After World War II the writing of history was strongly influenced by a French group whose methods became known as the Annales school. Instead of focusing on the prominent, it dedicated itself to recounting the lives and circumstances of ordinary people, the seedbed as it were from which the tall trees grew. It filled in a rich background and provided stimulating ideas but, deprived of the great bearers of story that some part of us requires, the ordinary can come to seem just that.
Brilliant writing can be a way out; more specifically, writing and a sensibility able to make these unknowns into figures of resonance and depth. Two English examples emerge: Ronald Blythe’s “Akenfield,” which made the reader almost literally a neighbor of the Suffolk villagers he studied, and Adam Thorpe, whose fictional “Ulverton” provided a shivering sense of the passing of history in its stories of a dozen ordinary but vividly configured rural figures, each of whom lived at various times ranging from the Middle Ages to the present.