Only Men in Mind
- BuyThe Life of R.H. Tawney by Lawrence Goldman
Bloomsbury, 411 pp, £65.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 78093 704 5
On 1 July 1916, Sergeant R.H. Tawney led his platoon over the top on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme, holding a gun to one young man’s head to get him to stop crying and keep going. Almost immediately afterwards, Tawney himself was shot through the chest and abdomen and lay for 24 hours in no-man’s-land before being rescued. Although he lived with pain for the rest of his life, he was amazingly lucky to survive at all. By the end of the day, of the twenty officers in Tawney’s battalion, ten were dead and eight wounded; of 754 men, 120 were killed, 241 wounded and 111 missing. Twenty thousand British soldiers died that day on the Somme.
Vol. 36 No. 17 · 11 September 2014
I am grateful to Susan Pedersen for her close reading of my book on R.H. Tawney, different as her interpretations sometimes are from mine (LRB, 21 August). Pedersen places Tawney, Leslie Stephen, me and the (Oxford) Dictionary of National Biography, which I have edited for ten years, and which Stephen edited first in the 1880s, in a type of old boys’ club. We have Oxbridge in common, the same literary traditions to uphold, and have followed common professional paths. Thus my ‘generosity’ to Tawney, it is argued, flows naturally from experiences and influences shared. We all of us, in her view, inhabit a common British elite culture that characterises the DNB as well.
There is, first, a simple chronological point to be made: two generations separate Tawney from Stephen; another three generations separate Tawney from me. It may be stretching things a little to imagine that ‘influence’ flows quite so easily and directly across such lapses of time.
Second, what is the nature of this influence? Stephen was a mid-Victorian intellectual liberal who lost his evangelical faith, resigned his Cambridge fellowship and grew intolerant of radicalism. Tawney, on the other hand, was a lifelong socialist and Christian. For what it is worth, I am neither of those things. Indeed, Pedersen may measure the social differences between Tawney and me in the campaigns he led. My grandparents were immigrant tailors in the East End, the indirect objects of Tawney’s concern as a member of the Edwardian Anti-Sweating League. In the interwar period Tawney gave more of his time to the cause of extending the school leaving age to 16 than to any other; my parents were both 14 when they left school in the 1930s. Taking the similarities at face value, she may miss the essential biographical differences and present an unduly narrow view of British intellectual life, which has been more open and plural than Pedersen recognises.
My admiration for Tawney, which was expressed with caveats in the book, may owe something to my having worked in adult education, as he did, but is also a reflection of the testimony of his students and contemporaries. Pedersen is suspicious of ‘character’, but these people talked and wrote freely of the resources of character that Tawney brought to his work. Compare him to other socialist intellectuals like Harold Laski or G.D.H. Cole, whose influence has waned since the mid-20th century, and the importance of character, personal authority and humanity may become clearer.
It is important to note, however, that, pace Pedersen, Leslie Stephen never adopted the evaluation of character as the ‘framework … for the Dictionary of National Biography’. In all that he wrote and said about the DNB, in public and private, Stephen emphasised that it should be sober, factual, and serviceable as a work of reference. His approach precluded heroic celebration and national self-congratulation; others may have wanted to see the DNB in those ways, but its traditions are more modest and workmanlike, which is the reason it has endured.
Pedersen warns against the ‘interiority’ – the complacency of a self-referential tradition – which she takes me to represent. But there is a danger of falling into a type of ‘exteriority’ in which the differences within British intellectual history and identity are obscured by stereotyping.
St Peter’s College, Oxford
Poor Tawney. In Susan Pedersen’s litany of failures, he didn’t have a first-class degree; was a poor husband; wrote only for men; was an inadequate political thinker; was reasonable rather than aggressive to academic thugs like Trevor-Roper; and finally (it gets really serious here) failed to wash his own socks. Pedersen claims that Lawrence Goldman’s biography doesn’t help us ‘to understand the psychic dramas that might produce such a “selfless” (or possibly self-punishing) personality’. All this is beside the point. Almost alone among the accomplished thinkers in the socialist pantheon – Cole, Webb, Shaw, Crossman, Crosland – Tawney continues to speak to people today, precisely because, in Pedersen’s terms, he deals in moral judgments while they dealt in ‘programmatic vision’.