skip to primary navigationskip to content
 

The Uses of Facts: E. H. Carr: Language and Sources

Language

There are plenty of reminders that Carr is here writing a lecture to be delivered to a live audience: ‘Let us take a look’, he begins, and he punctuates his discourse with rhetorical questions: ‘Is this a fact of history?’ ‘Does this make it into a historical fact?’ ‘What will decide which of these two things will happen?’ He refers to himself – ‘I should unhesitatingly have said “No”’, ‘Not, I think, yet’, ‘It will depend, I think…’ – to a much greater degree than is usual in historical writing. Carr’s use of the personal pronoun here emphasises his authority, not only over his material but also over his audience, just as a lecturer will often refer to ‘my lecture’, claiming ownership over it and keeping the audience in a subordinate, listening role. Carr’s language stresses the historian’s superior position: ‘Lord’ George Sanger, the circus-owner, though ‘an eye-witness’ to the murder at Stalybridge, cannot be considered on a par with the historian: his book is described, dismissively, as ‘some little-known memoirs’. Historians ‘rescue’ ‘mere’ facts from ‘the limbo of unhistorical facts about the past’, propose them for membership of an august club, and decide among themselves, through their footnotes, articles and books, whether they shall be admitted.

Sources

Only two sources are cited in this passage, and those are the ones we would expect: Kitson Clark’s original lectures and the circus-owner’s memoirs, which Carr calls little-known, but which seem to have run into a second edition and which he has certainly been able to track down. Moreover, he is not above changing the details of his sources. Kitson Clark said that the gingerbread-seller was kicked to death by miners (he does not say how many, though since they were equipped for the business, it need not have been many), that they wore steel-capped clogs, and that two policeman turned up. Carr omits nearly all these details, though he mentions the place and the fact that the victim sold gingerbread. The miners of the original have become ‘an angry mob’, which Kitson Clark did not claim; moreover, Carr has added a detail that Kitson Clark did not, that it was ‘the result of some petty dispute’; ‘some’ suggests that Carr does not actually know what the issue had been even though he gives the original account in his footnote. For the rest of the passage, for all his claims about how historians operate and decide what shall and what shall not be considered historical facts, Carr gives no sources at all.

 

<< Commentaries :: G. Kitson Clark, The Making of Victorian England >>