The Past Is a Foreign Country, originally published in Great Britain in 1985, is an exploration of the nature of the past and history. What do we mean when we speak about the past, as distinct from the present or the future? What is the reality of the past? Is it the same as history? We have extremely varied attitudes about the past, although our range of attitudes is already determined to a large extent by our time frame and the local zeitgeist. People in different epochs have had ways of viewing the past very different from our own; their conceptions of it depended on the prevailing styles and beliefs of the periods in which they lived. An attitude toward the past, and assumptions about what it actually is—or was—are never constants; they vary greatly according to time, place, and other variables. Writers and ordinary people have always been fascinated by the passage of time. David Lowenthal’s study indicates the variety of attitudes toward the past from early periods with oral traditions to the present. He also includes a vast array of different sources: historians, novelists, poets, politicians, psychoanalysts, popular magazines, newspapers, cartoons, and publications of local historical societies. Although writers such as Petrarch, Michel de Montaigne, and William Shakespeare are quoted, so are the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker; high culture and popular culture are combined in a mix providing a broad sociocultural panorama.
Because so many sources are quoted, The Past Is a Foreign Country sometimes gives the impression that the variety of attitudes toward the past, and history, is infinite. Often the author suspends his own judgment, letting the inhabitants of the past speak for themselves. At first glance, the ground covered appears to be complete, the treatment exhaustive: Lowenthal writes about different feelings and emotions provoked by the past, the various motives for the study of the past, benefits sought in the past, the threats it represents, tradition and innovation, notions of youth and age, decay and progress, methods for knowing the past, and ways in which the past is changed or preserved. To provide more focus at the beginning of the book, four “case studies” are presented to show “how various epochs have endured and resolved the stresses of inheritance.” These are the Renaissance, seventeenth and eighteenth century England and France, Victorian Great Britain, and pre- and post-Revolutionary America. The studies are excellent. They convincingly show very different attitudes toward the past, as well as pasts conceived in almost totally different terms. The author has assimilated much of the abundant scholarship on these periods; the varied sources he quotes are always interesting and well chosen. This section is a joy to read.
Despite the apparent breadth of the study, there are, however, several narrower foci of interest. The historians quoted are largely British and American; the journals referred to are also British and American. French and German sources make fleeting appearances, but they are rare. There is almost no consideration of Eastern Europe and Marxist or Communist countries and very little discussion of the Third World. This is a pity, as they would have added much more drama, especially to the treatment of historiography. Nevertheless, perhaps it is a virtue that the author focuses on Great Britain and the United States—as it is, there are more than two thousand footnotes in the book. Also the approaches of the British and Americans toward the past are radically different; there is abundant material to show contrasting attitudes within the same temporal periods.
A more specific focus in the book is revealed by the title. “The past is a foreign country” is a phrase from a book by L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, published in England in 1953. The complete sentence which begins Hartley’s book reads: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Lowenthal adds:That they did indeed do things differently is a perspective fundamental to this book. But it is a perspective of recent vintage. During most of history men scarcely differentiated past from present, referring even to remote events, if at all, as though they were then occurring.
A second theme that runs throughout the book is Lowenthal’s disagreement with the British historian J. H. Plumb. In his The Death of the Past (1969), Plumb made an important distinction between history and the past. According to Plumb, the “old past”—with its mythical fetishes of bigotry, national vanity, and class domination—was dying, while history, playing an emancipatory role, was assuming its place. Lowenthal takes issue with Plumb and refuses the distinction.
Both these themes rely heavily on British rather than American evidence. Because of the cultural differences between the two countries, American readers will have difficulty in accepting Lowenthal’s arguments. He admirably evokes the varieties of pasts with which writers and ordinary people have been confronted in different epochs. The convenient distance of the classical past from the Renaissance, which did not overpower writers such as...
(The entire section is 2141 words.)
