Principal Ornament

Jose Harris

  • G.M. Trevelyan: A life in History by David Cannadine
    HarperCollins, 288 pp, £18.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 00 215872 8

Until this week I had read no work written by G.M. Trevelyan since my schooldays. No Cambridge supervisor that I can recall ever recommended any of his books, and I have certainly never prescribed them to my own students. Like most people, I knew – or thought I knew – that he had defined social history as ‘history with the politics left out’, and that he was one of the chief stuffed carcasses in the mausoleum of Whig history. Yet throughout the first half of this century Trevelyan was the most widely-read historian in England and probably in the world. As a child of the Late Victorian ‘intellectual aristocracy’, as a highly prolific private ‘man of letters’, and later as the Cambridge Regius Professor and Master of Trinity College, he defined and dominated popular understanding of the nations’s common past for more than half a century.

David Cannadine’s characteristically spirited and combative study is more than just an intellectual biography: it is a work of piety, advocacy and passion. He uses the corpus of Trevelyan’s historical writings over fifty years – Wycliffe, Garibaldi, the Stuarts, Queen Anne, Lord Grey of the Reform Bill, Grey of Falloden and above all the English Social History – not merely to recount the story of Trevelyan’s career, but to defend all aspects of his philosophy, style and historical method. In so doing, Cannadine plunges into several dangerous war zones, political, cultural and academic. He starts by dismissing the common charge that Trevelyan was the unreflecting mouthpiece of progressive Whiggism at prayer, arguing that Trevelyan’s political beliefs substantially evolved over his lifetime and were more often infused with pessimism and despair than with theories of linear progress. Next, he defends Trevelyan’s technical competence as a research historian, particularly in the sphere of 18th-century high politics, against ‘the older and the younger generations of militant conservative empiricists’ from Namier through to J.C.D. Clark. Thirdly, he rebuts the charge that Trevelyan’s obsession with the English countryside was mere passive élitist escapism: on the contrary, it was translated into highly effective public work on behalf of the National Trust and the conservation movement (what Cannadine refers to as ‘politics by other means’). Above all, he contrasts Trevelyan’s non-technical, literary and allusive style of historical writing with current ‘academic history as taught and practised in universities’, which Cannadine believes has become ‘at best incomprehensible, at worst ridiculous’ to non-professional audiences in the outside world. Trevelyan, he argues, transformed the writing of history into a sublime form of poetic incantation, conjuring up the spirit of the past, not by note-taking and number-crunching, but by mimesis, serendipity and imagination. As the corporeal embodiment of the decline of history since Trevelyan’s death in 1962, Cannadine cites the Stirling building in the University of Cambridge, which houses the faculty ‘of which George Macaulay Trevelyan was once the titular head and principal ornament’: ‘Part bunker, part factory, part greenhouse, all folly, it embodies and projects an idea of history wholly unlike that in which Trevelyan believed. Ugly, strident, unpopular, aggressive, unwelcoming, anti-humanist and anti-architecture, it seems to deny, to disown and to disavow that very different muse of history to whose service Trevelyan had dedicated and devoted his life.’

How far does Cannadine sustain his claims about the underrated power and significance of Trevelyan’s work, and about the current collapse of history into footnotes and critical paraphernalia – into ‘Dry-as-dust’ masquerading as ‘High-as-tech’? It can scarcely be denied that academic history in Britain has lost its Late Victorian status as the crucible of national consciousness and the cradle of civic virtue. But has it really become nothing more than a meaningless and marginalised babel of arid theory and uninteresting facts? And if this has occurred, is the fault intrinsic to the way in which history is studied in universities at the present day – or to some wider shift in the nature of national culture?

Various points in Cannadine’s own study suggest that, if history has lost its erstwhile meaning and focus, the cause may lie deeper than mere donnish technicality and folly. As Cannadine himself shows, Trevelyan’s highly idiosyncratic style – based on intuition illustrated with documents – was never very representative of history as practised in English university departments: indeed, if anything, reverence for factual positivism and the minutiae of historical documents was probably greater at the turn of the last century than it is now. It was not the big media stars like Trevelyan and Macaulay, but the less-than-house-hold-names like Stubbs and Maitland, Tait and Tout, who taught undergraduates, trained researchers and practised history as a critical discipline in Victorian and Edwardian universities in much the same way as it is in those of the late 20th century. And similarly the wide readership and powerful television presence of historians such as A.J.P. Taylor, E.P. Thompson, Asa Briggs, and Cannadine himself, suggest that although history may no longer define communal national consciousness it has not lost its capacity to engage and entertain a large mass of individuals. Cannadine admits that Trevelyan was ‘not powerfully gifted with insight into human character or motivation’. Yet it is difficult to see how any serious historian in a psychologically-conscious age like our own could get away with the black-and-white judgments of individuals, groups, races and nations that were the hallmark of Trevelyan’s historical method. Trevelyan’s whole oeuvre was deeply committed to a composite vision of Englishness, Protestantism, Puritanism, high-minded agnosticism, paternalism and rural life-styles as the arteries of historic liberty, decency and civilisation. There is much that is attractive and illuminating about that vision. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is not academic history that has changed so much as hard socio-economic reality, and indeed the those of the whole mental construction of that reality, within the surrounding culture.

Moreover, for all Cannadine’s spirited partisanship, one suspects that he found Trevelyan ultimately less compelling as a historian than as himself part of the of the context and subject-matter of history. Some of the most interesting passages in the book relate not to Trevelyan’s work as a historian but to his life as a rather quirky kind of Edwardian puritan intellectual, who revelled in long walks, cold baths, progressive politics and mystic Wordsworthian pantheism. It may or may not be true that Trevelyan spent the first night of his honeymoon on a solitary walking-tour; but it is certainly the case that in the English Social History he portrayed the main advantage of female emancipation as being that it now enabled women to go on long-distance walks. Cannadine concedes that Trevelyan had little interest in history as a mode of ‘analysis and explanation’: a quite serious disability, one might think, in one who aspired to use history as a means of teaching ‘citizenship’ to popular democracy. He remarks that all his books ‘are pervaded by a tone of paternalistic decency which today seems slightly condescending’ (though Cannadine himself is not guiltless of condescension, particularly when hunting down such quarry as ‘grammar-school academics’ or ‘the rural nostalgia so ignorantly beloved of the suburban middle class’). After the effusive presentation of the earlier chapters, it is a little surprising to come upon the final appraisal of Trevelyan’s literary style: ‘The too-frequent allusions to “sturdy yeomen” ... certainly pall after a time, and it is tempting to recall Peter Warlock’s comment about Vaughan Williams’s music, that it was “all just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate”.’

Cannadine concludes in his final paragraphs that much of the interest and attraction of Trevelyan for the modern reader lies in ‘the perspective his life and work affords on his own times’, and that ‘his histories written for the first half of the 20th century have themselves become part of that era.’ The reader cannot disagree with that judgment. But it tantalisingly suggests a rather different book from the one which has been reviewed here.