Exploring the historical imagination

IT HAS BEEN said of George Macaulay Trevelyan that he was gifted with a 'vivid pictorial sense'.
True enough, but consider for instance an extract from the opening to his biography of Earl Grey, Grey of Fallodon (1937):

Fallodon has no rare and particular beauty. It is merely a piece of unspoilt English countryside – wood, field and running stream. But there is a tang of the north about it; the west wind blows through it straight off the neighbouring moors, and the sea is visible from the garden through a much-loved gap in the trees. The whole region gains dignity from the great presence of the Cheviot and the Ocean. Eastward, beyond two miles of level fields across which [Grey] so often strode, lie the tufted dunes, the reefs of tide-washed rock, and the bays of hard sand; on that lonely shore he would lie, by the hour, watching the oystercatchers, turnstones and dunlin, or the woodcock immigrants landing tired from their voyage.

Vivid and haunting, yes, and most certainly pictorial, but the passage is much more than this. In these few lines we are introduced to a life of aristocratic distinction. The paragraph suggests the magnificence of the estate, and even the nomenclature of nature – the hardworking creatures, the oystercatchers and 'woodcock immigrants' – hints at class and privilege, as do Grey's leisurely hours in the dunes, and the juxtaposition of the vista from the garden with the moors and the ocean. And yet we may note that vigorous word 'strode', for all this will later form the backdrop to the vigour ofGrey's long and ferociously committedpoliticalcareer inLondon.

So much is achieved here in so few words, embedded, seamlessly, in the so-called vivid pictorial sense that distinguishes Trevelyan's work. It reaffirms the way in which the historical imagination is an amalgam of literary finesse and historical vision, the oneness of the part and the whole. But if vision is the informing purpose or master metaphor or Big Idea that holds a fine work of history together, then imagination is the reflective eye that knows the territory framed within the vision and ranges freely over it. It is the eye that holds both the vision and its episodic content in a kind of continual focus and fluency. It is an eye of reason; it both apprehends and comprehends. It is the hold on an intricate design. And more.


HISTORY ESTABLISHED ITSELF as a professional, university-based discipline partly by disowning its age-old association with literature; by declaring itself a systematic branch of knowledge based on rigorous scholarship; and by branding imagination, dramatisation and good storytelling as practices best consigned to the peddlers of fairytales, romances and mythologies, or to perjurers at law. A particular kind of academic authority was asserted at the expense of more creative possibilities, though not without challenges from within academic history and beyond – exemplified, respectively, by Trevelyan and his great-uncle Thomas Babington Macaulay.

At the same time literature was also inclined to a more exclusive idea of itself. Romanticism associated imagination with 'feeling', sentiment, nature, the passions, rapture even; with the business of transcending 'reason'. Mary Wollstonecraft identified imagination with the rebellious, Promethean character of mankind and contrasted it with reason-centred humanity. 'Imagination,' she wrote, 'is the true fire stolen from heaven to animate this cold creature of clay.' Imagination was about life energy, but life energy of a particular kind: the inner self, the finer sentiments, the higher self that transcends all material concerns.

Wollstonecraft's views were in part shaped by the course of the French Revolution. Her hopes for the revolution were dashed. Her belief in the possibilities of revolutionary action was gone. She was recoiling, repulsed by the 'extreme, calculating rationalism' of the Jacobins. She would remain ever the social rebel, but her faith in public action was now supplanted by a belief that social progress would have to come through individual change, through searching out the enduring truths of the heart.

As Richard Holmes reported in Footsteps: The Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), Wollstonecraft's miniature manifesto on the powers of the imagination prophesied the creative works of the next generation of Romantics, notably those of Coleridge and Shelley.

Coleridge, too, would write a passage on the imagination that would become famous and, in a way, help to lock the concept of the imagination into that binary position – opposite reason, calculation and analysis.

Coleridge's famous reverie on the imagination is nothing more than a quick word sketch scrawled in a notebook in the midst of a bumpy journey. It was November 1799. The poet was on board a coach, coming home from his first enchanting encounter with the Lakes District. He and Wordsworth had hiked about and gazed in wonder. On the journey home the all-night coach was not so rough as to prevent sleep and Coleridge hardly stirred until dawn, when he looked out the window and hurriedly reached for the notebook, jotting down a description of birds in formation over the wintry landscape:

Starlings in vast flights drove along like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Ellipse and Oblong – now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concaved Semicircle – and still it expands and condenses, some moments glimmery & shivering, dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening!

