A Question of Narration

London Bridge from the Southwark side, c 1751  (source: telegraph.co.uk)

London Bridge from the Southwark side, c 1751 (source: telegraph.co.uk)

Imagine the scene.

A handsome man dressed in a finely worked frock and greatcoat leaves a stately home in London’s aristocratic quarters. Assisted by a servant in an immaculate uniform he climbs into his carriage – a gift from his wife’s father. He doesn’t have to tell the driver of the carriage where to go, the servant knows well. After all, he had driven his master to the palace every morning of this past week. The servant is proud of his duties. Since the news of his employer’s promotion had arrived last week, the man had been able to brag to the other customers of the Kings Arms Inn that he would surely receive a pay raise now. So far, the man in the back of the carriage had made no inclination of actually paying him more, but the day would come, the driver was convinced. His employer was a good man, better than most lords and politicians in the city. Inside the carriage, the handsome man smiles to himself, while the scenery of London rushes past. His promotion had been no surprise. For two years, he and his wife had worked to gain the ear of the Queen, and had used their influence to make their way into her inner circle. Private talks in the royal chambers had followed. Now, he was Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, and able to direct the daily business of the Queen herself. On top of that, she had given him a place in the cabinet, unheard of for a man of his position. The Whigs had cried foul, of course. They were terrified of his influence. Godolphin himself had told the Queen that with him being Lord Chamberlain – a Tory! – Parliament would be soon dissolved and general elections a given. The man in the carriage grows excited while he thinks of the prospect. How hard had his friends in the Tory party worked to regain power from the bloody Whigs! For ten years, Great Britain had fought the French in the War of the Spanish Succession, with no end in sight. With Tories back in control of Parliament, they would bring an end to further escalation. Public opinion was on their side, the man in the carriage muses, when the driver brings the horses to a sudden stop. They had arrived at their destination, St. James’s Palace. The handsome man – whose face barely shows the marks of the fifty years he had lived – steps out of the carriage and heads towards the gates. Still smiling, he – Charles Talbot, the Duke of Shrewsbury, and newly appointed Lord Chamberlain of Queen Anne’s Household – makes his way into the audience chambers on the 19th of April, 1710, to announce the arrival of four savage visitors from the Queen’s American Colonies.

Talbot was deeply embroiled in political manoeuvrings, questions of status, and his personal relationship with the Queen. He did not think much of the four Indians he had to announce as part of a small distraction in today’s business.

Portland Place in around 1796  (source: telegraph.co.uk)

Portland Place in around 1796 (source: telegraph.co.uk)

Looking back three hundred years, I am inclined to disagree with Talbot. In fact, while history has largely forgotten the charming Duke who wormed his way into the Queen’s graces in the summer of 1710, it has not forgotten the four Indians who had “undertaken a long and tedious voyage” to see their “great Queen.” In the meeting of kings and queens, the English aristocrat became a bystander. He surely would not have been happy about that.

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The narrative in the beginning of this post was cobbled together from my current research. While looking at the journeys of indigenous people of Africa and America to Europe, I have stumbled upon a number of stories seemingly no one has told before. The bystanders of great events – with all their ambitions, dreams, fears, and politicking – have always fascinated me. In fact, the reason for choosing Indigenous travellers as the focus of my research came from their poor treatment in older historical narratives. Too often they had been passive observers. Nevertheless, in recent decades, historians have worked hard to focus their analyses and narratives on those so harshly overlooked.

The stories I wanted to tell focused on Indigenous historical protagonists who came to European courts and played the colonial empires for fools. In my mind, the colonial officials suddenly became bystanders, marginalized people themselves. Which brings me to the little exercise at the beginning of this post. I had already shifted attention away from the Europeans before, now I wanted to see how the day of the Indigenous visit would have played out for one of those passive bystanders. This time, the person without agency would be Charles Talbot, the Duke of Shrewsbury. What he thought and did on the 19th of April, 1710, tells us little about the Indigenous travellers. Indeed, he didn’t have much (if anything) to say about them, he was not aware of their status and historical significance, and, after the audience, his mind was taken up with very different issues – those of personal advancement in her Majesty’s service.

The purpose of the little exercise was thus to shift focus freely, dealing with historical figures as individuals before their titles and status muddles our modern perception of their actions. Talbot was as much actor in the earlier narrative as was his driver, both initially nameless, reduced to their personal ambitions. We could write the same scene about everyone in attendance during the audience, freely shifting focus and attention from person to person. The question that emerges is one of narration, however. How far can we go to narrate history? I consciously chose to open the narrative as I would a theatre script, because narrative often plays out as a scene would. We need to be careful, indeed, not to confuse narrative and historical events. Both have separate purpose and cannot be conflated. Writing historical narrative helps visualize history, but must not replace the analysis of an event. Vice versa, only analysing what people sometimes mistakenly assume to be dry historical facts can often be unrewarding. In short, narration helps us understand an event, while at the same time confronting us with the perspective of a previously chosen cast of characters. Playing out a scene – be it while writing or reading it – can make previously hidden motivations visible.

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If you agree of disagree with my take on historical narrative, I would be happy to see comments either here or on our social media platforms.