Historic passion; A much-admired historian takes as much interest in sources as the stories she shares
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 22 September 2015)

Babur was an ambitious warrior-poet who began life as a minor prince in Central Asia and established by conquest a 15th-century Mughal empire, first in Kabul and then in India. He's one of the stars of History's People: Personalities and the Past (House of Anansi Press), Margaret Mac-Millan's quite wonderful book version of her 2015 Massey Lectures for the CBC. Babur's appearance here demonstrates MacMillan's passion for history and her understanding of how history gets written.

Babur's autobiography, called the Baburnama, is a rich source of information about his times and travels but the uniqueness of it lies in his highly personal tone. He writes about his inner life, describing his many regrets along with his victories and defeats. He's sorry, when he looks back, about the silliness that made him write obscene poems in his youth. He accuses himself of drinking too much and taking too many drugs. He thinks it was wrong to let his soldiers plunder the places they conquered.

By the standards of today Babur was a brute. He lived in a time when a prince like him sometimes celebrated a triumph by sending an ally the head of an enemy. Yet he was also civilized. His curiosity made him an avid gardener and a naturalist who studied the flowers and creatures anywhere he paused. At one point his book describes five types of parrot. He was an amateur anthropologist, fascinated by the customs of India, such as the caste system.

The decision to write a frank and emotionally informative memoir sets him apart from all his contemporaries and most rulers who have lived since. This is what endears him to Margaret MacMillan. She's a much admired historian who takes a special interest in the sources that make the writing of history possible. Babur is only one of many historic figures who earn her gratitude by leaving archives, letters, diaries and logbooks, the sources that provide us with at least partial glimpses of the many worlds that came before ours.

We go to them for an enlarged view of the diverse ways that humans have lived and seen themselves - and of course for ancient gossip. The paintings of Babur make him look like a formal statue of himself: He wears a jewelled turban and rows of pearls around his neck. Usually he's sitting on a marble throne or a handsome horse. But his memoirs, as Mac-Millan says, take us below the glittering surface and disclose a complicated human being.

For MacMillan the writing of history requires the uncovering of this recognizably human quality. She writes about the records Samuel de Champlain kept in New France and about Victor Klemperer's I Shall Bear Witness, the diaries he kept as a German Jew who lived through the Nazi persecution from 1933 to 1945. (In 1936 he celebrated "the worst birthday of my life," when a weeping librarian told him that as a Jew he was no longer allowed to borrow books.) Mackenzie King kept amazingly complete diaries, in which at one point he compared his personal distress over the wartime conscription crisis to the agonies of Christ on the cross. The diaries of Charles Ritchie, a shrewd and witty Canadian diplomat, bring (as MacMillan says) colour and depth to recent Canadian history, notably when Ritchie writes of his long-time lover, the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, "Naked, she becomes poetic, ruthless and young." Those in powerful positions often seem bloodless to their contemporaries, but with luck posterity inherits a clearer view.

If MacMillan warmly appreciates all those who create historically valuable records, she's obviously not pleased with those who destroy such records, whether out of propriety or some bitter and intolerant belief system. After Byron's death his literary executor read the manuscript of his memoirs, found them dangerously racy, and convened a meeting of Byron's friends and relatives that ended with his last work going into the fireplace. The widow of a great explorer, Richard Burton, burned his manuscripts because they described sexual practices he had enjoyed in the Middle East and India. The letters of Jane Austen were burned by her sister for reasons unknown. Serbian nationalists shelled the Bosnian national library in Sarajevo, turning priceless manuscripts of the Ottoman Empire into ashes.

People who imagine that history is boring probably acquired that idea by reading high-school textbooks crammed with facts but totally lacking in spirit and point of view. School texts are normally lifeless: Since they must be acceptable to everyone they please no one. Many readers of MacMillan's book will want to give a copy to young people whose brains have been deadened by textbooks.

History's People urges us to see the past in another way. MacMillan has provided us with a brilliantly guided tour through a dramatic and emotionally penetrating account of the human beings who by accident or design (and often through the luck of good timing) created the world we live in. She encourages us to see the human qualities, the frailties and passions of men and women who make history.

David Lloyd George (MacMillan's great-grandfather), prime minister of Britain during and after the First World War, made his way from a remote corner of Wales by ruthless ambition: "My supreme idea is to get on," he wrote in a letter early in life, and he did. Woodrow Wilson's uncompromising insistence on his own plans doomed his greatest project, the League of Nations. Otto von Bismarck, creator of modern Germany, combined brilliance, ruthlessness and cynicism: "He lied without hesitation and invariably blamed others for his mistakes." Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger may have been self-interested when they opened relations between China and the U.S. -"but," Mac-Millan reminds us, "they were also brave." Understanding their always complex personalities helps us understand their actions and their eras.

MacMillan doffs her scholar's cloak, steps outside academe, and speaks in confident tones to everyone who reads. She wants to tell them what excitements and pleasures they're missing if they don't find time to read some history.

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