Interview with leading historian Ophelia Field for the 'History Issue' of Vice Magazine.
It’s All Just A Little Bit Of History Repeating
A Conversation with Ophelia Field
Ophelia Field is none of the things historians are meant to be. This young, attractive and articulate graduate of Christ Church Oxford and the London School of Economics has zero scalp issues or beige wardrobe fetishes and knows lots more than you about the early 18th Century.
When she isn’t acting as a consult to the UN on Refugees and Exiles she can be found freelancing in the earnestly large pages of the Sunday Telegraph and The Times Literary Supplement. She also somehow finds the time to rattle out chunky books on her fave period of British history which she reckons to be from around 1690-1750.
Her 2002 work on Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough got the history brass in a lather and she is set to follow that with a book on the pretty hilariously named ‘Kit-Cat Club’. Unfortunately this has nothing to do with a bunch of people really into eating tin foil swaddled chocolate and everything to do with a movement that changed the whole way in which the power of the printed word was perceived.
As a bunch of printed words with all conquering power aspirations ourselves we reckoned she would be the perfect person to talk to.
VICE: Hey Ophelia, how did you get into the whole history game?
Ophelia Field: Firstly while most would call me ‘a historian’, it isn’t a label I use about myself. I think of myself as a writer, whose books so far have happened to be about the past and aim to be thoroughly factual. Though I accept the subjectivity of history, I always like to know whether I’m writing or reading something that is attempting to be empirically true.
That is something that, regardless of everything else, I think we look for. The truth.
You must look for the truth based on primary evidence and divorce that from the opinion of people. I have no problem with today’s blurring of the genres of history, biography and imaginative fiction, so long as the reader remains conscious of the distinctions and doesn’t come away from a novel under the impression that they’ve read a reliable historical account.
So you’re basically saying don’t take The Da Vinci Code or The Passion of The Christ too seriously?
There are too many countries where people today still risk their lives fighting for certain historical facts to be acknowledged and taught in schools to start confusing fact with fiction. We shouldn’t get lazy about it just because we’re lucky enough to live in relatively free societies.
How did you initially become interested in the subject itself?
It was actually the conflicting interpretations of history that first attracted me to it at school. I had good teachers, who always made it clear there were at least five sides to any historical story and that we ourselves could come up with a sixth interpretation with a little bit of effort. I actually had another career (as a refugee advocate) for almost a decade before I returned to my enthusiasm for history.
Was there a single historical area that pulled you back towards the subject?
What brought me back was my fascination with a particular character – Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1742). She reminded me of certain tough but misunderstood women I had met in politics and while working the human rights field. A friend of mine told me about Sarah when I was describing a colleague at work one day. I started reading up on Sarah’s life. She was the best friend and possible lesbian lover of Queen Anne and totally fascinating. Before I knew it I was writing Sarah’s biography.
What is it that makes Sarah’s period so interesting?
I like the early eighteenth century it because it is one of the lesser known periods of British history. It’s ignored by both the boy-historians who love the Civil War and guns and blood and the campy-historians who love the big hair and costumes of the later eighteenth century also give it a wide berth. It was also a time of important change when many elements of what we think of as modern life first emerged.
What are we talking here in terms of ‘modern’?
In my new book, I look at a number of situations in the 1690s and early 1700s that now seem amazingly familiar. The ‘culture wars’ fought between puritanical Christians and the more secular, libertine, urban elites (including members of the Kit-Cat) are directly comparable to the culture wars over ‘God, guns and gays’ raging in the United States today. The divide between city and country life was becoming more profound, and in the cities individuals were pushing the boundaries of free expression that had already cracked open in the seventeenth century. Only the other day the British Government announced it would finally look at repealing the blasphemy laws, so that struggle isn’t even over yet.
Yikes. What else did the Kit-Cat Club get up to aside from having the best name in town?
The name came from one of the groups founders Christopher ‘Kit’ Cat and yes the chocolate bar probably did pilfer its name from the club. More importantly the newspapers launched by Kit-Cat members Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the 1710s, The Tatler and The Spectator, were part of a printing and reading boom. They intended to teach Christian morals, but they were in fact a substitute for the authority of the pulpit. They taught hundreds of thousands of Englishmen how to live their daily lives according to ‘polite’ social rules. They were the beginning of modern journalism, with its emphasis on culture, style and opinion. Without Addison and Steele, there would be no Vice.
Thanks guys, remind us we owe you one! Did the press criticize the government as it does now?
My period did see accusations made against the British Government that its ministers were profiting privately from a long expensive war against France – criticism akin to current hostility to the ‘military-industrial complex’ in the USA and the ‘No blood for oil’ opposition to the recent invasion of Iraq so yes. England’s wars against Louis XIV were sustained by anti-Jacobitism (fear of invasion or insurgency by supporters of the former Stuart monarchy), and this can be directly compared to anti-terrorism rhetoric today: both fears having a foundation in reality but at the same time being played upon by those whose power is based on defending national security.
We never learn eh?
I personally found deep relevance and comfort however in the way that writers and artists in the early eighteenth century, such as the poets and playwrights in the Kit-Cat Club, juggled their creative careers with day-jobs and adapted to the rapid professionalisation and commercialisation of the arts. Their worries almost exactly mirror ours.
Could you single out an event in British history which you feel has had the greatest resonance on the world we are sitting in right now?
Historians are prone to argue that anything important happened first in their period. You can find two historians analysing events 500 years apart and each writing about ‘the first rise of capitalism’ or ‘the new middle-class’. I won’t claim to pick one event from the totality of British history, just one from my own period: the South Sea Bubble.
What happened when the bubble burst?
The 1690s saw the start of Europe’s ‘commercial revolution’ in which the Bank of England was founded on new theories of credit finance, supporting the first ever national debt, and leading thousands to invest in the stock-market. The Kit-Cat Club’s members were a part of this revolution. Less than thirty years later, however, in 1720, the profitless South Sea Company crashed and the first ‘bubble’ burst, plunging London into deep economic gloom and confirming the deepest fears of those Christians who felt that the over-sophisticated financiers were intrinsically deceptive and sinful. Today, as we sit watching the sub-prime mortgage crisis plunge the global economy over the edge, and analysts still talk in terms of ‘bubbles’, it is apparent that our society is still ricocheting between these two poles of childish faith in the markets and then childish heartbreak at their unregulated greed.
This history thing really is into repeating itself again and again. If there was one period of history you would like to live in to escape all this booming and busting what would you go for?
Knowing too much about the physical hardships of the eighteenth century, I would choose a more recent period. If I could be sure to be a woman safe on the British home front, I would live among those who survived both the First and Second World Wars, because that generation had two post-war chances to construct brave new international structures, based on brief windows of moral consensus and political will in the West. I’d like to have worked among those who established the ill-fated League of Nations, or paved the way for the extraordinary Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will see its 60th anniversary this December. As a second best to living in the early twentieth century, I plan to write about it.
Who is your favourite historian? You can’t say yourself here.
A living expert on my own period, the eighteenth century: the British historian Linda Colley, currently a professor at Princeton. Her books always combine impeccably detailed scholarship and fluent storytelling with sweeping new perspectives of the kind that women are usually too modest to make. Her best work has appeared once a decade – In Defiance of Oligarchy (1982), Britons (1992) and Captives (2002) – and has fundamentally shifted the terms of historical debate with their understanding that history is made as much by fears and imaginings as by economics and armies. Everyone should give them a read.
The Kit-Cat Club: Friends Who Imagined a Nation by Ophelia Field is available from June from HarperPress. Go buy it.