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Written By: Amy Kalburn
“I like to think of history as an untidy, sprawling house…And in the house of history are those who think in centuries and those who focus on a single moment”. So says Dr. Margaret MacMillan, in the opening pages of her 2015 work, History’s People: Personalities of the Past.
What she fails to mention is her own role within this mansion of memory, the irrevocable impact her teaching and writing have had on popular and academic perceptions towards the past. Born in Toronto in 1943 and raised in England, MacMillan obtained an Honours B.A. in Modern History from the University of Toronto, before travelling to Oxford University to earn a B. Phil. in Politics, and to complete her doctoral thesis on the British in India. Her experience at U of T proved crucial in shaping her interests; she decided to become a historian after reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August as an undergraduate, explaining, “when I read her book I thought this was the way history should be. I found it riveting, and I wanted to write like her”.
In 1975, Ryerson University offered MacMillan a position teaching history, and she remained there until 2002, when she became the provost of Trinity College, and a professor at the University of Toronto. Though she engaged in a number of scholarly pursuits during this period – including co-editing the Canadian Institute for International Affairs’ International Journal, and serving on its National Board of Directors from 1995 onwards – she also learned to appeal to broader audiences. Teaching a diversity of students reinforced the importance of presenting history in an accessible, compelling way; as she commented, “I started lecturing to people who were doing things like engineering, nursing, and journalism…I had to make them interested in learning history.” Her use of lucid language to communicate erudite historical insights not only propelled her to success as a professor, but also as a world-renowned author.
MacMillan’s first book, Women of the Raj, was published in 1988, and explored the lives of British women in imperial India. Though this publication was selected for the Book of the Month Club and the History Book Club, it was Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World that catapulted MacMillan to international renown. 8 A masterful, in-depth account of the post- World War I Paris Peace Conference, Paris 1919 garnered multiple accolades, including Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, The Duff Cooper Prize for an outstanding literary work in the field of history, and the Hessel-Tiltman Prize for History. Yet, it also achieved popular acclaim, appearing on the New York Times’ List of 10 Best Books of the Year in 2002, and thus demonstrating MacMillan’s popular and scholarly appeal. Her subsequent works, which include Nixon in China, The War That Ended Peace, and The Uses and Abuses of History, have also been internationally lauded, earning MacMillan an Order of Canada and a plethora of fellowships and honorary degrees.
History, MacMillan contends, does not “offer clear guidelines for us as we make decisions in the present or blueprints as we try to anticipate the future”; rather, she says it “can make us aware of the possibilities for good and evil we all possess.” MacMillan’s success as a historian stems from her ability to illuminate these manifold possibilities, conjuring historical actors on the page, and imbuing the study of the past with immediacy and import.
“Alumni Portraits: Margaret MacMillan.” University of Toronto. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://alumni.utoronto.ca/portrait/margaret-macmillan/
MacMillan, Margaret. History’s People: Personalities of the Past. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc., 2015.
“Margaret Olwen MacMillan.” Global Affairs Canada. Last modified April 30, 2014. http://www.international.gc.ca/odskelton/macmillan_bio.aspx?lang=eng
Ward, Olivia. “Margaret MacMillan On Her New Book, The War That Ended Peace.” Toronto Star, October 25, 2013.