Historians, history brokers, consumers, and English historical culture 1800-1970.
The Culture of History: English Uses of the Past 1800-1953. By Billie Melman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xiii + 363 pages.
Why be concerned with historians of an earlier century, many of them no longer read or taken seriously today? That was one of the predictable questions Michael Bentley fielded in 2003 from a member of his audience at one of his Wiles Lectures at Queen's University Belfast, the origin of the first book reviewed here. Bentley, a specialist in late nineteenth-century British political history and editor of a monumental Companion to Historiography (1997), of course took the question in his stride and offered answers on that occasion that, in much extended form, provide the rationale for his new book. Simply ignoring or dismissing generations of past authors, he asserts on the final page of his well-argued and engagingly written book, "encourages a trashy laziness of mind among young people all too ready to believe that history was born when they were." Moreover, he insists, historiography is functionally inseparable from the study of history by virtue of the ongoing dialogues it provokes between past and present. Historical study becomes fossilized if it unnaturally imprisons itself in a self-contained, unselfconscious compartment. Yet, once, this was all too often commonplace. Before the 1960s, English undergraduate degree programs in history rarely devoted time to historiography and historical practice or indeed to extended reflection on the nature and philosophy of the discipline. "I don't believe [historians] ever asked themselves these questions," Julia de Lacy Mann recalled in the 1970s of her early days in economic history. "I certainly never asked myself where I was going and I can't remember anybody ever saying to me where is the subject going to or what is its object." (1) Many other university historians would have said precisely the same. Historians by and large simply steeped themselves in the surviving traces of the past in order to find out more about it. Edward Hallett Carr's What Is History? (1961), with its warnings about the elusiveness of objectivity, was a wake-up call to historians to abandon their untested certainties, curb their instinctively relentless fact gathering, and rethink what they were doing and achieving.
Carr's book, though still regarded today as a period classic and available in a modern edition with an editor's introduction that places it in context, has long since lost its novelty value. (2) It no longer dislodges most readers' assumptions as it originally did. Significantly it attracts only two mentions in Bentley's book, which spans a critical century that embraced Whig history in its prime and its modernist successors. Henry Hallam (1777-1859), Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), William Stubbs (1825-1901), John Richard Green (1837-83), Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-92), Samuel Rawson Gardiner (1829-1901), and Lord Acton (1834-1902), among the Whigs, are reexamined; Stubbs especially, a Tory in politics but quintessentially Whig in his writings, receives the fullest treatment. And though this is chiefly an English story, the significant contributions made by a series of American historians--Charles Gross, James F. Baldwin, Charles H. McIlwain, and Wallace Notestein--are properly noted. Constitutional history, as others have recognized, was the defining expression of Whig history, especially in the hands of Stubbs, whose uplifting stress on the continuities of representative institutions and national life long held sway. Moreover, this was a grand narrative heavily suffused with Christian--specifically Protestant--values. "The study of modern history," said Stubbs (a bishop as well as a practising historian), "is next to Theology itself the most thoroughly religious training that the mind can receive." (3) Fortified with such convictions, historians reached a state of mind that fostered the easy passing of moral judgements. For Stubbs, King John was without doubt "the very worst of all our kings: a man whom no oaths could bind, no pressure of conscience, no consideration of policy, restrain from evil; a faithless son, a treacherous brother, an ungrateful master; to his people a hated tyrant." (4) The royal saint Henry VI, by contrast, had all the right qualities, and Stubbs devoted no fewer than twelve adjectives to describing them: "pious, pure, generous, patient, simple, true and just, humble, merciful, fastidiously conscientious, modest and temperate." (5) Little wonder that the high-mindedness of Whig history effortlessly extended itself to embrace the subject of the white man's burden of empire. Historians like Sir John Seeley and James Anthony Froude made this their mission.
