Columnist Howard Jacobson recently made an interesting point about the relevance of history. He turned the argument upside down by stating (in a paraphrase of John F. Kennedy): ‘It’s not history’s job to be relevant to us; it’s our job to be relevant to history.’
I think there is much to be said for both sides in the relevance debate: we don’t want history to be so remote that we feel alienated from it, but equally we cannot automatically project the issues and preconceptions of the present day onto people and situations in the past.
But I am inspired by the reasons Jacobson gives for being attracted when he was young to what he could easily have regarded as irrelevant to him in history and literature : ‘… we read … in order imaginatively to enjoy the company of others, in order to understand what those who were not ourselves were like, in order to feel the world expand around us, in order to go places we didn’t routinely go to in our neighbourhoods or in our heads, in order to meet the challenge of difference … Reading felt like a journey out of self, not into it.’
I think the figure of Elizabeth Murray (1626-98), chatelaine of Ham House, is a good illustration of the complexities of relevance. She was clever, cultured, beautiful and feisty. She had 11 children by her first husband and married the second following a scandalous extramarital affair. She lived through the roller-coaster of the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration (her father had been a courtier of Charles I).
After marrying her second husband she enjoyed great wealth and prestige, expanding and redecorating Ham House on a princely scale (including the astounding purchase of 152 gold and silver thread tassels in October 1573). At the end of her life she was reduced to near penury, but her need to pawn jewels, silver and paintings has provided us with a poignant and wonderfully detailed record of her taste.
Some of these aspects of Elizabeth Murray’s life we can undoubtedly relate to, while others are as alien as life on Mars. But it is one of the benefits of history that it occasionally allows us to converse with aliens.