Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Importance of History

History! Glorious History!
My opening and summary done in three words and two exclamation marks.
Do you need more than that? Do I have to sell it?
Well, yes I take your point that a lot of is not only bloody but also elitist, deferential to the aristocracy and if not that then to a person's individual wealth, professional standing or position of power. The earlier ages come across as very masculine as in who can we conquer, how do we keep people in their rightful places, and what do we gain, and yet despite the decorum with which this was displayed, illicit conduct by both sexes was rife and known: to the parties it concerned, to the relatives and friends of, and to those on the social periphery. Of course, concealment was attempted, but the whispers that circulated often contained more truth than denial, and the irony is that you when read now of such affairs it all seems so common and what's more accepted. Almost a badge of honour, for the men anyway, though the women, if unmarried, could be shamed, but if you had a husband (or a wife) it was not only convenient it was protective.
Why should this interest me? Because it makes me reassess our perspective in more recent years to marriage and disloyalty, so that I now need to be convinced that the progression of time has a) been kind and b) illuminating.
Has marriage changed so much that we actually like it? And I guess when I say 'we' I'm referring primarily to women, although homosexual men then were also in a tricky position where marriage wasn't desired but was expected. Women out and of marriageable age were rarely asked their feelings on the matter; it was a rite of passage, with little heed paid to whether they wanted to, and besides most had no idea what kind of creatures men were as they weren't out for very long before once more being trapped.
The question I'm asking may seem strange, but you'd think with this history known more women would break that chain and claim total independence, rather than feel inadequate if they refuse or choose not to marry. Do we now marry for love and not for financial security? Is the future really so bleak alone? The answer to the former might appear obvious, but if we are marrying for love and from choice, then surely extramarital affairs would take a downward scale. We should be happier, shouldn't we? Perhaps we continue to marry due to a selfish fear of loneliness which we think this ultimate commitment displaces, and then disappointingly find it can't and doesn't.
Marriage has certainly evolved in line with the societal values we hold i.e. it's more willingly entered into by partners who consider themselves on a more equal footing, but in my opinion the same uncertainties still abound because nothing in life is fixed, not even after vows are exchanged. There are still duplicities, despite our high regard for transparency in every area of society including between spouses and that's with the added freedom of pre-wedding intimacy and co-habitation. And yet in spite of this liberated openness, relationships can often seem more closeted: confined to the one person, to the notion of everlasting love.
Let's make it clear, I'm not advocating for a repeat of the seventies, just pointing out that perhaps we're not as 21st century people as emancipated as we like to think, and that those before us were almost as equally unconventional albeit in a different setting.
That's what's so compelling about history. The more you find out, the more it makes you think and consider, and relate it to the times you're living through. It's not always pretty, it's not always kind, it can be barbaric and limiting or at least give the appearance of being so to modern brains and eyes, and it's always a surprise to realise that we haven't learned: circumstances differ yet the same fundamental mistakes keep being made, as do our ideals of virtue and philandering.
History surrounds us: in writings, in statues, in buildings and yesterdays which some of you, I imagine, won't yet be of an age to care for. Suddenly, one day you will.

Picture credit: The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72, oil on canvas. The Royal Collection by Johan Zoffany.