Sunday, April 01, 2012

Book Notes: Penn on Henry VII

Thomas Penn's biography of Henry VII, Winter King, which I've been reading lately, is definitely in the territory of "popular" history (though as he admits, his Henry is difficult enough that even Shakespeare skipped him, taking his history plays from Henry VI to Henry VIII). It is written, according to a recent review in the National Post, with "writerly verve and unwavering regard for the general reader"  And it has been rewarded with good sales and good reviews both in Britain and North America.

I'm struck by Penn's own biography  He works in publishing in London and conveys a youngish and hip authorial persona  (YouTube evidence here).  But before that, he did a doctorate in Tudor history at Cambridge.  That is, he exemplifies for me a trend that exists in Britain and not much at all in North America:  that people can study history at advanced levels and then aspire to make careers as writers and intellectuals who write history informed by their studies but directed at non-specialist audiences.  Tom Holland, the well educated classicist who has been writing bestsellers about ancient Greece and Rome, but also adapts classical literature and makes radio documentaries, is another case in point.

I continue to be struck by how few Canadian graduates in history and related subjects even try to emulate this career path. Our trade-market historians, it seems, are and always have been journalists who take up history rather than historians who take up writing. Pierre Berton, James Gray, Charlotte Gray, Ken McGooghan, Daniel Francis, Brian Brennan -- there is always a journalist's career in the background.  More power to 'em, but with our history grads, it seems if they don't get on the academic track, they end up in careers completely outside of history.

It is much more feasible to aspire to careers like Penn's or Holland's in Britain than in Canada, sure. But it's not like the prospects for historians are that great in the Canadian academy either!
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