The image haunted him for years to come. He pondered its symbolic mystery. He recalled it while climbing over Scafell Pike in 1802 and he reworded it twice in his Notebooks in 1803. In effect he adopted the image, took it on as a powerful metaphor for his own imagination – a protean, pulsing, spontaneous thing, given to 'vast flights', signifying, presumably, the gamut of emotions and associated images; all, he says, 'without volition'.

More than a century later, when describing Coleridge, Virginia Woolf was happy to rely on the poet's own symbolism, associating birds and flight with imagination and creativity. He was 'not a man, but a swarm, a cloud, a buzz of words, darting this way and that, clustering, quivering, and hanging suspended'. The essence here is ancient: 'The poet is a light and winged and holy thing,' wrote Plato. The idea persists today. We still speak of 'flights of fancy' and 'flights of the imagination'. And with that, of course, we seem to have moved an awfully long way away from the business or the practice of history.

Talk of flight or wings suggests both freedom and power, protean vision, spectacular movement of mind, mental aerobatics – mastery of imagery, language and narrative reach – all, no doubt, associated with the status we give to the novelist, the playwright or the poet: elevated, sighted like a hawk, unanchored, unearthed in ways most cannot manage (or imagine). Flight is what we ordinary mortals cannot do and, as a metaphor, it measures the kudos we extend to those world-makers, the fabulous storytellers, the fictive or filmic imaginations at whom we marvel.

Shakespeare's hymn to the 'poet's eye' in A Midsummer Night's Dream makes no mention of wings or flight, and yet that eye, it seems, moves like Coleridge's starlings:

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And, as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Both poets recognised an apparently contradictory feature of their imaginative work – it was, to a point, spontaneous and perhaps even unwilled, yet it was also disciplined, systematic and ultimately deliberate in its transformation of thought into words or word pictures. And we must not miss the centrality of wordplay here – 'the poet's to airy nothing', something out of 'nothing' – the way it comes down to literary art.

Coleridge used the phrase 'without volition' to describe the spectacle of wild flight. What exactly does 'without volition' mean? Such a craft as poetry can hardly be 'without volition'. The poet's note on starlings evoked untamed movement (like Shakespeare's 'fine frenzy rolling'), yet that flight was supremely co-ordinated by some majestic affinity that creative minds – teaming with narrative schemata, images and their word equivalents – seem to share. The creative imagination unites spontaneous creativity with the deliberate work and reworking of composition, with a mastery that is anything but spontaneous. It is a mergence, an effervescing fusion, of memory, emotion and intellect. As Dickens noted: 'My own invention or imagination, such as it is...would never have served me as it has but for the habit of commonplace, humble, patient, daily, toiling, drudging attention.'

In the modest, slightly mocking self-praise that Shakespeare gives to Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost we glimpse, I suspect, something of the Bard's sense of his own powers, the workings of that extraordinary mind:

This is a gift I have, simple, simple;
a foolish, extravagant spirit full of forms,
fissures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions,
motions, revolutions: these are begot in the
ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of
pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing
of occasion. But the gift is good in those in
whom it is acute, and I am thankful for it.

The pia mater is the transparent covering of the brain. The term, which also figures in Twelfth Night, is a reminder of what a remarkable knowledge Shakespeare had of the anatomy and physiology of the brain, and of medicine in general. There are some seven hundred references to medicine and mental states in Shakespeare's plays and poetry; they are – even by our own standards, says one writer in the New Scientistof 20 January 1990 – remarkable for their accuracy. And Shakespeare was a generalist. His medical knowledge was but a small fragment of a vast store of memory covering vocations, customs, law and the legal process, sex, love, the royal courts, aristocracy and diplomacy, as well as a great familiarity with low life, and a prodigious knowledge of the Bible and mythology. His store of memory teamed with general knowledge, with the language to do it justice, with the vision to see the story and the creative power to put it all together on the page. This was 'the gift'.

