Daniel Hood earned his MA in Modern European/Modern Irish History in 2013 and is currently a PhD candidate at Boston College working on 19th Century British history. His dissertation project intends to examine the changing cultural relationships between Britons and Fire, the State’s role in that transition, and the reciprocal interactions between the symbolism and the material realities of fire in 19th century Britain.
Coming out of the phenomenal conference on “Rethinking Modern British History” I heard a fairly consistent underlying conversation around periodization and “who counts” in the histories we are hoping to tell.
This sense was reflected and bolstered during the final round table by James Vernon’s call for greater periodization and a need to remember that the 20th century has a longer history than just itself—that Neoliberalism cannot be understood without Liberalism. Geof Eley, on the other hand, bemoaned the Englishness of the panels and wondered where the other countries that make up “Great Britain” or the “United Kingdom” were, as they were not well represented at this conference.
For myself, I see both of these concerns as a question of definitions. What do we mean by “modern”? Ask any historian and they will give you a slightly different answer, but there must be some kind of agreement if we want to be able to use the term meaningfully.
In my mind, we cannot truly understand the particular “modernities” that existed in the 20th century without having some understanding of its foundations in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, 20th century historians should not have to defend studying the “Black Country” as clearly its 19th century importance has immense reverberations into the decades that follow. Indeed, Catherine Hall’s plenary showed us that the implications of definitions made in the 18th and 19th centuries continue to haunt our discourses, our politics, and our lives.
The other question to ask is what do we mean by “Britain”? This gets at the “who counts” problem as we struggle as a sub-discipline to keep ourselves from simply rewriting histories of white English people. Indeed, how do we write more inclusive histories? How do we accept and glorify difference without allowing it to cordon off different discussions and conversations?
In turn, I found it fascinating the calls for more “regional” histories, about which I am deeply excited, in the midst of an era when our profession is moving in more transnational, global, and international directions. The result of these diametrically opposed pulls, as I see it, is the dismissal of “British” history. What I mean is that we end up denigrating “Four Nations” history in favor of reconnecting England/London to Europe or the Empire, or ignoring the “Four Nations” context of our regional histories in order to engage in deeper and thicker analysis.
I have no real answers to these questions, as they are ones that I struggle with in my own work, but I think that if I have learned nothing else from this conference, it is that we need to (at the very least) engage with these questions and understand why we answer them the way that we do. I believe that acknowledging who our narratives are excluding and figuring out whether or not we can begin to tell our histories with less and less exclusion.
Despite having no answers, I do have some requests. I think that greater awareness of the 18th/19th centuries in our conversations of modernity and more nods toward the imbeddedness of the “Celtic periphery” with the “Anglo-Saxon Center” will allow us to write more interesting histories and provide a fuller picture of the whole. At the conference, there were calls for decreasing “complexity” and “nuance” in favor of more “accessible” histories, but I believe that acknowledging complexity and the imbrications of our world is going to be the way forward.
We cannot, on the one hand, declare that the world is becoming interconnected and “global” (which implies inordinate amounts of complexity) while re-entrenching normative, white, and London-centered histories of “Britain” on the other. We must find the middle ground, and the steps toward inclusivity I witnessed at this conference give me a great deal of hope for the future. All that remains to be done is the work.