HISTORY is not popular. The public prefers other reading. Politicians disregard it and students accept ``social studies'' with poor grace. Such indifference makes it difficult for the historian to follow his trade. The days of the great writers of history are long gone - Parkman, Prescott, Macaulay, Gibbons, are rarely read today. Just a generation ago Catherine Drinker Bowen, Bernard De Voto, Allan Nevins, and Bruce Catton found eager audiences for their work. A cursory glance at the best seller lists this month shows that the occult, espionage, and salacious contemporary novels, augmented by how-to books and biographies of athletes and rock stars, are preferred.
So for this historian manqu'ee there is a problem. I believe I have solved it; if it's not to my satisfaction, at least I have gained some readers.
It is a long journey from a review in The Journal of Modern History for a biography of a president of the Pennsylvania Railroad to an award for the best Regency novel of the year in ``The Romantic Times.'' But it is a journey I took because of the public's lack of interest in straight narrative history, a genre I respect and would follow if I could lure readers to do likewise.
Deserting the staid intellectual environs of Philadelphia for southern California helped make the transition, if not easier, at least acceptable. I sold 15,000 copies of my first Regency romp, and perhaps 2,000 copies of ``End of the Line: Alexander J. Cassatt and the Pennsylvania Railroad.'' Academic journals regarded Cassatt as a serious work. Not even Publishers Weekly saw fit to acknowledge ``The Sweet Pretender.'' But both books were efforts to portray history in a provocative manner.
Why would a serious student of history descend to such depths? Virginia Woolf once wrote that ``. . . the worst of writing is that one depends so much upon praise. I feel rather sure that I shall get none for this story. . . .''
I echo her feelings whenever I finish a new Regency novel. However, the Regency period of English history, 1811-1820, has much to teach us about the uses of power and the defeat of tyrants. Because it is also an age of elegance, it serves as a romantic milieu which can engage the reader on another level. The great country houses, the foibles of the Prince Regent, the intrigues against Napoleon, the colorful balls, the gowns, the banquets, the beaux, all lend themselves to a rich background for the politics, the machinations of great men, and the forces of evil and reform, a morality story that teaches a lesson.
Catherine Drinker Bowen, for whom I worked for eight years as a research editor, believed there was a great gap between what the author and the reader should know. The Regency reader is certainly not attracted by such abstruse subjects as the various clauses of the Holy Alliance, the debates in Parliament about the Corn Laws, or the strategic ploys of Wellington and Napoleon on the battlefield.
But the characters of Wellington, Castlereagh, the Prince Regent, Napoleon, and Prince Metternich can illuminate a light tale about a pair of bedeviled lovers who move on the periphery of great events. Perhaps the more perceptive reader of the Regency novel will be fascinated by the period and then pursue more scholarly works on the subject. But if not, the Regency novel reader will at least absorb some of the social, economic, and political imperatives of an age that can illuminate our own.
Recently E. D. Hirsch Jr. reported in his book ``Cultural Literacy,'' an indictment of what students are learning in today's classrooms, that less than half of community college students could identify Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant.
Allan Bloom in ``The Closing of the American Mind'' maintains that this indifference to our common cultural heritage is the legacy of the 1960s, when such information was considered irrelevant to the problems of the times. But some knowledge of our country's founding and the ideas that impelled the framers of the Constitution is surely required of the future voters.
Paul Kennedy warns in ``The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,'' that America's command of world markets and the global economy is waning, much as did the Roman, Spanish, and British empires. History taught him that lesson, but it is one that most products of our schools and politicians have yet to learn.
Until the public and popular tastes change, I am resigned to rakish dukes and beset heroines grappling with French spies, wicked guardians, and each other until a happy ending is achieved. Naturally the academic community frowns on such a misuse of history. I would prefer to write honest history, a pure narrative of the War of 1812, for example. I write my novels under a nom de plume, Violet Hamilton, because I dread the scorn of serious students and teachers of history, evidence that I have not thoroughly accepted my fate. Regency tales are romantic, not ``bodice rippers,'' the trade name for those lurid paperbacks sold in supermarkets and drugstores, each more sexually explicit than the last.
But even Regencies must be a bit spicy to attract readers. The first 100 pages of my latest Regency were returned for rewriting by the editor. Too much war (the Battle of Waterloo) and not enough sex was her critique.
Even Georgette Heyer, the late master of the genre, would have a difficulty peddling her witty graceful stories, which rely on plot twists, character, and sparkling dialogue, to a modern audience. Today, if history is absorbed by the reading public it has to be accompanied by sex and violence, served up in a fictitious wrapping. Reread ``Gone With the Wind.'' How tame those love scenes between Rhett and Scarlett seem compared with recent fictional confrontations.
However, I do not despair. Bloom, Hirsch, and Kennedy have all recently appeared on the New York Times best seller lists. Does this mean that the importance of history, as a discipline, as a lesson, even as an enjoyable read, is regaining some of its popularity?
Will those of tomorrow's generation claim Wellington or Washington as their role models rather than Joe Montana or Michael Jackson? Will Violet Hamilton be able to abandon Beau Brummell's cravats and the mysterious marquess's gambling debts for a discussion of the economic causes of the War of 1812? I hope so.