Jenny Robin Jones : What is a Feral Historian? Fullscreen

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What is a Feral Historian?

The feral historian is untamed, questing and joyful. A creature usually motivated by a deep impulse to know. A creature outside the walls.

The term feral historian was coined by Graham Butterworth who therefore had first crack at its meaning. A freelance professional scholar. Or, in fellow feral historian Susan Butterworth’s words, ‘those who make an uncertain living writing history on contract, rather than within an institution’.

But a phrase like feral historian is itself feral. It cannot be contained. It must break boundaries. Its meaning must encompass what the word feral suggests. A law unto itself – which doesn’t mean without laws, but obeying laws made by and tailored to itself. Like a wild animal that obeys not human but nature’s law.

The Jenny Robin Jones feral historian does not typically write history on contract. Nor is she confined within an institution. She looks for subject matter that promises enough stimulation and excitement to give her the stamina for several years work – and then she makes a start. As for the ‘uncertain living’, that bit is certainly true.

Academic historians use the word feral in a derogatory sense. Understandably so, since they have spent years gaining academic qualifications, adapting their minds to a rigorous system and putting up with the narrowness of university life.

And there is certainly a downside to the feral historian - it may fall prey to cruel traps for the unwary: lack of discipline, junking on speculation, blinding itself by delight, being eaten by a historian.

However there can be an upside. In its pre-historical life the feral historian may have travelled widely, studied other disciplines, thought deeply about its life experience or learnt ways of using language which will seem innovative when it comes to the writing of history. In the case of Jones, there is a degree in sociology and several units in English literature as well as many years' immersion in the rigours of writing fiction. There is deep respect for the value of the unfolding narrative.

The trained historian asks, 'What is the thesis?' - as if there can be no history without one. And certainly thesis-history can be an inspiring way to understand in a new and deeper way. But, as far as a book is concerned, a thesis is a way of making the reader want to turn the page. And there is another way - the way of the unfolding narrative.

Unfolding narrative helps the reader imagine being present at the time the history is being made, being in the skin of a person unknowingly making history. It allows the reader to think, What would I do in this situation? and to work out why people acted as they did, and to understand that how they themselves are acting now may well look stupid in a hundred years time.

For the unfolding narrative to be convincing it must be based on painstaking research, not only of the facts but also of the understandings of that close cousin the thesis historian. It should be transparent about sources, and demonstrate commitment at all times to telling truth about the past.

This at any rate is Jones's endeavour.

Run wild with it!

Introducing Another Feral Historian
SARAH GAITANOS is the author of The Violinist: Clare Galambos Winter, Holocaust Survivor, Nola Millar: A Theatrical Life, and with Alan Bollard, Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, of the bestseller - Crisis: One central bank governor and the global financial collapse. Sarah is an independent writer, researcher and oral historian.
The subject of her next biography is the great New Zealand champion of justice and human rights, Shirley Smith, 1916-2007.

Without passion there might be no errors, but without passion there would certainly be no history

C.V. Wedgwood