I have spent most of this week at the bedside of a teen-aged daughter in hospital, who has been recovering (nicely, since you ask!) from what I hope might be the last of childhood’s series of pointless accidents. This one was caused by jumping off a swing at a great height – a thrill whose dangers I was only recently discussing in depth with her five-year-old cousin. Now that the shape of her left elbow has satisfactorily been restored by a fine medical team, we have got to the stage where we can try to make sense of how a moment’s flash of bad judgement (‘The second time I jumped, I didn’t land well, so I thought I should try it one more time!’) can lead to unexpected consequences, some of them painful (involving surgical screws) and, others perhaps less so (there are sure to be some some silver linings somewhere).
For me, the silver lining has been the chance to talk deeply, in various states of sleepy or agitated boredom, with a daughter on the cusp of independence. Every mother both craves and dreads the moment at which a child launches out into the world on her own, and the chance to be the one to hear her story, at any given moment, begins to dwindle. So it has been a privilege to have a reason to put the world on hold for a week and hear where she has got to in spinning the story of her life, and what she is making of the little world around her.
As it happened, one of things I had meant to do this week, before the world was put on hold, was a god-send for the hospital moments when the patient drifts off to sleep and the person keeping vigil is left to wait for a while, or longer, depending the unpredicatable requirements of the healing process. This was to read Of Love and Other Wars, the most recent novel by Sophie Hardach, a writer with whom I’ll be doing a joint reading in mid-September.
As a historian, I have always been interested in how history and fiction relate to each other. This is partly because so many of the sources I work with as a historian have their origin in story-telling – in someone’s attempt to make sense of what they have seen or experienced. But I’ve also become interested in the personal side of history-writing – how the historical narratives I ‘hear’ best are often ones that connect somehow to stories I heard as a child, or to things I have been thinking about in my own life. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to be objective in my work: a properly trained historian makes every effort to read sources fairly, and to give due attention to questions, and points of view, for which she or he has little sympathy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find that putting my finger to why something draws me (or not) helps me to see it more clearly, and it often helps me to explain to other people why they should care, and let me lead them into a time and place that isn’t their own.
All this was in the back of my mind as my daughter drifted in and out of sleep and I drifted in and out of Of Love and Other Wars. Sophie’s book is set in the years leading up to World War Two, and she follows two London households – one composed of pacifist Quakers and the other Jewish, with roots (and imperilled relatives) in Antwerp and Berlin. In both households, the characters wrestle with the meaning of a faith tradition that sets them apart from the British mainstream.
One of the things I loved about the book was how it picked up on the emotionally confusing aspects of faith. Faith traditions get handed down in families, and yet at the same time they often ask for a very personal commitment from the individual. The struggle between loyalty to what one loves and the promptings of one’s own conscience is one of the great human predicaments. To my mind it is hugely to Sophie’s credit that rather than offering ‘answers’ she simply and lovingly sets a group of characters in motion, and lets them try to find an answer that they can live with, or die by.
‘Faith, Love: And Narrative: A Conversation Between Fiction and History’ takes place on Thursday, 12 September from 6:00-7:30 p.m. at Waterstones Covent Garden, London. The event is open to the public and tickets can be reserved by phoning 0207 8366757.