History’s Revenges

Peter Clarke

  • The Illustrated Dictionary of British History edited by Arthur Marwick
    Thames and Hudson, 319 pp, £8.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 500 25072 3
  • Who’s Who in Modern History, 1860-1980 by Alan Palmer
    Weidenfeld, 332 pp, £8.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77642 8

It is doubly true these days that the experts are the last people we can rely on. We rely on them because the compartmentalisation of knowledge in every field means that they are the only guides left. The last people, however, because they have retreated into their specialised enclaves, content to communicate with each other rather than a lay public. It never was any use putting a mathematician on the spot for a nimble piece of mental arithmetic. Likewise, if you want to know the time, the day is long gone when you could ask a policeman. We have now reached the stage when it is impossible to get a straight answer out of so humble a practitioner as a historian. ‘Not my period’ has become proverbial as an attempt to pass off ignorance as professionalism. So where can we get the facts? Historians are voracious consumers of reference works and it is wholesome that they should occasionally produce volumes like these, serving common needs in an unpretentious way.

‘History is not a given series of facts,’ Arthur Marwick rightly says in his introduction. The selection and ordering of the facts, in their bearing on each other, is what gives them significance. So what is presented in this dictionary is the fruit of historical interpretation, given in a form which strives to be brief, informative and uncontroversial. The bulk of the entries only run to a few lines. Most of them comprise proper names – places, battles, treaties, statutes, organisations, institutions and, above all, persons. These are identified in a terse and workmanlike way. Small pictures, rarely bigger than a postcard, appear on virtually every page.

The biographical entries are inevitably pretty spare. The normal limit seems to have been about fifty words, which must have presented the contributors with an acute challenge. Radical defeatism, à la Groucho Marx, would be one response: the sort of life story that can be properly told in fifty words is not worth including. To invoke a more constructive example, the makers of the Christian creeds showed how pregnant economy – ‘crucified, dead and buried’ – could get around the problem. A further alternative would be to adopt the stylised format of Who’s Who or Debrett (Henry VIII, 2nd s of Henry VII, qv, S 1509: m 1st, Catherine of Aragon; 2nd, Anne Boleyn; 3rd, Jane Seymour; 4th, Anne of Cleves; 5th, Catherine Howard; 6th, Catherine Parr etc). The authors have made their own compromise, which, as the price of retaining connected prose, offers a highly selective summary of salient events.

It is instructive to observe how precious space has been allocated. The monarchs are presumably here by right and the leading statesmen by merit. Thus Edward VI is shunted off in six lines, with a cross-reference to the Reformation, whereas Thomas Cromwell gets 21 lines to himself plus a separate entry under Tudor Revolution in Government. This may indicate the administrative path to editorial favour, for A.V. Dicey’s academic writings on the 19th century state are rewarded with an entry of nine lines, the same as Lord John Russell who was merely in office at the time. This is three lines less than Bonar Law, dubbed by Asquith as the unknown prime minister, which proportionately must make Russell practically unheard-of. Such are the revenges of history, or at least of historians. Not that Asquith comes off much better when his 12 lines are measured against Lloyd George’s 92, nor even against the 11 given to Sir Alfred Mond, who must surely rate as one of the luckier entrants to come through the qualifying rounds in competition of this class.

The scribblers and men of ideas do reasonably well, at least in the later period: Darwin but not Newton, for instance, W.T. Stead but not Jonathan Swift. The system of cross-reference goes a long way in both remedying and explaining some disparities of treatment. It means that the reader whose thirst for knowledge is not slaked by the entry first consulted can be led on a treasure hunt for further clues. Start with Adam Smith and you find a picture and a few key dates in his career. But see Free Trade. Here not only the meaning of the term but also the influence of the policy is suggested. See Richard Cobden. This leads us to the Anti-Corn Law League, and in turn to John Bright. With Bright we can choose to go back to the League or, reading to the end of the entry, on to the Second Reform Bill (‘His subsequent career was a failure’). The entry on Reform Bills turns out to be a blockbuster. The relevent reference, however, is clearly to the bit about the Adullamites, who, it is explained under this rubric, took their name from the ‘cave of Adullam’ (I Samuel, xxii, 1-2).

