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Friday , January 11 , 2013
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History in the Making By J.H. Elliott, Yale, £19.95

Historians have written about the craft of history — as Marc Bloch memorably did. They have also received about the nature of history — as E.H. Carr did in his What is History?, a book that shaped the views of more than one generation. But it is difficult to think of an individual historian reflecting specifically on his own work and its implications — what impelled him to choose the themes of his book, how those themes have subsequently developed and so on. John Elliott engages in this self-introspection in this book and does so in lucid prose that is totally free of jargon and obscure words.

While he was a student in Cambridge, Elliott spent some time in Spain and experienced what he calls “the lure of Spain’’. He decided he would become a historian of Spain. There was one painting that he saw at the Prado — the great equestrian portrait of Count-Duke Olivares, the principal minister of Philip IV from 1621 to 1643 — that persuaded Elliott to research about the man and his times. Out of these concerns grew Elliott’s first two books, The Revolt of the Catalans: A Study in the Decline of Spain, 1598-1640 and Imperial Spain, 1469-1716, both published in 1963.

That portrait of Olivares, which had captured Elliott’s imagination as a young man, refused to let him go. It seemed kind of inevitable that he would write a biography of the Count-Duke. His account of how he came to write the biography and the problems that he faced while writing it lead him to reflect upon the relationship of biography to history and of the individual to the broader and impersonal forces of history. In choosing to write the biography of a historical figure, Elliott was clearly going against the historiographical trends of the 1970s. The Annales school clearly did not believe that the individual mattered in history; the individual as the great historian, Fernand Braudel, had argued in the case of Philip II, was no more than a prisoner of great impersonal forces. Elliott writes, “While recognizing the constraints imposed on statesmen by the social and economic environment in which they operated, I thought it dangerous to underestimate the power of human agency. Indeed, for me much of the fascination of the past lies in observing the continuous interplay between the individual and his or her environment. This environment, moreover, should not be limited to ‘society’ and the economy, but should include culture.’’

Elliott’s recognition of culture as an integral part of the environment that shapes an individual and is also shaped by a powerful individual opened up the possibility of his entry into the history of art and culture. He could do this, as he openly acknowledges, because of his close collaboration with the art historian, Jonathan Brown. Together they began to reconstruct on paper the new palace that Olivares decided to build, at great expense, for his king. Here again Elliott and Brown were aware of the scepticism among art historians regarding reconstructing an age through its visual representations. But Elliott and Brown also faced a challenge of a completely different order since they were trying to reconstruct a palace that no longer stands; most of it had been destroyed by bombardment in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. In this sense the book, A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV, was a tour de force: the palace was reconstructed from written sources, a testimony to the longevity of written records over architectural remains.

While writing A Palace for a King, at the back of Elliott’s mind was the notion of “total history’’. Looking back on his work, he writes, “The challenge that confronts any ambitious historian is to capture the characteristics of an age in ways that make human actions and behaviour comprehensible, blending analysis and description without disrupting the narrative flow. In the end, as all good historians know, there will always be a sense of disappointment. No narrative is ever fully comprehensive, no explanation total, and the balance between description and analysis is painfully elusive. The best that can be hoped for is as close an approximation to a plausible reconstruction of past periods, people and events as the surviving evidence allows — a reconstruction, moreover, that is so effectively presented as to draw the reader in and on.’’

These are salutary words born not out of any great theoretical insight but out of a lifetime’s experience of practising the reading, teaching and writing of history. This book is rich in observations about various kinds and fashions of history writing. It is the work of a historian who tried to understand a culture and a history that were not his own but which he made his own. Elliott believes that at the heart of the historical enterprise lies understanding. This book helps to understand how a great historian of our times wrote the history that he did.