Departure and Arrival Times

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • The History Men: The Historical Profession in England since the Renaissance by John Kenyon
    Weidenfeld, 322 pp, £16.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 297 78081 6

It takes courage to write a book with the scope attempted here. Omissions of central themes, issues and historians are bound to occur, disagreements bound to arise. Reviewers have already called attention to the absence of the Franco-Scottish link in the Enlightenment, the skimpy treatment of Romanticism, the neglect of Lecky and new-wave social science, the scatological treatment of Thomas Carlyle. Other omissions may be added. Frederic Maitland is not very well realised, which is strange given the historians (Kenyon among them) who believe in his greatness. Maitland’s relationship with Leslie Stephen and avid interest in Meredith’s novels would appear to be precisely the kind of detail Kenyon enjoys. Some room might have been found for Sir Henry Mame’s genius, even while debating whether he fits the category of historian. Much better use could have been made of Robert Brentano’s amazing essay on ‘The Sound of Stubbs’, which gets an endnote. But such lists are unimpressively easy to compile and doing so is a sort of Actonian party game, though one encouraged by Kenyon’s general tone and approach.

True, the discussion teeters on the edge of academic voyeurism. How useful are anecdote and backchat as a means of understanding the process of historical recovery, of knowing the mind behind the history? Kenyon is indecisive on this point. He dislikes ‘loose talk about getting under people’s skin, looking at things through their eyes’, even while adopting an approach which allows this to happen. Certainly we do not, as individuals or as a profession, gain in dignity by it, but neither are we humiliated. This is not an unsettling work. Issues and ideas are never pushed very far towards irony and dilemma. Once past the expectation that The History Men is a treatise on historical theory, or an essay in the sociology of institutions, the reader begins to enjoy the chatty, natural flow of Kenyon’s conversation. His book has some of the pleasant and useful qualities of G.P. Gooch’s History and Historians in the 19th Century. (Who now reads Gooch? He is not even conspicuous by his absence.) His trendy title, for which he has been taken to task by two reviewers, is apt. He is discussing men and at least two women who write history. Larger historiographical themes interpenetrate – puritanism and gentry, literary history, the search for documents. Kenyon is not (the disclaimer is his) writing about causality, method or the characteristics of historical explanation and philosophy.

The names of contemporaries blend with those of the past. The result is piquant. It is odd to think of Geoffrey Elton, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Lewis Namier as one thinks of Edward Freeman, Samuel Gardner and Edward Gibbon, humanised and distanced at the same time. Vanity and virtue, foolishness and brilliance rub shoulders. One imagines one has heard it all before, but the cumulative effect cannot be denied. Kenyon obviously knows a great deal. The immense variety of names, the excursions into biography, the miscellaneous facts and encounters, old debates and arguments have a solid human interest. No doubt that is partly Kenyon’s intention: to prick the bubble reputation and expose the cant about conceptual breakthroughs.

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