Protests and protesters have always been attractive subjects to historians. Concerned as they are (or at least used to be) with explaining change over time, individuals and groups who sought change and those moments at which it was pursued have exercised a magnetic pull. They were the very stock-in-trade for that great generation of post-war British Marxist historians, who did so much to shape the discipline to the end of the twentieth century. Working across all periods, they provided an alternative roadmap for the British past. They built new staging posts or radically refurbished old ones and stocked these with substantially new galleries of heroes and villains. They worked, of course, with existing traditions which had presented similar timelines, but they lent that arc of the national past a scholarly credibility and an analytical power that made it both substantial and exciting fare for the expanding university world of postwar Britain.
In doing so they provided compelling pen portraits and sometimes full-length biographies of great protestors and rebels – Christopher Hill’s Oliver Cromwell and DonaTorr’s Tom Mann spring readily to mind. Within powerful treatments of wider social movements they supplied gripping accounts of key moments – Rodney Hilton’s narrative of peasants and artisans converging on London in 1381 or E. P. Thompson’s evocative reading of the ‘panic of class hatred’ evinced at Peterloo in 1819. If they remained, on the whole, much more interested in the material circumstances surrounding and explaining protest in the round than in the personnel and messy realities of the events themselves, they opened windows onto these individual human dimensions of protest. The concern to enter into the minds and chart the actions of history’s great protestors continues unabated: one of the most fêted books of the year, for example, is Lyndal Roper’s deft portrait of Martin Luther.
The challenge of reaching inner lives is so much the greater when extended to ‘ordinary’ men and women. With great effort historians can reconstruct the lives, habits and customs of groups of protestors. Individual voices and a sense of what it was like to be caught up in these transformative moments are much more elusive.Their voices are mediated, by lawyers and journalists, clerks and spies. Autobiographies of ‘commoners’ – rare, in any case, before the nineteenth century – mark the individual as ‘extraordinary’ by their very publication.
History has the appropriate tools for interpreting these sources, where they exist. Microhistory, with its painstaking efforts to anatomize the inner lives of lowly subjects – most famously the sixteenth-century miller Menocchio from Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms – provides one such resource. The kind of innovative cultural history that allowed Ian McCalman to provide an elegant panorama of the sordid and semi-criminal underworld of pornographers and faux ministers from which many early nineteenth-century London ultra-radicals emerged is another.
Such work, in the final analysis, depends on improbable archival survivals to be effective. All too often historians are left contemplating a void created by stubbornly silent sources. It is a space that can be and has been occupied by novelists and the writers of imaginative literature: Milton’s Satan and Shelley’s Prometheus provide two elevated ‘imagined’ protesters. As imaginative literature itself increasingly became a form of protest in the age of revolutions – from the Jacobin novels of the 1790s to the ‘condition of England’ novels of the nineteenth century – the relationship became ever stronger.
In imagining these inner lives, writers face the same temptations as historians. Is their subject fit for hagiography or demonology? There are plentiful examples of the latter. John Galt’s humourless Godwinian fundamentalist Nathan Butt in The Radical (1832) essays an object lesson in the vacuous hypocrisy at the heart of perpetual protest and has many imitators (conscious or otherwise). On the whole, the imagined protesters who
have survived down to our own times are more nuanced. The delicate and complex psychological portrait that can reveal mixed motivations and changing emotions is the bread and butter of the best writers. Here novelists can be drawn to leaders as well – think, for example, of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Spartacus (1933) or Toussaint L’Ouverture in Madison Smartt Bell’s Haiti trilogy (1995-2004). But they can also lend voice and complexity to the everymen and women of history. Grassic Gibbon’s Robert Colquhoun and Ewan Tavendale in A Scots Quair (1932-4) or Smartt Bell’s slave and maroon Riau in All Souls’ Rising (1995) canvas territory to which the historian’s sources only rarely grant access. The list of such confected protestors is long and distinguished: George Eliot’s Felix Holt, Mark Rutherford’s Zacariah Coleman and Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Sally Heathcote.
It might seem natural, therefore, that historians and writers should collaborate on this shared subject. Indeed, like all good ideas, it’s difficult to explain why no one had attempted something like Comma Press’s Protest: Stories of Resistance project before now. The old aunt sally of whether history is either ‘literature’ or ‘a science’ is dead and buried outside of the first-year tutorial. There are unusually imaginative historians just as there are unusually forensic novelists. Nonetheless, bringing these two cultures together practically embodies the kind of interdisciplinarity which many humanities faculties preach as an absolute good, but which very few do much to really encourage outside of grant applications.
What does the collaboration offer historians? First, it provides a golden opportunity for historians of protest to think through what has been called the ‘affective’ turn in the humanities – in short an increasing interest in emotions, their histories, and how past events felt to those who experienced them. Good writers are much more attuned to working through human emotions to evoke how things felt, as well as to how they smelt and sounded. The collaboration can thus yield a much richer picture of acts of protest and their human dimensions.
Second, fiction writers frequently have a much sharper sense of the contingency and immediacy of individual moments, of the suspense experienced by participants in events with unknown outcomes, than do historians. Adopting the viewpoints of individuals, partially obscured in both space and time, is a salutary and rewarding exercise. It forces historians to acknowledge the shortcomings of their Olympian vantage point with its apparent confident command of the causes, course and consequences of protests.
Thirdly, it highlights the power of stories. Sociologists and historians are well used to thinking about the role and function of individual stories – in contrast to more formal arguments or analyses – within political and social movements. Francesca Polletta makes the point compellingly: ‘stories can win and lose elections … they strengthen bonds of political belonging and clarify the stakes in issues in ways that compel people to take a stand’. Stories about protest are surely no less important.