A Passion for History

Saturday, February 22, 2020
History was always my least favorite subject. The way it was taught was an endless series of dates and events, mostly centered around wars. When I got to the age when I had to pass the New York States Regents Exams (do they even have those now?), we used to joke about the fact that the most important thing to know was three causes and three results of every war that ever happened.

The only history that had any interest for me at all was ancient Egypt. I think it was because of the pyramids and the odd writing that was pictures and the way kings were buried with gold and jewels and, yes, food and drink for the afterlife.

Needless to say, I didn’t take any history classes in college. Who needed to know more of that boring stuff?

I’ve figured out that the problem was (is?) history is taught all wrong. The part they leave out is that history is the story of people and ideas and a way of life.

I think the first time I realized this was when I went to the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Here you can tour the birthplaces of John Adams and John Quincy Adams and hear about their lives. Their lives.

What most impressed me was the relationship between John Adams and his wife, Abigail. Women don’t get a lot of mention in the history books, so it was a revelation to me that Abigail was John’s most trusted advisor. While he spent a lot of time away from home in Philadelphia, the two maintained a lengthy correspondence. He would tell her what decisions faced the fledgling republic, and she would suggest solutions to him. He valued her opinions.

That led to a trip to Abigail’s birthplace in Weymouth, Massachusetts. What impressed me most about this home was how small it was. And the steep set of stairs you had to climb to reach the bedrooms. It was very modest compared to the Adams’ residences.

Abigail was the great-granddaughter of a minister at Old Ship Church in Hingham, Massachusetts. The building is now a Unitarian-Universalist congregation. I attended services there for a couple of years, sitting in the old box pews just like Abigail might have a couple of hundred years before. That’s the kind of thing that brings history alive for me.

As I continue to read books on the history of the Victorian Age for my new mystery series, I’m also discovering a lot about the people. Again, this is a vastly different emphasis than what is given in history classes. I vaguely remember one of those classic pictures of Queen Victoria in my history book, with references to the Opium Wars and the mean streets of Victorian London.

In America, the same period saw the rise of the the women’s suffrage movement. We heard the names Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We also heard about the Oneida Community, a religious communal society where property was held in common.

What was left out was the rise of spiritualism and the belief that certain people, usually women, could communicate with the dead, often via rappings that were signals from beyond. And that women were motivated to communicate with the dead because of the number of babies who died in their first year and children often not much longer after that. Oppressed and nearly constantly pregnant, some women rebelled against this lifestyle, seeking not only the vote, but the right to choose who they would marry or stay married to.

And in Oneida, that religious community? It also espoused free love, where any two consenting adults could have sex together. Even outside Oneida, religious ecstasy was often equated with sexual passion.

And you thought those Victorians were straight-laced, didn’t you?

I’m just beginning to get a feel for the complexities of the people and the movements that occurred during the Victorian Age. The passions and the longings that drove them. The changes brought about by electricity and rail travel and the telegraph. If I’d been taught this kind of history in school, I’m sure I would have been a lot more interested in it.

No comments

Powered by Blogger.


Elise's bookshelf: currently-reading

A Clash of Kings
0 of 5 stars
tagged: currently-reading