G.M. Trevelyan’s Two Terrible Things

John Vincent

  • George Macaulay Trevelyan: A Memoir by Mary Moorman
    Hamish Hamilton, 253 pp, £9.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 241 10358 4
  • Public and Private by Humphrey Trevelyan
    Hamish Hamilton, 208 pp, £8.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 241 10357 6

G.M. Trevelyan (1876-1962) burnt all his papers. His ‘Autobiography of an Historian’ (1949) is as the title suggests both narrow and concise. The sketch by a pupil, J.H. Plumb, published in 1951, is a survey of the books rather than the man. Mrs Moorman, herself the biographer of Wordsworth as well as a loyal daughter, rightly considers this is not enough, and has retrieved letters, chiefly early and chiefly to his brother, the Labour Minister, Sir Charles Trevelyan, which show the forces that inspired G.M. Trevelyan’s history. Her study makes her father accessible as a human being for the first time, relieves him from the imputation of being too much of a paragon to be interesting, and shows him, without hindsight and Whig interpretation, as a writer of distinct ideological and quasi-religious purpose, more aware of his limitations and his lack of self-confidence than of the recognition the world awarded. He now appears as a liberal bigot whom no socialist, Christian or conservative could consider non-partisan.

Mrs Moorman’s book concentrates on the period before his return to Cambridge as Regius Professor (a Baldwin appointment) in 1927. Only two of her ten chapters concern his life after 1927, whether from discretion or from lack of materials is not made quite clear. Lord Trevelyan, a diplomatist, throws more light on Trevelyan and his family in ‘The Master’, an essay semi-humorous in tone, set among a cluster of sketches of various Trevelyans from successive epochs. The first part of Lord Trevelyan’s book concerns Khrushchev, Nasser, Chou, and such celebrities, the second is family history; no one will complain of either section who enjoys worldly understatement. Mrs Moorman and Lord Trevelyan together give us a picture of great interest.

G.M. Trevelyan was a third-generation arriviste. His grandfather, Sir Charles Trevelyan, Trollope’s Sir Gregory Hardlines, pushed his way from nothing to the top of the Civil Service, marrying Macaulay’s sister on the way. His father pushed his way into high politics, marrying a cotton fortune on the way. G.M. Trevelyan himself was pushed into the Mastership of Trinity in 1940 (one of Brendan Bracken’s best appointments). His seigneurial attitude, his rural disposition and habits, his distance from mundane academics, all reflected the reverence for tradition and continuity which often afflicts younger sons of cadet branches. There had indeed always been Trevelyans at Nettlecombe, but that elder branch of the family luckily died out in 1879, bringing a further injection of upward social mobility and broad acres to a dynasty which had begun with a penniless clerk in India in 1830. By 1900 G.M. Trevelyan saw his family almost as haughty Border Lords: ‘It is a rule that no Trevelyan ever sucks up either to the press, or the chiefs, or the “right people”. The world has given us money enough to enable us to do what we think right; we thank it for that and ask no more of it.’ The Trevelyans were synthetic Border Whigs as Sir W. Scott was a synthetic Border Tory.

It is doubtful whether the great families of Northumbria quite saw the Regius Professor and Cambridge master as the representative of landed tradition – the mask he wore in Cambridge. For one thing, his Tory acquaintance was apparently limited beyond belief. For another, his brother the Labour Education Minister combined the rights of man with the droit de seigneur, and with the diddling of the National Trust on the principle that property was a crime, but sponging and bad landlordship were not. G.M. Trevelyan had a David and Saul relationship of some intensity with his brother Charles, the wenching socialist baronet, who suffered from depression and aristocratic bad temper and wilfulness. If anything could have cured him of progressivism, it would have been the sight of his brother; but G.M. Trevelyan’s innocence was too fundamental to be disturbed by facts. ‘Three years consummate misery’ at Harrow made him loathe ‘aristocratic curs’ and embrace Democracy. From there, he went on to three significant and consistent positions. Before 1914 he embodied the ferment engendered by the new Liberalism. Between the wars he embodied the new liberal conservatism and its sustaining myths. In the 1940s he represented Churchillian continuity and Englishness in the intellectual sphere. The clue to his development was religious.