It was the flight, the 'airy nothing', the 'without volition', the free association, the 'motions', the wildness of the literary imagination – the Romantics so timely in their insistence – that scared historians off, affirming their attachment to the hard facts to be found in the archives and encouraging them, until recently, to see their discipline as a social science rather than a branch of literature.

The rift settled into a sharp though not unchallenged distinction, a set of binary opposites – fiction and non-fiction, hot and cold, heart and head, fancy and reality, emotion and reason – literature and history. Historians were better loaded up with weights than liberated by wings and so, for well over a century, the weighted keepers of objective knowledge held the centre. But their authority rested, finally, on propositions about objectivity that were riddled with self-deception and denial. The centre could not hold. Twentieth-century historians were constantly wondering whether their discipline was a humanity or a social science. In the first half of that century they were inclined to think the latter; by the closing decades, the former. As Ann Curthoys and John Docker argue in Is History Fiction? (UNSW Press, 2006), 'the 1980s and 1990s would become a kind of Herodotean period of extended thinking about history as literary form; and of historians engaging in literary experimentation in imaginative and innovative ways.' This 'extended thinking' must surely extend all the way to the much saluted but rarely interrogated concept of historical imagination.

What are we doing when we imagine as historians? How does imagining differ from cold hard analysis, grilling the documents, pattern-spotting, critiquing rivals? Is it just the soft fringe of a hard discipline – here a few emotional insights into character, there a bit of scenery-evoking (atmospherics, that 'vivid pictorial sense', the novelist's empathy on loan), flounce and frills, stuff best consigned to narrative history for the trade market? Or is it in some cognitive sense a form or a part of analysis in its own right? Is the historical imagination fundamental to the practice of history?


INGA CLENDINNEN ARTICULATES better than most the complexity of the historian's task. Many of her essays over the past decade or so have touched on historical practice and the state of the discipline. The diversity of her subject matter in these essays belies an underlying, passionate cause – to define and defend the historical project, to spell out the strict limits of what is possible in history, and to explore and to maximise the 'recuperative' possibilities within those limits. Her writings are a must-read for anyone interested in the historical imagination, for she clearly articulates the oneness of the empirical and the creative aspects of history, the literary and analytical unity, the seemingly paradoxical notion that doing history requires a complete and strict subservience to the facts in the historical record as well as a capacity for richly imagining the past. History has to stick scrupulously to the facts – the surviving scraps from the past that we call the historical record – and yet history at its best will deliver up, out of those facts, a 'richly imagined, richly populated and previously unknown world'. How do we do that? How do we keep ourselves nice, pure and yet, somehow, engage with the imaginative dimension of the craft to deliver up something of these lost worlds, something lost, now regained, something vivid and new?

Clendinnen's persistence in exploring this paradox, I think, comes out of a particular political or politicised context: on the one hand, the postmodern assault on the discipline of history and, on the other, the fundamentalist broadside – the pretensions to exactitude and the crude empiricism of Keith Windschuttle and his supporters in politics and the media.

Clendinnen's history is meticulously grounded in the extant texts and yet, finally, it transcends them – extracting from what is there more than what is there. 'Imagination is a form of courage,' wrote the novelist Janet Frame. That applies to history as much as to fiction, but in history it is also a discipline in its own right; indeed, it begins with the 'discipline of context'. Great history is imagination disciplined by facts.

Take, for instance, this case study from Clendinnen's much-celebrated book Dancing with Strangers (Text Publishing, 2003). The spearing of Governor Phillip at Manly Cove in 1790 is an iconic moment in Australian history. Phillip had landed with a small party, two boats, hoping to make contact with a large party of Aboriginal people – Australians – who were feasting on the carcass of a whale. There was a sequence of exchanges distinguished above all by the language barrier and the limits of comprehension, although some meaning could be deciphered here and there. How did this exchange end up with Phillip badly injured, a spear through his shoulder, and the boat parties making a frantic retreat?

Drawing solely on the British accounts – for there are no others – Clendinnen describes with great care a complicated pantomime acted out between the British, led by Phillip, and the Australians, for whom the demonstrative Baneelon did most of the (mostly unintelligible) talking. The dramatic high point is the moment when an unknown warrior spears Phillip, and the British make that hasty retreat into their boats and row for home, deeply shocked and revisiting the encounter in talk and thought (and later in writing), trying to make sense of it.

