- Not by Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History by John Clive
Collins Harvill, 334 pp, £15.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 00 272041 8
The world’s great age begins anew, and we have all become Victorians again. Mrs Thatcher pursues strict economies with a single-mindedness Gladstone would have envied and calls us back to traditional values, while on television Mr A.N. Wilson approaches the eminent Victorians in a manner far different from that of Lytton Strachey seventy years ago. In 1918 Strachey intended to blow up, once and for all, the stale and inhibiting pieties of his parents and their generation. When the Oxford historian G.M. Young read Eminent Victorians he commented, ‘We’re in for a bad time,’ and set about planning an act of restitution which appeared in 1934 as Early Victorian England: Portrait of an Age, since which time the historical counter-revolution has come full circle.
Young aimed his shot specifically at Bloomsbury. More recently, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in an essay entitled A Genealogy of Morals: From Clapham to Bloomsbury, has ostensibly aimed at the same target, but indirectly, and from a position of American neo-conservatism: she indicts by implication the libertarian excesses of Bloomsbury’s children of the Sixties. Her severity is positively Actonian. G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, the movement’s Bible, abandoned conscience for states of well-being; Keynes’s loose sexual morals were somehow reflected in his loose economic principles and his childlessness in the doctrine of present gratification; E.M. Forster could muster only two cheers for the democratic state, reserving three alone for ‘Love the Beloved Republic’. Subversive stuff, all this, to Professor Himmelfarb and to our own age of economic austerity, which seems to require a similar austerity in morals. Regression to the humbug and remorseless exploitation of Coketown seems an odd way of going forward, however, even if it were possible. The actors on the French revolutionary stage of 1848, Tocqueville observed, were putting on the costumes and replaying the political parts of 1789, while the real social revolution emerged unseen by them. The past can only tell us about the future that does not happen, and historians make poor prophets. Gibbon was as nonplussed as any unlettered layman by the French Revolution. When William Arnold first glimpsed the Himalayas he was reminded of papa: but then the stern Victorian paterfamilias stood firm on the solid foundation of expanding wealth and high dividends, a stable currency and a healthy balance of payments – the predominant ethos one of getting rather than spending. The same cannot be said of our own neo-Victorian economics, and it would be ironic if the Victorian ethic was evoked only to destroy the last vestiges of genuine 19th-century virtues.
Both here and in his earlier study of the Edinburgh Review and his first volume on Macaulay, John Clive shows no desire to use or manipulate the Victorians. He merely wants to understand them better. And what he comes to understand, as G.M. Young did before him, is that the Victorian resolutely refuses to behave in the way we think Victorians should: Swinburne read Plato under Jowett at Balliol, but he also read Sade with Monckton Milnes at Fryston Hall. Investigation does not reveal that assurance, certitude or consensus we have invented in order to guide us in our present jam. The figures that appear in this landscape are disconcertingly odd, protean and dissentient – much like ourselves.
Professor Clive does, however, pursue an explicit professional purpose in this collection – a purpose both old-fashioned and unfashionable. He wishes to reclaim the individual from a social history which has concerned itself, for the most part, with groups, masses and types and which has long dominated the profession. A misguided academic snobbery assumed that biography was anecdotal, narrative unanalytical; the study of overarching constructs and infrastructures reached for a purer history – ‘Servants talk about People: Gentlefolk discuss Things.’ On the Continent, the prestigious Annales school rejected the élitist study of leaders and thinkers and superficial political events for those deep-seated, persisting elements – soil, food, prices, population – which shaped the lives of the majority. In the writings of Fernand Braudel the Mediterranean took precedence because it imposed the most fundamental limitations on Philip II’s foreign policy. In other works by the school the individual disappeared altogether, along with time, in the frozen immobility of the landscape: topography replaced biography. Those scholars who attempted to build up the mentalité of a past age, its particular way of looking at things, did use the records of individuals, but as bricks to build the collective wall, be it Namier’s 18th-century MPs or Ladurie’s peasants of Languedoc. In the United States a growing illiteracy combined with highly numerate computers and the burgeoning of wealthy but gullible foundations to fashion a school of Cliometrics. Written records were hard to compute and dismissed as ‘impressionistic’; individuals were averaged out, and what could not be counted no longer counted at all – statistics replaced the individual.
