On This Spot, In 1753, Nothing Happened. Or Alternatively, It Did.

I’ve just finished reading one of my Christmas presents, C J Sansom’s alternative history novel Dominion. This is set in 1952, but a very different 1952: Lord Halifax, rather than Churchill, becomes Prime Minister in 1940 and sues for peace after Dunkirk, as a result of which Hitler obtains a free hand in Europe while giving Britain similar carte blanche in its Empire, the arrangement which Hitler always said he wanted. So by 1952, Britain is ruled by a vicious right-wing regime headed by Lord Beaverbrook, with Oswald Mosley as Home Secretary and Enoch Powell as India Secretary. (Having pretty much started my research on the 17th century navy thirty-plus years ago by reading Sir Arthur Bryant’s classic Pepys trilogy, I particularly loved Sansom’s throwaway line that the ‘Fascist fellow traveller’ Bryant was now education minister.) Churchill is leading an increasingly widespread and successful armed resistance, while in Berlin, Hitler is dying of Parkinson’s disease, and in Washington, Adlai Stevenson has just become President after twelve years of a Republican, isolationist White House. Sansom’s creation of this alternative world is remarkably impressive, his attention to detail quite extraordinary – for example, as someone who’s spent many hours working at the Institute of Historical Research in London University’s Senate House, I loved the idea of it having been taken over by the German Embassy (ambassador – Erwin Rommel), with Gestapo torture cells in the basement where I used to thumb through the 17th and 18th century editions of the London Gazette. Having said that, I thought that the plot itself was a bit disappointing – a massive and distinctly unlikely coincidence followed by a fairly conventional chase thriller and a somewhat flat ending. Overall, though, I enjoyed it a great deal, principally because of its brilliant depiction of a chillingly plausible alternate reality, and thought I’d use it as a launch pad in this blog for some thoughts about alternative histories and their validity.

Before I do so, however, I want to comment on what is, in some respects, the most remarkable thing about Dominion, namely Sansom’s author’s note. Much of this is taken up by a lengthy, vitriolic and highly personal attack on the Scottish National Party and its leader, Alec Salmond. This seems bizarre on several levels. While the excesses of nationalism certainly form one of the central themes of the book, Scotland plays only a small and tangential part in the plot; while one wonders how on earth Sansom’s publisher let his rant see the light of day, given its likely effect on sales north of the border. (Equating Scottish nationalists, even if only implicitly, with German nationalists wearing SS uniforms and Mosley’s Blackshirts,  is hardly likely to be classed as a PR triumph.) Whether authors should use their notes as bully pulpits in this way is a moot point, of course. Sansom had put across the point that ‘nationalism = bad’ clearly enough in the book, including the odd side-swipe at the SNP, so on one level, spelling it out in such an explicit way in an author’s note as well might be considered excessive, and perhaps even patronising to a readership who are assumed to be too lumpen to pick up on the (already not particularly subtle) anti-nationalism message in the novel itself. Moreover, I don’t recall George Orwell feeling the need to hammer home the message that ‘totalitarianism = bad’ in separate author’s notes tacked on to the ends of 1984 or Animal Farm; his texts alone spelled out the message, in the most powerful manner imaginable. Surely if one wants to get a message across in a novel, the novel itself should do the talking? For what it’s worth, you’ll never get an overt political message in any of my books, certainly not in any of the novels (although I have to admit that I’ve taken a few juicy swipes at Welsh local authorities and politicians of all persuasions in my forthcoming book, Britannia’s Dragon); I might explain the reasons why in a future post!

