Sir Lewis Namier

Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke

by Charles Townshend
St. Martin's Press, 224 pp., $7.00

The creative activity of the twentieth century has witnessed a retreat from grandeur, a flight from the conflicts of men in society and a growing obsession with narrow themes and private experience. In literature, the great tradition of Balzac, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, and the rest petered out in Wells, Bennett, Du Gard, and Mann. And what is true of literature is true of history, at least in Britain. There are no Leckys, no Froudes, no Freemans, no Humes in the twentieth century; only G. M. Trevelyan tried to keep the old tradition alive. The rest retreated, some slowly, some fast. A general book on a short period was about as much as any professional historian dare risk without incurring the opprobrious epithet of journalist or being accused of prostituting his scholarship. And it is not surprising that the British historian whose reputation has been the highest and most universally accepted this last twenty years never wrote a book at all. The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, England in the Age of the American Revolution, and the rest of Sir Lewis Namier’s contributions to eighteenth century history are essentially collections of essays on highly specialized themes. All his titles are misleading. The Structure of Politics is a complete misnomer; it is concerned solely with the House of Commons, and, indeed, only some aspects of the Commons at that, such as elections, patronage, secret service money, division lists, and the like. But to understand Namier’s work and his reputation something must be said of the man himself as well as the state of historical studies in which his reputation flourished.

Obsessional natures in which intellect and emotion fuse and project themselves into a specific preoccupation in order to escape the strain, frustration, the intolerable crisis within, are not rare amongst scholars. Namier, who was full of psychosomatic ills and neurotic quirks, had this capacity to concentrate his emotional and intellectual energies, and, as with obsessional natures of this type, he strictly limited his area of interest. Like some gigantic, myopic caterpillar he moved into the wood, up the trunk, along the branches, down the twigs, until he found his leaf; slowly he explored every vein, every spore, every tiny hair with the thoroughness of a camera attached to an electron microscope and a handful of leaves lasted him a lifetime—the diplomatic exchanges of the Thirties, the Revolution of 1848, and above all the electoral politics of the early years of the reign of George III, to which he devoted most of his life and by which he must be judged. Like many an obsessive scholar, Namier also possessed a strong streak of intellectual cruelty. He detested error and punished it savagely. He blasted reputations and seared the creative urge of many young writers. And for most of his life he was not loved. His intense preoccupation with the minutiae of his interests proved wearisome in ordinary social intercourse and many a country gentleman cursed the ancestor who…

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