Dramatis Personae

The players in our historical drama.

The first thing that strikes you about Margaret MacMillan’s new book is the unusual selection of personalities she profiles. Her chapter headings are also unconventional: “Hubris,” “Daring,” “Curiosity,” “Observers” and “Persuasion and the Art of Leadership.” The latter focuses on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Otto von Bismarck and William Lyon Mackenzie King. Her chapter on hubris more conventionally studies Hitler, Stalin, Woodrow Wilson and—unconventionally—Margaret Thatcher. Her chapter that looks at curiosity is a refreshing portrait of women who have often been ignored by historians: Elizabeth Simcoe in colonial Canada, Fanny Parkes in India and Edith Durham in Albania.

One thing that unites these themes and personalities, big and small, is MacMillan’s anger at the historical profession’s disdain for narrative history and the role of the individual. “Sadly,” she writes in her introduction, “biographers themselves, as well as historians who use biography, have too long been regarded with suspicion by much of the historical profession—dismissed as amateurs whose grasp on history is shaky.”

This book, which comprised the CBC Massey Lectures in the fall of 2015, is a welcome antidote to this snobbery by a historian whose reputation is founded on her ability to balance the role of the individual and the times that shape that individual. We are not the same people, with the same values, with the same concepts of honour and morality, as the Romans or Victorians. “What was Russia like in the eighteenth century,” she asks about Catherine the Great, “especially to a young woman who came from a small German court? What values did she bring with her?”

One of MacMillan’s most striking profiles is that of Otto von Bismarck, the man who effectively united a myriad of quarrelsome principalities into modern Germany. As I learned about him in history books, he was the Iron Chancellor, the man of indomitable will and certainty, who shaped not only Germany but the history of Europe itself. He was all that, but he was not predestined to be that by the circumstances of his birth—an unremarkable member of the Junker class, whose peers held a low opinion of him. Neither did greatness or destiny appear to be woven into his character. He was an indifferent student given to drinking and gambling. “Throughout his life,” MacMillan writes, “Bismarck was a serious hypochondriac and was prone to prolonged fits of self-pity.” He evaded military service, yet claimed to have been a soldier and, later in life, affected military prowess by wearing extravagant uniforms. Indeed, he is usually portrayed in a silver helmet.

Accident cast him onto the stage of history. A member of the Prussian parliament from his district fell ill, and Bismarck was elected to replace him. He ultimately became Kaiser Wilhelm I’s right-hand man, although they were observed to have tempestuous arguments, accompanied with histrionics such as weeping and slamming of doors. “Bismarck would come down with crippling headaches and fits of vomiting,” MacMillan writes, “and claim he was dying.”

This is not to say that MacMillan reduces history to random chaos and personalities. The deep currents of economics, empires, class and war run through the narrative. But the achievement is to create a balance between the role of men and women and the tide of history. That has been a hallmark of her body of work—such as Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World and Nixon in China: The Week That Changed The World—that, to paraphrase Marx, men and women make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Germany would have been united had Bismarck not appeared on the scene, but it would likely not have become the same Germany.

“The study of individuals in the past,” she writes, “also makes us aware of contingency and timing,” and she poses a number of questions: What would have happened if Hitler had not been born? If Babur had not conquered India? If Champlain had not established the first lasting French settlement in Canada? She does not go up those paths, but leaves us appreciative of the precarious balance between characters and circumstances. The lives of tens of millions can depend on the interplay.

MacMillan, however, does something very refreshing in this very readable and reflective book. She interweaves the lives of the Bismarcks, the Stalins and the Churchills with cameos of much smaller figures who were in no way pivotal in history, but whose stories vividly illuminate their times, and it is in these portraits that some of the most memorable elements in the book are to be found.

One would not expect, for example, to find an admiring portrait of Elizabeth Simcoe, the high-born wife of John Graves Simcoe, the first ­lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, in the same volume as Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. One associates Elizabeth Simcoe with needlepoint. Yet the picture emerges of a pioneering woman who leaves behind her four oldest children in the care of relatives while she accompanies her husband to a colony that elicits this warning to her from one sentry: “There is but a sheet of brown paper between this place and hell.” Yet, although she lived in a canvas house in a mosquito-infested landscape, her writings and sketches project a sense of wonder and curiosity. Near the tiny settlement of York—today’s Toronto—she and her husband built a summer residence, a log cabin “on the plan of a Grecian Temple” with giant white pines as the columns. The subway station Castle Frank is named after it, and all that remains of it.

For all her husband’s vision of founding a bucolic piece of Britain in the wilderness, Elizabeth’s letters and diaries demonstrate a deep affection to the land and the people she finds. She admired the aboriginal people she met, particularly the Ojibway, whom she found courteous, spiritual and noble like “figures painted by the Old Masters.” She came to respect, and dine with, the legendary Iroquois leader Joseph Brant. She was thrilled to travel by canoe: “To see a Birch Canoe managed with that inexpressible ease & composure which is the characteristic of an Indian is the prettiest sight imaginable.” When she finally returned to England and Tory society, she was unhappy with what she saw: “the fields looked so cold, so damp, so cheerless, so uncomfortable from want of our bright Canadian sun.”

So what is MacMillan striving for in this collection of portraits? She does not follow the classic upstairs/downstairs formula of many narrative historians. Neither is it all history from below, and certainly not political or economic or military history. Well, she answers that in her first sentence: “I like to think of history as an untidy sprawling house.” This is Margaret MacMillan’s exploration of that mansion, walking from this ballroom into that bedroom, that library, leafing through the books. It is filled with wonder, curiosity, surprise and meditation about the people, the times they lived in and the forces that shaped them. In the end, the theme that unites this highly readable journey through time is Margaret MacMillan herself, a master historian at the top of her game.