What did happen? Firstly, Clendinnen examines the British accounts, extracting as much reliable information from them as possible, about the sequence of events and the details of behaviour at each step along the way to the spearing. This is a meticulous process requiring an ear for inflection, nuance, silences and, importantly, the innocent but significant discrepancies between one account and another. The objective is to conjure as precise a description of sequence and action – that is, of the immediate context – as is possible from multiple, varying and in some ways contradictory accounts.

Next, Clendinnen takes careful note of the assumptions of the British commentators – what they make of the Australians' actions and motives at each and every point along the way. She notes how the British accounts, notwithstanding some residual puzzlement, are shaped by racial assumptions that deny the Australians any real agency: the 'natives' are irrational; their 'actions are purely reactions to British actions'. Unlike the British, they do not have 'conscious agendas'. The why, as posed in these accounts, is answered with what she identifies as the 'panic/accident hypothesis'.

The next step is what Clendinnen calls the 'silent-film strategy', the task of considering the sequenced actions without the 'authoritative British voice-overs'. Clearly her intense engagement with the record has arrived at a point where a certain visualisation is possible, a picture of events, doubtless somewhat fogged by the lens of time but a visual sequence nonetheless and, this time, 'silent', allowing the historian to look again in order to fathom the meaning of what she sees, in particular to understand the Australians' intentions. This is a kind of 'double vision', she says, a second way of seeing the actions that comprise the event.

From context, detail and, finally, visualisation, the historian is able to imagine an entirely different interpretation of what happened, a 'silent film' in which the sequence makes sense in terms of the 'retrieved intentions' of the Australians, the second vision in that double vision: the superior account confirmed by reference to, and consistency with, the record. In this account Clendinnen makes entirely new sense of the strange reticence of Baneelon and his compatriots, of Baneelon's subsequent performance as a kind of master of ceremonies, of the gifts exchanged and the puzzling refusal when Phillip asks for an unusual spear, the spear that is ultimately hurled at him by, it now seems, a carefully positioned warrior.

What the British concluded was 'panic' following a cautious reconciliation was most likely the culmination of a hastily improvised ritual spearing in which Phillip, the Governor, was singled out to pay a penalty for various outrages committed against the Australians, not least the kidnapping of Baneelon just months before. (He was there by virtue of having escaped.)

This is opportune payback arising from a conscious Australian agenda, seizing the moment when the British unexpectedly drop in at Manly. As Clendinnen concludes: 'Having inquired into this and other events, I am coming to think that Australian politics was not tradition-bound, as sentimentalists choose to think, but flexible and opportunistic, as is often the case in societies where warriors and hunting prowess stands high.'

The 'silent film' or 'double vision' strategy works in this instance precisely because the established sequence and actions – derived from an intense engagement with the available texts – make far more sense when the opportune-payback interpretation is applied than the reactive natives-panic hypothesis.

Clendinnen's method here is a clear, step-by-step exhibition of the historical reasoning and imagination at work together. It is all the more helpful because her terminology identifies the way that rigorous empirical work shifts at a certain, advanced point in the inquiry, onto a visual plane that carries interpretation through to explanation.

But this moment is something more than visual: it is the situation on that beach loaded up with the uncertainties of the moment, with possible motives, with intentions, with anxious contingencies, and with the intensity of feelings (as best we might intuit them), some hidden, some explicit, feeding into this uneasy encounter between strangers who must guess as they go. It is the imagining of the still fluid context, with its spontaneous possibilities. It is the historian immersed in the unfolding plot, of unclear direction, with outcomes as yet unresolved, more or less unpredictable. It is the immediacy of the past, the still fluid context of that present back then. It is the visual, yes, but the visual loaded with transcendent understanding.

The phrase 'the still fluid context' comes from the English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who argued for the importance of the historical imagination as the capacity 'to restore to the past its lost uncertainties, to reopen, if only for an instant, the door which the fait accompli has closed'. By 'still fluid context' he meant a past circumstance or situation in its unresolved condition, before the fait accompli, with all those uncertainties, all the contingencies and their possibilities, plans and ambitions – hoped for, wished for, fought for – still in play: 'History is not merely what happened,' he wrote. 'It is what happened in the context of what might have happened.' When Barbara Tuchman was asked how she wrote The Guns of August (1962), about the first month of World War I, she said, 'I wrote as if I did not know who would win.'

