Downward Mobility

Linda Colley

  • The Blackwell Dictionary of Historians edited by John Cannon, R.H.C. Davis, William Doyle and Jack Greene
    Blackwell, 480 pp, £39.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 631 14708 X
  • Edward Gibbon, Luminous Historian, 1772-1794 by Patricia Craddock
    Johns Hopkins, 432 pp, £19.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 8018 3720 0
  • Gibbon: Making History by Roy Porter
    Palgrave, 187 pp, £14.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 312 02728 1
  • Macaulay by Owen Dudley Edwards
    Trafalgar Square, 160 pp, £5.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 297 79468 X
  • Acton by Hugh Tulloch
    Trafalgar Square, 144 pp, £5.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 297 79470 1

We live in reactionary times. One indication of this is the growing trend among both politicians and academics to prescribe what historical study should be: how it should be organised and conducted, what it should be about, why it should be pursued at all. Such prescriptions can sometimes stem from genuine scholarly or cultural concern. But they can also betoken a dangerously closed mind.

I was reminded of this one morning last summer as I sat in the tearoom of Cambridge University Library and eavesdropped. Three very young, very bright, very civilised British historians were discussing a recent work on Dutch history, written by a one-time Cambridge don long since departed to the States. It had been acclaimed by reviewers as a bravura performance. It had been translated into all the right European languages. It had – deservedly – sold. But the trio were unimpressed. It was not, they muttered among themselves, scholarly. It was not methodologically sound. Its prose glittered meretriciously. Even worse, it was entertaining. Self-evidently, it was bad history. Believing that they knew what constituted correct and appropriate history, they could only respond to what they saw as deviance dismissively, to innovations from abroad with insular suspicion. As academic history contracts in this country, as grandees retire and are not replaced by what is vampirishly styled new blood, and as British universities cease to be able to attract foreign scholars or to retain many of their own more adventurous lecturers, there is a risk that solemn intransigence of this kind will increase. All communities under intense attack from without are susceptible to dogma, to heresy-hunts, to seeking refuge in the wrong kind of certainties. British history – declining abroad and under pressure at home – is no exception. How useful then to be reminded by these books that the study of history, like humanity itself, is chiefly valuable for its diversity.

The Blackwell Dictionary of Historians edited by John Cannon is a splendid work which, even in these straitened times, should be snapped up by every self-respecting school and college library. There are over two hundred contributors; there are more than four hundred and fifty biographical essays on the great historians of the past and of the present; there are lucid articles on the different historical methods and sub-specialisms, and on the historiographical traditions of all manner of societies, from Africa to Wales, from Latin America to New Zealand. Those of us who were previously less than certain about the achievements of, say, Heinrich von Srbik (a leading Austrian historian), or Saxo ‘Grammaticus’ (Denmark’s most important Medieval writer), or Muhammad ibn Jarir Tabari (compiler of a universal history in Arabic), now have the opportunity to improve ourselves. Those who have long been struggling with the profession’s favourite jargon can now be instructed and even amused (historicism: ‘a confused and confusing word, which should be abandoned’).

The compilers have cast their nets wide, devoting over a hundred entries to French, German and Italian historians, and thirty more to Classical writers like Herodotus, Livy and Tacitus. But the bulk of biographical essays are about Anglo-American scholars. As a result, this book supplies something of a prosopography of the Transatlantic historical profession. And a very bizarre profession it is too. It is, first of all, quite extraordinarily male. Only ten of the 450 historians described here are female, and most of them are dead. Why, we must wonder, do so many women write novels – stories of imaginary people – but fail to chronicle the real thing? And do they really fail quite as badly as this book implies? Should not future editions include entries on May McKisack (an expert Medievalist), on Dorothy George (who pioneered the scholarly study of cartoons), on Phyllis Deane, the economic historian, and indeed on Natalie Zemon Davis? And, while I am labouring this particular point, should women’s history really be catalogued – as it is here – as feminist history? Women’s history is essentially an attempt to describe the past of women instead of – and preferably as well as – the past of men. Why imply that it is any more doctrinaire or value-laden than accounts which concentrate solely on masculine activity?

