Whig History

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past by J.W. Burrow
    Cambridge, 308 pp, £19.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 521 24079 4

Whig historiography stood four-square to its age; there was no suggestion that it was addressed to the happy few, or that it appealed to the justice of posterity against the spirit of the times. Posterity has on the whole avenged itself for this neglect. Macaulay will presumably not lack readers for a good while to come, and Stubbs will enjoy affectionate and respectful remembrance in the small circle of medievalists. But on the whole the great Victorian histories now seem like the triumphal arches of a past empire, their vaunting inscriptions increasingly unintelligible to the modern inhabitants: visited occasionally, it may be, as a pissoir, a species of visit naturally brief.

It is wicked to quote this delicious paragraph, one of the many that can be quoted, if only because it is so supremely quotable, but even more so because its sensational image may encourage false, 20th-century expectations. But John Burrow will not mind. He writes to burst joy’s bubble upon the tongue. A Liberal Descent, like the works of 19th-century historical scholarship that it discusses, is written out of a tradition that respects personality (which is not at all the same thing as saying that it worships the hero, the deliverer, the saint, or is in any way apologetic) and has a personality at the centre. It has some of the qualities of George Malcolm Young’s Portrait of an Age: Victorian England – superb broken-field running and coiled argument humanised by a delight in words and conversation. It is – ironically, for Burrow is a Cantabridgian – more Young than Herbert Butterfield on the eve of DNA, although the serious examination of a tradition of historical thinking in relation to a national culture is Butterfield; and Burrow would – does – as anyone interested in the history of historical method would – should – readily acknowledge Sir Herbert’s presence.

The title and theme are taken from Burke, an exquisite passage urging the tempering of ‘the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess’, by ‘an awful gravity’, to produce a ‘liberal descent’ – which combines a respect for the past while welcoming, if often nervously, the future. This famous Burkean balancing act was played in a thousand Victorian theatres before sell-out audiences, consumers of the present desiring to be heirs of the past. The fundamental point of Whig historiography standing four-square to its age, of a correspondence between historian and reader, is central. It accounts for so many of the characteristics of the great Victorian writers: their rhetorical bias (Ciceronian in Macaulay’s case); their gift for story and sense of nation, becoming confused at a later date with nationality; their schoolboy acquaintance with the leading figures of the past; their celebration of energy in the age of steam; their range of reference and allusion readily picked up (it is a fair assumption) by clubmen, urban professionals, and Macaulay’s ladies, who would otherwise, he suggested, have turned to the latest French novel upon their boudoir tables. Thus Whig historiography was not and could not be truly academic in the 19th century, although it was inching that way. In the long run, the reform of the ancient universities of England and Scotland, the establishment of a metropolitan university and civic universities with a research mission and the example of the Germans in basic knowledge, joined to the expansion of the British economy’s service sector, created specialised audiences for the various disciplines and broke the Whig historian’s monopoly of the readership. The anti-trust movement extended through the Imperial period, producing an inevitable reaction to the Whig eulogy of ‘Englishness’, for the special qualities of political and civic temperament that made the past relatively happy and the future reasonably promising. Butterfield’s 1944 attempt to revive a Whiggish patriotism in The Englishman and His History may be seen either as a contribution to the tradition (‘a late example of it’, according to Burrow) or a desperate rearguard action, a dangerous exercise in nation-puffing. But let him be ashamed who thinks evil of it. What Butterfield meant was that if history was ‘something like the memory of mankind ... brooding over man’s past, we must imagine it as working not to accentuate antagonisms or to ratify old party-cries but to find the unities that underlie the differences and to see all lives as part of the one web of life’ (The Whig Interpretation of History). However, what was natural for the Victorian historians (and they were not, as Burrow demonstrates, as confident as we suppose) is strained for the 20th-century Georgians and Elizabethans, even false. Posterity has indeed avenged itself on the Whigs. In recent times, the backward look has not been one of pride or faith (Burke: our ‘canonised forefathers’) or nostalgia, or even a great good gulp of fresh air clearing out the lungs for further exertion, but of anger, of a sense of betrayal and class conspiracy. What is noticed is History’s injustice, not its generosity. The feeling is one of expropriation, rather than of a future to be possessed.

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