Poirot or Scheherazade?

Are historians inevitably faced with a choice between academic analysis or popular narrative, or should they aim to master both skills, asks Suzannah Lipscomb.

What sort of history should historians write today, especially if they write books for a thinking lay audience, such as the readership of History Today?

Recently I’ve been researching a new book about the intriguing historical riddle – and politically serious prescription – that was Henry VIII's last will and testament. It is a much-contested document. Questions have abounded since its creation over when it was signed and whether it really was adequately subscribed: did signature by Henry VIII's ‘dry stamp’, a device that created an indentation of the king’s signature to be inked in by a clerk, a sort of official forgery, constitute signature? If it didn’t, might the will, which ruled out inheritance by the Stewart line, be overturned in favour of Mary Queen of Scots? And was the will frantically tampered with as Henry lay dying or as his corpse grew cold? The context of its production is also debated. Historians have written directly contradictory accounts of the last months of Henry VIII’s life: the indomitable ‘old fox’ was firmly in control until the end, deftly dealing out justice and revenge with his dying breath, says one; the decrepit, pain-ridden king was the pathetic puppet of manipulative factions, who sought to dispose of their enemies and garner power for themselves in the reign-to-come, contends another.

Writing about such a contentious episode is exciting. The historian can familiarise herself with what everyone else has argued and, knowing her enemy, go straight to the original sources themselves to try to solve the puzzle. This is the thrill of researching history that G.M. Trevelyan was describing when he wrote: 

That which compels the historian to ‘scorn delights and live laborious days’ is the ardour of his own curiosity to know what really happened long ago in the land of mystery which we call the past. To peer into that magic mirror and see fresh figures there every day is a burning desire that consumes and satisfies him all his life, and carries him each morning, eager as a lover, to the library and the muniment room.

So far, so good. But how much of this process should a historian convey to the reader? Should her pages be crammed with historiography and debate, inviting the reader to come with her as she follows the thread out of the labyrinth, or should her workings be like the swan’s paddling feet, cloaked by the serenity of her glide across the water?

I have just read Dan Jones’ new book, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors, and I was struck by the vivid descriptions in it, the poignant scene-setting, the sense of suspense, the nimble character sketches and his enviable turns of phrase. It races along like a novel.

Yet, I know that much of the material has divided medievalists for decades: when did the Wars of the Roses start and stop? How much was William de la Pole, Earl and later Duke of Suffolk to blame for the failures of the infant Henry VI’s reign? Was Richard III a usurper who killed the Princes in the Tower? It is not that Jones’ book is unscholarly – it bristles with research and the references and reasons explaining his interpretation are all there in the endnotes for those who wish to follow them – but, on the surface, this is history as narrative. 

In so doing, Jones is following a well-trodden path: one bearing the footprints of the best-selling, literary historians of the 19th and early 20th centuries, like Trevelyan and T.B. Macaulay, who wrote, in 1828, that ‘a truly great historian would reclaim those materials which the novelist has appropriated’. But many historians today do not travel this road. I wonder if a lack of confidence in the acceptability of narrative history explains why so many historians have turned to writing novels. 

It seems to me that the historian today has a choice to make. Should one aim to be a sort of Hercule Poirot, laying out the steps that led him to the murderer, or a Scheherazade, a gifted storyteller, in this case offering up her best deciphering of the evidence to tell a plausible and compelling tale? Above all, is it possible to be both?

Suzannah Lipscomb is Convenor for History and Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the New College of the Humanities, London.