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Lyrical Historian

Return to Essentials: Some Reflections of the Present State of Historical Study

by G.R. Elton
Cambridge University Press, 128 pp., $32.95

Rarely does a historian’s reputation rise as high and then fall as fast as that of George Macaulay Trevelyan. He was, thought his fellow-scholar V.H. Galbraith, “probably the most widely read historian in the world: perhaps in the history of the world.” His first best seller, England Under the Stuarts, published in 1904 when he was in his late twenties, would still be the standard textbook nearly sixty years later. Then came the work on which his reputation was built, the trilogy on Garibaldi and the Italian Risorgimento that appeared between 1907 and 1911. His British History in the Nineteenth Century (1922), his brief History of England (1926), and his three-volume England under Queen Anne (1930–1934) confirmed his eminence and made him the nation’s unofficial Historian Laureate. The most successful of his major books was the last. English Social History appeared in 1944, and sold more than half a million copies within seven years.

Though Trevelyan aimed at and reached a wide audience, his own world was patrician and privileged. His family, long established as Northumbrian gentry and in public service, gave him powerful connections. So did his education at Harrow and at Trinity College Cambridge. He became the friend and confidant of prime ministers and cabinet ministers and top civil servants and editors of The Times. He never needed to earn a living. The only job he applied for, the fellowship awarded him at Trinity in 1898, he resigned five years later, partly to have more time to write. He returned to Cambridge as Regius Professor in 1927, and became Master of Trinity, on the appointment of his friend Winston Churchill, soon after Churchill became prime minister in 1940. Offers of preferment and of public distinction rained upon him. The Order of Merit, the plum of the British honors system, was given him at the early age of fifty-four. Yet his fame and influence, already on the wane when he died in 1962, were soon extinguished. His books, like his life, now belong to a vanished world.

David Cannadine’s eloquent study has two aims. The first is to re-create Trevelyan the man and to place his writings in his time and place. The second is to rehabilitate Trevelyan’s reputation as a historian. In the first enterprise he succeeds beautifully and memorably. The second, though a healthy and enjoyable challenge to modern orthodoxies, is less persuasive. It is the portrait of Trevelyan, a portrait that brings to life not only the man but the phase of English history and culture to which he belonged, that is the real achievement of this remarkable book.

Trevelyan called himself the last of the Whig historians. There have been other competitors for that label, but Trevelyan has a special claim to it. With him there ended a dynasty of three generations of Whig historians. His great-uncle was Thomas Babington Macaulay, the inventor of modern Whig history. Trevelyan’s father, the historian George Otto Trevelyan, wrote a life of Macaulay, as the son would write a memoir of George Otto. Wallington Hall, the house in Northumberland where Trevelyan grew up, was a shrine to Whig history. A series of pre-Raphaelite paintings illustrated the progress of English history; Macaulay’s annotated books were in the library, together with letters of the Whig statesman and historian Charles James Fox; in the study was the desk at which Macaulay had written his History of England, a work devoured by Trevelyan in childhood. In adulthood, though he became aware of some of Macaulay’s limitations, Trevelyan fiercely defended his reputation. He chose the reign of Queen Anne for his largest work on English history so as to take up the story where Macaulay had left off.

Like Macaulay, Trevelyan rejoiced in the uniqueness of his country’s history and in its decisive contribution to the development of modern freedom. Like him he traced successive conflicts between progressive heroes and reactionary villains. Macaulay’s historical philosophy was attuned to the confidence and expansion of the earlier Victorian period, Trevelyan’s to the Liberal ascendancy of the early twentieth century. “We live,” he wrote in 1910, “in a world with a great future before it.” The Garibaldi trilogy, written at the high point of Edwardian liberalism, is rhapsodic in its moral certainties. The selfless patriotism of the Italian liberators is set against the brutalities of Austrian and papal despotism.

Italy, whose fortunes had gripped the liberal imagination of Victorian England, became the second home of Trevelyan’s mind. His father had gone there to try to join Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. Trevelyan himself, on his first visit in 1895, yielded to what he would call “the unrivalled appeal to the imagination which Italy, of all lands, can make.” In Italy’s liberation from Austrian rule there had triumphed, he believed, “the unstained idealism of patriotic emotion.” Heavily influenced by Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Trevelyan portrayed Garibaldi as the “man of destiny,” who lived “the most romantic life that history records,” and who had “all the most distinctive qualities of the hero, in their highest possible degree.”

The more emotive passages of Trevelyan’s prose can obscure the cooler and subtler judgments that often lie beside them. He knew from the corruption and decadence of early twentieth-century Italian politics that the work of Garibaldi and of the Risorgimento had been at best halfdone. In England, too, he increasingly questioned the competence and integrity of Asquith’s Liberal government. Even so, in 1914 his liberal faith was intact. The Great War shattered it. The rationalist, optimistic, progressive philosophy in which he had been brought up, and which had come to seem so permanent, lay in ruins. The war, he decided, had put an end to “European civilisation.” One victim of the conflict was liberal internationalism. The rise of Mussolini, and the hostilities between England and Italy in World War II, wrenched his heart.

