Amateurs

A Royal Affinity

by Constance Wright
Scribners, 309 pp., $6.50

First Gentleman of the Bed Chamber

by Hubert Cole
Viking, 310 pp., $6.95

A Royal Spy

by Edna Nixon
Reynal, 260 pp., $5.75

Three hundred years ago history suffered no division. Academics and amateurs were happy with the same mixture of fable and truth. King Lud lurked in the mists of London’s antiquity: and Brit, hoary, woad-stained, festooned with improbable legends, remained a convenient island terminus for the British Kings’ genealogy on its remorseful journey back through David, Noah, and so to Adam and the first thunderclaps that started it all in 4004 B. C. True, skepticism had been spawned, and throughout Western Europe grave and dedicated men were poring over charters, deeds, and cartularies, and casting a jaundiced eye on those monkish tales that had done service for history for nearly a thousand years. By 1600 the professional historical world had started and the grosser forms of historical fable were being pushed into children’s books, but the day of the amateur was far from over. Disentanglement, in fact, has never been achieved. Indeed the true professional was a rare bird before the late nineteenth century, at least in the English-speaking world. History remained literature: the domain of gentlemen who could read, write, and think. Even the great classics of our historical literature—Gibbon, Macaulay, Prescott, Parkman, Motley, and the rest were written by men who, by German standards, possessed next to no historical training and, apart from Gibbon, showed it clearly enough. Now all is changed: the gulf between professional and amateur is so wide that it is immediately discernable. The difference does not lie in type of historical activity. The story of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, for example, possesses obviously resounding popular appeal and has attracted amateurs like butterflies to sedum, yet it was a professional, Garrett Mattingly, who produced the most widely read, the most deservedly popular piece of historical literature on the subject, not by rejecting his professional training and standards or even vulgarizing them, but by using them as the basis of his art and so giving it a depth, a profundity, a truth that no amateur could match.

And historical truth, it would now seem, can rarely be achieved outside the professional world. Certainly these three books under review lack it. In spite of their parade of unpublished manuscript sources and bibliographies replete with learned articles, they are incurably amateur. What scholarship they have, they tend to wear askew, as if a child had hurriedly dressed in its parents’ clothes. They are not all as bad as Miss Wright, who has scarcely had time to cover the nakedness of her historical knowledge with a few shreds and patches of bibliographical patter. She solemnly refers several times to the London Bureau of Records and its unpublished manuscripts. There is no such place. Whether a major work of scholarship is in or out of her bibliography must be based on either whim or ignorance. J. F. Chance’s monumental works on the diplomatic history of Western Europe in the early eighteenth century has obviously not been read, although very germane to Miss Wright’s purpose …

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Letters

For the Record August 5, 1965