G.M. Trevelyan was the strongly agnostic son of a mildly ‘nothingarian’ father. The grandparents were Evangelical Anglican on one side, Unitarian on the other. All three Trevelyan brothers were unbelievers, but with George it was much more than mere absence of belief, it was a creed in its own right. ‘Two terrible things have happened this week,’ he was heard to say, ‘my son has bought a motorbike and my daughter has become a Christian.’ As a young don, he was turned down on religious grounds by the first great love of his life, the daughter of a great Anglican family. In the aftermath of this rejection, he thought ‘a definitely agnostic atmosphere is essential for my free development of work and of life’. His daughter, the wife of a historian bishop with whom Trevelyan got on rather well, not surprisingly softens the outlines, notes his regular attendance at Chapel when Master of Trinity (1940-51), and records his saying: ‘If there had been more sensible clergymen in Cambridge in my time I could have been a churchman.’

But the Trevelyan who attended Chapel as an official duty – Trinity was worth a mass – had essentially the same outlook as the Harrow schoolboy who had refused to be confirmed. He preached a sermon in Trinity in 1945, but it was not a Christian sermon. To say he was merely anti-clerical is only partly true, though he retained the old Evangelical family feeling against high churchmen, for his definition of anti-clericalism was pretty capacious. Talking in old age of Lucretius, he burst out: ‘And doesn’t it strike you as extraordinary that Lucretius should have lived and written only a few years before the greatest outburst of clericalism that the world has ever seen?’ Trevelyan’s judgment of Christianity was probably formed essentially by his experience of it as a university party at Cambridge: his knowledge of it in other contexts was slight, though he did once stoop to arrange an honorary degree for Dorothy Sayers. But his main reason for opposing Christianity was that he believed in something else, and did so to the end.

He really believed in Carlyle, Shelley, Meredith, civic altruism, the countryside, Garibaldi, and the lives of heroes teaching by example. If he had not been more gentleman than intellectual, he might have become a Comtean; as it was, he remained a Carlylean. His last two publications were attempts to put Carlyle and Meredith before the public of the 1950s; he had been trying to do the same thing in his The Meredith Pocket Book of 1906. His Clark Lectures of 1953, his last sustained composition, showed how little two wars had affected his creed. He defended Scott as the great social historian who had made Carlyle and Macaulay possible, vindicated Shelley against Arnold, and preached a religion of poetry: ‘It is joy, joy in our inmost hearts. It is a passion like love or it is nothing.’ He fused England, poetry, joy, youth and landscape in a single sacramental experience. If this is rather like Arnold, dynastic connections are not far to seek: his wife was the great-niece of the poet, and her mother, Mrs Humphry Ward of Robert Elsmere fame, had even composed a special free-thinkers’ marriage service for G.M. Trevelyan’s wedding. The late Victorian child was truly father to the Master of Trinity. Trevelyan was as strongly opposed to modernity, urban modernity, as any Christian. If he could move people ‘to seriously question the value of modern life, I shall be quite satisfied’. He was as explicitly sacramental as any Christian. He saw the modern passion for mountains, rocks and moors as ‘one of the sacraments prepared for man or discovered by man’. In this he had all the seriousness and severity of his Evangelical ancestors. He was a pious pagan who took his paganism with a deep reverence, without any touch of hedonism. He felt kinship with Meredith, Shelley and Carlyle because they – Meredith particularly – seemed to him to be pious pagans who had faced the problems of life without religion with a religious outlook. He even believed in a pagan version of life after death. The statue of Garibaldi in every Italian town was ‘the symbol of the hope of resurrection after centuries of death’. At times of difficulty, his thoughts turned to Garibaldi, as the orthodox might look to Christ.

He believed, rather more oddly, in Shelley as a teacher rather than a poet: ‘For centuries to come, the eyes of men ... will be turned to the funeral pyre of Shelley on the shore of the blue Mediterranean.’ Not till Dowden in the 1880s had revealed the full extent of Shelley’s caddishness did the educated young take him fully to their hearts. For the generation that preceded the Liberal victory of 1906, Shelley was a thinker, no less. This takes some explaining. Enough now to say that for Trevelyan poetry and the countryside contained the means by which the few were to save the many. His ideal was ‘the wedding of the modern democratic spirit, the spirit of duty in its highest form, to modern literature’. The masses were to be given a religion. Shelley was to be its Cranmer, and Sartor Resartus, ‘the greatest book in the world’, its Thirty-Nine Articles.

