Arnold Toynbee: A Life 
by William McNeill.
Oxford, 346 pp., £16.95, July 1989, 0 19 505863 1
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To the man in the street – especially an American street – he was in his day the most famous historian in the world. On 17 March 1947 the ultimate accolade was bestowed: his picture appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, currently selling 1,500,000 copies. For the editors, as they put it, ‘the story of Historian Toynbee and his work in progress was an unusual challenge and opportunity.’ The response was ‘overwhelming’, and not only from ‘professors of history, philosophy and anthropology, from deans of American colleges and universities, heads of public and private schools’, but also from the ‘governors of seven States’, reinforced by an unnumbered throng of ‘businessmen, Congressmen and just plain citizens’. Time’s genius had been to spot the arcane potential in an uncompleted work in six thick volumes which had been gathering dust since their pre-war publication by a university press.

Suddenly, astoundingly, Toynbee was news. The effect was shattering. One of the things that was to be shattered, in due course, was Toynbee’s academic reputation. In the Fifties he encountered keen criticism from academic historians, spearheaded by Pieter Geyl and Hugh Trevor-Roper, which marginalised his major project in the eyes of his own profession. As his new biographer, William McNeill, candidly declares, ‘a principal purpose of this book is to try to establish a better balance between the popular adulation on the one hand and the professional hostility on the other that closed in on Toynbee after the mid-Fifties, obscuring his real accomplishment and the long-range importance of his work for the scholarly study of the past.’ Whether or not the author has fulfilled this objective, he has undoubtedly succeeded in presenting a persuasive account of Toynbee’s remarkable career. A distinguished American exponent of world history, he is well-placed to assess Toynbee’s oeuvre, which ineluctably centres on A Study of History, finally completed in ten substantive volumes in 1954.

Historians commonly offer two sorts of explanation, which can be termed structural and contingent. Structural explanations need not be deterministic but they emphasise what was likely to happen – on the whole, in the long run, in one guise or another, at one juncture or another – according to an explicit or implicit scheme of causation based on observed regularities, analogies, patterns, cycles, trends or tendencies. Such an approach – and it was manifestly Toynbee’s – involves generalisation, which in turn necessarily depends on abstraction of what can be generalised from what seems unique, anomalous, trivial, or just messy, in its own particular context. Without such bold simplification, it will be said, there can be no scientific progress and Newton’s speculations would therefore end with the trajectory of a single apple. Yet is this really the core of history?

Contingent explanations, which seek to recapture the rich play of complex causation in specific instances, are surely necessary to answer a different sort of historical question: not what we can learn from the past in general but how we can understand what actually happened in particular. Such understanding will not arise from dismissing what is unique or excluding what is anomalous, or ignoring what is trivial, or discounting what is just messy. Instead of striving for the elegant simplicity of predictable replication as encoded by rigorous science, historians may wish to settle for the subtle complexity of real life as captured by a more plastic art. This may seem a heavy-handed way of saying that McNeill’s book is so satisfying because it implicitly addresses two different questions. First, it seeks to explain why something like A Study of History came to be written after the First World War. But McNeill also tells us why it was ‘Historian Toynbee’ in particular who wrote it and shows how the endeavour arose out of the (unique and messy) circumstances of his own life.

Toynbee discovered his vocation early. His family had high professional ambitions, nurtured by the example of two brilliant forebears whose lives were cut short prematurely. Grandfather Toynbee had been a successful London doctor until his self-inflicted experiments with chloroform went fatally wrong. An even more striking exemplar was the remarkable career at Balliol College, Oxford of Uncle Arnold, after whom not only his nephew but Toynbee Hall in the East End of London were posthumously named. Carrying the name Arnold Toynbee was a double-edged privilege, as the behaviour of the family testifies; when the young author published his first book under this style, he was reprimanded for appropriating his uncle’s name and told in future to ‘sign yourself A.J. or Arnold J’. Born with his uncle’s reputation to live up to, the young Toynbee, as a Balliol undergraduate, found that he also had his father’s example to live down. For in 1909 Harry Toynbee suffered a complete collapse which left him a lifelong mental patient and his family dependent upon a Testimonial Fund, with its attendant humiliations.

