Why It Matters, by V.R. Christensen

Posted by on May 11, 2012 in 19th England, Featured Book, Historical Research | Comments Off on Why It Matters, by V.R. Christensen

We’ve all heard the axiom that those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it. And so we study our history lessons and believe our teachers and know with everything that is in us that we would never allow another dictator to take control of us, to kill millions, to tell us what to think and believe and love and hate. We know the dates. We know the names and places. We have seen, in black and white, the atrocities. And yet, for those of us who did not live during WWII, it’s a very difficult thing to understand how humanity can ever have come to that. We cannot look within a man’s mind and know with any certainty what it was he was truly thinking when he devised his plan–if it came all at once or by degrees. It is impossible to know exactly what it was that made him feel so strongly and how he was able to influence so many to agree with his philosophies. Just what was it that got us there in the first place?

Was it possible that WWII all started because of an innocent case of English xenophobia? Was it simply because the common Englishman could not abide the thought of a German king? It’s sort of a reversal of thought, isn’t it? An irony. And yet it’s just possible.

Victoria, herself, was of German stock. It was only because her mother had the foresight to keep her in England, near her more powerful English relations (though they had turned their back on her) that Victoria was considered truly English.

Prince Albert

Albert was Victoria’s first cousin, a Prince of Belgium, and the nephew of the man who had once expected to sit on the English throne himself. Leopold trained Albert to be the perfect King. And he endeavoured to be. In fact he worked himself quite literally to death designing exhibitions and art museums, promoting technology and invention, trying to figure out the best mode of avoiding war with this nation or that, enlightening the people and educating the common man. By bringing prosperity, security and power to a nation made greater by his influence. And still his subjects despised him. They would give him no glory, no honour. They did not trust him. They could not. He was a foreigner.

Victoria and Albert’s eldest daughter had married Prince Frederick of Prussia. It was a political alliance, though amicable. Their union was meant to unite the ever changing (and consequently unstable) German state. The only problem was that Vickie was as despised in Prussia as her father had been in England, yet young Vickie and her husband had both been trained in international politics and diplomacy. Had they the power to influence political opinion, they might have shaped a peaceful future for all Western nations for generation to come.

They had that opportunity, too. In 1862, the Prussian legislature opposed William I’s plans for his army. In response, the Prussian King wrote a statement of abdication. Frederick need only have signed the document to become king. But he didn’t. William ruled for a further 17 years, and in that time instilled in his grandchildren a violent hatred of all things English. Young Wilhelm was taught to despise his English grandmother, and in fact to blame her for much of the evil of the day.

Had Albert had the strength to bear through one more year, he would certainly have advised Frederick to accept the throne and, by a sort of partnership, or mentorship, perhaps, the Prussian political landscape would have been steered along paths of peace and mutual prosperity.

And, perhaps more importantly, the infant Kaiser would have been reared in love and with an understanding of the good and peaceful intentions of his English relations. Instead he became a warmonger, determined to own all of Europe and to control it for himself. WWI ensued, and the War to End All Wars ended not in victory and defeat, but in an armistice and sanctions so strict and oppressive they created an atmosphere ripe for the rise of yet another tyrannical leader, more powerful and far madder than the last.

It is speculation, of course, that Albert’s prolonged life would have absolutely prevented WWI and the suffering and violence and unconscionable waste that followed. And yet the story (presented brilliantly by Gillian Gill in her book We Two) does serve as a lesson to me in my private dealings with my fellow men.

Is not Society, after all, nothing more than the sum total of individual choices?

As I said, it is impossible to know what truly went through the minds of these people. That is where the narrative biographer, or, just perhaps, the historical fiction author takes over.

Although none of my books deal with actual historical figures, they are no less true. I write of what I know, of conflict of unhappiness and struggle. Of joys and victories. Of obstacles. Circumstantially, we live in a world entirely different from those who lived a hundred years before. We have wireless devices and unrestrictive clothing, laws that deem us (mostly) equal. And yet the same emotional struggles define our lives. We are no freer of responsibility than our predecessors, even if we choose to ignore the consequences. Laws and society do not limit us in the same way they once did, and yet we are a society of addicts and debtors and dependents. We say we are more compassionate, and yet we still have our prejudices, our hatreds and intolerances, just the same as those before us. We still have poverty, we still have desease. We are so smart…and yet remain so unwise.

I’m not very good at memorising dates and events. When I do my research it all goes into binders and files and blog posts and I have to turn to it again and again. And yet when I pick up a book with a good narrative, whether it be Non fiction or fiction, and the author allows me to truly engage with those events, even if they are merely events of attitude and societal cannon, I become engaged, I remember. The wisdom of those who came before me is retained. And I learn. I feel. I cease to judge.

To gain wisdom from another person’s knowledge is a blessing. Much better than learning by personal experience. And whether I am reading it or writing it, I’ve learned to consider Historical Fiction one of the greatest of gifts. It is a powerful tool for learning of past events and social climates, of attitudes and philosophies in a way I can truly relate to and engage in. It allows me to compare past circumstances to my own. To compare, even, past lives to my own.

History is the story of us. It has relevance and importance. It has meaning. And it matters.

Val-Rae Christensen, Of Moths and Butterflies