An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals 
by Polly Toynbee.
Atlantic, 436 pp., £10.99, June, 978 1 83895 837 4
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Have Britain​ ’s leading intellectuals all been related to one another? While the answer to the question in that bald form is clearly no, a suspicion persists that in the past 150 years a higher proportion of intellectual figures of note in this country have been interconnected by ties of blood and marriage than has been the case elsewhere. It is not easy to turn this suspicion into a precisely formulated hypothesis that might generate fruitful comparative inquiry, and anyway many people seem determined to hang on to their existing conviction about the peculiarity of the British in this matter, despite an accumulation of doubt-inducing counter-evidence. Some see the claim as further proof of the stultifying grip of a long-established class formation on so many areas of national life, while others delight in the easily comprehensible fretwork of family trees in a Downton Abbey version of intellectual history.

Perhaps the most influential elaboration of the allegedly distinctive kinship pattern was Noel Annan’s 1955 essay ‘The Intellectual Aristocracy’. Annan itemised the numerous family links among successive generations of Arnolds, Butlers, Darwins, Keyneses, Trevelyans, Wedgwoods and so on, suggesting that they came close to forming a separate caste by means of ‘persistent endogamy’. He went on to claim, unpersuasively, that this revealed ‘the paradox of an intelligentsia which appears to conform rather than rebel against the rest of society’, and then, still less persuasively, that this pattern somehow contributed to a wider political stability in Britain. This was a large consequence indeed to attribute to what was little more than a tendency among some well-educated men to marry a college friend’s sister, while the implied contrast with an imagined ‘real’ intelligentsia has a long history in British self-definition. But even if any relatively distinctive pattern could be established here (scholarship on intellectuals in other European countries suggests no great distinctiveness is involved), there is no way to ‘read off’ political or other convictions from this feature of family background. A familiar form of lazy sociologism lurks beneath all amateur attempts to use class stereotypes to account for individual intellectual convictions. In any case, large numbers of leading intellectuals, from, say, Herbert Spencer through H.G. Wells and on to Richard Hoggart and beyond, exhibited no such consanguinity.

However, even if many of the more sweeping generalisations about the social homogeneity of intellectuals in Britain prove on closer inspection to be false, it remains true that some families do appear to have contributed more than their share to the ranks of those who have achieved some form of cultural or intellectual distinction. Polly Toynbee, well known as a journalist and columnist for the Observer, the BBC and the Guardian, is a representative of one such clan, and in An Uneasy Inheritance she melds entertaining accounts of her most notable recent ancestors into ‘a particular history of a liberal heritage’, one foregrounding what she sees as a distinctively British tradition of ‘social reformers, concerned philanthropists, good internationalists, communists, socialists, liberals and social democrats’. Her father, Philip Toynbee, novelist, poet and one-time communist, was for many years chief book reviewer for the Observer. His father was the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, author of the twelve-volume A Study of History; his mother, Rosalind, was the daughter of the classical scholar and all-round good egg Gilbert Murray and Lady Mary, daughter of the earl and countess of Carlisle, owners of Castle Howard and much else. Arnold J. Toynbee’s uncle, also called Arnold, had died young in 1883 after a promising beginning as a social reformer and radical economic historian (he is credited with giving currency to the term ‘the Industrial Revolution’); Toynbee Hall in London’s East End is named after him. This skeletal family tree omits all the spouses and siblings who did not make such a mark on history, but, even so, there is enough to suggest that the Toynbee-Murray connection might merit a minor place in any revised version of Annan’s honour roll.

It is noticeable that Toynbee has more to say about her male than her female ancestors, an emphasis that may simply reflect the realities of educational advantage and career opportunities over the past century and a half. Her mother, Anne Powell, came from a decidedly unintellectual background: Anne’s father, George Powell, was a lieutenant colonel in the Grenadier Guards and briefly a Tory MP, while his wife was the daughter of a brewing family; Anne was a debutante and presented at court in the traditional upper-class way. But then she married the dashing, unreliable Philip Toynbee, and after divorcing him married the philosopher Richard Wollheim, thus doing her bit to keep up the intellectual quota. Though she writes warmly of her mother, Toynbee is unremittingly hostile to ‘my obnoxious grandmother, Rosalind’. It’s clear that, as the granddaughter of an earl, Rosalind had notions of her social due that were not met by her life with an obsessively productive and socially awkward scholar, but after reading William McNeill’s biography of Arnold Toynbee one begins to develop a little sympathy for this imperious, passionate, frustrated woman. Having divorced Toynbee, she initially took up with a man fifteen years younger than herself in what was assumed, at least by her rather innocent ex-husband, to be a platonic mother-son relationship. He was shocked to learn after her death about the ‘wild and ecstatic sex’ between them, the scenes of naked bathing together in a lake (he must have been easily shocked) and more. These revelations may suggest to us something she had found lacking in her relationship with her desk-bound husband, but Polly Toynbee is evidently not disposed to make any allowances for the needs of the flesh in this case: ‘A red mist of indignation may distort my portrait of my distant and hostile grandmother, but I can find no balancing qualities to soften into forgiveness.’