While the intellectuals of Continental Europe were discovering socialism and irrationalism, Trevelyan and his English generation were trying to create a new spirituality to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Gladstone and his public Christianity. They had four options before them: religiose literary paganism, altruistic civic idealism, the countryside and music. Music as a vehicle for lay spirituality had to wait for the wireless. Altruism was part of the Trevelyan ethic. His letters to his brother were signed successively ‘God Save Ireland’, ‘God Save The People’, and ‘Ich Dien’, despite the Irish having threatened, in their progressive way, to kill him in infancy.

The countryside was more than enjoyment to Trevelyan. It was a public doctrine. His ruralism was offered as a remedy for the ills of an urban people, as an emblem of a common Englishness and as a therapy for the human condition. He believed that ‘without natural beauty the English people will perish in the spiritual sense’. Walking was his equivalent to meditation or praying. His essay ‘Must England’s beauty perish?’ (1929) and his lecture ‘The Call and Claims of Natural Beauty’ (1931) were his contribution to the making of the Baldwin consensus. At another level, they were part of the response by the intelligentsia to the motor-car, while it is truistic to remark that they involved an attempt at social control. His ruralism was based on the same odd premise as that of Dr Leavis – namely, that if urban mass culture is wrong, something else must, from polemical necessity, be right. Trevelyan’s emphasis on the scenic, national, vivid, tonic quality of the past as an alternative to a drab present linked him between the wars with G.M. Young, Baldwin, Kipling, Arthur Bryant, Helen Waddell, John Buchan and Vaughan Williams, who together form a cultural unity which needs discussion. During the second war, the same qualities made his Social History (1944) as much an expression of the wartime thirst for other worlds as Brideshead Revisited or The Unquiet Grave, and brought him a publisher’s cheque for £27,000 of which £25,000 went in tax.

Trevelyan’s politics were formed, not in response to the resurgent Liberalism of 1906, but to the period of eclipse which followed the Home Rule split of 1886. His father, as a young radical of the 1860s, had been able to see the intelligent artisan as the prime mover towards a better world (though G.O. Trevelyan had to buy an estate for the duration of the 1865 election in order to encourage deferential radicalism). By the 1890s, the artisan read the Daily Mail, voted Tory, was in the hands of the brewers, and delighted in the Boer War. The artisan was no longer intelligent. Liberals were in a dilemma. What does a party of the people do when the people are against them, and they against the people? Where his father had supported reform because the urban masses were good, Trevelyan turned to it because they were bad. Like other contributors to Masterman’s once famous Heart of the Empire, he used Matthew Arnold’s reactionary cultural criticism to reach progressive conclusions. He called for ‘good intellectual food for habitual consumption, to meet this terrible free trade in garbage’. His remedies for the traditionless ‘false consciousness’ of the town worker were not collectivist. Instead, he looked to ‘the enthusiastic effort of individuals in the spheres of economy, social work, religion, education, literature, journalism and art’ as the means by which ‘the glorious world of the future will be built up’.

His political creed implied a cultural programme, and his historical writing was a matter of putting into practice the politics of his youth. Always a naive liberal pessimist – in 1901 he saw ‘the world going to ruin, for causes much more fundamental than the mere South African error’ – he never really came out of his shell in party-political terms. His autobiography, however, perhaps suppresses some element of political motive in his leaving Trinity, and moving to London in 1903. The cover story, true as far as it goes, that he gave up being a don in order to write books, overlooks his founding of an independent Liberal periodical in 1902, his commitment to the Working Men’s College in London, his being seen by Beatrice Webb as the rising hope of political Liberalism, and his refusal to be Director of the London School of Economics in 1908. If he turned to books rather than practical politics, it was because his political analysis laid down that books were politically more effective.

