Susan Pedersen

  • A.J.P. Taylor: Radical Historian of Europe by Chris Wrigley
    Tauris, 439 pp, £25.00, August 2006, ISBN 1 86064 286 1

This is the third full biography of A.J.P. Taylor to appear since his death in 1990. I find this fact almost more interesting than anything in the biographies themselves. For more than two decades after the war Taylor was, very nearly, the public face of the historical profession in Britain, delivering his pugnacious, often revisionist, views on television and radio, in more than two dozen books and hundreds of newspaper columns, and in countless lectures to Oxford undergraduates and the history-minded public. One would expect this most controversial and heat-seeking of historians to attract a biographer, especially since he also had radical political views, a penchant for academic squabbling and a string of unconventional marriages. But three biographers?

Adam Sisman came first, publishing a lively and well-written study in 1994. Although the scholarly achievements and disappointments were chronicled, Taylor’s personality and public engagements – with the Communist Party (briefly) in the 1920s and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s, the BBC and the Beaverbrook press – claimed centre-stage. Sisman had clearly heard plenty of stories about Taylor’s vanity, tight-fistedness and cruelty to his second and third wives, and passed these on, but for all that Taylor emerged as an oddly compelling figure – adventurous, forthright, rather bohemian and, at least until the catastrophic collapse of his first marriage, appealingly committed to some vision of equal parenting and sexual emancipation.

But he was also a disciplined and influential academic historian, with the positions and postgraduate students to show for it, and it isn’t surprising that some of those students felt there was more to be said. Sisman hadn’t even read all the books, Kathleen Burk protested – and he certainly hadn’t footnoted properly. Her own account, published in 2000, could not be faulted on those grounds. Burk didn’t neglect the political and private life, but she concentrated on the history. All Taylor’s major works were carefully summarised and their reception and lasting significance assessed. Amusingly, Burk also subjected Taylor’s finances to the kind of analysis she had previously directed at the Treasury, totting up the receipts from television and journalism, books and lecturing, to show how quickly his entrepreneurial income outstripped his academic salary. At almost 500 pages (including the notes), Burk’s comprehensive study rather poses the question of whether there is anything left to say.

‘Alan Taylor has been the subject of two good biographies,’ Chris Wrigley writes in his preface. ‘Perhaps, in the centenary year of his birth, there is room for a third.’ Perhaps. But whatever commemorations and retrospectives 2006 brought, the rediscovery of Taylor was not among them. His scholarly reputation was already in decline in the last decades of his life and has not recovered. As both Burk and Wrigley admit, he was too contrarian and individual a scholar to found a ‘school’, and while a few of his books – especially The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1954), English History, 1914-45 (1965) and the provocative Origins of the Second World War (1961) – are still read, none is considered entirely reliable. True, Taylor had a serious following among the public – a public that bought his books, tuned in to his broadcasts and flocked to his Historical Association lectures. That public, however, is ageing, and the slice of it curious about Taylor’s life but absent-minded enough to have missed the earlier biographies must be vanishingly small. Sisman wrote for that public, and Burk for the historians. For whom is Wrigley writing?

He doesn’t quite say, but my sense is that he is writing ‘for the record’. Taylor was the sort of man to merit a ‘definitive’ biography, and while one might say Burk’s study met that need, its thematic structure and dense historiographical focus made it an unconventional Life. Wrigley’s is the alternative. The book is nearly as long as Burk’s and just as thoroughly researched – possibly more so, indeed, for Wrigley also compiled the authoritative bibliography of Taylor’s writings (and chased down the nearly 1600 book reviews he wrote, for example), not to mention editing the third (yes, third) Taylor Festschrift. (‘One Festschrift is enough for any mortal,’ Isaiah Berlin remarked on hearing about the second.) Wrigley knew Taylor for more than two decades, knew many of Taylor’s students and friends, and was friendly with his first and (especially) third wives. Is this, then, as one of its blurbs proclaims, ‘undoubtedly . . . the definitive study’ of Taylor?