Herbert Butterfield's slim volume on The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) famously rehearsed these and other features of this dominant narrative of English history. Indeed, in a real sense, as Bentley makes clear, Butterfield came close to creating it. His paradigm of Whig history was so capacious that it embraced virtually all historians; the stubbornly unclassifiable Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was one of the very few whom the model did not fit. Moreover, Butterfield's book pilloried a kind of history that was not simply a hallmark of the confident Victorian age but was still very much in evidence at the time he was writing. The constant outpourings of George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1962) saw to that. Bentley is surely right to see Butterfield's trenchant text as a modernist tract for its own times, a rallying call to historians to move on and do things differently. (It is true that Butterfield subsequently tended to undermine the force of his assault by exhibiting in his own later writings some of the very same features he had criticized in others.) Historians like Albert Pollard (1869-1948) at the University of London and Thomas Frederick Tout (1855-1929) at Manchester University were rebuilding the foundations of their subject, and they helped train a whole generation of later practitioners. History became noticeably more professionalized and institutionalized. Professorial inaugural lectures were used evangelistically to spread the new gospel and methodology. Economic history in the hands of masters like George Unwin (1870-1925), Richard Henry Tawney (1880-1962), and Sir John Clapham (1873-1946) was starting to challenge the old supremacy of constitutional history. Pollard's Institute of Historical Research, with its famous seminars, was founded in 1921. A cluster of new historical journals made their appearance around the same time--the Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research (1923), the Cambridge Historical Journal (1923), and in the year after the General Strike, the Economic History Review (1927).
Bentley makes much of these modernist investments in the study of history in the 1920s. Women historians like Eileen Power (1889-1940) and Lillian Knowles (1870-1926) were nudging their way into the profession. Sir Lewis Namier's groundbreaking studies of The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929) and England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930) were published at this time and set in train the Namierizing atomization of eighteenth-century political history--and by extension other periods too--that was such a dominant feature of the next few decades. The "History of Parliament" project from 1951--intended to cover the whole sweep of parliamentary history from the thirteenth century to the nineteenth--guaranteed, says Bentley in a nice phrase, the importation of "Namierism ready mixed by the lorry load" (159).
Butterfield (1900-79), a Yorkshireman, and Namier (1888-1960), a Polish emigre, formed the principal centerpiece of Bentley's 2003 Wiles Lectures. They still receive more space than any other historians in the resultant book but are treated not so much as individuals in their own right as icons or symbols in their modernizing profession. Bentley, in fact, is always careful to avoid here a heavily biographical approach--most biographies of historians (even those of Butterfield and Namier) in this volume are contained in short summaries in the footnotes. (However, not all historians dealt with in this study--Trevelyan, for instance--have their biographies included.) Furthermore, Bentley eschews the kind of plodding narrative and bibliographical catalogue which has often characterized historiographical surveys. Not for him the dull roll calls of practitioners and their output rehearsed in books like George Peabody Gooch's History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913). Refreshingly also Bentley's book avoids the strident male-centeredness of John Kenyon's The History Men (1983). Nor do we get blow-by-blow accounts of famous flare-ups like the early modern "Gentry Controversy" that exercised Richard Henry Tawney, Lawrence Stone, Hugh Trevor Roper, and others. Bentley's is inevitably a selective treatment. Some historians are left out altogether. Some, even prolific writers like As a Briggs, barely rate a mention here. Bentley's personal preferences, of course, come into play. Some historians score much more highly than others. For example, the boldly innovative and challenging agrarian historian Joan Thirsk (1922-) receives consistently high praise. Others, like the "Tory buffoon" Oscar Browning (1837-1923), the "terrible" ranting medievalist George Gordon Coulton (1858-1947), Alfred Leslie Rowse (1903-97) ("sharper about the people he knew than about the historical periods he described"), and Christopher Hill (1912-2003), are swiftly dismissed (183, 150, 113). The sheer petty-mindedness and nastiness of some historians--Geoffrey Elton and Trevor Roper stand out--are exposed. Namierite historians developed a special ploy of dealing with arch critic Butterfield simply by omitting him completely from the indexes of their books on eighteenth-century politics. Even more humane and less gossipy historians had their off days and made the most indiscreet and offensive remarks in private correspondence accessed for this book. "Namier is a brazen pot, a Jew of the Jews, and the worst bore I know," declared the normally temperate Pollard in November 1930. (6) Sir John Neale (1890-1975) in old age deemed the Marxist seventeenth-century specialist Hill "incorrigibly twisted in his mind as an historian" (191). But there are some nice human touches too, like Helen Maud Cam (1885-1968) imperiously dismissing a doorman trying to exclude her from a normally all-male academic forum: "I'm not a lady, I'm a professor!" (123). Then there is that delightful story of Basil Willey (1897-1978) in a Cambridge coffeehouse suddenly seeing the light about historical truth (197).
