On structuring a book

Another review of my book on Michael Ramsey appears this week, this time from Keith Robbins in the English Historical Review. It is of course a pleasure to have a review from a senior scholar such as Professor Robbins, and in a leading generalist journal such as the EHR. Robbins concludes that it is a ‘well-balanced survey’, but otherwise has few substantive criticisms to make, positive or negative.

There is one, however, which merits some further discussion here. Robbins writes:

The drawback [of the book’s thematic structure] is that it is difficult to form a sense of how, year on year, each of these topics related to each other in terms of Ramsey’s ordering of their importance and his attention. It is convenient for historians to write about ‘the state’ and ‘the nation’ in different chapters, but so many questions flow across boundaries that their separate treatment seems a little artificial.

Most historians writing a book, I suspect, will have faced the choice between adopting either a chronological structure or a thematic one. My forthcoming book on Walter Hussey adopts a hybrid method: a broadly chronological structure, with some extended analyses of contextual themes interspersed. The adoption of either approach entails gains and losses, as Robbins states. With Hussey, the chronological structure works (I think) because the story has one track: a succession of commissions of works of art for his churches.

In Ramsey’s case, there is no single narrative thread, but several that progress side by side during his time as archbishop. There are points of contact between them, to be sure, which both introduction and conclusion were intended to draw out, perhaps unsuccessfully. But year by year there is not the kind of clustering of attention that Robbins suggests there might be. Instead, there are multiple threads of political, ecumenical and legal development, each of which moves according to its own internal dynamics: fast and slow; some recently arisen and others of very long standing; bursts of activity and long pauses. If one were to order Ramsey’s career as a sequence of events, one would see legislative moves in Parliament, political events overseas, sessions of the Church Assembly, interactions with the media, meetings with the other churches, sometimes in the same week or indeed the same day. Ramsey seems to have been adept at putting disparate matters in their separate boxes in order that they might be dealt with on their own terms. But the day to day experience of the archbishop was one of a rapid succession of highly disparate matters.

Sometimes Ramsey acted on his own initiative in response to events, such as the crises in Southern Rhodesia or Vietnam. In Parliament, sometimes he was able to initiate, and at other terms react, and to try to influence. The process of internal change in the Church is one of commissions, working groups, reports, and the to-and-fro between archbishop, bishops and the periodic deliberations of the Church Assembly or General Synod. Ecumenical change was necessarily a process of both initiative and reaction in relation to other churches at home and abroad. Part of the experience of being archbishop that I wanted to show was the imbalance between the power that he was supposed by many to wield, and the reality of the constraints under which he in fact operated. His power to initiate was considerable, but at the same time more limited than many thought.

The structure of the book was an attempt to isolate some key themes in order that they might be analysed. It may well be possible to achieve the same analytic end in a more chronological way; but it would have required a better writer than me. More pragmatically, the structure of the book more closely serves the needs of most of the readers it may attract. As an author, one might fondly imagine that every reader will want to savour every page of the book, but the majority will come to it in search of material on a particular issue, as Robbins acknowledges. I had no wish to force those readers to work with the index to hew that material out.

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