As Wrigley (but not the qualification-averse Taylor) might say, ‘perhaps’. It is comprehensive, meticulous and impartial to a fault. Wrigley has rejected Burk’s thematic approach for a conventional birth-to-death narrative, and he does a creditable job of balancing the interwoven strands (which Burk partly unpicked) of the private, public and scholarly lives. Wrigley traces Taylor’s unconventional Northern childhood as the indulged only son of wealthy but left-wing parents, his brief flirtation with a career in the law, and his apprenticeship as a historian in late 1920s Vienna, the site of his first (and only) spate of serious archival research and of his meeting with Margaret Adams, the well-to-do music student who would become his first wife. Ambition and strong recommendations won Taylor a teaching post at Manchester in 1930, where he wrote his first books on Continental diplomacy, began reviewing for the Guardian, played a minor part in local Labour politics, and (cushioned by his investments and his wife’s independent income) enjoyed the best of the local cultural life.

Taylor kept trying, however, to return to Oxford, and in 1938 succeeded, beginning an association with Magdalen that would last for almost four decades. The early Oxford years were happy and productive: Taylor wrote several well-regarded works on German and Habsburg history, lectured for the Ministry of Information and the Political Warfare Executive during the war, offered hospitality to students and refugees, and was (by the standards of the time) an attentive father to at least the first two of his and Margaret’s four children. By the mid-1940s, however, that marriage was in tatters, and although Taylor remarried (Eve Crosland) fairly soon after its formal end, he did so without illusions. By the mid-1950s, he was leading a highly compartmentalised life, spending four days a week at Magdalen (where he lived in college) and dividing the weekends in London between his new and his old families. Unconventional this may have been, but as Wrigley shows, Taylor found it highly functional. Up at dawn and at the typewriter soon afterwards to tap out his thousand words a day (‘I try not to write more,’ he told Ved Mehta), he turned out a steady stream of books (including The Struggle for Mastery and English History) while dazzling undergraduates with gripping and perfectly timed lectures.

Those years also saw Taylor’s evolution from a don who did some journalistic work into a celebrity who did some teaching. Wrigley shows how assiduously he cultivated the radio and television contracts and the mass-market column-writing, which by the 1960s were providing much of his income and taking up some (although much less than one might expect) of his time. But if that work made him a household name, it did nothing for his academic reputation: Hugh Trevor-Roper, not Taylor, was appointed regius professor in 1957. Quick to feel slighted, Taylor became ever more populist, and for a time limited his commitments at Oxford in order to direct the Beaverbrook Library. During the 1970s and the early 1980s he continued to write essays, reviews and popular histories, and to seek out broadcasting and lecturing opportunities. He remained close to his children (especially his oldest sons) and had a happy third marriage (sensitively treated by Wrigley) to the Hungarian historian Éva Haraszti. He endured some years of Parkinson’s disease with stoicism, dying in 1990.

Much of this account will be familiar to anyone with an interest in Taylor, for in his effort to be comprehensive Wrigley repeats many details and stories already recounted by Sisman and Burk. His emphasis is a bit different, though. Because Taylor wrote mostly about England in his last decades and was an early and outspoken opponent of the Common Market (which he saw both as a betrayal of the Commonwealth and as a cloak for German domination), it is possible to forget that he was, as Wrigley’s subtitle puts it, first and foremost a ‘radical historian of Europe’. Many ties – professional and personal – bound him to the European continent: he found his first subject and first wife in Vienna, his third wife in Hungary, and close friends (notably Lewis Namier and Michael Karolyi) among émigré intellectuals and political refugees. His later ‘plain man’ affectations notwithstanding, he was multilingual, well-travelled and knowledgeable about European music, architecture and wine. Wrigley brings out those connections and reminds us that for the first three decades of his professional life, Taylor wrote almost entirely about Europe.

Few of those works are still read, either in Britain or abroad. Indeed, it is striking how shallow Taylor’s impact on European history was when compared to the profound imprint Central European émigré historians – Namier, Geoffrey Elton – left on the history of Britain. Of course, as Wrigley notes, in the 1940s British and American historians (especially those writing, like Taylor, for the general reader) almost inevitably saw German history through the lens of Nazism; Taylor was hardly the only historian to rely – as he did in The Course of German History (1945) – on Luther-to-Hitler assertions about national character that now seem very dated. But his neglect of archival research and his focus on diplomatic and political activity meant he also lacked the resources to intervene in the debates that would revitalise German history in the 1970s and 1980s. There is no reason to return to this work, and Wrigley makes no attempt to claim otherwise.