Grace Karskens has achieved something similar in her recent book, The Colony (Allen & Unwin, 2009), where she has, through meticulous and wide-ranging research, mapped the variety and ubiquity of the Eora presence in Sydney over some thirty to forty years of colonisation. And behold! Another Sydney town, a vision no historian had hitherto comprehended or seen or delivered up to a readership. The fascination of TheColony is the openness of Karskens' evocation – a colonial town loaded with cross-cultural relationships of such variety; relationships that in their totality amounted to that 'still fluid' time, with the richness of possibilities that preceded what was eventually seen as the fait accompli, so much so that these preliminaries have been all but forgotten or, at least, never comprehended in their meaningful totality or, indeed, in their transition to something else.

The great English historian EP Thompson expands on this way of seeing in his essay 'Historical Logic':

In investigating history we are not flicking through a series of 'stills', each of which shows us a moment of social time transfixed into a single eternal pose: for each one of these 'stills', is not only a moment of being but also a moment of becoming: and even within each seemingly-static section there will be found contradictions and liaisons, dominant and subordinate elements, declining or ascending energies. Any historical moment is both a result of prior process and an index towards the direction of its future flow.

The historical imagination entails a lift out of the texts, to a new vision that is both from and beyond them; it is the perception of these energies in process – closely described episodes framed by panoramic grasp. To convey it fully, to get it down, the historian requires something of the generalist skills we noted earlier – a rich and varied store of memory (that composite of education and experience and wide general knowledge) combined with the capacity to see a new story and the creative power to put it on the page:

...begot in the
ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of
pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing
of occasion.

Imagination is the creative faculty of the mind wherein new images and conceptions – things and ideas hitherto unknown – are summoned into the world. The natural home of the imagination is supposedly fiction or art: Dickens' London ('Fog, fog everywhere...'), Patrick White's Voss (in that landscape of desert and mind), Picasso's diffracted faces. But conjuring new images and conceptions has a vital place in other disciplines too – in physics, for instance, or in geology or evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin was emphatic about the importance of the imagination in his work. The young Darwin had his own phrase for this transcendent way of seeing. Long before he wrote On the Origin of Species (1859) he called it the 'eye of reason' – an insight as important to history as it is to science.

Perhaps the most quoted instance of Darwin reflecting on imagination appears in his Voyage of the Beaglejournal (1839) following his observations of the Pacific coral reef known as the Enewetak Atoll. At that time Enewetak was no more than a ring of coral on the fringe of a sinking island mountain. Darwin theorised that corals can only live near the ocean's surface and that in nature's artful way coral polyps built upon previous generations of coral reef as their land base sunk, a process possible because the simultaneous sinking and building took place over fifty million years or so. So coral builds upon coral imperceptibly, life building upon death, inexorably. Darwin's presentation of his counter-subsidence theory in The Voyage of the Beaglejournal sparked a passage that would become almost as well known as anything he later wrote in On theOrigin of Species. Here was a rare moment when he was demonstrating his imaginative powers and theorising them at the same time:

We feel surprised when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tenders animals! This is a wonder which does not at first strike the eye of the body, but, after reflection, the eye of reason.

The 'eye of reason' is a wonderfully evocative notion. As Darwin explicitly says, this eye is not the eye of the body. It is the eye of the mind, reason's womb, that is being conjured here, and it is this eye that is required to imagine the counter-subsidence artistry of the corals.

What we need is more than the vision, in the ordinary sense, to see motion or patterning across geological time. The object is change fashioned so intricately and so gradually that the eye we require is one that ranges across eons and makes the invisible visible. We see the 'silent film', sped up so we can grasp it in the mind. The only way of seeing this properly is through a narrative of formation. Darwin elaborates:

The organic forces separate the atoms of carbonate of lime, one by one, from the foaming breakers, and unite them into a symmetrical structure. Let the hurricane tear up its thousand huge fragments; yet what will that tell against the accumulated labour of myriads of architects at work night and day, month after month?

