My father, for as long as I can remember, has subscribed to the Economist. He will read each issue cover to cover, folding over the articles he thinks I should read (now he forwards them to me because, the internet) but this is the age before the iPad. He would religiously pour over Bagehot and Bartleby, but there was only one article I would read week in, week out. I always turn to the last page of the weekly edition and read the Obituary. In fear of sounding dreadfully morbid, I find it deeply fascinating to read about how one person can condense another person’s life to simply one page. The same can be said about writing biographies, or what this week’s reading focused on, calling it all kind of names, my favourite being life writing. It reminded me of life drawing, and has similar connotations. Writing biographies, or micro histories is simple one person’s perspective on another person’s life, just as a life-drawing class sees everyone drawing the same figure, but each sketch will look radically different from the next.

Biographies as a form of historical writing surely widens the canon, and allow for different a greater number of interests to be considered, both inside and outside academia. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that it ties so well to transnational themes. Microhistories, like the collection of perspectives, narratives and stories we read about this week are just a few examples of how public history is being more popular and accessible. Biographies are how a lot of children are first taught history, and are often categorized separately in bookstores to the rest of historical writing. Although there is more writing about some figures over others, the popularity of the ‘untold story’ in recent demonstrates the power of transnational lives but also of those who do not fit within the traditional ‘great man’ blueprint that a lot of the history section in Waterstones seems to focus on. One of the Christmas bestsellers this past year was Anne Glennconner’s Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown. Perhaps its popularity stemmed from the recent release of the third series of The Crown on Netflix, and the focus on Princess Margaret and the breakdown of her marriage to Lord Snowdon. It is a subversion of the way in which royal history has typically been approached, as some of these figures are still alive and therefore an intrusion into their personal lives is exacerbated within the media. Yet the autobiography clearly illustrates her perspective. It is not seen as absolute truth, merely a single opinion. It sparks the age old conversation around the British monarchy, about whether it should exist and the remits to which still remains relevant in today’s society.

This is a much larger question than one for simply the British public. The Queen’s links to the Commonwealth and a deeply colonial past is a global question, and one I think The Crown shows admirable attempts in addressing. The way in which events like the Suez Crisis are shown within the show are indicative that there are inherent dangers to the single story. The links to postcolonial scholarship and even this week’s reading Subaltern Lives is evident. Only after the period of decolonisation are we starting to learn about people who were considered previously subordinate. The complicated question is how we unpack this, due to the speed of globalisation and modernisation making it difficult to define terms. In the Transnational Lives introduction chapter it says that ‘global history is no freer than national history from limiting categorizations’. Historians are still bound by the same desire to create labels, terms, isms today as they were during the Enlightenment. Yet the awareness of everyone and everything else that is happening makes this process incredibly hard, almost like trying to catch a particular fish as the whole school migrates past. It is hard to keep track of ideas as they constantly evolve, but this is a change that should be welcomed within the discipline.  

It therefore seems natural to me, that global/transnational history follow along the same veins as life writing. Biographies and obituaries are often written by people who knew the person well, because they had some personal connection or understanding. Why are connections like these not made in all historical writing? People tend to have interest in what they study because of their backgrounds and upbringing, as this is what exposes them to different styles of education and opportunities. This social and cultural focus surrounds global history, and surely is something to be celebrated.

On Life Writing

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