Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 48 (2017)
The nineteenth century saw a number of ways in which amateurs and professional historians and novelists approached the presentation of history, especially histories of the recent past. Eminent, professional historians at universities, and those aspiring to join them, increasingly avoided commenting on periods within living memory on the grounds that one could quickly lose credibility debating subjects not yet fully digested. Kingstone clearly illustrates the point in chapter 9, Conclusions: writing 'both before and after the United Kingdom's 2016 referendum decision to leave the European Union, I am aware that any arc I try to draw, any judgment I try to make about the impact of national peace or upheaval, is likely to have a very short shelf life' (213).
Another reason for Victorian professional historians to shy away from contemporary histories and instead to focus on periods in the distant past was that existing contemporary histories often blurred their subjects with journalism and literature. Some contemporary history was actually written by journalists, and some prominent writers of fiction - Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde - were also prolific in journalistic pursuits, which often dealt with recent events. When in the late nineteenth century journalism came under close scrutiny and gained a reputation for intrusiveness and prurience, there appeared 'a deep rift between journalism and history […] exacerbat[ing] the dangerous liminality of contemporary history, leaving it in no man's land' (38-9).