This was all more than Toynbee could bear. He left his mother to cope with the crisis at home while he ploughed on with his studies. ‘I think the better I work the better I can love,’ he wrote to her, ‘and I will keep my promise Father made me give, that I would go on with my work in any case “without letting it make any difference” in that I will consecrate it all to you and him.’ He repeated the message a couple of years later: ‘Don’t set yourself down as a failure till you see how we children turn out.’ To Lady Mary Murray, wife of Gilbert Murray, the Professor of Greek at Oxford, the blinkered undergraduate seemed to have gone too far in claiming that the crisis was worse for him than for his mother, whom he had supported in a deplorably inadequate way. ‘You cannot and must not fail, never again,’ Lady Mary rebuked him. The burden of guilt and anxiety which Toynbee carried thereafter speaks for itself. McNeill does not explicitly identify these inner conflicts as Oedipal, but it is hardly necessary to do so when he can quote a letter to his mother in which Toynbee began by hoping that his father would now die and continued: ‘I think I am writing you a sort of love letter: I remember your saying once, at some beginning of term, that I was “almost a lover” to you as well as a son, and I have never stopped being that.’

Toynbee thus found compensation for the appalling breakdown at home by securing the esteem of Oxford friends like the Murrays through academic achievement based on compulsive hard work. ‘How have I completed my main agenda?’ he reflected late in life. ‘Because I have schooled myself to write every day, whether I am in the mood or not, and because, each morning, since the age of 16, I have started, bent forward to run the hundred yards when the pistol goes off, i.e. at 7 a.m.’ If this pattern of behaviour can be explained in psychological terms, the substantive content of the studies to which he remorselessly applied himself requires an intellectual explanation. But here too – and perhaps more remarkably – the child was father of the man. It was not just that as early as 1911 he could confide to a friend: ‘As for Ambition, with a great screaming A, I have got it pretty strong.’ He was also ready to specify the field in which he would labour: ‘I want to be a great gigantic historian – not for fame but because there is lots of work in the world to be done, and I am greedy for as big a share of it as I can get.’ Moreover, his studies were conceived on the grand scale, discerning cyclical patterns of decline and fall which offered suggestive analogies (‘though I don’t believe that history repeats itself in any accurate or scientific sense’) between ancient civilisations and modern developments. By 1912, when he became a Fellow of Balliol, despite finding his colleagues ‘piggish’ in their concern for creature comforts, his course seemed firmly set.

Toynbee’s marriage to Rosalind, the daughter of Gilbert and Mary Murray, was outwardly a highly suitable match for the rising Oxford don. The high-minded, teetotal, Liberal, rationalist Murrays, with Lady Mary’s aristocratic connections to the Howards of Castle Howard, were more priggish than piggish, and this suited Toynbee nicely. They were admirable parents-in-law (ultimately ex-parents-in-law) and Toynbee formed a lifelong attachment to them as ‘my parents as well as Rosalind’s’. Whether Rosalind – visceral, sensual, spiritual, impulsive, creative, reckless – was the right wife for him is more doubtful. Arnold remained strongly attached to her throughout his life, yet her behaviour continually exasperated him while his was feelingly satirised in the novels she wrote. Within a few years they had adopted largely separate domestic roles. Arnold spent so much time working, partly to increase their income, that he hardly saw his family: while Rosalind spent the money he earned in a carefree way that compounded their problems. Recourse to Rosalind’s family for financial assistance was embarrassing but unavoidable, and in 1915 her grandmother, Lady Carlisle, was induced to put up the money, in effect, to buy Arnold out of his Balliol fellowship and set him up as an independent scholar. This was a significant break with the conventional academic career pattern. To his colleague A.D. Lindsay, it seemed that Toynbee had simply shrugged of his obligations: ‘Don’t you think that anything or anybody has any claim on you?’