Despairing of the European continent, Trevelyan concentrated after 1918 on the history of his native land. His Whiggism was now more tentative. “Progress,” he would declare in English Social History (1944), “as we of the twentieth century are better aware than our Victorian ancestors, is not always change from bad to good, or good to better.” Instead of a world with a great future ahead of it, he concentrated now on a country with a great past behind it. As the Liberal Party declined and disintegrated, he surrendered the claims of Liberalism and Whiggism to having a monopoly of wisdom and virtue. His youthful Whiggism, he conceded, had been too “exuberant.” Like Macaulay before him, he came to attribute England’s finest moments to the best men on both sides of the Whig-Tory divide. He was now keener to praise the two-party parliamentary system than the superior merits of one party. His England Under the Stuarts (1904) was subtly rewritten to eliminate its more zealous Roundhead partisanship.

There were limits to Trevelyan’s readjustment. He would not disown the “moral splendour of our great rebellion and our Civil War.” The struggle between Stuart despotism and parliamentary liberty remained the decisive phase of English and even of world history, for in defeating Charles I and James II England had discovered the “secret of combining liberty with order,” which it had subsequently disclosed to “less favoured nations.” England had had another world role. In the wars of the late sixteenth century against Spain, of the late seventeenth century against France, and now of the twentieth century against Germany, it fell to England to save international civilization from tyranny.

In describing those exploits, the mature Trevelyan said that he wrote “as an Englishman not as a Whig.” His books became hymns to what he liked to call “Englishry.” As Cannadine observes, Trevelyan’s “consensual patriotism” was “perfectly suited to the emollient Toryism of the age of Baldwin.” It was to Baldwin, the friend who had made him Regius Professor, that in 1935. Trevelyan described himself as a “Conservative” and remarked “What a good Conservative Macaulay would have made if he had lived a few years longer.”

Trevelyan’s celebration of England’s “insular peculiarities,” and his pleasure in showing that the English “were not as other nations,” have not delighted his every foreign reader. The French historian François Crouzet, reviewing the work of the English historians in Annales, dismissed it as “unpamphlet de propagande nationaliste et xénophobe,” written in a tone of “complaisance et d’autosatisfaction.” Cannadine, springing to Trevelyan’s defense, attributes Crouzet’s attack to French bitterness after the defeat of 1940. Yet in more recent times, when the undoubted distinctiveness of English history has not always seemed a blessing, Trevelyan’s patriotic fanfares have come to look, even in England, like a compensating mythology.

Every nation needs to understand its history. No nation can afford to be dominated by it. England’s present problems—economic decline, class consciousness, educational backwardness, the rigid party system, the strains on British unity, the confusion that has followed the challenge to national sovereignty from Brussels—are those of a country imprisoned by its past. Though the influence of English Social History would be hard to measure, its huge sales, and the visions it summoned of past glories and of lost social harmony, lead one to wonder whether the book helped to foster the evasive nostalgia that impedes England’s adjustment to its modern difficulties. There is Trevelyanism in John Major’s recent assurance that, whatever the future of the European Community, England will long remain the country of warm beer and of evening shadows across cricket grounds.

Nostalgia, tinged with melancholy, is a keynote of Trevelyan’s later writings. Macaulay had been immune to nostalgia. Seeing material progress as the ally of moral progress, he welcomed the Industrial Revolution. Trevelyan, as he told A. L. Rowse near the end of his life, “disliked practically everything since the Industrial Revolution.” He was a countryman, who played a major part in the establishment and work of the National Trust and wished to restore the countryside to the toiling masses whom industrialization had cut off from it. His love and intimate knowledge of the Northumbrian landscape, of its hills and moors and flowers and birdlife, touched almost everything he wrote. He went on lengthy, usually solitary walks.

In Northumberland, Trevelyan maintained, “there was always a breath of freedom blowing off the moors.” The association of freedom with windswept solitary meditation—as if nature had political preferences—was carried into his writing on Italian history. In preparing his trilogy on Garibaldi he traced his hero’s footsteps on the island of Caprera, followed them up on to the solitary granite crags over the sea, noticed the wild plants that clung and trailed around the rocks, absorbed a silence broken only by the cries of eagles overhead, and concluded that that “deep primaeval quiet” had “filled” Garibaldi with “the breath of liberty.”

The Industrial Revolution is smuggled into English Social History in a chapter on “Dr. Johnson’s England.” Before its occurrence, Trevelyan believed, life in England had been “beautiful and instructive”: now it was “ugly and trivial.” Most people, he wrote in an impulsive outburst, now lived where they “can never see the earth for the pavement, or the breadth of heaven for the chimney tops.” In the “great cities” they lived “a wholly artificial life” in “endless rows of little prisons.” The result was “intellectual, moral and spiritual degeneration”: a world of “ugliness, vulgarity, materialism, the insipid negation of everything that has been accounted good in the past history of man.” Though he regretted this outburst, the sentiments were real enough.

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