Darwin is speaking of a transcendence of sorts, an imaginative reach that follows upon these reflections, an awesome choreography. The perception is itself a culmination of a reasoning process. Darwin hypothesises particular acts ('organic forces separate the atoms one by one'); he sees a great number of these acts as a single combined action ('myriads of actors at work night and day'); and – here is that transcendence, the imaginative process at its apogee – he sees, as if in a silent film, how this endless action accumulates into one event, albeit over fifty million years. This is the silent-film strategy in mega proportions, yet somehow compressed so as to be manageable, mentally, visually. It is time-lapse cinematography of the mind. It is why some writers have talked about the Darwinian 'sublime' – the wonder that is embodied in this vision and the experience of grasping it, a powerful reminder that the Romantic impulse and reason can be entirely compatible. Through an act of the imagination Darwin 'projected a sense of nature's ecological complexity that was otherwise unavailable to him' – or anyone else, for that matter. And he had the literary skill to convey his vision persuasively (upon the 'mellowing of occasion'). This, surely, is 'the gift'!

Long before Darwin used the term 'eye of reason' Immanuel Kant grappled with a closely related problem. The sequentiality of Darwin's imaginative act bares comparison with Kant's attempt to articulate imaginative perception. Kant cited the pyramids and asked: How do we see any one of them? How do we 'apprehend' the parts of the object and yet also attempt to comprehend the entirety of the object? Like Darwin, he asked his readers to apprehend the elements sequentially (diachronically for coral, spatially for the pyramid) and to 'comprehend' the whole thing, the big picture (the inter-relatedness of the totality in the case of the pyramid; the process, the narrative of formation, in the case of coral). But here, Kant argued, there is a considerable problem, for in coming closer to see the detail you inevitably lose the vision or grandeur of the totality. The sublime moment for Kant is the moment when the mind both apprehends and comprehends at those two levels. The corporeal eye cannot do this, but what we now call the eye of reason can.

Imaginative history is like this. Though confined to historical rather than geological time, it comprehends discrete episodes in relation to a much greater totality. It is microscopic and panoramic, precise and poetic in its re-presentation of detail, and comprehensive in its vision or its grasp of the context in which detail is located. The eye of reason in history inevitably means envisioning holistically, and beyond the orthodoxies of fashion able contemporary interpretations. It means grasping connections, patterns, processes, evolutions. It implies a kind of imaginative sublime. It is a flash of vision and a structure of deep understanding. The historical imagination is a paradox of groundedness and transcendence. It is weights and wings. It is that Kantian moment when the dynamic interplay of the vision, the narrative of formation in its totality and its particularities, is seized and held in the mind, and thereafter refined and perfected in the artistry of the writing.

Perhaps this achievement bears comparison with fully seeing a Monet – the apparently formless ensemble of blotches seen up close and their relation to the exquisite landscape we see on stepping back: from ferment of colours to triumph of form. The truth about patterns and connections between discrete facts in history is that they are not invented, and yet seeing these patterns and grasping the importance of these connections entails a process of imaginative construction that goes far beyond the intrinsic properties of the documentary record. It requires a magisterial capacity for reflection and integration; it is not so much about selection as it is about recognising and naming hidden patterns and pulses, those 'declining and ascending energies', the imminence in a moment, or a season, or an epoch.


WHAT TREVELYAN'S FAMOUS paragraph does so well for the part, EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class does even better for the whole. The Making was published in 1963 and soon recognised as both a literary masterpiece and a vision of Britain's past that was not only original but also possibly unprecedented in its boldness, its informed moral passion and its breadth. The prose was eloquent, percussive and passionate. Critics conceded the poetic richness of the language. Defenders thrilled to the sheer human vitality of the wit and imagery, noting (crucially for my purposes) how the literary achievement was indivisible from the theoretical achievement.

It is almost fifty years since The Making was published. Time enough for historians to, quite legitimately, find flaws and limitations that somewhat more tightly frame the achievement. And yet the book has stood the test of time.

