Intimate relationships: historians, the past, and their subjects

In this fourth post in a series of reflections on the New Directions in French History Conference in London in September, Laura O’Brien (Lecturer, Northumbria University) addresses questions of how historians relate to their subjects.


I’m sure that my colleagues and students are bored to tears with my tendency of late to preface conversation with: ‘I was at this great event on French history at the end of September, and one of the things we talked about was…’ But I can’t help it. I seem to keep finding more and more things connected to that discussion in the bowels of the IHR on 25 September.

This week, it was an undergraduate seminar on cultural history, where we discussed Robert Darnton’s exhortation at the start of The Great Cat Massacre to see the past as other, and to avoid a ‘false sense of familiarity’ with the past.[1]

I intended my contribution to New Directions in French History (or #NDFHist, the significantly more compact hashtag we used on the day) to be a reflection on how we relate to the past – specifically, to certain periods within the past.

We know from personal experience that different periods become historically ‘trendy’ at different times. What periods are hot (and what periods are not) inevitably varies from field to field. What is less clear is why certain ‘eras’ – for defining a historical era is in and of itself controversial and problematic – come to overshadow others. Why do previously hip-and-happening years/decades/centuries fall by the wayside, like the historical equivalent of an unfashionable pair of jeans? In his paper, Andrew Smith mentioned how what he called the ‘valuations of the present’ shape our perceptions of the historical past. What, then, are these ‘valuations’ and who determines them?

My interest in these questions is largely linked to my own research. For the past few years I have been (mostly) preoccupied with how one constructs the past and interprets its meaning, whether through history, commemoration, or through processes of memory more broadly defined. More specifically, my work is about how the revolution of 1848 and the Second Republic were remembered in France up to the 1948 centenary.

What brought me to this research was really a desire to understand the pervasive image of 1848 as, well…a bit of a rubbish revolution.

This image problem, as Tim Baycroft noted on the occasion of the revolution’s sesquicentennial in 1998, may in part be down to its complexity and its overarching sense of failure. By contrast, the Paris Commune – arguably more of a ‘failure’ than 1848, at least in concrete terms – offered (and continues to offer) ‘much better martyrs’ to the French and European left.[2] The continuing popular interest in la Commune is evidence of this. Despite the fact that 1848 is an essential component in the lineage of the Commune, the way in which the events of 1871 have come to dominate popular perceptions of revolution in nineteenth-century France has only served to further marginalise 1848, and to consolidate its status as la révolution oubliée.[3]

Riot Sarcey

My decision to discuss 1848’s image problem, and the broader question of how we relate to the past, unwittingly pre-empted a wider discussion that began in the first session and persisted throughout the day: how do we, as historians, relate to our subjects? On the day itself, much of our discussion of this question was centred on the extent to which our choice of subjects and our relationship with them reflected our personalities or personal commitments.

This theme has also been picked up again in some of the other blogposts responding to NDFHist. Harry Stopes has explored the question of the historian’s emotional attachment to place-as-subject in the context of his work on Lille and Manchester, while Ellen Crabtree has reflected on how, in her work, Madeleine Rebérioux is both a historian and a subject of history.

Most of my own work to date emerged from a desire to write about ‘things’ (caricature, revolution, memory, histories, etc.) rather than individuals. I wrote about nineteenth-century caricature because I was interested in it as a topic, rather than because I was specifically interested in, say, Honoré Daumier. But it is not possible to be a historian without writing about people, and in writing about people a historian inevitably develops some kind of a relationship with her, or his, historical subjects – whether positive or negative, admiring or disparaging – in spite of our insistence on objectivity. I suspect the research process would be rather boring if we did not.

What struck me during NDFHist was the role that methodology and available source materials play in shaping that historian-subject relationship. Ellen, for example, has noted how Rebérioux’s enormous personal archive allows her life to be studied in depth, not just through her work.

My relationship with ‘my’ cartoonists and editors[4] was largely mediated through the work that they produced – their newspapers, caricatures, and prints. This was due to the absence of personal papers and letters in the archive.[5] Working on the memory of 1848 – for example, on the early histories of the revolution – has involved much more research on letters and personal archives, and sometimes on material items linked to one of my subjects. As a result, it is impossible to not feel ‘closer’ to the people I write about – whether that is for good (the obvious and powerful despair in some of Louis Blanc’s letters from London) or ill (the nauseating vanity in Lamartine’s predictions about how much money he’s going to make off his Histoire de la Révolution de 1848).

What is clear is that as historians we need to be flexible in our relationship with our subjects.

Unqualified admiration, just like unqualified disdain, does not often make for good history. There are times when they will disgust you, and times when you will want to high-five them across the centuries.

After all, they’re only human.


[1] Robert Darnton, The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history (Penguin, 2001), 4.

[2] Timothy Baycroft, ‘Commemorations of the revolution of 1848 and the Second Republic’, Modern and Contemporary France 6:2 (1998), 166.

[3] Maurizio Gribaudi and Michèle Riot-Sarcey, 1848: la révolution oubliée (Paris, 2009).

[4] It says a lot about my relationship with this particular set of subjects that I’m using a possessive pronoun…

[5] A notable exception to this are the letters of Félix Tournachon, aka Nadar, which are kept in the BnF.


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