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No Entrance

An Open Elite? England 1540–1880

by Lawrence Stone, by Jeanne C. Fawtier Stone
Oxford University Press, 566 pp., $39.95

One reason why most historians don’t write very much is that they have a fulltime job keeping up with the vast output of the few who do. Among these prodigy producers, whom it would be more impolitely accurate to call Cliomaniacs, Lawrence Stone can be particularly distinguished partly by the range, quality, and audacity of his work, and partly by the impassioned and varied responses which it invariably, and deliberately, provokes. His major work comprises four huge volumes, which together add up to more than 2,500 pages—a million words on a millennium of English history.1 Any average, ambitious, energetic, and intelligent historian would be happily contented with completing one of these weighty books: but even four such monsterpieces do not exhaust Stone’s tireless energy. In between there have appeared another four books;2 three edited volumes, in two cases with substantial contributions by Stone himself;3 dozens of articles and essays, some of very considerable length;4 and, as readers of this journal have ample cause to know, scores of coruscating, combative, and controversial reviews.

Stone’s historical universe is not only large and full of matter; it is also an exciting—if dangerous—place to be. The past of which he writes is one of great events and constant action: of rise and fall, change and crisis, evolution and revolution. There are usually at least ten causes for this, seven consequences of that, and five reasons why most other historians have got it wrong. His admirers, and there are many, see him as a Cliomagician, and acclaim his energy, his originality, his vision and high spirits. His curiosity about the past is insatiable; his interest in sociology and statistics, economics and anthropology, is irrepressible; his determination to tackle large topics is an inspiration. He is open to new ideas new subjects, and new approaches in an exemplary way; and his books are always brilliantly organized, written in lively and lucid prose, abundant with crisp judgments. All this he has accomplished while carrying formidable burdens of teaching and administration. At Princeton he presides over the Davis Center for Historical Studies, which puts on the best and bloodiest gladiatorial shows in the profession; he is one of the most influential members of the editorial board of Past and Present; and he is an inspiring and intimidating supervisor of graduate students, to whom he is known as “the Pope of Princeton.” Cliomogul might be a more apt description.

But to his enemies, and there are also many, he is closer to being Cliomonster: cavalier in his use of sources, unsound in his statistical calculations, speculative in his generalizations, and irresponsible in his polemics. Indeed, his list of adversaries is nearly as long, and at least as distinguished, as his own list of publications. Those who are on the scholarly right, but wrong, include H.R. Trevor-Roper, G.R. Elton, J.P. Cooper, J.P. Kenyon, and Conrad Russell. And those who are on the left but are not right include Peter Laslett, Alan Macfarlane, Edward Shorter, and the late Michel Foucault. Of especial interest is Stone’s long-running battle with Geoffrey Elton of Cambridge, his only real rival in the early modern historians’ war of words. For forty years they have been slugging it out, in books and articles, lectures and reviews, each utterly convinced that the other has had a wholly bad influence on historical scholarship, and both sublimely unaware of just how much alike they actually are.5 Both are émigré anxious to be more native than the natives in their adopted country; both are passionately devoted to studying the English past; both believe that narrative history is the best way to present it; both enjoy being controversial; and both are superb historians.

History as Stone practices it is a highrisk enterprise. He loves stirring things up, even on occasions at considerable cost to himself, as witness Hugh TrevorRoper’s demolition of his early work on the gentry and the savaging in certain quarters of his recent book The Family, Sex and Marriage. But Stone’s self-assurance survives it all. In Oxford he tells them how to do the history of the university better; in Cambridge he tells them how to do the history of the family better; and in Paris he tells the Annales school how to do the history of everything better. Constitutional history, he claims, is “sterile and meaningless”; psychohistory is “largely a disaster area”; economic history is merely “a mopping-up operation”; and Cliometricians are “statistical junkies.” Not many historians, Stone breezily concludes, are “possessed of true intellectual distinction.” It is hardly surprising (although in fact both regrettable and wrong) that his colleagues declined to elect him president of the American Historical Association.

Curiously, Stone’s history as it is practiced in his longer works is never quite the same as the history he preaches in his more polemical pieces. Tirelessly and evangelically, he exhorts his colleagues to study crime and deviance, witchcraft and popular culture, slaves and peasants, workers and paupers. Yet he himself has very rarely done any of these things. On the contrary, the realm of the past which he has made indisputably his own is the history of the English elite: its education, religion, and culture, its minds, morals, and manners, its houses, gardens, and churches, its wealth, status, and power.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that, as a meritocrat and compulsive worker, Stone has frequently made it plain how much he detests this “antipathetic group of superfluous parasites.” One can only marvel at the sustained willpower he has successfully exerted over nearly forty years to subdue these outraged feelings in the interests of dispassionate scholarly inquiry.

His latest book is but further proof of this lifelong attachment to England and its elite. One important change, however, must be recorded. While Lawrence Stone conceived the project and wrote the book, most of the elaborate research and computing that it required was undertaken or organized by his wife, who is thus fittingly acknowledged as the book’s coauthor. Instead of being a closed elite of one, Lawrence Stone is now half of an open elite of two.

The Stones’ book investigates English country houses and their owners, a subject much in vogue in recent years. But those who eagerly anticipate another piece of nostalgic, reverential history, a sort of Brideshead Revisited with footnotes, will be sadly disappointed. A book with chapter headings such as “Drop-outs” and “Intrusions,” “Strategies” and “Ruptures,” can hardly be expected to treat country houses as ivy-covered dream-palaces bathed in perpetual sunshine, still less their owners as amiable and agreeably eccentric characters.