The principal achievement of The Making is the imaginative reach of Thompson's project combined with the prose, made radiant by his moral passion. The reach is heroic in its poetry, its vividness and originality. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, the book superbly reveals how the formation of the working class in the Industrial Revolution entailed the creation of a 'counter-public sphere': counter to the bourgeois public sphere that preoccupied mainstream history. 'In the Corresponding Societies, the radical press, Owenism, Cobbett'sPolitical Register and Paine's Rights of Man, feminism and the dissenting churches, a whole oppositional network of journals, clubs, pamphlets, debates and institutions invades the dominant consensus, threatening to fragment it from within,' writes Eagleton.

It is this grand vision, packed richly with the fruits of the most intricate and painstaking research, that is the imaginative achievement – an extraordinary exercise in the reconstitutive imagination. It is the retrieval of a previously unseen 'underworld' (unseen in any comprehensive and holistic sense). It is an exercise in network construction that takes the reader way beyond the relations of face-to-face groups to a kind of imagined community (an oppositional network) of national proportions. So, for instance, early in the piece Thompson draws into summary form some of the connections that constitute a fragment of his vision. He begins with the artisan Thomas Hardy: a brief biographical profile gets Hardy to London, married, ensconced in his trade and busy in his role as first secretary of the London Corresponding Society. He then moves to a snapshot of the way this network fanned out:

One of his colleagues, a Chairman of the LCS, was Francis Place, on his way to becoming a master-tailor. The line between the journeyman and the small masters was often crossed – the journeyman boot and shoemakers struck against Hardy in his new role as a small employer in 1795, while Francis Place, before becoming a master-tailor, helped to organise a strike of Journeymen Breeches-makers in 1793. And the line between the artisan of independent status (whose workroom was also his 'shop') and the small shopkeeper or tradesmen was even fainter. From here it was another step to the world of the self-employed engravers, like William Sharp and William Blake, or printers and apothecaries, teachers and journalists, surgeons and Dissenting clergy.

'Dissenting' being the apposite word, for Thompson is summoning up – to the extent his vast scholarship enables – an entire 'underworld' of dissent, of resistance. He sees that evolving sense of working class commonality that, with the publication of The Making, will both disrupt and reshape our understanding of the industrial revolution. His summaries comprehend for us the big picture, so that we might better apprehend or situate the parts within. He goes on to do this, for instance, with London:

At one end, then, the London Corresponding Society reached out to the coffee­houses, taverns and Dissenting Churches off Piccadilly, Fleet Street and the Strand, where the self-educated journeyman might rub shoulders with the printer, the shopkeeper, the engraver or the young attorney. At the other end, to the east, and south of the river, it touched those older working class communities – the waterside workers of Wapping, the silkweavers of Spitalfields, the old Dissenting stronghold of Southwark. For two hundred years 'Radical London' has always been more heterogeneous and fluid in its social and occupational definition than the Midlands or Northern centres grouped around two or three staple industries...

But, of course, the Midlands and the Northern centres and other regions will have their moments too. Progressively that fluency of focus between the vision and its detail, contexts within the context, will accumulate, building the imaginative achievement into something sublime – both from and beyond the historical record. It is the eye of reason in which the particularities of geography and political culture are framed by the panoramic vision.


METHOD, OR WHAT Thompson calls 'the discipline of context', is where imaginative achievement both starts and finishes for this historian. It is in the discipline of context that 'each fact can be given meaning only within an ensemble of other meanings,' he writes. This requires a magisterial capacity for reflection, selection and integration, for recognising and naming hidden patterns and pulses, networks, affinities, whole spheres of relationships; not the creation of contexts but their retrieval – the reconstitutive imagination in action. It requires, too, 'a sensitivity to tone, awareness of the inner consistency of the text and of the significance of imagery'. Where the discipline of context engages with the poetic (literary artifice), we find the wellspring – the point of anchorage and the point of take-off – of the historical imagination.

For his later study of the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century ritual of humiliation called 'rough music' Thompson noted that he needed not one hundred instances which were imperfectly understood but a much smaller number, ten, or even five, 'in which one can disclose something of the personal history of the victims, the flagrancy of the offence, the kinship relations in the neighbourhood, the insights afforded by some revealing phrase in a deposition'.

These are the micro-studies, the vivid, path-breaking episodes within the totality of the vision. 'History,' wrote Thompson, 'is made up of episodes, and if we cannot get inside them we cannot get inside history at all.' He was a contextualist striving to understand the complex nature of beliefs and behaviours in another time, and fully alive to the extraordinary difficulty of retrieving that otherness from such a distance.