McNeill brings out Toynbee’s singleminded and inflexible resolve in following his star, regardless of the feelings of colleagues, friends and family. There was something magnificent about his self-absorbed obliviousness. He found his match, however, in Lady Carlisle, whom Shaw immortalised as Lady Britomart in Major Barbara. Toynbee may have seen no inconsistency in joining the Labour Party at the end of the First World War – ‘now let the working class have their day’ – while simultaneously straining both the liberality and the Liberalism of Lady Carlisle. But she perceived the incompatibility with a keenness which she sought to convey to her grandson-in-law when he next invited himself and his family to stay. ‘And after all what have you to do with Castle Howard,’ she demanded of him. ‘Is it not anathema to your comrades? Then why come here?’ Not many recipients of such a letter would have construed it as still holding open the door for a welcome visit, and Toynbee’s unabashed response – ‘I am going to hazard being importunate and to ask again’ – endows the term ‘thick-skinned’ with a whole new cuticle of insensitivity.

It was at this juncture that Toynbee realised that he must provide for himself rather than depend on his wife’s relatives (though the Murrays were not to be spared several further calls) and he set about securing a suitable post. Appointed to a new chair in London, set up with Greek money to promote the study of Greek culture and history, Toynbee rewarded his sponsors with an admirable display of academic objectivity – apparently taking the Turkish side in the post-war struggles over Anatolia. What he saw in person of the atrocities perpetrated in 1921 between the Greeks and the Turks, which he reported for the Manchester Guardian to supplement his income, was not only emotionally repugnant but also intellectually pregnant. For, as McNeill argues, it was this experience that ‘tipped the balance for him and made it possible for him to design A Study of History on the hypothesis of the separateness of civilisations’. Toynbee had already voiced his conviction, in the aftermath of Versailles, ‘that the great tragedies of history – that is, the great civilisations that have been created by the spirit of man – may all reveal the same plot, if we analyse them rightly.’ Here was the task to which, on the Orient Express back from Constantinople in September 1921, he now turned his mind. A 12-page draft survives in which, as McNeill shows, ‘Toynbee’s mature vision of the pattern of civilised history is ... set forth in sketchy but clearly recognisable terms.’

The emotional and intellectual capital which Toynbee would invest in his great enterprise had been painfully accumulated but was now abundant: what was lacking was a secure income. This difficulty was exacerbated by a sharp difference of view with Rosalind over what their financial problem really was. She considered that Arnold was suffering from a deep-seated complex about money and ought to seek psychoanalysis. Arnold, by contrast, thought he could provide his own analysis. ‘The remedy that I have always been hoping for,’ he explained to his mother-in-law, ‘is to keep down expenses and increase income till one gets the budget to balance normally year by year.’ It must be said in favour of Rosalind’s view that Arnold’s concern about money, and anxiety to lay his hands on as much of it as possible, became no less marked in his affluent later years. In the Twenties, whether he was psychologically disordered or simply hard-up, there was one familiar remedy: doles from the Murrays in the short term until a compatible academic appointment could be found. Chatham House, the home of what became the Royal Institute of International Affairs, supplied the long-term solution. It was here that Toynbee was to remain for the rest of his active career. Initially engaged in 1924 to write a survey of international affairs since Versailles, Toynbee proved adept at delivering the goods and likewise at adjusting the terms of his appointment so as to leave himself free of the disagreeable distraction of university teaching. The Surveys became an annual enterprise which justified his role and enabled him to carve out enough time to tackle his magnum opus.

He succeeded in publishing an annual volume of the Survey, running to five hundred pages, each year from 1926 to 1938. The only exception to this regular pattern was 1929, when he published two volumes, thus bringing out the Survey within a calendar year of the events it described. Having ‘caught up’ with history at this point, he felt ‘quite bewildered at having no arrears on my mind’. It was a formidable achievement. What makes it wholly remarkable is that Toynbee was, in effect, assigning only half the year to this task, leaving himself free to devote the rest of his time to what Rosalind dubbed ‘the Nonsense Book’. What, in turn, makes this herculean labour conceivable and comprehensible is the assistance Toynbee received at Chatham House from the other woman in his life, Veronica Boulter.

