Despite good intentions, and a couple of creative efforts,* I succumbed to radio silence here in the Margins while My Own True Love and I moved four whole blocks. The construction isn’t quite done, but we’re half-way settled into the new house. (Okay, maybe a quarter of the way. Between us we have a lot of books to unpack and
stuff onto shelves organize. )
I may not have been writing about history for the last two weeks, but I’ve certainly been thinking about it. At the risk of revealing too clearly the zigzag way my mind works, here’s an odd bit that I’ve been mulling over:
The relationship of historical figures to historical periods is often complicated and occasionally misleading. Several months ago I was stunned to realize that Woodrow Wilson was a child during the American Civil War–a fact that fundamentally shaped his policies in World War I. This past week I was equally surprised to learn that Charles Dickens, whose novels helped shape our images of Victorian London, was in fact born in the reign of George III.** When Victoria took the throne in 1837, Dickens was 25 years old and already a successful novelist. ( The Pickwick Papers had met with unprecedented success, with each issue selling 40,000 copies a month.***) Oliver Twist is set during the reign of George IV–making it an iconic work about the Industrial Revolution and the growth of cities but not an iconic portrait of Victorian London.
Therefore what, you ask? I’m not sure yet. Perhaps no more than a reminder that the boundaries of historical time periods are as fluid and artificial as the boundaries of nations. Perhaps a hint that we need to look more closely at books with titles like [Historical Figure of Your Choice] And His Time.
I’d love to hear what some of you think about this. Do you have favorite examples of important figures who straddle periods like the Colossus of Rhodes? Can you put me out of my misery by explaining why it’s important–or alternately why it isn’t? Is this just the befuddlement of a person overwhelmed by packing boxes, construction details, and the overwhelming number of colors they make bath towels in?
Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s an unpacked box of books calling my name.
* My apologies to those of you who were confused by the re-runs. We did not take off to Belgium in the middle of the move,though there were moments when it was tempting.
**For that matter, so was Queen Victoria.
*** A salutary reminder that today’s genre best seller may well be next century’s literary classic and that today’s heralded literary genius may be lucky to find a fading half- life in someone’s doctoral dissertation.