The information supplied on the social background, place of birth and temperament of some individual historians (in a future edition such information should ideally be supplied on all) can be illuminating if carefully analysed. We are reminded, for example, how closely modern British economic history has been linked to the North – T.S. Ashton, J.H. Clapham, M.W. Flinn and George Unwin were all, as were many others of their kind, born in the heartland of the Industrial Revolution. Did this demographic fact lead the profession to overestimate the dimensions of past industrialisation (as some conservatives would claim)? Or did the background which these men shared give them a better understanding of economic change than closeted Southerners could have acquired?

There are less cerebral pleasures to be found in this volume, not least its success in capturing the peculiar tyrannies, fallibilities and bitchiness of our kind. There is E.W. Ives’s acid description of A.F. Pollard, the driving force behind the setting up in 1921 of the Institute of Historical Research in London: ‘he was merciless in his domination of the system, his colleagues and his assistants, especially female ones (who included his wife).’ Many of us will recognise the breed. Some of us will even have encountered along the way latterday equivalents of Pollard’s successor, J.E. Neale, who ‘unashamedly directed postgraduates to subjects he wanted studied, and with brief acknowledgment incorporated their findings in his own books.’ Reflections of this kind become even more titillating when – as happens here – they are directed against the living. Indeed, some of the biographical essays devoted to currently eminent scholars read rather like reports from less-than-overwhelmed referees. Asa Briggs is dismissed in a few lines; David Landes is damned with the faint praise of ‘considerable literary skills and a certain old-fashioned rhetoric’; and Lord Dacre is rapped on the knuckles for failing to write a big book on the Enlightenment. Such comments are more revealing of their writers than their subjects.

What also emerges very clearly from these biographies is the downward mobility of most 20th-century historians. We are in the main lower-middle-class by social origin, or at best the progeny of other academics. In the past, before history became a well-ordered and poorly-paying profession, things were very different. Gentlemen wrote history for amusement, edification or renown; and the ambitious or adventurous wrote it for money. This point is hammered home by Patricia Craddock’s book on Edward Gibbon, the second part of a superb and definitive biography, and by these studies of Edward Gibbon, Thomas Babington Macaulay and John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, pioneer volumes in Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s new ‘Historians on Historians’ series. As their resonant names suggest, these men were the very antithesis of poor, cloistered, threadbare scholars. Gibbon’s father was a prosperous Member of Parliament, and he himself represented one of Cornwall’s many rotten boroughs. Macaulay was the son of a one-time Governor of Sierre Leone, an MP, a member of the Supreme Council of India, and ultimately a peer. Acton was the grandest and most exotic of them all. His mother married a peer, and he married into one of the leading families of the Holy Roman Empire, before becoming an Irish MP, a baron, and the confidant of William Gladstone.

Possessing social credentials of this kind helped to make these men the historians they were. They did not only write about power: they also directly experienced it. They not only visited the archives and libraries of the great: they were usually invited to stay for dinner as well. And of course they had money, not so much as to be tempted into indolence, but enough to allow them to spend long and productive hours at the desk. Craddock is politely scathing about those envious souls who see in Gibbon’s life a scholarly idyll. She reminds us that his (apparent) abstinence from sexual involvement after his militia service imposed its own emotional penalties, and that he was never just a cosseted recluse. He was a clubbable man. He carried out his public duties assiduously. And he could tear himself away from his scribbling to assist friends and female relations. But most of these distractions were self-chosen. At the end of the day – and at its beginning which was when he liked to write – he still had his smart house in Bentinck Street, his library of four thousand books, his pet dog and his six servants. ‘Few works of importance have been executed in a garret or a palace,’ he purred. But given a choice, opt for the palace.

With money and leisure went cosmopolitanism and style. Gibbon flitted between Britain and the Continent, between Protestantism and Catholicism, between the English language, the Classics, and fluent written and spoken French. Macaulay knew Europe, vast sections of the British Empire, and a swathe of ancient and modern languages to lend weight to his footnotes. And Acton, born in Naples, was familiar with the courts of princely Europe and always welcome there. Uncontending ease, the unbought grace of life, allowed these men to be large-minded. Unlike some of their modern successors, they had nothing to prove and were under no compulsion to play the joyless fanatic. As one of Acton’s more parvenu colleagues grumbled, he felt no need to fall ‘into the vulgar error of writing a book’.

