Printer Friendly

The Science of History in Victorian Britain.

The Science of History in Victorian Britain, by Ian Hesketh. Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century series. London, Pickering & Chatto, 2011. xii, 229 pp. $99.00 US (cloth).

In 1859, the year Darwin's Origin of the Species appeared, the Regius Professors of Modern History at Oxford and Cambridge, the putative heads of the British historical profession, were respectively Goldwin Smith, a talented controversialist and practitioner of higher journalism, and Charles Kingsley, a successful author of boys' adventure novels. Britain's best-known and best-selling historians were the forgotten Henry Thomas Buckle, the poet and statesman Lord Macaulay who died in that year leaving uncompleted his History of England, and the still rumbling intellectual volcano Thomas Carlyle, whose The French Revolution retains the power to amaze even today. Carlyle had left Edinburgh University without a degree; Macaulay left Cambridge with only a pass degree in classics, and Buckle never attended any university. As for Kingsley and Smith, to call them the heads of the profession is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to say that Britain had no historical profession. It did however have an historical establishment of sorts, and that establishment had just been galvanized by the recent publication and enthusiastic public reception of the first volume of Buckle's iconoclastic History of Civilization in England.

Such is the scene on which Ian Hesketh's artfully conceived and highly readable book opens. Buckle's greatest offence was his claim to have brought history into the age of science and to have made traditional forms of history obsolete by bringing the past under the sorts of general laws that characterized science proper. He further offended by intentionally, and successfully, presenting his alarming views in what he called a "clear and popular style." Hesketh usefully discusses Buckle's work, documenting Buckle's great respect for Auguste Comte, and the concerted attack that was mounted to discredit this presumptuous young autodidact, an attack that focused particularly on the denial of free will discerned in Buckle's mechanistic vision of historical change. Conveniently for his numerous enemies--among whom Smith, Kingsley, and the young Lord Acton were prominent--Buckle's premature death prevented the completion of his ambitious project. But Buckle's brief celebrity focused the attention of historians on the question of the science of history. The prestige of the word "science" was too great to refuse. If history was not the sort of science Buckle claimed it should become, then what kind of science was it?

Hesketh, who is knowledgeable in the history of Victorian natural sciences, sees the response to Buckle as an example of the kind of epistemic boundary work being practiced by scientists to establish their cultural authority by a dialectic of exclusion. The practice of history was one of many employments scrambling to acquire the prestige associated with being a recognized profession. A prized attribute was inclusion in university curricula. "Modern"--that is, post-classical--history was only just winning a place in the Oxbridge curriculum independent of the long-privileged history of Greece and Rome. The capture of the Regius Professorships by properly credentialed professional historians was considered vital. This required the vilification of Charles Kingsley who, despite his participation in the demolition of Buckle, became the exemplification of everything a professional historian was not.

Although Hesketh recognizes that the document-based inductive methodology exemplified particularly in the work of the revered medievalist Bishop William Stubbs, was important to giving historical research a scientific identity, his particular interest is in the writing of history and the debate over what constituted an appropriate style for the would-be science. The question of style was closely connected with questions of who was authorized to write scientific history, and how and for whom it should be written. Hesketh's presentation of the professionals, focusing especially on Edward Freeman, J.R. Seeley, Mandell Creighton, Lord Acton, James Bryce, J.R. Green, and William Stubbs, shows them performing their boundary work in reviews and personal correspondence which he quotes frequently and tellingly, allowing these believers in history "speaking for itself' to speak for themselves. To a remarkable degree their boundary work targeted one particular figure, James Anthony Froude, friend of Kingsley and warm admirer of Carlyle, who became the victim of an outrageous campaign of vilification led by Freeman, in which he was described as suffering from a character defect, or alternatively a "disease," which disabled him from practicing as a professional historian. His attackers detected too much Froude in Froude's work: he was not that invisible author demanded by their scientific ideal of objectivity. In a process which included a significant religious dimension--as what Victorian intellectual controversy did not?--Froude was elevated to the status of Anti-Historian.

Although Froude was a prodigious worker in original archives, much more so than Freeman in fact, he was no Carlylian Dryasdust. Indeed, that was his greatest offence: Froude wrote too well, far too well for a professional scientist, whose work should be inaccessible to the general public. He was thus an artist, not a scientist. Froude failed to be boring, an attribute which J.R. Seeley frankly proposed as necessary to proper scientific history. British professional historians' flirtation with inaccessibility in the name of science, based on the notion that art and science were polarities and that literary qualities belonged in the realm of art, was brief and never quite wholehearted, and to post- Hayden White ears sounds downright bizarre. As Hesketh effectively shows--drawing heavily and with full acknowledgement on the pioneering work of Leslie Howsam--important and hitherto insufficiently recognized players in the professionalization of British history were the publishers, notably Macmillan and Longmans, who were understandably skeptical about the merits of inaccessibility. Their healthy interest in the bottom line, which historians found infectious, played a significant role in softening the polarities. By a nice irony--and there's considerable irony in Hesketh's compact and elegant study it was George Macaulay Trevelyan, great-nephew of Lord Macaulay, future Regius Professor and best-selling author, who got the better of his predecessor J.B. Bury, Lord Acton's successor as Regius Professor at Cambridge and a fine historian, whose misfortune it is to be remembered mainly for declaring in his 1903 inaugural lecture that history was "simply a science, no less and no more."

Christopher Kent

University of Saskatchewan
COPYRIGHT 2012 Canadian Journal of History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kent, Christopher
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
Previous Article:The East India Company's London Workers: Management of the Warehouse Labourers, 1800-1858.
Next Article:Marianne or Germania? Nationalizing Women in Alsace, 1870-1946.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters