Napoleon, complex?

A fashion seems to have arisen in popular historical non-fiction over recent years, for making a show of demonstrating, even ‘discovering’ that a certain, very specific moment, idea or conflict should be seen as having much greater significance than it has traditionally been accorded. This pinning down of one date as being absolutely pivotal in determining the course of history, when it had previously been regarded as merely incidental, appeals for a number of reasons.

It certainly appeals to the egos of those who write the books, allowing writers to cast themselves as enlightening excavators of hidden truths that, when revealed, elicit a sleight-of-hand magic trick-like ‘how didn’t I notice that coming?’ reaction in their readers. Perhaps, also, to those readers, this brand of ‘big event’ history appeals by harking to a more old-fashioned, clear-cut view of the past that hasn’t really been in vogue since Britain lost confidence in its own authority to write the world’s history.

This old and essentially imperial style, is based on a strong and simple belief that facts (however dangerously or subjectively oversimplified) are history, and history is fact: World War I started because Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, Gutenberg invented the printing press, Elizabeth I was a virgin queen, America was discovered by Columbus in 1492, and, now, says Frank McLynn, 1759 was absolutely, categorically, the year in which Britain became ‘master of the world’.

Yet, even more importantly, this cataclysmic brand of history succeeds because every human alive today is of a generation whose entire sense of what a story should be like is derived from the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster. Every hit film needs a hero, and the only thing better than a hero is an underdog. When historians take overlooked people, dates or ideas and then build history around them, they start to manufacture a story along Hollywood’s star-driven lines and give their readership an underdog to root for or an anti-hero to be intrigued by. The effect is the same as that of Chris Nolan reconfiguring the dynamics of the Batman universe to focus on the Joker in The Dark Knight.

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It is into this treacherous landscape of big, broad brushstroke, Harvey Weinstein history that Theresa Levitt strides with her book The Shadow of Enlightenment. The title’s a good one. Very Dan Brown. Very marketable. The subtitle hints further that the book aims for Frank McLynn, that where usually overlooked combinations of events conspire to make history that conventional wisdom dictated was being made elsewhere.

That subtitle is ‘Optical and Political Transparency in France, 1789-1848′. There’s the sleight of hand trick being set up already: the word ‘transparency’ is used in two different contexts that, to the untrained eye, appear totally unrelated, but Levitt is waiting, like a magician who links two silver rings with a flamboyant flick of the wrist, to connect them before your very eyes.

The audience, having never even dreamt of imagining that, in 18th and 19th century France, optical transparency and its political counterpart were in any way linked, will clap politely. I’m sure you’re starting to see a problem here. Whilst Levitt writes well, and her magic trick is actually a lot more successful than many of those attempted in books written this way, she’s applied the Hollywood method to a defiantly art-house subject.

Who, outside of University history departments, will know what ‘optical transparency’ means in this context, and who will care about its hitherto unexplored importance to political transparency in post-Napoleonic France? The showy connective conceit may be the preserve of current popular history, but the subject matter is one for dons and DPhil students; a plain appearance and telltale OUP logo don’t help matters.

I haven’t the knowledge to judge Levitt’s work as a piece of serious academia; I can only regard it I the way I feel it has been sold to me as the common reader, as a piece of popular history that attempts to tap into a current fashion for a particular way of forming and framing history.

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Viewed as such, The Shadow of Enlightenment is a noble experiment, but a failed one: like the poorer kind of blockbuster film, the book’s exciting style cannot mask its dull substance.