We are well clear of Adam Smith by now, and still going strong, but the next hop, to Robert Lowe, marks the turn for home. For Lowe is introduced as a radical Utilitarian administrator (see Utilitarianism). Utilitarianism naturally leads us to Jeremy Bentham, and Bentham equally naturally back to Utilitarianism. This makes no difference because, either way, like the signpost to a pair of English villages, we are directed towards ‘the Mills’. Mill St James or Mill St John? On arrival there is no option since only John Stuart Mill is on the map. How frustrating to run out of fresh clues (see Utilitarianism is there, of course) just at the point when an entry for Classical Economics might have been expected! After that, it would have rounded off our education beautifully to be told to see Adam Smith again.

The joys of the chase are less evident in Who’s Who in Modern History, though the cross-references between the 600 entries are often useful. These biographical sketches of half a page or so offer scope for subjective comment as well as more satisfactory coverage of significant events. Indeed in some cases there is barely enough presentable material, as with the astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong. As the first men on the Moon, it is surely their names not their lives that will be remembered. One giant leap for mankind but two small footnotes in the reference books perhaps. If fame alone is the criterion, where are the Beatles, who, as John Lennon justly pointed out, became more famous than Jesus Christ? In fact, few entertainers qualify, though there are four sporting figures: the cricketers Bradman and Grace, the footballer Pelé and the baseball player Babe Ruth. In addition, Sir Roy Welensky was ‘the only Commonwealth Prime Minister to have been, in his youth, an amateur heavyweight boxing champion’.

Some of the entries suggest a sensitivity to particular Anglo-American susceptibilities which may be sound publishing policy. Prominent figures in the American reform tradition seem to do pretty well, especially the women. Jane Addams is here, no doubt rightly, but not Beatrice Webb. Susan Anthony, Emily Balch, Carrie Catt, Mary Lease, Margaret Sanger – all these appear on the American side, balanced (if that is the right word) by no less than three Pankhursts (Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia). John P. Altgeld, not perhaps a household name, is given a good write-up as ‘a pioneer reformer, at least two generations ahead of public opinion’. Such a perspective is obviously more difficult to achieve with active politicians of the present day like Margaret Thatcher, for not all these six hundred have ridden into the valley of death (which was a necessary qualification for inclusion in the Dictionary.) Thus James Earl Carter is left with ‘major problems for his administration in an election year’. Ronald Reagan does not appear, so Charles Chaplin remains single-handed to represent the achievements of the 20th-century cinema.

Most entries are sober and judicious accounts of important public careers, the sort of thing that serves for obituary notices in journals of record. The early years are generally not rescued from obscurity, though one or two hitherto neglected facts emerge. Before he ran for office, Barry Goldwater ran a business ‘which marketed a brand of men’s underwear known as “Antsy Pants” ’. Death under notorious circumstances is sometimes dwelt upon, as with Aldo Moro or Jan Masaryk: but others simply fade away, like Nelson Rockefeller.

Apart from politics, religion seems to get the best showing. A spiritual life of self-abnegnation is on the face of it a paradoxical means of acquiring fame, but the two French girls, Bernadette (‘shy, reticent, frail and poor’) and Thérèse of Lisieux (‘natural holiness – a conscious attempt to reach the ideals of saintliness’), appear to have managed, or been managed, well enough. Popes evidently qualify ex officio, even Albino Luciani on the strength of his month of eminence in 1978. Judged by this standard of historical significance, the present Pope, Karol Wojtyla, has already comfortably cleared the threshold, as has that other holy man, Ruholla Houmeini, albeit more comfortably for some than for others.