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Alternative history has a long and respectable pedigree, its offshoot ‘counterfactual history’ a rather shorter but even more respectable one. The difference between the two is explained concisely by an entry in the much-maligned Wikipedia, but to over-simplify outrageously, historians write counterfactual history, and tend to do so as a fun exercise, while novelists write alternative history, and tend to do so to push deeply serious agendas. Many highly distinguished historians contributed ‘counterfactual’ essays to such books as What If? and Virtual History , both published in 2000, while one of my favourite examples of the genre is the brilliant essay by Geoffrey Parker, one of the historians I respect the most, on what might have happened if the Spanish Armada had won – an alternative history also beloved of novelists, most notably in Keith Roberts’ brilliant Pavane. My first introduction to the genre was reading, as a teenager, Winston Churchill’s famous essay on what might have happened if Lee had won at Gettysburg, which opened my eyes to the fundamental truth that many of the great events of history turn upon the very smallest matters of chance and sheer luck. From time to time over the years, I’d dabble in other examples of the genre. For example, the only Kingsley Amis book I’ve ever read is his relatively little-known alternative history novel, The Alteration, which proceeds from the assumption that Catherine of Aragon gave Henry VIII a son, so the Reformation never happened, so twentieth century Britain was still Catholic. But without the challenge of the Reformation, Catholicism – as in Pavane – has remained repressive and hostile to scientific advance; for example, electricity is banned, but great airships cross the Atlantic thanks to sophisticated use of compressed air. The Alteration – the title is a double meaning, the main plot focusing on a struggle to prevent a boy soprano being castrated to preserve his voice – illustrates an important point about alternative history fiction, which is that it’s really a form of alternative science fiction; the difference being that whereas SF takes its starting point as now, alternative history places its starting point somewhere in the past and projects forward from there. In that sense, it’s essentially a literary version of steampunk!

Moreover, the distinctions between the various genres have always been blurred. It could even be argued that all historical fiction is ‘alternative history’ – no historical novel can ever be 100% ‘accurate’, so it’s bound to be presenting an alternative, at least partly imaginary version of the past. A good example of the blurring might be a book like Saki’s When William Came, published in 1913, which I’ve been reading on my Kindle. At the time of publication, it was a deliberately frightening vision of Britain under the rule of a victorious Kaiser, so essentially a work of ‘science fiction'; now, it reads as an alternative history, a sort of Dominion of its day. As such, it’s an example of one of the most useful and important aspects of alternative history, its ability to get us thinking about uncomfortable truths that might have been swept under the carpet by the actual outcome of events. Dominion is very good at bringing this out, thus placing it squarely in the tradition of other accounts of imagined occupations, such as When William Came, Owen Sheers’ Resistance, the classic 1942 movie Went The Day Well? and one of my favourite cult films, the underrated Devil Ship Pirates. So Sansom’s Britons of 1952 are divided between the resisters, those who wish to stay out of politics, and those who admire Nazi Germany and positively relish the opportunity to give free rein to their anti-Semitism and other prejudices. The experience of occupied France and the Channel Islands suggests that this is how things were bound to have been if Britain had lost the war, but it still makes uncomfortable reading.

Some historians still get very stuffy about alternative and counterfactual history, claiming that anything not firmly grounded on documentary evidence isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Personally, I find this attitude terribly blinkered. Of course, good historical writing has to be grounded in fact, based on careful analysis of reliable sources, but to take imagination out of history is rather like draining the colour from a Brueghel painting. In a nutshell, how can we possibly understand the past properly without trying to reconstruct the alternative futures that people living at a particular time imagined might lie ahead of them, or without attempting to get some sort of understanding of their hopes and fears of those futures? To take just one example, let’s consider an event that’s been used as the basis for more than one alternative history book. Let’s imagine that Bonnie Prince Charlie won in 1745, and what might have followed from his victory. A Catholic restoration, probably; but what else? Purges and retribution from above, collaboration and resistance from below – or tolerance, reconciliation and a golden age, as Sir Charles Petrie’s fanciful alternative history suggested? Perhaps a power struggle between the pragmatic Charles on the one hand and his more rigid father and brother on the other? The arrival of a French army to bolster the insecure Jacobite regime? The end of burgeoning democratic institutions such as Parliament and a free press, perhaps – and what might the impact have been on American colonies still thirty years away from asserting their independence? Would they have become independent at all if there was no Seven Years War between King James III & VIII and his staunch ally Louis XV? Going down this road and trying to construct an image of the sort of state, or states, that the Jacobites might have created in Britain is an important exercise, because it allows us a glimpse into the mental world of the Georgians who were petrified by the prospect of a Jacobite victory; therefore, an imaginary reconstruction of what a Jacobite Britain might have looked like can give us a better understanding of why people opposed it so vehemently. (If anyone wants proof that contemporaries really did speculate about the nature of a Jacobite future, have a look at Daniel Defoe’s And What If the Pretender Should Come?, published in 1713.)