When the historian Iain McCalman wrote in Darwin's Armada (Viking, 2009) about Darwin's sojourn in South America and how his reading of Lyell's Geology came together with his observations in the Andes, he noted the kind of movement that the 'eye of reason' entailed. McCalman wrote of 'a mind sweeping forward over the entire western coastal terrain of South America, then back through the recesses of time.' In a similar way, we may observe in The Making of the English Working Class both the vision and its episodic content in continual interaction, a mind moving freely across time and place over a span of more than half a century of dramatic change, from pre-industrial radical traditions to the experience and material lives of the working classes, and the growth of class consciousness through institutions such as trade unions, friendly societies, religious and educational movements, political organisations, periodicals, intellectual traditions, patterns of community and structures of feeling. We both apprehend and comprehend that 'counter-public sphere' coming together, progressing, faltering, fluctuating, evolving across time.


THE ANTHROPOLOGIST RENATO Rosaldo has argued that Thompson's radical underworld is a literary invention, the product of the author's 'melodramatic' imagination. Rosaldo has suggested that history in The Making is the portrayal of conflict simplified into a battle between good and evil. Rosaldo's critique is postmodern in the sense that the achievement in The Making is reduced to a literary fiction; it comes down, finally, to passionate artistry (of the melodramatic kind) rather than brilliant analysis.

Rosaldo's observation of Thompson's artistry is in some ways insightful but ultimately misleading. He rightly draws our attention to passages that powerfully portray persecution and suffering, to passages where Thompson quite clearly takes sides, and where his preference for radical spirit over ameliorist purpose is unmistakable and his own presence as passionate historian is unsubtle. But what Rosaldo does not seem to grasp is the analytical achievement. Obsessed with the melodramatic, he is indifferent to the book's vast, deep scholarship. He privileges the 'melodramatic imagination' over the reconstitutive imagination, the understanding that arises from an epic encounter with the historical records. It is as if the 'defensive ideology' of the 'free-born Englishman' or the 'moral economy of the English crowd' or the pitiless, inhibiting dogmas of Methodism were the inventions of a novelist. The critic rightly draws our attention to some features of the literary artifice – for what is historical imagination without it – but he singularly fails to link these features to the scholarly achievement or to inquire into the composition of their crafted unity. It is not a question of passionate artistry or brilliant analysis – imaginative achievement in history comes from the engagement of the two. It spirals, like a double helix, out of their fusion, their working partnership, in the discipline of context.

The American historian Stephen J Pyne, in Voice and Vision (Harvard University Press, 2009), writes: 'Style is not merely decorative or ornamental, any more than are feathers on a bird. Style performs work. Whatever its loveliness or ostentation, it is what allows the creatures to fly, to attract mates, to hide from predators, to be what it is.' The observation recalls a line from Julian Barnes's 1984 novel, Flaubert's Parrot: 'form isn't an overcoat flung over the flesh of's the flesh of thought itself.' We are reminded that there's only one true rule – style must reconcile with subject and poetics with historical vision.

What Rosaldo takes to be melodrama is in fact prose made radiant by political passion, wielded, as it happens, by a historian who knew that the research must be immaculate if the politics and the passion are to persuade. The richness of the language, the vitality of the wit and imagery are, therefore, indivisible from the historical achievement – the originality of the vision in all its hitherto unfamiliar particularity. As it was with Darwin.

We cannot acknowledge Thompson's radiant prose without, at the same time, acknowledging the breadth and precision of the research, the stunning act of retrieval that is central to the achievement in The Making of the English Working Class. Imagination in the discipline of history is the capacity to see the vision and its parts in continual focus and fluency, and to render it as literature. It is the hold on an intricate design and its particulars. It is anchored in the record, recuperative in essence, and yet it soars above thatrecord and,inevitably, is companion tooutstandingachievement.


Thanks to Inga Clendinnen, Mary Cunnane, Greg Lockhart, John Hirst, Brian Hoepper, Stuart Macintyre, Iain McCalman, Ros Pesman, Suzanne Rickard, Deryck Schreuder and Julianne Schultz for critical commentary and discussion along the way.

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