McNeill describes the part she played in a scrupulous and convincing way. She never claimed an initiating role and not until 1929 did she even permit Toynbee to acknowledge her collaboration with due prominence. As her recollections make clear, her drafts for the Surveys made room for the Nonsense Book by transferring a substantial burden of work from Toynbee’s desk to her own – ‘I generally had to forego a summer holiday’ – but she seems to have relished, not resented, her indispensability. Publication of the work had become the dominant theme of Toynbee’s life, as he ploughed on obliviously, and in 1929 he left meticulous if bizarre instructions for its completion in the event of his death. His bright idea was for Rosalind to write it (‘though it will seem funny stuff to her’) supported by Veronica as editor, with participation from his mother and sister. McNeill mildly comments that ‘Toynbee clearly had little sense of the tensions he aroused among the womenfolk surrounding him.’

In the event, of course, Toynbee lived to write the Nonsense Book himself, with his vigour undiminished. ‘I am astonished at the amount that has dripped off the end of my pen,’ he reported in 1930, at the end of the first summer of writing. Sending the initial batch of his manuscript to Gilbert Murray, he confessed: ‘I don’t know myself whether it is really nonsense or not.’ But Murray’s comments were encouraging, as were those of other early critics and reviewers. Murray did not feel precluded from reviewing his son-in-law’s first three volumes in the Observer and proclaiming it ‘without doubt a great book’. Leonard Woolf called its scope ‘magnificent’. J.L. Hammond hailed its publication as ‘a deeply significant event’. A cynical view of such judgments is that they came from friends, or at least from sympathetic liberal internationalists who warmed to the book’s implicit theme. For, as McNeill points out, the first volumes of the Study, published in 1934, ‘served as a grandiose background argument for the advocacy of collective security’. It could all too easily be read as a plea to avert the scourge of war, which threatened Western civilisation, through the creation of a viable international order, such as the League of Nations.

Men like Murray, Woolf and Hammond were susceptible to the medium as well as the message: they appreciated a great literary project which smacked more of old-fashioned learning than of the rigorous methods of modern research. In short, none of them was a professional academic historian. By the time Toynbee published his final volume in the changed conditions of the post-war world, British universities had subscribed to a different ethos, and he was to be chastised accordingly. Partly it was a matter of experts finding errors in the parts of the Study which encroached upon their own expertise; and although McNeill is surely right to insist that any work conceived on such a scale was vulnerable to this kind of venial fault-finding, historians also had deeper causes for unease about a work in which the structural explanations increasingly collapsed into tautology or exhortation and the contingent explanations were beneath notice. They reacted first with scepticism and then – which was worse – with indifference. Toynbee’s grand taxonomy of civilisations, which purported to comprehend everything, was ultimately dismissed as explaining nothing in particular.

McNeill is particularly good at identifying the shifts of perspective between different instalments of the Study. While the sub-text of the first three volumes could be read as a plea for the League of Nations, by the time the next instalment was published Toynbee had been forced to abandon such hopes. The crunch came with the Ethiopian crisis in 1936. ‘It is the real thing all right – all the forces of good and evil are on their hind legs now,’ he wrote. But when Britain, as he saw it, prevented the administration of retributive justice through the League, he despaired of secular efforts to save Western civilisation. He began to look elsewhere for salvation. Rosalind had become a Roman Catholic a few years earlier, to the distress of her father, but in the end Arnold had not opposed this. If he did not follow, it remains true that for several years he turned towards the religious life for consolation. Beset with sleeplessness in his redoubled efforts on the Nonsense Book – ‘it seems like a race between finishing it and being overtaken by whatever may be going to happen in public affairs’ – he took to withdrawing for periodic visits to the monks at Ampleforth Abbey. It is not surprising that the marks show in Volumes IV to VI of the Study. Published in August 1939, thus narrowly winning the race against Armageddon, they carried an unmistakable, though undogmatic, religious message, such as to give Gilbert Murray the impression ‘that you are becoming a propagandist for Rosalind!’