Her portrait of her great-grandmother Lady Mary, wife of Gilbert Murray, is much more nuanced, though Mary’s sometimes stiff-backed high-mindedness can sound intimidating. Mary’s mother, the ‘Radical Countess’ of Carlisle, had been a fanatical temperance campaigner, and Mary herself pursued teetotalism with a religious zeal, even dismissing the novels of P.G. Wodehouse on grounds of their promotion of ‘drinking’. (Gilbert, a more tolerant teetotaller, loved them.) On her death, the Radical Countess left Castle Howard to Mary, but the daughter proved herself a deeper hue of red than her mother, or perhaps just unwilling to assume the responsibilities of a chatelaine, immediately giving the estate away to her brother.

The story is also told here (with due scepticism, as it is told of other radical grandees elsewhere) that when Lady Mary’s son Stephen demanded that the household take the Daily Worker, she agreed only ‘as long as the servants don’t see it’. The unremarked ubiquity of servants in the lives of these earlier generations would make an interesting supplementary study alongside the doings of the quality. McNeill tells us that when in 1914 the newly-wed Arnold and Rosalind settled into ‘a modest little house’ in Oxford, they enjoyed the services of a ‘cook, parlourmaid, gardener (Mondays), plus Mrs Harris for mending and extra cleaning, and Mrs Massey, laundress’. Rosalind’s parents, the Murrays, lived on a grander scale until social change drastically reduced the numbers in domestic service in the 1940s and 1950s. The Murrays took in refugees at the beginning of the Second World War, despite the fact that, as Gilbert complained (according to Duncan Wilson’s biography), ‘now we are without housemaid or parlourmaid.’ When belt-tightening briefly threatened, Murray responded by proposing that he might do without the services of a secretary and that the long-serving gardener ‘could be asked to accept a reduced wage’. Even as late as 1953, the Murrays still had a ‘nice parlourmaid’, her good qualities extending to her appreciation of radio broadcasts of Murray’s translations of Greek tragedies.

The three men who dominate An Uneasy Inheritance are Gilbert Murray, Arnold J. Toynbee and Philip Toynbee. Even in such a cast, Murray stands out as an attractive as well as impressive figure, remembered by Polly Toynbee as ‘a warm, affectionate old man’. Born in Australia in 1866, he moved to England with his widowed mother when he was eleven, winning scholarships to Merchant Taylors’ School and then to Oxford. The leading classical scholar of his generation, he served as Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford from 1908 to 1936, but his reach extended far beyond academia. His popular writings on ‘the spirit of Hellenism’ appealed to wide readerships; he was a leading champion of the League of Nations, also serving on various of its committees; and late in life he enjoyed considerable success as a broadcaster (Wilson calculates that he gave some eighty talks for the BBC between 1939 and his death in 1957). Along the way, he exhibited a fetching wit and playfulness, including poking fun at himself, not always thought to be a feature of those who go about doing good. For example, in 1933 he reluctantly refused to sign on behalf of some progressive cause or other, saying: ‘There must be some cause which I leave in peace … I am already protesting against the government, the Japanese, the League, the male sex in relation to the female, predatory animals in relation to other animals [and] the Almighty on all counts.’ The Murray home on Boar’s Hill outside Oxford provided shelter and welcome for all manner of refugees and others in need, though presumably the otherwise warm hospitality did not extend to offering them a drink. It is hard to imagine any scholar of recent generations matching Murray’s public standing in the later part of his life. On his ninetieth birthday in 1956 (longevity does help) four sacks of letters and cards were delivered at his house, plus 131 telegrams. ‘The first three telegrams opened came from the British prime minister (Eden), the Australian prime minister and P.G. Wodehouse.’

