What Is Historical Writing

Ideally, historical writing – although it inevitably has a subjective element in common with other disciplines that need to establish and interpret facts – seeks to minimise subjectivity. Two separate issues need to be addressed. The first is the facts: what happened, where and when? The second is interpretation: why did it happen?

Historians and historical writers favour primary sources, use secondary sources selectively, and look for both witting and unwitting testimony. The use of unwitting testimony is of great objective value, since it is unlikely to have been contrived or exaggerated for political or social purposes, or for personal reasons. The inclusion of references and a bibliography in their writing encourages thoroughness of research and enables others to confirm its authority for themselves.

Filling in the gaps

The reputable historian gains nothing from distorting facts, but where our knowledge of a period or topic of historical significance is sketchy, it is tempting to fill in the gaps by using whatever material is available, and it is important to make clear just what the gaps are. This can be a carefully considered judgement, using whatever evidence is available, and taking into account human and social psychology, thus imparting a sense of continuity by making everything “hang together.”

Our imagination helps us to explore possibilities. In his book, Mid-Victorian Britain, 1851-75, Geoffrey Best asks: “Was the nineteenth century to be called an “age of faith?” He concludes that, although church attendance is measurable, it does not necessarily indicate that a person loves God, but possibly that respectability is more likely to be the reason. Maybe it’s fair to say that constructive use of the imagination, although it contains elements of subjectivity, is an essential feature of a historian’s questioning mind.

Novels as “historical” sources

However, Best also uses quotations from literary sources. There is an extract describing the darker side of London from a Michael Sadleir novel, in which Best asserts that Sadleir’s novels are “wonderfully accurate.” This seems naive and unsatisfactory, since novelists are not expected to follow a historian’s guidelines, and will use writing techniques to make fiction realistic. How does Best know these works are historically accurate?

Some of Best’s allusions to Charles Dickens are purely comments upon events in his life, and quotations, followed by Best’s opinion. One quotation seems to overstep the prescribed boundaries. It begins: “…drunk and utterly depraved and wicked” and concludes, “Intensely course in talk and always drunk.” This is an emotive, literary description, allegedly describing the aristocracy of the time. The fact that it is known and acknowledged that this is a quotation does not, in my view, vindicate Best, in spite of his attempt to justify himself by the need to fill in gaps that are unspecified.

In reality, Best is inflicting upon his reader someone else’s subjective view.

Problems of interpretation

There will always be elements of subjectivity in historical writing where there is any attempt at interpretation. This is the reason why historians often disagree. But subjectivity must be minimalised, by looking carefully at extracts or materials, avoiding sensationalism and emotive language.

Another problem with interpretation is that historians can be influenced by the values of his/her own time, culture, morals and religious beliefs. Psychological traumas in his or her life could cause a bias, particularly when controversial issues arise. This does not devalue the guidelines for accuracy, or the sincere pursuit of truth on the part of historians. Without these guidelines, and a sense of responsibility, the term “elements of subjectivity” would surely alter to “purely subjective.”

Is an element of subjectivity ever helpful?

Sometimes, it is possible that the historian’s feelings of sympathy can increase our understanding. In an extract “Prostitution among Needlewomen (1849) by Henry Mayhew, (a primary source for Mayhew, since the original content was taken from a newspaper of the time) and which appeared in the book, Culture and Society in Britain, 1850-1890, – a less compassionate journalist might have concluded from the text that needlewomen were actually immoral.

The featured girl’s ability to describe her dilemma convincingly persuades Mayhew and his readers to reach a more profound judgement. Mayhew identifies with the needlewoman on her own terms. History would be poorer without this element of subjectivity. It is valid, an important part of our humanity, provided we are prepared to recognise it and follow through seeking supporting evidence. The fact that Henry Mayhew travelled ten miles to “obtain the character of the young woman” shows his concern for accuracy.

We, as historians, can use Mayhew’s account of a primary source, and endeavour to compensate for his subjectivity.

The search for truth

We cannot always be sure what is true, nor can we be entirely sure what is untrue. We can only strive for truth and that is the purpose of history, which despite its failures and inconsistencies, gives us a sense of identity and wholeness. We must disseminate knowledge and abandon obsolete theories if we wish to grow as social and political human beings.

A senior honors thesis is likely the biggest project a student will complete in his or her undergraduate education. Some university history departments require a senior thesis in order to complete the degree. Others offer an optional honors program requiring a certain grade point average and departmental approval as a prerequisite.

Regardless of the individual school’s policy, if a student has to or wants to complete a senior thesis in history, there are several steps to take in working toward achieving this goal. Identifying a topic, doing preliminary research, and writing a thesis proposal are the first steps in writing an honors thesis.

Identifying a Topic and Beginning Research

The first step is for a student to identify a broad topic of interest, captivating enough to devote an entire year of intensive independent research to. To provide an example, if a student is interested in women in nineteenth-century Europe, this is not even a narrow enough topic for a doctoral dissertation, let alone a senior thesis. How about women suffragists in nineteenth century England? This is better, but still not narrow enough of a focus.

The key to finding a great topic is identifying interesting or perplexing questions about the subject of interest. Using the above subject to illustrate, some more specific questions to address could include:

  • What sorts of obstacles (financial, personal, political) did women suffragists face at the time when the movement began to pick up speed?
  • Who were some of the lesser-known English suffragists, and what role did they play in the movement?
  • What kind of support from men did women suffragists in England receive? Why did these men support the suffragists?
  • Did the suffragist movement have an effect on women’s fashion trends in England during the nineteenth century? If so, how did fashion change?
  • How much did English and American suffragists interact during the late nineteenth century? What did this do for either movement?

All of the above are more specific than writing a simple narrative. The who, what, where, and when of the thesis subject need to be addressed for the sake of providing a background. But the important questions are why and how something happened.

A student should also talk to professors about the feasability of the project. What sources exist on the subject? Is the topic still too broad to fit into a 50-100 page paper? Too narrow? Who else has written on the subject whose work is worth reading?