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Why Isn’t History More Interesting?

According to my research, every 11-year-old has read Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. What I didn’t know when I was 11—and, in fact, didn’t know until a couple of weeks ago—is that Kidnapped was based on a true story. In 1728, a boy named James Annesley, the son of a baron, was kidnapped, forced into indentured servitude, escaped, and tried to prove his aristocratic lineage in the days before fingerprints, photographs, and DNA.

That true story is told in a new book, Birthright: The True Story That Inspired  Kidnapped, by Roger Ekirch, a history professor at Virginia Tech. Mr. Ekirch spoke about the book yesterday at the Library of Congress. It was all very interesting but these are the two things that stuck with me most:

• In 18th-century England, kidnapping was a misdemeanor while stealing a horse was a felony punishable by death.

• This quote from Baron Arthur Anneseley, James’s father: “If you come to live with me you shall never want a shilling in your pocket, a gun to fowl, a horse to ride, or a whore.”

So there you go. Ekirch also explained how the story of James Annesley had been more or less ignored by academic historians. One reason for that, he said, was the divide between historians and historical novelists: The former are interested, for the most part, in what lots of people do, while the latter are interested in what a few people do. And historical novelists are primarily concerned with telling really good stories while historians care about getting the facts right. (Arguable generalizations, I realize; that’s why there’s a comment button below.)

Anyway, when it comes to the story of James Anneseley, a historian might be more interested in what it tells us about the 18th century, which is certainly valid. But the rest of us want to find out what happens next. Did he ever prove his birthright? What happened to the evil uncle who had him kidnapped in the first place? How did he escape?

Ekirch, by the way, said he wanted to tell a story that was both compelling and true.

For me, and I’d argue for most other barbarians, the narrative engine would push me through such a book, and along the way I’d pick up all kinds of fascinating information about 18th-century England (like the law protecting horses better than children). But if you told me the book was about daily life in the mid-1700s I would be … less interested. Does that make me lazy? Or should history be more about story?

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