Heat-Seeking

Susan Pedersen

  • A.J.P. Taylor: Radical Historian of Europe by Chris Wrigley
    Tauris, 439 pp, £25.00, August 2006, ISBN 1 86064 286 1

This is the third full biography of A.J.P. Taylor to appear since his death in 1990. I find this fact almost more interesting than anything in the biographies themselves. For more than two decades after the war Taylor was, very nearly, the public face of the historical profession in Britain, delivering his pugnacious, often revisionist, views on television and radio, in more than two dozen books and hundreds of newspaper columns, and in countless lectures to Oxford undergraduates and the history-minded public. One would expect this most controversial and heat-seeking of historians to attract a biographer, especially since he also had radical political views, a penchant for academic squabbling and a string of unconventional marriages. But three biographers?

Adam Sisman came first, publishing a lively and well-written study in 1994. Although the scholarly achievements and disappointments were chronicled, Taylor’s personality and public engagements – with the Communist Party (briefly) in the 1920s and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s, the BBC and the Beaverbrook press – claimed centre-stage. Sisman had clearly heard plenty of stories about Taylor’s vanity, tight-fistedness and cruelty to his second and third wives, and passed these on, but for all that Taylor emerged as an oddly compelling figure – adventurous, forthright, rather bohemian and, at least until the catastrophic collapse of his first marriage, appealingly committed to some vision of equal parenting and sexual emancipation.

But he was also a disciplined and influential academic historian, with the positions and postgraduate students to show for it, and it isn’t surprising that some of those students felt there was more to be said. Sisman hadn’t even read all the books, Kathleen Burk protested – and he certainly hadn’t footnoted properly. Her own account, published in 2000, could not be faulted on those grounds. Burk didn’t neglect the political and private life, but she concentrated on the history. All Taylor’s major works were carefully summarised and their reception and lasting significance assessed. Amusingly, Burk also subjected Taylor’s finances to the kind of analysis she had previously directed at the Treasury, totting up the receipts from television and journalism, books and lecturing, to show how quickly his entrepreneurial income outstripped his academic salary. At almost 500 pages (including the notes), Burk’s comprehensive study rather poses the question of whether there is anything left to say.

‘Alan Taylor has been the subject of two good biographies,’ Chris Wrigley writes in his preface. ‘Perhaps, in the centenary year of his birth, there is room for a third.’ Perhaps. But whatever commemorations and retrospectives 2006 brought, the rediscovery of Taylor was not among them. His scholarly reputation was already in decline in the last decades of his life and has not recovered. As both Burk and Wrigley admit, he was too contrarian and individual a scholar to found a ‘school’, and while a few of his books – especially The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1954), English History, 1914-45 (1965) and the provocative Origins of the Second World War (1961) – are still read, none is considered entirely reliable. True, Taylor had a serious following among the public – a public that bought his books, tuned in to his broadcasts and flocked to his Historical Association lectures. That public, however, is ageing, and the slice of it curious about Taylor’s life but absent-minded enough to have missed the earlier biographies must be vanishingly small. Sisman wrote for that public, and Burk for the historians. For whom is Wrigley writing?

He doesn’t quite say, but my sense is that he is writing ‘for the record’. Taylor was the sort of man to merit a ‘definitive’ biography, and while one might say Burk’s study met that need, its thematic structure and dense historiographical focus made it an unconventional Life. Wrigley’s is the alternative. The book is nearly as long as Burk’s and just as thoroughly researched – possibly more so, indeed, for Wrigley also compiled the authoritative bibliography of Taylor’s writings (and chased down the nearly 1600 book reviews he wrote, for example), not to mention editing the third (yes, third) Taylor Festschrift. (‘One Festschrift is enough for any mortal,’ Isaiah Berlin remarked on hearing about the second.) Wrigley knew Taylor for more than two decades, knew many of Taylor’s students and friends, and was friendly with his first and (especially) third wives. Is this, then, as one of its blurbs proclaims, ‘undoubtedly . . . the definitive study’ of Taylor?

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