Bentley's book offers many insights into the historiography under discussion and his material is well organized into two broad sections--Whig legacies and modernist investments--and eight main chapters. The style of the lecture room still echoes here in the jaunty, dry humor and pithy verdicts. Sometimes, however, he is less than fair or even fundamentally misrepresents the work of others in the same field; justice is certainly not done to Christopher Parker, for example, in his important works on The English Historical Tradition since 1850 (1990) and The English Idea of History from Coleridge to Collingwood (2000). There are very occasional errors of fact. Albert Pollard suddenly becomes Alfred (196). And there are some highly misleading statements here and there. Whig historians survived after the First World War, we are told, %y keeping their heads either down or at least out of the universities" (7)--hardly true, surely, of Trevelyan, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge from 1927. Nor will it do to say of Rowse that he was one of those academic popularizers who "took a certain pride in their lack of academic recognition" (229). As his diaries show so clearly, nothing rankled more in the warped mind of this pathologically arrogant man than that honors that he felt were his by right were not heaped upon him.
As in books like John Burrow's A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (1981), Bentley is more interested in tendencies than catalogues in historiography. He is quick to recognize crosscurrents. Both Whig history and modernism were plural phenomena, expressed differently by different practitioners, even at the same time, and their chronologies were far from neat and uniform. "Modernism" is a term more commonly applied to art, architecture, literature, and philosophy than history. For Bentley, who prefers it to bland alternatives such as "professsionalization" or "positivism," it has no hard and fast single definition universally accepted by all those who worked within it. It is best seen, he argues, as "a set of attributes, a collection of presuppositions and enthusiasms, a cast of mind" (10). Not all historians can be neatly pigeonholed within such general categories. Whig history did not die in the First World War, as is sometimes claimed; the work of Trevelyan and Veronica Wedgwood (1910-97) provided living proofs to the contrary. Nor was modernism dead by the 1960s, though many of its leading lights had passed away--Tout in 1929, Pollard in 1948, Namier in 1960, Tawney in 1962. Butterfield lived on to 1979. Tudor specialist Elton uncompromisingly carried the modernist torch until his death in 1994. But the winds of change, argues Bentley, were much in evidence from the 1960s. Carr's What Is History? and Edward Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963) were two of the signs. So, in a more general sense, were the onset of the heady excesses of postmodernism (clearly not something Bentley himself holds in high regard) and (later) the arrival of television dons like David Starkey, Simon Schama, and Niall Ferguson.
Some of the historians who feature in Bentley's book also find a place in Melman's The Culture of History: Sir Arthur Bryant, Neale, Rowse, Lytton Strachey, and Wedgwood are all there, as is the Historical Association that Pollard was instrumental in founding in 1906. Indeed, originally, we are informed in the opening pages, Melman's intention had been to write a monograph on professional historians in England in the period between the two World Wars. In the event, this did not happen. Her chronological coverage was greatly extended and the scope of the investigation was enlarged to highlight popular literary, visual, and aural histories. The chosen title and subtitle now accurately describe the very different project that resulted. Professional historians still enter her study, it is true, but not in the context of the academy but by virtue of their periodic engagement in the public sphere. History brokers rather than historians occupy center stage in Melman's study, which is essentially about the production, dissemination, and consumption of popular historical culture and how this related to questions of social class, gender, the rise of democracy, and national identity in the period between the French Revolution and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 (a historical occasion in more senses than one). Charles Dickens (1812-70) gets as much space in this book as the historian Carlyle, and the pages taken up with Rowse's trumpetings about the "New Elizabethan Age" are greatly exceeded by those allotted to twentieth-century films and opera devoted to the last of the Tudors. Madame Tussaud and her waxworks and the Tower of London get whole chapters to themselves. So do historical novelists like Dickens and William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-82). Historical tourism features here. Film directors like Alexander Korda (1893-1956) and British film actors such as Leslie Howard (1893-1943), Charles Laughton (1889-1962), and Dame Flora Robson (1902-84) receive considerable attention. In different ways it is the "mass commodification of history" that is under review in this fascinating and far-reaching study. Raphael Samuel's pathfinding works on Patriotism (1989) and on Theatres of Memory (1994-99) were clearly influential in shaping Melman's agenda.