But these essays go beyond the rejection of the chimera of scientific history to a reaffirmation of traditional methods and an insistence on returning history to the heart of the humanities. Like G.M. Trevelyan, Clive evokes Clio as a muse. The historian’s task is to study a lost past, and to repossess it requires, above all, an act of imaginative recreation. Intelligence too, of course, and a scrupulous regard for the facts, for the historian is not inventing a fictitious world but re-imagining a real one. Clive reminds us of the sheer slog the historian puts in, but facts alone, as his title reminds us, are not enough. Macaulay did his homework and trudged off to Ireland to witness the scenes of his History for himself, but in place of the bland, blustering celebrant of mass-production materialism, Clive depicts another Macaulay, private, sensitive, almost feminine, whose writings are rooted in and nourished by day-dreams before the historian takes over and clothes the initial illumination in dates and actuality. What results is the fusion of insight with reality which results, in turn, in a language in which ‘the spellbinding power of the imagery is directly related to the spell-banishing power of the historian.’
Clive’s heresy goes furthest when he argues that historiography is neither incestuous nor parasitic, but of central concern. Brief reflection on the fact that without historians we would have little history would be sufficient to support his contention, but here the unravelling of the complex process whereby the historian mediates between himself, his own time and the past is a triumphant vindication of claims made in this book. The very best history lasts, and Gibbon and Tocqueville are reread much as we reread Jane Austen or return to Mozart’s operas. Why? Because, Clive suggests, long after their scholarship is superseded they continue to amuse and instruct. Amuse certainly, for the historian has a rattling good story to tell and Gibbon’s consummate intelligence is distilled in his irony. But instruction? Gibbon spoke of encouraging a ‘school of civic prudence’, but it was Macaulay who linked the advance of historical science to that of general progress and led Seeley to convert the Cambridge History Faculty into a training-ground for imperial statesmanship in the late 19th century. Had they been right, we should all long since have become good and happy instead of stumbling along in the usual muddled way. At this point Clive tends to retreat to the impregnable ground of a central, inexplicable ‘mystery’, a residual wisdom secreted from time, which I suspect is nothing more than the usual creative engagement that comes from an intelligent reader responding to an unusually intelligent writer. For as Clive’s own examples tend to illustrate, it is precisely when the historian attempts to order those subterranean movements which underly the rubble of surface events into explicable systems and patterns – what Tocqueville called ‘eliciting the laws of life’ – that he is at his most fallible and exposed, and is apt to go notoriously awry. Are we expected to swallow once more Carlyle’s toxic mix of baleful German metaphysics, dyspeptic Calvinism and dubious hero-worship?
John Clive’s writing exemplifies the qualities he admires in others. It is detached but enthusiastic; the style is highly polished and reflects the genteel stance of an adopted Boston Brahmin. He is especially good when he turns to neglected lesser works such as Mark Pattison’s Memoirs and G.O. Trevelyan’s Anglo-Indian recollections, The Competition Wallah. But he really should have trimmed this collection, for the repetitions become embarrassing. And perhaps he shares too much of Macaulay’s unshadowed optimism. Carlyle excused Frederick the Great’s decision to invade Silesia in 1740 on the grounds that it was ‘allowed by the Destinies’. Clive is aware of the danger of what he calls the ‘necessitarian interpretation’ and the ramifications of the Whig ransacking of history, ‘always a patient and pliable victim’, for a ‘usable past’. But Whig history is doubly confirmatory in that it vindicates a ‘usable present’ also. For those who look backwards there is an unavoidable tendency to emphasise the inevitable and irreversible, to drain the past of alternatives and neglect the capacity for choice in the present. There is a bias in favour of consolidating the achievements of the past and turning away from the uncertain freedom of the future. The historian has, of necessity, to put down his pen in the end, and is likely to do so on a note of achieved climax and a triumphant conclusion. Thus Macaulay aimed his sights at the culminating Reform Bill of 1832, while his great nephew, G.M. Trevelyan, ended his trilogies on the dominant note of Italian unification and Britain’s defeat of Louis XIV’s attempt at European hegemony.
Real history does not terminate, but lurches forward interminably and indifferently without any promise of a satisfactory resolution or happy ending. The layman knows this, but admits it only reluctantly because it in some way diminishes his standing and esteem to become mere fodder for future historians. But rather than collaborate, the historian should studiously distance himself from this sedative illusion, or rather shatter it, much as Gibbon did when reflecting upon the intrigues of the Byzantine court: ‘In a composition of some days, in a perusal of some hours, six hundred years have rolled away, and the duration of a life and reign is contracted to a fleeting moment: the grave is ever beside the throne; the success of a criminal is almost instantly followed by the loss of his prize; and our immortal reason survives and disdains the sixty phantoms of kings who have passed before our eyes, and faintly dwell upon our remembrance.’
John Clive’s untimely death last month in Cambridge, Massachusetts has deprived British history of one of its most distinguished foreign interpreters, and leaves his biography of Macaulay uncompleted.