Moreover, a totally rigid adherence to the random survivals that constitute what we call the ‘historical record’ – what Thomas Carlyle, a century and a half ago, rightly called ‘dry as dust’ history – has led many historians to fall into the trap of believing in a teleological vision of the past, which comes to be seen as an inevitable progression towards a particular outcome. The Whig and Marxist interpretations of history are classic examples of this, but so too are some of the more exaggerated manifestations of the doctrine of American Exceptionalism and (here I’ll agree with Sansom, up to a point) some of the ways in which the histories of Scotland, Ireland and Wales have been mangled to serve particular agendas. When writing the ‘medieval’ section of Britannia’s Dragon, for instance, it became clear to me that the traditional picture of poor, weak, divided Wales facing inevitable defeat against the far more powerful English juggernaut is a false construct, created by historians who saw Welsh history exclusively in terms of an unequal relationship between just two clearly defined modern countries, England and Wales, and projected that relationship back into the past. (Not just Welsh historians with chips on their shoulders, either; the idea of the inevitability and rightness of English expansionism still has a powerful influence on English attitudes to history, including a markedly malevolent one on the extreme right.) In fact, the story of Anglo-Welsh relations from about 900 to 1400 needs to be seen in the broader context of the whole Irish Sea, with the complex power balance between the northern Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd, the southern one of Deheubarth, England (itself not as monolithic as sometimes assumed), the Dublin Norse, the native Irish, the Manx, the Scots and above all the Norse in the Hebrides, being critical to Welsh prospects of remaining independent, and the Battle of Largs (1263), when the Norse of the Isles were decisively defeated by the Scots, as a crucial factor in indirectly determining the fate of Wales. One of my favourite books of last year, which I mentioned on this blog almost exactly a year ago, was Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms, a brilliant study of some of the lost states of Europe, which took the line that there was nothing ‘inevitable’ about those states’ disappearance and the survival of the ones which we have today, arguing that the obsessive concentration of historians on the development of the surviving modern states alone seriously distorts historical realities.

Of course, there are dangers to alternative history, too. At the more harmless end of the scale, the internet is full of discussion forums, Wikis and so forth, where people with too much time on their hands create elaborate edifices of the imagination; for instance, while researching Britannia’s Dragon I came across a staggeringly detailed account of the ‘Royal Welsh navy’ (yes, complete with aircraft carriers and submarines), the Wales in question having successfully regained its independence under Owain Glyndwr in the fifteenth century. But it’s only a relatively short step from such innocuous pastimes to preferring the alternative history to the real one; witness the ‘Confederate’ mentality which can’t really accept that the South lost the Civil War, or the ‘Braveheart’ school of Scottish history. (OK, another point where I don’t entirely disagree with C J Sansom.) And that, in turn, is only a relatively short step away from the conspiracy theory mentality which holds that what we’re experiencing is the false, alternative history, while the real truth of what happened in key events – JFK, 9/11, etc etc – is being kept from us.

I thought I’d finish with the one and only piece of alternative history I’ve ever written; or at least, written to date, as putting this blog together has whetted my appetite to write more! This was the opening of my essay on ‘James II, William of Orange and the Admirals’, published in By Force or By Default? The Revolution of 1688-9, published in 1989.

Imagine an alternative 5 November 1688. Almost at the moment that the vanguard of William of Orange’s invading army sets foot on the sands of Bridlington Bay, the mastheads of the English fleet are sighted, closing rapidly in line of battle from the south-east. The Dutch fleet, trapped between the enemy and a lee shore, and hampered by the need to defend several hundred transports clustered in the bay, struggles vainly to gain sea room. The battle is short, sharp, and decisive; by nightfall, most of the Dutch transports are ablaze and the shattered remnant of the escorting fleet is heading in disarray for Holland, bearing aboard it a sadder, wiser and disheartened Prince of Orange.

When news of the crushing victory reached Whitehall, James II gave orders for a Te Deum to celebrate the triumph of his fleet and the preservation of his throne. Provincial noblemen returned, dispirited, to their estates, and prepared to draft loyal addresses congratulating the king on his victory; colonels hastily burned incriminating correspondence and ordered their regiments to give three huzzahs for King James and the Prince of Wales; Anglican clerics agonised over drafts of sermons which would try to show that such a clear manifestation of God’s providence was not proof that He was, after all, a Roman Catholic God; and generations of historians yet unborn were condemned to spend their professional lives considering just why James II had such unanimous support from the political nation in 1688.

2 Comments

  1. John Alderton says:

    Your blogs are always enjoyable and very informative this one included, however they do seem to add to My reading list considerably. Arthur Bryants Pepys trilogy is the only one mentioned
    I have read and that was a very long time ago!

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