I’ll bet you recognise this quotation. I was firmly convinced I knew it by heart, and yet when I looked it up in Hartley’s novel I saw that I’d got it wrong. I'd thought it was ‘The past is another country’ (and to be honest, my version still sounds better to me!). Out of curiosity, I looked it up on Google, and found that many others have made the same mistake. I think perhaps it’s been conflated with another familiar quote, from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, which is something like: ‘… but that was in another country, and beside, the wench is dead.’
Whatever – it’s an example of the shivering sands of memory: we think we
know things, but we don’t. But I think perhaps the point I want to make is almost the opposite one: that we actually know more than we think we do about the way things were in the past. Let’s look at the assertion made in the second part of this quotation: ‘they do things differently there.’ Is it true? Did they do things differently in that other country which is the past?
In many ways the answer is outstandingly obvious: of course they did things differently there. They didn’t have mobile phones, for a start. But in terms of how people thought, what they cared about, how they related to each other, what they were afraid of, how they felt about life – in those terms, were they so very different from us?
My first historical novel was Warrior King, and it’s about Alfred the Great. When I go into schools and talk about it, this is the story I tell them about how I came to write it. I needed to check the story of how he burnt the cakes, I say, just for a detail in some other story I was writing (Finnegan’s Cake, since you ask, about a time-travelling dog. Still inexplicably unpublished, still available…) Obviously, the first thing I did was to turn to Google. Then I realised that the location of Alfred’s unfortunate early attempt at Masterchef was Athelney, which is only about forty minutes’ drive from where I live. I thought that Athelney would be to Alfred as Tintagel is to Arthur. At the very least there would be a bakery or a cafe called Alfred the Cake, and an array of books about the only monarch in British history to be called ‘the Great’ – so off I went.
But there were no itsy witsy shops with punning names, no explanatory pamphlets. Just a discreet plaque, an unimpressive Victorian monument – and an astonishingly evocative landscape of water and willows and glittering birds, which could hardly have changed in the eleven hundred odd years since Alfred fled to the Somerset marshes to take shelter from the Vikings.
It’s an extraordinary story. We know what happened – we know that he emerged to defeat the Danes, and then made a peace which lasted long enough for him to create a country which was stronger and safer for his people. But people then didn’t know that this was what was going to happen. He had only a few men with him – ‘a small troop’ as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it. The Vikings had conquered every other part of England apart from Wessex, and with Alfred out of the way they ‘over-rode and occupied the land of Wessex, and drove many of the people across the sea’. Surely no-one would have put money on Alfred’s chances of surviving, let alone managing to gather an army together and emerge from the marshes to defeat the Northmen.But he did. A number of things intrigued me about this. One was the drama of it: this was a real turning point – if Alfred hadn’t managed to pull it off, England would have been ruled entirely by the Danes, and today we’d be living in a different country and speaking a different language. Another was that here was an extraordinary leader – remarkable and unexpected in many ways which I haven’t space here to go into (read the book!) – and yet today, very few people know anything about him. And yet everyone’s heard of Arthur, who didn’t even exist!
But the other thing was – what was he like? What motivated him? (Apart, obviously, from the understandable wish to stay alive.) He was the youngest of five children, four of them boys. He was clever, sensitive and thoughtful. Would he ever have expected that he would become king? It seems unlikely, given his place in the family. Was he prepared for it? What went through his mind during those weeks when he was holed up in the marshes? How did he manage to persuade other people – and himself – that he could defeat Guthrum, despite all appearances? Where were his family, his wife and children, while all this was going on?
And then I wondered about the ordinary people. What effect did the endless series of battles have on them? Did they care about who ruled them, or were they too busy trying to survive to even think about it?
I wanted to explore what life was like for all these people in that other country which is the past.
They were faced with very different situations and dilemmas, but I don’t think they were so very different from us. I think it’s possible to imagine how they felt, what they thought.
But of course, I could be completely wrong. Now, how is it you can you never find a time-travelling dog when you need one…?