His aversion to Christianity entered into his party politics. He did not like Liberal ‘bondage to Non-Conformity’, though he fought hard for the party in 1906 and 1910, and was personally behind such demagogic stunts as the ‘Big Loaf’ poster. He warmed to Labour for the idiosyncratic reason that it was the first time a party had ‘a secular religious background’ which would ‘counteract the enormously paralysing effect of religious humbug in England’. As early as 1912 he wished MacDonald premier, thinking ‘he had more sense than the rest of the Labour men and all the government put together’. He never actually joined Labour, and socialism meant nothing to him. He was pleased with the 1924 Labour government, partly because it contained ‘a good deal of old Liberal blood’, partly because it showed the inexhaustible suppleness of our ancient constitution. In the early 1920s he was president of the Berkhamsted Liberal Association, resigning in 1926 because Asquith was too harsh against the General Strike. By 1945 he felt, ‘I should as soon see Labour win as not,’ though he took little pleasure in what followed.

If he seems quite narrowly to have escaped the role of an Attlee, whom he much resembled in outlook, he also narrowly escaped being cast in the difficult part of the emotionally committed regional specialist, patronising emergent nationalisms and mixing governmental assignments with propagandist work. He might, in short, have become Seton-Watson, with whom he travelled in the Balkans. The collapse of Serbia saved him from becoming a Serbian expert; the rise of Mussolini brought his career as a writer on Italy to an end, and redirected his energies into English channels. He was not at his best in foreign politics.

He began, unlike his pro-Boer father, as a humane imperialist in the Boer War: that is, he wanted England to win and the Boers to thrive. He was an Edwardian Little Englander. ‘The worst danger of all is the claim ... that if France goes to war, we must,’ he wrote on 28 July 1914. Germany he saw as the ultimate bulwark against Russian barbarism. ‘Sir Edward Grey has betrayed us,’ he wrote on 5 August 1914. On this issue, shattered though he was at the time, he came to change his mind. In Lord Grey of the Reform Bill (1920) he saw the war as having ‘been fought on the principles of Fox and Grey’, and in 1937, writing the life of the Foreign Secretary who had taught his wife her knowledge of birds, he accepted that ‘we were wrong and Grey was right’.

His main war work was as Commandant (1915-18) of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in Italy, a self-financing but not wholly Quaker body which was not short of liberal romantics. There is little to be said about this beyond that Trevelyan ran a very good front-line ambulance service, though Henry James, a close family friend, perhaps rather overdid it when he wrote: ‘I think incessantly of George and yearn over him ... and in fact figure him as the backbone, quite, of that long and in some ways perhaps rather limp peninsula.’ Trevelyan’s courage and ability to command are beyond doubt; the details, to which Mrs Moorman gives too much space, matter little.

Trevelyan was in Italy, not as a pacifist subterfuge (he was 38 in 1914), but because, perhaps less creditably, he believed in Italy’s war. He really believed that it was worth redeeming Trento and Trieste. He came to feel Shelley and Byron would have approved of Italy’s imperialist war, and he saw the Austria of 1914 (with its universal franchise which Britain still lacked) in terms of the black legend of literary liberalism. Trevelyan had swallowed hook, line and sinker the attitudes of one party to a quarrel, which is little to the credit of one who made the traditional Whig claim for political history that ‘the knowledge of past transactions, coolly viewed from the distance of later years, will provide the best education in life and politics’. Trevelyan, having idolised Garibaldi for marching on Rome, was not in the best position to criticise Mussolini, ‘that man of genius’ as he called him, though he hoped, in a lecture, that the new man on a white horse would restore freedom along with order and discipline.

Mussolini might have led Trevelyan to have second thoughts about his beloved Risorgimento, and to become more conscious of the resemblances between the liberal and the fascist dictatorships, especially as seen through Catholic eyes. Both regimes used the same clichés of secular modernity, action, nation-building and self-sacrifice. In fact, the advent of Mussolini only led Trevelyan to stop thinking on Italian subjects, as perhaps was to be expected from the title of his anthology, English Songs of Italian Freedom (1911). His Garibaldian creed, which was at its height between 1905 and 1920, was based not so much on love of Italy as on dislike of Christianity. He wrote his three Garibaldi books, which so caught the mood of the pre-1914 Liberal revival, as a bigoted partisan, ‘feeling inexpressibly the unreality of all historical events except only those performed in a red shirt’. He would have been as surprised by Christian Democratic Italy as by Lampedusa’s The Leopard.