Yet they did write, and they did work furiously. These books demonstrate once again that omniverous reading, massive industry, and what Roy Porter aptly calls a lethal power of concentration, are the cardinal virtues of the historian. Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire swelled to six volumes, a million and a half words, and eight thousand footnotes; his testicle also swelled due to a hydrocele. By the end of his life, it was ‘almost as big as a small child’. But having more important things to think about than sex or comfort, he ignored the complaint until it killed him. Stoical endurance was matched by steadfast endeavour. Macaulay plundered the archives, hunted out the scenes of his battlefields, worked twelve hours at a stretch, and churned out the volumes of his history of England until death came to claim him. And Acton wrote too. This is perhaps the most superficially startling part of Hugh Tulloch’s quite brilliant and remarkably sensitive re-evaluation of this strange and haunted scholar. True, the projected great work, the History of Freedom, was never finished. Acton lapsed, Casaubon-like, into ‘sticking eternal bits of paper into innumerable books, and putting larger papers into black boxes’. But he still wrote: over four hundred articles and eighty large-scale essays.

Why did they write so much and write so well? All of these books strive, with varying degrees of success, to reconstruct the mind behind the words and the works, to investigate why these giants wrote (or failed to write) history as they did. Gibbon emerges from Porter’s glowing account and from Craddock’s as a man of brilliant and sensitive intelligence, a natural scholar and incomparable historian who was quite simply intensely curious about Ancient Rome. But he also enjoyed the vulgar, vivid pleasures of renown and reputation: ‘My book was on every table, and almost on every toilette.’ And he used his history to express his own ambiguities about religion and his own confidence in contemporary Europe. Rome, he believed, disintegrated not because it was corrupt, but because it suffered from, and embodied, what Paul Kennedy might call imperial overstretch. The cause of the Empire’s decline and fall was ‘in a sense, its very existence’ (Craddock). Eighteenth-century Europe, by contrast (for Gibbon did not foresee Napoleon), was secured and stabilised by its competing state systems.

Owen Dudley Edwards’s book is self-confessedly idiosyncratic and far stronger on Macaulay’s life than on his intellect. He argues that it was the great man’s Celtic background, ‘his bardic self’, which shaped his style and narrative: that his unseen, but omnipresent audience was always his dead and dearly-loved sister Margaret. And he makes the shrewd point that Macaulay foresaw and anticipated the sour criticisms he so often receives today. Since history and progress were intimately linked, the practice of history was also bound inexorably to improve: ‘It would be gross injustice in our grandchildren to talk of us with contempt, merely because they may have surpassed us.’

Whereas Gibbon’s reputation as a great historian is safe from all but narrow pedants, Macaulay’s, I suspect, will never now be restored or adequately reconstructed. Acton, however, does regain his reputation in some way in Tulloch’s book: not as a historian who may still have to be engaged with, but rather as a subtle scholar held back by the very depth of his thought. His personal brand of Catholicism shaped his work always. At first, it led him to write against nationalism as the great disrupter of Papist Europe. But it also led him to oppose the claims of infallibility advanced by Pope Pius IX, to seek out in a variety of previously unexplored archives evidence of Papal wrongs. His intensely religious, intensely moralistic viewpoint meant that he was never simply a Whig historian. History was not about broad, deterministic movements; nor was it the story of the successful. Rather, it was about individuals, and most of them experienced suffering, injustice and oppression. The historian had to pry into random events, to uncover the truth about failures and oddities and victims so that his work could become a kind of restitution. The problem was that in order to do this he had to search unflaggingly for all of the available material. And however well garnered, there was never enough for certainty: ‘How could any document pierce to the heart of the matter, the raison d’être?+4 How could the historian ever know if Caesar loved his wife, or Acton his?’

Thus was Acton crucified on his own crusade, his great work still-born because of the purity and scale of his aspirations. He should have known, as the three bright young men in the tearoom should have known, that there is a difference between the deity and mere historians, that none of us gets it absolutely right, that the truth is elusive, that there is indeed seldom one truth. For Clio is not an austere and changeless goddess, but a mongrel whore, promiscuous, disconcerting, and never entirely possessed by anyone. And that of course is her essential virtue.