isolating effects of that disruption has not always been welcome. Whatever the activity – a visit to the pub, going to the beach, or browsing in a shop – the loss and then qualified return of non-essential pastimes caused storms on social media. Many on Twitter hastened to proclaim scornfully that they could not understand why anyone would want to do these things, not just in the middle of a pandemic, but at all. In ordinary times these are harmless pleasures, which many value not just for the sake of the activity but for the people they share it with: social joys of a kind social media cannot replace. Even if they are not to your taste, it is surely possible to hold two thoughts in your mind: that cancelling these activities might be necessary for the greater good, but that people can also justly mourn for their absence and wish for their return.

At the same time, it has been clear that one half of the world cannot understand the other’s troubles, either. The ‘new normal’ which some welcome is, and will continue to be, a real hardship for others. If you have a stable home, a secure source of income and a family situation which makes home-working straightforward, then your experience of this year has been very different from that of anyone who does not have those things. To see some in that fortunate position dismissing others’ struggles has been troubling.

Part of this incomprehension seems to be a lack of imagination. One person admits to finding a certain situation difficult to deal with; another responds by saying: ‘This isn’t a problem for me, so I can’t imagine why it would be for anyone else.’ The phrase ‘can’t imagine’ in such assertions is often a self-satisfied rhetorical tactic, but it is not anything to be proud of. Can we really not imagine why someone in different circumstances might respond differently to the same situation? Or are we simply unwilling to try?

This attitude presents considerable difficulties for the public discussion of history. Studying history becomes impossible if we think it is ever enough to say we ‘can’t imagine’ why anyone would feel or act differently from us. Learning about the past frequently means trying to understand people who are fundamentally unlike us in countless ways, formed by cultural values, social expectations and life experiences that no one today can entirely share.

There are some historical pastimes that can be very difficult to sympathise with; those which involve cruelty or humiliation, for instance. More generally, anyone who has studied history may recognise the experience of feeling that the priorities of the people they are reading about seem utterly bizarre. Why has this author devoted thousands of words to a subject which seems, from a modern perspective, absolutely trivial? Why did this particular theory or debate cause so much controversy? Why did it matter to them?

Yet that is the point: historians do need to ask why. Can a historian find some custom of the past alien, distasteful, or morally questionable, and perhaps feel personally glad that it has been consigned to history – and yet try to understand why it was once accepted and popular? It is not easy. We, no less than the people we study, are the product of our own time and its values and prejudices, as well as our personal experiences. The difficulty of getting inside someone else’s head can be the biggest challenge of studying history – but also its privilege and its charm. We can never fully know or imagine the recesses of another person’s mind, whether that person is our next-door neighbour or someone who lived a thousand years ago. But how far can we get if we never even try?


Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and writes a blog at