On the contrary, the Stones view English country houses matter-of-factly as machines for the English power elite to live in, and so it is altogether appropriate that they themselves have resorted to a great deal of machinery in the course of their researches. As Jeanne Stone explains in an awesome appendix, the core of the project was the collection, codification, and manipulation of the statistical data of country-house ownership and building over a 340-year span. To display their findings, the authors produce fifty-three graphs and sixty-four tables, on which the text of the book is essentially a commentary. The result is the first statistical study of what has hitherto been an impressionistic and anecdotal subject.

But the Stones’ purpose is much more wide-ranging than merely introducing some welcome quantitative precision into the soft-focus world of Waugh and Wodehouse. Their fundamental aim is to test the often-repeated view that from the Reformation to the late nineteenth century England’s ruling elite possessed a unique capacity for survival and renewal, as successful men from trade, business, the law, the armed forces, and government office bought their way into the ranks of the landowners. For contemporary commentators from Marston to Cobden, and for generations of historians thereafter, this picture of frequent and easy upward mobility by self-made men into the ranks of the landed elite has been accepted as a self-evident truth. It not only explains the exceptional and essential stability of modern English history, but also such major and specific happenings as the development of the most efficient agricultural system in Europe, the making of the first industrial revolution, the creation of a uniquely stable yet flexible political system, and the onset of economic decline through a failure of entrepreneurial zeal. In short, as the Stones rightly observe, “a great deal of English social, economic, cultural and political history over the last four hundred years is riding the truth of a single paradigm.” Their book puts this truth to the test.

How? One obvious approach would be to trace the careers of successful men of business and affairs, to see how many used their wealth to buy their way into landed bliss. This is not the Stones’ method. Another, to which they give some brief attention, would be to see whether younger sons of landowners moved downward into business, trade, and the professions. A third approach would be to consider the problem from the standpoint of the elite, by quantifying and analyzing its composition, so as to discover the degree and methods of infiltration by new blood into its ranks. It is with this aspect that their book is primarily concerned. The justification for approaching it by counting country houses is that the ownership of such a property is seen as an essential qualification for membership in the local landed elite from which the national ruling class was recruited.

To make the project of manageable proportions (and it has taken them twenty years even so), the Stones have studied country houses and their owners in three carefully chosen English counties: Hertfordshire, which was so close to London that it felt the pull of the great metropolis from the earliest times; Northamptonshire, which was in the depths of the country, a stable, rustic, isolated county; and Northumberland, which was as far as possible from London, and also semi-industrial, with coalmining and shipbuilding centered in Newcastle. In each case, the local elites are exceptionally well documented, and between them these counties encompassed the widest possible variety of economic and social experience.

The Stones begin their study with the owners rather than the houses, by describing the strategies of marriage and inheritance evolved by established families to preserve their property and position. For elite families, they argue, the aim was to perpetuate their names, their titles (if any), their houses, their heirlooms, and their lands, and to keep them together. But such desires were constantly threatened by the hazards of biological failure, especially in the century from 1650, when the combination of fewer marriages, declining fertility, and rising mortality brought about a major demographic crisis among the elite, which remains difficult to explain. Indeed, for the entire period between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries most families were unable to transfer their inheritance from father to son in regular sequence for more than one hundred years.

  1. 1

    Sculpture in Britain: The Middle Ages (Penguin Books, 1955); The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558–1641 (Oxford University Press, 1965); The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (Oxford University Press, 1977); and now An Open Elite? Some preliminary findings on this subject were published by the authors as “Country houses and their owners in Hertfordshire, 1540–1879,” in Dimensions of Quantitative Research in History, edited by W.O. Aydelotte, A.G. Bogue, and R.W. Fogel (Princeton University Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    An Elizabethan: Sir Horatio Palavicino (Oxford University Press, 1956); The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529–1642 (Harper and Row, 1972); Family and Fortune: Studies in Aristocratic Finance in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Oxford University Press, 1973); The Past and the Present (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).

  3. 3

    Social Change and Revolution in England, 1540–1640 (Barnes and Noble, 1965); The University in Society (Princeton University Press, two volumes, 1975); Schooling and Society: Studies in the History of Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

  4. 4

    There are far too many of these to cite a complete list, but here are some of the more characteristic and recent pieces: “Social Mobility in England, 1500–1700,” Past and Present (1966); “Literacy and Education in England, 1640–1900,” Past and Present (1969); “Inter-personal Violence in English Society, 1300–1980,” Past and Present (1983); “Family History in the 1980s: Past Achievements and Future Trends,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1981); “The Results of the English Revolutions of the Seventeenth Century,” Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776, edited by J.G.A. Pocock (1980); “The Residential Development of the West End of London in the Seventeenth Century,” in After the Reformation, edited by B.C. Malament (1980).

  5. 5

    For a revealing example of their compulsive determination to criticize each other, even when ostensibly writing about something or somebody else, compare their reviews of The Lisle Letters (6 vols., 1981, edited by M. St. Clare Byrne). Stone thought they showed that Elton had got it wrong about Thomas Cromwell, Elton that Stone had got it wrong about the family. See G.R. Elton, “Viscount Lisle at Calais,” London Review of Books, July 16, 1981; Lawrence Stone, “Terrible Times,” The New Republic, May 5, 1982.

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