Goodbye, history Hello, light romance. PRIME-TIME HISTORY
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.