Arnold Toynbee initially seemed destined to become a classics don, too, but he soon renounced an orthodox academic career in favour of a larger ambition – to surpass Thucydides and Gibbon and grasp the meaning of history on a trans-civilisational scale. The first three volumes of A Study of History came out in 1934, the next three volumes in 1939, and the final four volumes in 1954 (a later volume of maps and a volume of ‘reconsiderations’ eventually followed). His portentous brooding on the pattern of ‘challenge and response’, which saw civilisations rise and fall across the millennia, earned him a global reputation as a sage: ‘No other historian, and few intellectuals of any stripe,’ McNeill concludes, ‘have even approached such a standing.’ But as his popularity with middlebrow audiences rocketed after 1945, so his standing among other scholars began to sink. ‘He is doing his best to be a historian,’ wrote Pieter Geyl, one of his gentler critics, ‘but first and foremost he is still a prophet.’ There was nothing gentle about Hugh Trevor-Roper’s demolition job in the pages of Encounter in 1957. ‘Toynbee’s reputation among historians has yet to recover from Trevor-Roper’s dismissive wit,’ McNeill stated in 1989. By contrast, Duncan Wilson says very fairly of Murray that his ‘expository writings’ – as opposed to his verse translations of drama – ‘even the most popular of them, were the work of a scholar who wanted to communicate his knowledge widely, rather than of a visionary or propagandist with some pretence to scholarship’. Toynbee would no doubt have wished for a similar encomium, but his fellow historians were less and less disposed to grant it.

In the lives of these and other prominent intellectual figures of the era, the educational filters seem more important than strict bloodstock lines. Of course, until relatively recently the bulk of the population were effectively excluded from the relevant educational institutions, so savage pre-selection was at work, but, even so, academic success was the foundation of the careers of the male members of the Murray-Toynbee clan, and of some of the women’s, too. Murray and his son-in-law had in common their remarkable scholarly precociousness. After a brilliant undergraduate career at Oxford in which he swept the board of classical prizes, Murray was appointed Regius Professor of Classics at the University of Glasgow at the age of 23 (professors were often young in the 19th century, but not, by 1889, usually this young). Toynbee, after his no less glittering undergraduate years, was elected to a fellowship at Balliol on completing his finals in 1911. In both their cases it was their early excellence as students of classics that stood out, especially their facility at the curious exercise that so dominated classical education at the time, producing Latin and Greek versions of English poetry and vice versa (indeed, at moments of emotional stress later in life Toynbee would steady himself by composing poetry in Greek). Toynbee’s sister Jocelyn became an expert on Roman art and Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge, while his other sister, Margaret, became a history don at Oxford. Even Philip had ‘done well at Oxford’, according to McNeill, ‘despite or even because of his communist commitment’.

Polly Toynbee herself, it should be said, did not conform to this aspect of family tradition. According to her own account, she failed the eleven-plus and later left her private school ‘with four bad O-levels, no maths, no science, no Latin’. An inspiring sixth form teacher at Holland Park, flagship school of the comprehensive movement, enabled her to get a scholarship to Oxford, but she left after a year and a half without a degree – ‘I threw my education away, and I regret it.’ (Those who like to dwell on the genealogical fretwork will enjoy the fact that the teacher in question was the father of the left-wing social historian Gareth Stedman Jones.) Her family assumed that her Oxford scholarship would be the beginning of the customary succession of academic triumphs. To celebrate the news, she was invited to lunch with her grandfather and her two formidable great-aunts at the then all-male Athenaeum club, off Pall Mall. The mismatch between the generations on this occasion is full of comic potential, and it seems possible that 18-year-old Polly – ‘I am wearing a micro mini-skirt that shows my knickers if I bend even slightly and white PVC boots’ – may have caused a few cardiac arrests among the elderly members that day.

The figure​ who looms largest in the book is her father, Philip, a much-forgiven man. The escapades start early when he joins forces with the teenage Esmond Romilly, who was briefly a public-school sansculotte committed to toppling the established order, or, failing that, bringing an end to fagging and corporal punishment. They both earned their spurs by getting beaten up by Mosley’s Blackshirts, Esmond going on to fight in Spain against Franco. Life among this slice of gilded revolutionary youth is captured with effervescent high spirits in Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford, who eloped with Esmond; according to another good story, the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, sent a destroyer to bring her back to Britain. Thereafter, most stories about Philip involve extraordinary amounts of alcohol. In 1939 he exploited family connections to get a commission into the Grenadier Guards, ‘but he was quickly expelled for sliding down banisters naked and drunk’ and other misdemeanours. After the war, his father got him a position as a foreign correspondent on the Observer, but he seemed to spend much of his time in Cairo engaged ‘in epic drinking races with his old friend Donald Maclean’ (yes, that Donald Maclean). ‘In one day-long bout together they drank six bottles of Gordon’s gin between them, and that’s why, it emerged later … Maclean’s code name with his Russian handlers was “Gordon”.’ (It doesn’t do to worry too much about the exact historical veracity of such good stories.) His daughter learned that her father’s reputation for excess would crop up in unexpected settings: ‘On my first day at the Observer, Alf on reception, who had been there since time began, leaned across the counter and said, “I hope you’re not like your dad. I hope you don’t pee in the lift.”’

