Liking it and living it

Hugh Tulloch

  • Namier by Linda Colley
    Weidenfeld, 132 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 297 79587 2
  • Hume by Nicholas Phillipson
    Weidenfeld, 162 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 297 79592 9

In the Sixties J.H. Plumb euphorically announced the death of the ‘past’ – that comforting mythology conjured up to serve the present and make sense of things as they are – in the face of an advancing scholarship which was real ‘history’ and which depicted things as they actually were. The announcement was premature, and the distinction less clear-cut than Plumb assumed. Memory and the past weigh so heavily on each of us that their imaginary reassurances cannot be lightly disturbed, while the temptation for governments to appropriate and commandeer traditions for their own purposes is too tempting. The anniversaries of 1588, of 1688 and 1789 are constant reminders of this complicity of past and present, and the current celebration of ‘inevitable’ Thatcherism at the end of a rampantly ahistorical and whiggish decade, suggests that the historian, clustering as chronicler around the ascendant court, can also collaborate in the manufacture of fresh myths.

It is this struggle between ‘history’ and the ‘past’, of the historian within time striving for a perspective outside it, the desire to serve historical truth while tempted simultaneously to aid a present cause, which makes these two studies so fascinating and instructive. Entering the workshop of the historian’s mind, they are object lessons, brief moral tales, equally illuminating in charting their subjects’ partial successes and partial failures. Thus David Hume attacked the 18th-century myth of an ancient British constitution and warned his readers of the disastrous political consequences of ignoring their history. By reminding them of the recent emergence of constitutional government he wished to point to the late and precarious establishment of stable government, and with a Tory eye undermine the prevalent Whig concept of an earlier Gothic state of perfection which justified disruptive opposition in the less than perfect present. To prove this point, his History moved slowly backwards from 1688 to Julius Caesar much, as one unfriendly critic commented, like a witch saying her prayers back to front. Lewis Namier, in turn, demolished a 19th-century mythology which had grown up about mid-18th-century politics, but his revisionism was prompted by psychological as well as professional motives. Just as individual neurosis resulted from an arrested fixation in the memory, so, collectively, the pressure of history could exert a crippling hold which only the historian, as therapist, could break.

One of Linda Colley’s many triumphs is to encompass the immense complexity of Namier’s personality in such a brief space. Another is to tread with tact over many sensitive areas: the matter of academic anti-semitism and ostracism, Namier’s sometimes paranoid response, his snobbery, his lashing tongue, his capacity to bore colleagues to the point of petrifaction, and his high-handed disposal of academic patronage in the Fifties. Born in Polish Galicia in 1888, he settled in Britain in 1907 and remained for most of his life an alien and a misfit. He was plagued throughout by illness, insomnia and near-suicidal depression. His first marriage in 1917 seems to have been on the same scale of disaster as that other, more famous exile, T.S. Eliot, and to have led to a similar emotional wasteland. Clara left him in 1921, but not until her death in 1945 did he make a happier second marriage to Julia de Beausobre, who, after his death in 1960, wrote his biography. That book painfully records Namier’s psychological malaise: Professor Colley goes on to link the historian to his history, to suggest that Namier’s tortured mind illuminated bleaker areas that more sanguine colleagues left unprobed, and to show how his various subconscious concerns were to disappear only to resurface, transformed, in his 18th-century studies.

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