Necessarily selective in her treatment, Melman chooses to focus on two periods/subjects--the age of the Tudors and the French Revolution--and she moves backwards and forwards between them, with some resultant repetition and jerkiness in the overall rhythms of the book, treating different aspects of their historical reconstructions and popular engagement with them. Dominant motifs of imprisonment and execution are much in evidence. Cruikshank's famous mid-nineteenth-century illustration of the beheading of Lady Jane Grey in February 1554 adorns the front cover; Madame Tussaud's own wax models of the assassinated French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat and of six guillotined heads stare out at us starkly on page 30.
The French Revolution and its impact and continuing resonance in England open the book. Madame Tussaud's growing status in England as witness/historian of the French Revolution is carefully considered, as is the evolution of her museum (founded in 1802) into a national institution. Carlyle's wild, savage, vivid, panoramic history of The French Revolution (1837), written in the present tense for dramatic effect and highlighting the roles of women and the sans culottes, neurotically kept the memory of the events of the late eighteenth century alive and provided pointed warnings for the Victorian age. Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859) was much indebted to Carlyle's "wonderful book" (103), shared the historian's anxieties about revolutionary crowds, and followed its lead in the way it presented the outline and dynamics of the French Revolution. Between them Mademe Tussaud, Carlyle, and Dickens shaped popular historical consciousness of the French Revolution in England for generations to come, arguably even to the present day. They were reinforced, as Melman explains, in the twentieth century by The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy (1865-1947), the exciting story of the daring, patriotic English aristocratic hero, first in a play (1903), then a novel (1905), and finally a highly successful film (1935). Just as Madame Tussaud's became accepted as a national institution, so the fabricated Englishness of the film version of Orczy's story--with its Hungarian director (Korda) and leading actor (Howard), and Eurasian leading lady (Merle Oberon)--was instantly accepted as the real thing and received the seal of approval from critics and film-going public alike. The remake in 1950 with David Niven, despite being in Technicolor this time, not in black and white like the 1935 original, was a pale imitation.
Cinema attendance was the favorite national pastime of the 1930s, and the medium of film became one of the most potent vehicles in the dissemination and development of historical consciousness. Even the usually rather stuffy Historical Association recognized it as a force for good; its sponsored publication on The Value of Films in History Teaching by Francis Consitt sold ten thousand copies in 1932 alone. Melman devotes much space to the spate of patriotic English films about the Tudor period that were produced in the 1930s: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Tudor Rose and Fire over England (1936), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Fire over England, dealing with Armada year 1588 and starring Flora Robson and Laurence Olivier (1907-89) and recommended by leading Tudor expert Neale, stood out as the most remarkable of the group and not only was a box office hit in its own right but made marketing history as an advertising device for selling products as diverse as tinned soup and shoes (196-97). The prehistory of this runaway success in the 1930s, Melman shows, was similar in many ways to that of The Scarlet Pimpernel and in various respects centered on the Tower of London, both as a major physical presence and historical landmark in its own right and as the inspiration for Ainsworth's phenomenally successful novel of that name first published in 1840. Melman shows convincingly how Ainsworth himself became a major broker of history; visitors to the Tower arrived there armed with copies of his novel and used it as a kind of guidebook. Ainsworth undoubtedly helped boost Tower of London tourism, an unwelcome trend for its managers, who struggled well into the next century to restrict access to the national monument, first by charging high admission fees and then by regulating numbers. The "100 visitors at a time" rule became a major target of popular opposition; even for those living in the adjacent East End of London, gaining admission to the Tower frequently involved long delays. Uncouth provincial school parties arriving in large numbers with their packed lunches were even less tolerated than those living close by. The persistently hostile attitude of the Tower authorities to visitors gave new meanings to the grim fortress's longstanding reputation as a symbol of state oppression.
