With no more proper historical work on hand or even on the horizon for me just now – apart from proof-reading my latest and almost certainly my last book, which is only a re-hash of old essays after all – my mind is turning back to an idea that I’ve been toying with for some years now of writing a work of historical fiction, based on the real history I’ve studied, but with bits of it made up. Not a novel set in historical times, I think, because I’d be no good at characterisation, or at plotting, which is why I turned to history rather than fiction in the first place (‘the problem with you, Bernard’, as my old English master once told me, in words that have resonated with me down the years, ‘is that you have no imagination’); but – I’m now thinking – a work of ‘alternative’ or ‘What If…?’ history.
You know the sort of thing: what if the Reformation hadn’t happened? Or Hitler had won the last War? Or Lindbergh had won the 1940 American Presidential election? Or the Neanderthals had beaten back the Cro-Magnons? (There are novels based on all these scenarios.) It’s a fairly popular little literary sub-genre; sometimes scoffed at by serious historians, but not by me. In order to understand and explain what happened in history, you need to consider alternatives. Otherwise you can be left with the sorts of answer one of my Fundamentalist Christian students gave to every exam question I put to him involving causation (this was in the late ’60s): ‘God willed it.’ (I think we persuaded him to change courses.) Or, alternatively, some other notion of ‘inevitability’. It’s only by considering fictional alternatives that we can truly understand how things have come about.
I’ve considered a number of these possible ‘alternative histories’. One that I aired on this blog several years ago cast Thatcher as a communist agent, plotting to return capitalism to the road predicted by Marx, in order to create the conditions for a genuine socialist revolution. Another was focussed on the life of Marx himself, suggesting that he didn’t really die in 1883 (I have British secret service evidence for that!), but instead went on to play cricket for Gloucestershire. (I’ll explain that some other time.) A third has the European 1848 revolutions succeeding in Britain and installing a socialist (or ‘Chartist’) government there. Then what follows….?
That last narrative is in fact is the one I’m inclining to just now, presented not in novelistic form (because of my lack of imagination), but as the kind of history book that might have been written if it had really happened. I’ve got masses of archival material which can be twisted to this end, an understanding of many of the characters who would have been involved, and experience, of course, in writing history textbooks. Once I get those proofs read, and if I can sustain my enthusiasm and summon up the energy – at a rather low ebb just now, I’m afraid – I’ll get down to it. Wish me luck.