Philip was a restless soul whose pursuit of spiritual fulfilment took more and more impractical forms as he got older, culminating in turning his house in the country into an organic farming commune, a venture that suffered from the tensions that doom so many experiments in communal living. He was far from being a good, or even adequate, father, but his daughter clearly admires his efforts to shed many of his class advantages. Meanwhile, his brother, the painter Lawrence Toynbee, married an Asquith, so that helped to keep the fretwork going.

Although Polly Toynbee presses the claims of several of her forebears to be among the leading intellectual figures of their day, she doesn’t show much interest in their work. This may be understandable in such a book, but it would be a pity if it helped nourish a view that intellectuals are batty ‘characters’, more interesting for their foibles than their ideas. The scholarly achievements of Gilbert Murray and Arnold J. Toynbee were, by any measure, substantial, and even Philip didn’t spend all his time at the Observer peeing in the lift. The handful of talented individuals who fill the pages of this book obviously enjoyed social advantages along with the countless members of their class who left no mark on history, but it was their intellectual achievements that distinguished them, not dynastic ties.

An Uneasy Inheritance is a hybrid, part family memoir, part political apologia, part a slice of the social and intellectual history of Britain from the late 19th century to the present, and it’s all the better for the mixture. But from time to time, Toynbee feels compelled to stress the political apologia: ‘How do I feel about social class?’ she asks. ‘That’s what this book is about.’ Fortunately, the book is about something more historical and less subjective than that, but the short answer to her own rhetorical question is that she feels guilty. ‘Guilt’ is the word that dominates the sections of the book where she talks about her own experience, suggesting that, in political terms at least, she has inherited some of her father’s self-accusatory tendencies. But she argues that such feelings are intrinsic to any life that combines left-wing convictions with established social advantages: ‘How the charge of hypocrisy cuts to the quick,’ she declares; ‘champagne socialist’ is the barb that bites.

But should it? ‘Champagne socialist’ is a familiar right-wing sneer, though on closer inspection it’s not clear quite what it amounts to. Obviously, there is a suggestion of bad faith in professing to want to see a more equal society while personally enjoying some of the benefits of inequality. Yet is that really so inconsistent or culpable, or is the allegation just the opportunist deployment of class stereotypes? The implication is that the only voices that can authentically call for some kind of redistribution belong to those who have least, a view which, apart from being simply daft, may seem to render such radical voices vulnerable to charges of being crudely self-interested, since they would be among the obvious beneficiaries. But, of course, self-interestedness is treated as the natural state of the human condition in much right-wing thinking: those who’ve got it, want to hang on to it; those who’ve not, want to get it; and there’s an end on’t. The suggestion that there might be better or worse reasons for holding one view rather than another, reasons which transcend class identities, is disconcerting to such a reductive view of things. The feeling that wealthy radicals might be seeking to top up their material advantages with a self-awarded moral bonus further feeds the resentment.

Anyway, what are so-called ‘champagne socialists’ supposed to do? It is presumably too late to disown all the advantages now described as social or cultural capital, so the implication must be that, if they really believe their high-minded twaddle, they should put their money where their mouth is and give away their wealth. But would that really help much? May it not be more valuable to draw on such advantage to do, say, serious intellectual or other work, showing a sense of one’s own good fortune while supporting those in need as best they can? I would much rather that well-off political theorists should spend their time working out a fairer system of taxation than impoverishing themselves by making gratuitous donations to HMRC.

No doubt it is ethically creditable that Toynbee not only acknowledges her good fortune, but has tried at various stages of her journalistic career to experience some of the working and living conditions of those less fortunate. But there is no necessary contradiction between living a middle-class life and holding left-wing convictions. The contemporary injunction to ‘check your privilege’ in various situations does not entail an obligation to feel guilty. Several of Toynbee’s ancestors evidently did feel their class advantages as an intolerable burden (others did not), but, as her own pen portraits suggest, these feelings were often partly rooted in temperament and/or disastrous relationships with parents or spouses. ‘Do-gooders’ is the derisive label she cites more than once, but I would prefer to see her yielding less ground to the sneers and jeers of right-wing hostility. The desire to do good is a good desire, and it doesn’t have to be humourless or priggish (as Gilbert Murray, among many others, demonstrated). Those on the left don’t help the cause if they allow the slack tabloid jibes of the right to define their identities. We would have been much worse off without Toynbee’s trenchant journalism in recent decades: there is no reason for her, or anyone, to have to apologise for the material circumstances that have allowed her to produce it.

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