Melman's use of oral history and little-known working-class memoirs brings matters such as this and others related to popular historical consciousness into sharper focus. Life stories of ordinary Londoners like Jenny Paget (1903-94) and Jack B. Rutstein (1916-) are used to provide insights into the slow and often hindered democratization of historical culture. Significantly, Melman chooses to begin her book with a discussion of the historical scrapbookh--"Illustrations of British History"--put together by Maurice Birley, warden of Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel in the East End of London on the eve of the First World War. What he selected for inclusion and how he presented the material provide Melman with a distinctive entree to her subject. The book ends with a different kind of evocation of the Tudor period--Benjamin Britten's opera Gloriana, commissioned for the Coronation gala performance of 1953 and overoptimistically projected as a kind of English equivalent of Verdi's Aida, which in the nineteenth century had announced the opening of the Suez Canal. Melman offers an insightful account of why the premiere of Gloriana was such a depressing failure. Self-evidently, a depiction of an ill-tempered Queen Elizabeth I in declining old age hardly coincided with the uplift provided by the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II. Nor did Britten's dark, rather inaccessible music. The coronation opera was hopelessly out of touch with the festive mood of the moment in which monarchy, now on view to all through the new medium of television, was being celebrated as a prized national possession.
The Culture of History casts its net widely. Historic buildings themselves, museums, waxworks, art--Paul Delaroche's historical canvases get special mention--guidebooks, novels, plays, operas, films all form staple ingredients of Melman's subject matter. Even postcards and cigarette cards find a place here. Some elements in the story that might have been expected to have a presence--the National Portrait Gallery and the National Trust, for example--are strangely absent. Gilbert and Sullivan's well-known opera The Yeomen of the Guard (1888) gets only the briefest of mentions in connection with the Tower of London story; Edward German's later companion piece Merrie England which in 1902 opened, like many of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas before it, at the Savoy Theatre, London, is overlooked altogether. Proofreading has been slipshod in places, and there are far too many undetected factual errors. The title of Richard Doddridge Blackmore's historical novel Lorna Doone (1869) is misrendered (252). The troubled period depicted in the film Fifty Five Days at Peking (1963) is inexplicably reduced to Thirty Five (220). One of Lady Bracknell's most famous speeches in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) is clumsily misquoted (247). Most bizarrely of all, the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, is at one point wrongly dated (49). Though there are many illustrations, Oxford University Press has not done a good job of reproducing them. They can be viewed only through a glass darkly. Since the popular historical culture depicted here relied in part for its impact on visual effects, this is obviously a real loss and detracts from an otherwise compelling book that has much to offer its readers.
Melman has searched in many out-of-the-way places for her evidence and brought together a highly original book that valuably complements Bentley's. Chronologically, the period coverage of the two studies overlaps substantially and there is some sharing at least of the same cast list; the borderlines between professional and popular historical culture were partly porous and allowed some two-way absorption. Not surprisingly, however, since Melman's subject matter concerns the interactions between the production, management, and consumption of popular historical culture, the gender balance in her story is rather different; she has many more women than appear in Bentley's book, which depicts a heavily male-dominated and vigilantly defended historical profession. And through Melman's skillful use of oral histories schoolgirls, too, are drawn into the discussion through their own personal stories of their early encounters with history and of how these were assimilated.
University of Winchester
Winchester, England, United Kingdom
(1.) T. C. Barker, "The Beginnings of the Economic History Society," Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 30.1 (1977): 15, qtd. in Bentley, 128. Julia de Lacy Mann (1891-1985) was, for twenty-seven years, Principal of St Hilda's College, Oxford. She coauthored, with A. P. Wadsworth, The Cotton Trade and Industrial Lancashire 1600-1780 (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1931) and, in retirement, produced The Cloth Industry of the West of England from 1640 to 1880 (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1971).
(2.) E.H. Carr, What Is History?, introduction by Richard J. Evans, 40th Anniversary ed. (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).
(3.) Stubbs, Seventeen Lectures on the Study of Medieval and Modern History (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1886), 13, qtd. in Bentley, 48.
(4.) Stubbs, Constitutional History of England, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1873-78), 2:17, qtd. in Bentley, 29.
(5.) Stubbs, Constitutional History, 3:134, qtd. in Bentley, 48.
(6.) Pollard to E. F. Jacob, qtd. in Bentley, 175.