The title’s a bit misleading, especially the singular pronoun. This is a lot of histories, both personal (interviews, mainly with French women) and more orthodox and thoroughly researched, and with each chapter starting with a person’s story (in French histoire) and broadening out to a wider consideration of the issue across different times and cultures.
Some readers wanted more of the talky bits and less recital of historical stats and data. Others wanted a ‘proper’ history book and less about French women chatting. Some reviewers wanted a book they could describe easily in a few words, something to make smart-alec comments about and a way to give it marks out of five. This is a book that follows its own rules and has its own purposes. It’s a bit like James Burke’s Connections but with social relations instead of technology, and it’s a bit like Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality without the relentless insistence that absolutely bloody everything is socially-conditioned and nobody has any agency of their own. It also has bibliographies that make you realise how much there is to know out there.
It’s an ambitious book because it suggests something a lot of people would rather not have anyone thinking: so-called ‘human nature’ is more fluid than is generally thought. Civilisation is a work-in-progress. People accept as ‘natural’ all sorts of weird situations and expectations. Moreover, unlike most historians, Zeldin is suggesting that we can take this lesson and apply it to our own daily lives, relations with institutions and other citizens around us and maybe make things better, or at least differently wrong. As he states a few times in the book, we’re encumbered by seven thousand years of history but now we can start shedding anything that’s no longer helpful and start the next seven thousand years afresh.
By Tat Wood