Wednesday, 13 April 2011

You can’t write history from one source only

- was the well known saying of a historian who once taught me.

All historical sources are biased or inaccurate in some way. The historian who relies on only one will inevitably have a one-sided view of events, people and places.

W. Whellan & Co.’s Directory of Manchester and Salford, published in 1853, said of Manchester:

‘Perhaps no part of England ... presents such remarkable and attractive features … as Manchester and its manufacturing district; its vast population - its colossal mills, works and warehouses - its vast extent and variety of manufactures - its commercial grandeur and magnificence - its boundless resources - its scene of untiring bustle and energy - as the “workshop of the world“ altogether presents a picture … to which neither this nor any other country can yield a parallel….

Though we cannot claim for Manchester any degree of picturesque beauty, which characterise some towns in our island, yet this deficiency is in a great measure redeemed by the noble streets, imposing buildings, and busy scenes which strike the eye.’

Brief mentions of polluted rivers and inadequate housing are well hidden among accounts of Manchester’s history, cotton manufactures, public buildings, churches, schools and parks.

Friedrich Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1844, wrote:
 ‘He who turns to the left from … Long Millgate, is lost; he wanders from one court to another, turns countless corners, passes nothing but narrow, filthy nooks and alleys…. Everywhere half or wholly ruined buildings …rarely a wooden or stone floor to be seen in the houses, almost uniformly broken, ill-fitting windows and doors, and a state of filth! Everywhere heaps of debris, refuse, and offal; standing pools for gutters, and a stench which alone would make it impossible for a human being in any degree civilised to live in such a district….

Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants.’

Dr James Kay (later Kay-Shuttleworth) wrote of Manchester in 1832:

We discover in those districts which contain a large portion of poor … that among 579 streets inspected, 243 were altogether unpaved, 46 partially paved, 93 ill ventilated, and 307 contained heaps of refuse, deep ruts, stagnant pools, ordure, &c; and in the districts which are almost exclusively inhabited by the poor … among 438 streets inspected, 214 were altogether unpaved, 32 partially paved, 63 ill ventilated, and 259 contained heaps of refuse, deep ruts, stagnant pools, ordure, &c.

All of these were written for different and specific purposes, which the researcher must be aware of.

The same is true of historical research for fictional purposes. The writer needs to gather information from a wide  range of sources. It is possible to use these differing accounts to good effect in fiction, of course. Having characters representing the different points of view discovered in research can provide conflict.

Although there must be more to the characters than their opinions on the burning social or political issues of the day. They must talk, discuss, argue, share experiences, find common interests, and one, or, ideally, both, must learn and change over the course of the book. Otherwise they will be two-dimensional and there will be no character development or plot progression - and thus no story!


  1. Very good point. Each person throughout history has their own perspective and their history is different from their neighbors. No two people remember an event in the same way.

  2. The English Historian15 April 2011 at 21:17

    And one person will give different versions of events depending on who he or she is describing them to - report to boss will be different from letter to best friend.