By 1939, in short, the conditions explaining Toynbee’s subsequent success with the public and failure with the historical profession are already apparent. His achievement had never lain within the orthodox confines of technical history, as the Nonsense Book sobriquet testifies. ‘This whole work of mine,’ he explained to Murray in 1930, ‘is really a myth about the meaning of history and I suppose (so far as I can through my small spectacles) the meaning of life.’ During the following decade the nature of the work changed chiefly insofar as he changed his mind about the meaning of life – crudely, when God took over from the League of Nations. It followed that his early, more secular, view that religion was functional for civilisation as a bearer of knowledge and values was turned upside down: civilisation was now seen as serving higher religious purposes. Conversely, politics was privately dismissed as ‘one of the slum areas of human affairs that has never been cleaned up’.

Toynbee remained, throughout the period of his greatest creativity, a man driven by his inner tensions, finding in his work some compensation for the shortcomings and disasters of his private life. Relations with Rosalind deteriorated, fitfully but irreversibly. During the Thirties there were acute conflicts with two of their sons, both of whom liked to play with fire (Tony with guns, Philip with Communism), culminating in Tony’s suicide in 1939. The final breach with Rosalind came during the Second World War. ‘She threw me away like an old glove,’ Arnold complained. There is copious evidence of his sense of shock, which no reader of McNeill’s pages will belittle. Yet Toynbee was in character in his response. He turned immediately to Veronica Boulter and proposed to her. She, too, behaved in character: she said she would marry him if it came to divorce, but would go away if a reconciliation with Rosalind were possible. Perhaps Veronica was used to being treated like an old glove, to be tried on or thrown away (although it should be added that Arnold subsequently had the grace to admit that he had not behaved well towards her). At any rate, they eventually got married and lived rather more happily ever after, side by side, desk by desk. Toynbee’s distress was real enough – he feared the onset of madness like that of his father – but he had enough insight to see that ‘the real cartharsis will come later, in the nonsense book.’

It was the Study as it stood in 1939 which was the making of Toynbee’s fame. If it was internally inconsistent and ambiguous, reflecting his shifts of view while composing it, this was not necessarily a disadvantage: the faithful might more readily find within the work of the prophet the sort of inspiration they sought. What gave the work its wide currency, however, was the abridgment which, on his own initiative, David Somervell executed, bringing the gist of six volumes between the covers of a single (still substantial) book. As Toynbee came to acknowledge, ‘David Somervell did me an invaluable service in making cuts in my work I wouldn’t have made myself.’ It was this edition, published in 1947, which sold 130,000 copies in the USA in its first year.

McNeill is shrewd and incisive in explaining the reception of the book. Its call to spiritual values in rallying Western civilisation struck a chord at a moment when the USA was groping towards a world role. Henry Luce, publisher of Time, knew there was a crucial point of disagreement here. ‘Toynbee regarded America as simply a peripheral part of European civilisation,’ he explained. ‘I regarded America as a special dispensation – under Providence – and I said so.’ If Toynbee looked to the major world religions as the force which could defeat Communism, and incidentally crystallise support around the USA, many of his readers were naturally ready to secularise this injunction and thereby enhance American influence. It has to be said in Toynbee’s favour that on the whole he resisted pressure to purge his utterances of aspects which were inconvenient or embarrassing for his vast American audiences. In fact, his outlook was notable for its abjuration of Western ethnocentricity. It is significant that it was in Japan rather than America that he was greeted as a sage in his final years. McNeill justly endorses Toynbee’s claim that his career comprised an effort to see history ‘not just in Western terms’ – perhaps his most enduring academic monument.

Toynbee’s frequent, and highly profitable, American lecture tours became increasingly liable to lapse into discord, partly because his vision could no longer be accommodated within a Cold War perspective; and his disapproval of the Vietnam War was simply the last straw. But another reason why Toynbee in the end wore out his welcome in the USA was ineradicably personal. He had never shown any compunction about accepting hospitality as his due without sensing a reciprocal obligation to ingratiate himself with his hosts. Before Toynbee’s final tour in 1967, at the age of 78, a professor at Stanford spoke out with a pithiness and directness which Lady Carlisle herself might have envied: ‘He is a congenital windbag, and now a senile windbag. Of course he cannot help that. But he could stay home.’ Naturally Toynbee ignored this advice. He pressed on regardless, as he always had: bent forward, ready for the starting-pistol, determined to get his hands on a few more dollars, and driven to the last by Ambition with a great screaming A.

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