Trashy literature, history and the value of career theory


 I sometimes joke that since finishing a PhD in English Literature I haven’t read a work of fiction. This isn’t quiet true, but I generally find non-fiction to be a more reliable way to access ideas (kind of like drinking ethanol rather than a fine wine I know, but it works for me). I studied literature for so long that it robbed it of a lot of its charm. As I read I find myself naming the parts and noting techniques like “framed narrative”, “metaphor” and so on. Sometimes this mental voice begins to remind me too much of trying to extract analysis from bored first years in seminars ten years ago and I have to abandon fiction altogether for a while.


So I pretty much confine myself to reading the kinds of things that I review on this blog. However, occasionally a holiday or a long journey will tempt me back into the reading of fiction. Although usually the kind of fiction I choose wouldn’t have much chance of getting onto a Literature syllabus. I read stuff that either sweetens the pill of reading non-fiction by spicing it up with a bit of novelisation or that is frankly trashy. Thankfully Simon Scarrow manages to tick both of these categories and so I rarely miss one of his books.


For those of you uninitiated with the world of Scarrow he writes boys own adventure, military fiction set against the backdrop of a historical period. His “Eagle” books were based on the Roman invasion of Britain and he has now moved on to a new series based on Wellington and Napoleon. To be fair the Napoleonic novels (Young Bloods and The Generals) are rather more serious than the Eagle books, but all still work across the ideal mix of macho adventure and nerdish attention to historical detail.


So why am I reviewing a novelised history of Wellington and Napoleon on a blog that is theoretically about career development. Well, one reason is that I reserve the right to do what I want here, but the second is that this series is based around a career history (see where I’m going) of the two historical figures it examines.  The biographies of the two men are novelised  and placed side by side.


Reading these career stories at the same time as thinking and writing about career made me think about what the study of career might have to offer the study of history and literature and conversely what they might have to offer that might inform the study of career.


The books develop the story of Napoleon and Wellington in ways that highlight the differences in their career. To put it in career theory terms Wellington pursues advancement within a fairly stable institution (the British army and state). His movement up through the ranks is one of steady (if sometimes frustratingly slow) progress through an organisational hierarchy. Conversely Napoleon is pursuing his career against the backdrop of revolutionary turmoil in France. His career is characterised by lucky accidents which he managed to transform into opportunities for himself.


Wellington’s career is linear while Napoleon’s is very much planned happenstance. His personal abilities, connections and political instincts enable him to react to situations in ways that others are not able. While Wellington’s progress relies heavily on resilience and patience to enable him to navigate the structures within which he finds himself.


The point I’m trying to make here is that our understanding of historical actors can be enriched through reference to thinking about how careers work. Similarly applying our theories to historical situations tests the universality of the theory and throws up questions about what is really new about the post-industrial labour market.


Just a thought, but I’d be interested to hear from any historians wanted to pursue this further…



  1. I am regrettably not a historian nor am I schooled in the literary arts but I can tell substance that takes interesting thought forms such as this delighful change for me…

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