There are a lot of bizarre remarks in this piece in the LRB.

Within the limits he sets himself, Sharpe’s book is admirable…He takes pride in bringing to his task the skills of a professional historian, determined to ‘get history right’. He sets out to expose the stories told about Turpin since his death as factually incorrect…Sharpe is uncomfortable with myths.

Um…why should Sharpe not be ‘uncomfortable’ with myths? (That sentence is a good example of why ‘comfortable’ is one of the first words that was defined in the Fashionable Dictionary – the original one, the one on B&W. ‘Comfortable’ is such a weasel word. What’s comfort got to do with anything? It’s not about bums on seats, or even about elevated heart rate and sweaty palms. It’s about critical thinking, epistemology, rational inquiry. Thinking that myths are out of place in ‘professional’ history is not a giveaway of pathetic nerdy insecurities, it’s simply a reasonable idea of what history is supposed to be: to wit, evidence-based and logically sound.) Why should he not be ‘determined’ to ‘get history right’? What should he be determined to do, get it wrong?

What interests Sharpe about this story (which he has read in the much abbreviated fifth edition) is that it is false: what should have interested him is that Ainsworth’s readers (and the book was an enormous bestseller) thought it was true.

I beg your pardon? Why is that what should have interested him? If that’s not the book he’s writing, then why should it interest him? It may well be a highly interesting question, why Ainsworth’s readers thought the Black Bess story (that Turpin rode a horse 200 miles in 12 hours) was true, but it’s not the only possible subject. David Wootton does go on to say some interesting things on this question, but it doesn’t follow that Sharpe ought to have written them instead of what he did write.

This doesn’t occur to Sharpe. His idea of the historian as someone who gets at the facts means that he can give a fine account of the activities of Turpin and the Essex gang, but it makes him quite unfitted to be a reader of Rookwood.

Um…so? So on earth what? You read Rookwood if you want to, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to. And what is with this absurd scorn for the idea of ‘ the historian as someone who gets at the facts’? Well we know what’s with it. Alas.

Sharpe could have been provoked by his subject into reinventing the idea of what history is: instead, his conclusion, ‘Dick Turpin and the Meaning of History’, retreats to the old cliché that the business of the historian is to deal in facts…The language of fact and fiction, critical and uncritical thinking, is useful if one wants to address the question of whether Turpin was a thug. But it hardly helps one address the question of why Rookwood appealed to the imagination of its readers.

The old cliché – it’s a shame, isn’t it, the way historians will go on thinking that they ought to deal in facts rather than myths. Unless, of course, they are in fact doing histories of myth, which some historians do. But they don’t all do that, and why should they? (And if they do, one hopes they do it with some reference to facts somewhere along the way, lest they tell us about Navajo myths that actually belonged to the Chinese, and Egyptian myths that in fact originated with the people of Tierra del Fuego.) And some historians inquire into the history of literary taste; but, again, not all of them. If the question of why Rookwood appealed to the imagination of its readers was not Sharpe’s subject, it’s not clear why he should have addressed it.

Guess what David Wootton is writing about. It made me snort with laughter when I saw it. Can you guess? I’ll tell you. ‘He is writing a history of the body from Hippocrates to Foucault.’ Attaboy! No chance of any old clichés there! That’s some fresh untilled cliché-free ground, all right. I think I’ll review it when it comes out, and keep asking why he didn’t write a history of underwear from Nefertiti to Adorno instead.

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