History Beyond the Reading List: Narrative History

History owes much to its ability to tell stories of past feats and events. Our best stories are
the ones which recount the past in which our ancestors lived and breathed, giving depth and
colour to what is otherwise black and white. Historians are remiss in losing touch to this
often, with academic History struggling to engage in the past in the way in which popular
History can. My favourite Histories are the ones that remind me why I chose my degree in
the first place; those which immerse you into the past and introduce you to the characters
who populate it.

Narrative History is one particular approach which can do this, being the barrier between a
novel and a History book. It tells the story in a way that excites you and oftentimes makes
you jolt on occasion realising that these stories aren’t fictional but are the real, amazing
events which have actually happened. Two examples I would highly recommend and will
discuss now are the books of John Preston and ‘Dreamers’ by Volker Weidermann.

John Preston’s books are so brilliant in their story-telling ability that two of them have been
adapted for screen: ‘A Very English Scandal’, which depicts the doomed love affair between
Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe, was adapted in 2018 by Russel T. Davies of Doctor Who
fame into a brilliant BBC series starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw; while ‘The Dig’,
which is a semi-fictionalised version of the Sutton Hoo discovery, was adapted in 2021 by
Netflix as a film starring Lily James and Ralph Fiennes. Preston’s books combine a journalist
lusting after the truth, a writer’s sense of story-telling and a historian’s obsession with
recapturing the past and preserving it for the future; all of which makes his books incredibly
addictive and highly entertaining.

Fittingly, while Preston has a background as a journalist, so too does Volker Weidermann,
with this coming across the way in which both of these writers craft their narratives.
‘Dreamers’ is so amazing for the story which it tells, depicting the circle of writers and
characters who led the Munich Revolution of 1918-19, tying the utopian philosophy of these
revolutionaries to their roles as cultural icons. Some of Germany’s most famous and
renowned writers, notably Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Mann, find themselves front and
centre at a time of unbelievable change and in the shadow of a war which would have a
profound effect on an entire generation.

The beauty of these books is providing approachable introductions to these fantastical
stories of the past. If History is valuable at all, then popular History, in the way in which it
shapes how people understand the past and certainly the past of their own country, is the
most valuable form of History possible. Preston’s books give a dark and morbid character to
the modern History of Britain, putting the flawed historical actors in the forefront of History.
‘Dreamers’ contribute further to populating German History outside of the Nazi period,
showing the competing movements and ideologies which both plagued this period in
German History and develop it beyond the simple ways in which Germany and its past is
perceived abroad.