Saturday, 20 October 2001

Simon Schama: Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (1991)

Edition: Granta, 1991 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 968

A death forms the centre point of each of the two parts of this book. The first is a famous death, that of General Wolfe on the Heights of Abraham as his army was victorious. Schama looks at the way the event has been mythologised, including the completely unhistorical painting by Benjamin West and the more accurate account by American historian Francis Parkman. The second death is that of this historian's uncle, which prompted a famous murder trial in Boston in the 1850s.

The section on Wolfe is more conventional history than the other, and is rather like some of the essays on the reinterpretation of historical events in M.I. Finley's The Use and Abuse of History. It is, as one would expect from Schama, extremely well written, but it doesn't catch the interest as much as the Parkman murder.

The murder case is described as though it is a crime novel, complete with courtroom confrontation. It is a fascinating story, with circumstantial evidence the main prop of the prosecution case, the identification of the body right at the limits of the forensic science of the time, incompetent advocates, and an antagonistic judge.

In the afterword, Schama tries to show a connection between the two stories which means more than the relationship between historian and murder victim. It strikes me that he could probably be as convincing about any pair of tales of this length, and that the real connection between them is that they appealed to the historian.

The "Unwarranted Speculations" part of the title refers to the novelistic way in which the stories are told, with feelings and internal narratives attributed to the characters involved in a way that departs quite significantly from normal historiographical practice. It seems to me that this helps the stories come alive and, unlike the way in which historical novels work, it is quite easy to separate what Schama has added from the information which comes from the source documents - at least, it seemed to me to be simple.

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