Yet Wrigley doesn’t just dismiss the German work: he is also very measured in his assessment of what were arguably Taylor’s best books. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, he writes, was ‘in many ways . . . dated even when Taylor delivered the manuscript’; The Origins of the Second World War stimulated debate but was too idiosyncratic to be authoritative; only English History comes in for a few pages of unalloyed praise. These are sound but dampening judgments, especially when coupled with Wrigley’s rather unattractive portrait of the man himself. An air of disappointment hangs over the book, as both the man and his works are judiciously weighed and, often, found wanting.

This air of disapproval settles particularly thickly on the discussion of the marriages. Taylor emerges as insufficiently attentive and even unfair to his first and second wives; ‘in some respects’, we are told, his ‘relationships with women only reached maturity after he had married for the third time’. But Taylor was 70 when he married for the third time, and while his pampered childhood and single-sex schooling did little to prepare him for married life, in light of what we know about the first marriage, judgmentalism seems out of place. Taylor was ambivalent about marrying Margaret (even abandoning her once at the register office desk), but he hardly deserved to watch his wife neglect their children and sell the paintings off the walls in amorous pursuit of first, the then undergraduate Robert Kee and second, the egomaniacal and usually drunken Dylan Thomas. Even thirty years later, Taylor recalled this period as ‘a decade of intense, almost indescribable misery’, and it is impossible to contemplate the blighted hopes and bewildered children of this marriage without feeling great sympathy for him. Taylor’s continued close involvement with Margaret and their children even after their divorce may reveal his attachment to the ‘paterfamilias’ role, but it also seems to show an astonishing degree of forgiveness. Any real Victorian patriarch would have locked this woman up and thrown away the key, and few would have blamed him.

Wrigley’s choice to write about this dreadful situation dispassionately rather than with empathy reveals his limitations as a biographer. Impartiality is all very well, but we read (and write) biography not in order to judge people – or at least not only to judge people – but to understand them. Biographers achieve that understanding by giving rein to imagination and fellow-feeling, but for all Wrigley’s mastery of the details of Taylor’s life, he seems never to have tried to walk around in his shoes.

To a degree, however, Wrigley may be hampered by the limitations of the genre itself. Biographers are attracted to Taylor, I imagine, by the still perplexing conundrum of his popularity, but biography – with its focus on the conscious and acting self – just isn’t the best optic through which to examine that question. Of course, Taylor ‘made’ his media career, and Wrigley’s tales of his canny pursuit of publishers and Burk’s columns of figures show how he did it, but a certain media culture and opportunity structure also ‘made’ the character and caricature that was ‘A.J.P. Taylor’. Absent Minds, Stefan Collini’s recent inquiry into the causes and consequences of British intellectuals’ propensity to deny their own existence, does a better job of explaining that process of social construction than any of Taylor’s biographers. Collini has a sure sense of the structures and institutions that sustain intellectual life, helping us to see how the postwar proliferation of new media, coupled with a considerable degree of deference to elite authority, underwrote Taylor’s rise.

But if Collini helps us understand the phenomenon, he hardly rehabilitates the man. Taylor figures in the book, instead, as a negative model – the intellectual so eager to court a public that the standards of the market become the only standards there are. Certainly, Taylor fell in with the populist logic of mass journalism with alacrity, criticising the high-mindedness of BBC programming, priding himself on his ability to deliver copy quickly and writing on whatever crossed his mind. In his Sunday Pictorial, Sunday Express and Daily Herald columns, we find the distinguished historian advocating term limits on marriage, ridiculing health warnings about smoking, and (closer to home) proposing that academic promotion be tied to book sales. No wonder Collini, borrowing from one of Taylor’s own revealing self-referential remarks (‘As I once wrote about Bernard Shaw, I had a great gift of expression and nothing to say’), entitles his chapter on Taylor ‘Nothing to Say’.