In his other works, as Mrs Moorman reveals, he saw himself as more than a technical historian unravelling the story of the past. His Wycliffe (1899) reflected, by its very, choice of subject, the polemical anti-clericalism that marked his journalism at the time. His John Bright (1913), begun about 1909-10, reflects the constitutional struggles of 1909-11, and a belief that his subject was ‘a wonder and a world’s desire – more like Garibaldi than the Prince Consort’. He feared being a person ‘who wrote three amusing volumes about Garibaldi and then tailed off’, because ‘any fool can tell the story of Garibaldi interestingly’. He was also aware that ‘I have not yet tackled the art of telling politics,’ and derived immense help from his father over the Reform crisis of 1866-67. (‘By his help, and by that alone, I can make that really live.’) Trevelyan was conscious, as we should be, that in his biographies he was working far in advance of the other historians of the day, who rarely ventured beyond the younger Pitt.

His textbook on the Nineteenth Century (1922), a landmark in its day, cannot in his eyes have been quite anodyne, for he noted ‘the Church papers restore my self-respect by their disapproval’. His History of England (1926) was conceived in wartime Italy in a political as much as in an academic manner. ‘In this age of democracy and patriotism, I feel strongly drawn to write the history of England as I feel it, for the people.’ He saw ‘a vision of the evolution of English society and character and habit’, and thought he might help ‘some unlearned people to have it too’. His life of Grey of the Reform Bill (1920) was conceived in terms of the Whig apostolic succession. ‘I was born and bred to write about Grey and the Reform Bill, and I believe it is the best way now of doing Fox justice, to show that it was he who made the Reform Bill possible.’ And, for good measure, ‘Pitt was really such a mean cad, and the world doesn’t know it and thinks it a “Whig tradition”.’ The life of Grey, he added, was ‘awfully exciting and so deeply connected with everything that happened since and is happening’. Trevelyan’s journeyman work as historiographer to the Whig Party was undertaken, not to fill in time, but from deep excitement. Even his short The English Revolution, 1688-1689 (1938), task-work for the Home University Library, filled him with zeal: ‘It is one of the most amazing stories in the world and never grows old to me.’

Trevelyan’s occasional ventures into public life were highly successful. If he was a man of sometimes strange ideas, he was in practical matters a pillar of common sense and effective zeal. He was chairman of the Estates Committee of the National Trust and president of the Youth Hostels Association. He persuaded the Forestry Commission to leave central Lakeland alone. He wrote one of George V’s Jubilee speeches. His wife saved nine acres of Coram’s Fields in central London from development. By buying farms in Langdale and at Housesteads, he secured some of the most important parts of the Lake District and the Roman Wall. His Mastership of Trinity was a happy affair, certainly for him. He was de facto chairman of the Oxford and Cambridge Royal Commission of the 1920s, Asquith, the real chairman, falling asleep at meetings. His public recognition came unsought and to some extent preceded his achievements, but in the event was justified by the productivity and range of his output in his fifties and sixties. The man who had nervously declined the far from onerous duties of a Cambridge reader in 1911, when he was 35, found himself in age able to cope with running Trinity in wartime while writing the great Social History (though the suggestion for the book came from his publisher). Mrs Moorman and Lord Trevelyan write about the man, not the books, and about the young man of ideas, not the elder statesman. This is not therefore the time to celebrate or to analyse his history, only what lay behind it.

His period (1900-40, say) was one in which university history slept. The great technical advances of the Victorians had been made. The impetus had spent itself by 1900. Lesser men, administrators of historical fact, continued the work of Maitland, Stubbs and Acton without knowing why. History, as a university subject, was at its most institutionally successful (with Classics in decline) between the wars, just when it was most intellectually empty. The effects of an intellectual vacuum of this kind are curious. One result was Guy Burgess; another the Master of Trinity. Both were amateur doctrinaires reacting against an absence of intellectual environment and doing it rather badly. But, if Shelley and Meredith and Carlyle were tactically not the best of all possible cards to play, the strategic impulse to make an empirical subject yield a doctrinal harvest was a sound one, and Trevelyan stands high above his generation for being guided by instinct, prejudice and family tradition in the matter.

The day before he died, Trevelyan had Macaulay’s Third Chapter read to him. His last words were ‘Peterloo’. The nurse asked: ‘What about Peterloo, Master?’ He replied, ‘1819,’ and did not speak again.