I don’t want the job of rehabilitating A.J.P. Taylor. I never met the man, never heard him lecture, and while I read English History for pleasure as a graduate student, his works had no place in my formal training. And yet I feel uncomfortable, somehow, letting Wrigley’s judicious summing-up and Collini’s well-grounded reservations stand as the last word. What remains compelling about Taylor, and what is still palpable on the page, is his total dedication to history. True, he wrote and spoke a lot of tosh, but the vast majority of what he wrote and spoke about was history. Quite possibly more than his wives and children, quite possibly more than himself, Taylor loved history – loved learning about it, writing about it and talking about it to anyone who would listen. This meant he could be scathing when asked about history’s social purpose. ‘Men write history for the same reason that they write poetry, study the properties of numbers, or play football – for the joy of creation,’ he wrote in 1938. ‘Once abandon that firm ground, once plead that history has a “message” or that history has a “social responsibility” . . . and there is no logical escape from the censor and the Index, the OGPU and the Gestapo.’

Taylor’s love of controversy, and his allergy to any type of moralising, often led him (as here) to overstate his case, and to imply that he thought that history (and historians) had no social role whatsoever. ‘I write to clear my mind, to discover how things happened and how men behaved,’ he wrote airily in 1956, rather as if the process by which those musings made their way into print was a matter of no concern. But this was clearly nonsense, for if Taylor did write ‘to clear his mind’, he also wrote – consciously, skilfully, and in the end at some cost to his academic standing – to snare that elusive prey, the ‘general reader’. And while it is true he did not feel obliged to uplift or improve such readers, he did try to engage, excite, instruct and persuade them. To understand why, we need to distinguish between ‘history’, defined as that succession of human and random events that make up the past (which Taylor thought unfolded according to no prescribed logic), and ‘history’ as a narrative and explanatory practice, which he obviously thought both individually and collectively enriching. History might claim to be ‘a branch of science or of politics or of sociology’, he wrote in 1950, but it was ‘primarily communication, a form of literature’ – one that, well told and widely read, became part of the common culture. Like the social novel in the industrial period or biography for the late Victorians, in those postwar decades history – especially Taylor’s sort of national and narrative history – was a genre and a practice that (metaphorically, and sometimes practically) brought society together.

If Taylor refused to draw ‘lessons’ from history, then, it may not have been because he was a cynic and a crowd-pleaser, willing to sell his talents to the highest bidder. It could also have been an expression of his non-utilitarian, and relatively socially inclusive, view of the life of the mind. And such an interpretation is in keeping with Taylor’s behaviour as a reviewer and a lecturer, in neither arena of which he showed much of the meanness and vanity that supposedly were his defining traits. True, much of his reviewing was paid, but no one writes almost 1600 book reviews unless they want to – and as a reviewer Taylor was conspicuously fair, even to historians who had reviewed his own work critically. He routinely gave well-thought-out lectures to Historical Association members without compensation beyond his petrol or second-class fares; he dealt considerately with questions. Yes, he liked the adulation that came from addressing these audiences, but in the company of those who loved history, as he did, for its own sake (and who were, admittedly, no threat to him), he showed a generosity of spirit and even of wallet rarely revealed elsewhere.

I can forgive a lot of a man able to keep a television audience riveted with a lecture on Garibaldi but willing also to explain the Home Rule crisis to a provincial audience of a hundred middle-class pensioners. Taylor was not a ‘public moralist’; his lectures and writings did not make his readers and listeners wise and good. What they did was to help make them ‘history-minded’. It is here, I think, that we locate Taylor’s modest but lasting significance. This isn’t an influence one can easily track, for it seeps through the groundwater of the culture rather than flowing through the usual channels of colleges, journals and students. Yet if Britain remains a country in which politicians read and write works of history, intellectuals look to the past to justify social commitments, and a broad slice of the populace tunes in whenever David Starkey or Simon Schama goes on the air to talk about anything from Rembrandt to revolution, Taylor is due some small share of the credit. The populism to which popular history is prone will always make intellectuals nervous, but we would do well to bear in mind that the alternative to a world where a lot of people read popular history is not a world where a lot of people read the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. I’m not sure it’s what Wrigley intended, but I came away from this book feeling a measure of gratitude to A.J.P. Taylor.