Chosen People

A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past

by J. W. Burrow
Cambridge University Press, 308 pp., $45.00

Last summer I visited some friends in the house they were then renting in London. It turned out to be the case that their landlord’s hobby was collecting pudding molds. Everywhere one looked one could see them—in shapes ranging from bunches of grapes to various birds and animals to a couple of likenesses of famous faces. Some were more beautiful than others; all still seemed redolent with promise of gelatinous bliss.

Reading Mr. Burrow’s excellent book on how some Victorian historians interpreted the English past has brought back memories of that visit. For are there not historiographical pudding molds as well as those of a more familiar kind? All historians, whatever their outlook or ideology, must at some point put the results of their researches into a readable form. “Form” means, as battalions of formidable literary critics armed to the teeth with modes and tropes have recently been reminding us, a certain manner of literary construction and presentation. But it also means that, depending on which pudding mold the historian employs, the pattern of events he sets out to describe itself assumes a certain shape; and that, perhaps more often than not, it is the mold, ready to hand, rather than the ingredients of the pudding or even the culinary skills of the chef-historian which determines the shape.

Mr. Burrow has taken a closer look at one of the pudding molds most frequently used by historians of England over the last three centuries, the so-called “Whig interpretation” of English history. The term was coined fifty years ago by the late Sir Herbert Butterfield, who used it to characterize those accounts of the English past which celebrated it as revealing a continuous, on the whole uninterrupted, and generally glorious story of constitutional progress, all leading up to the triumph of liberty and representative institutions.

The high points of that interpretation in its original form included an ancient, free, Teutonic constitution under the Anglo-Saxons; the immemorial antiquity of common law and the House of Commons; the continuity of Saxon freedoms which could not be destroyed either by William the Conqueror or by the feudal system brought to England by the Norman Conquest, but which, indeed, were confirmed and endorsed by Magna Carta; the revitalization after a period of absolutism of the power of the Commons as well as the flowering of constitutional government under the Tudors; and the inevitable as well as providential defeat by the forces of freedom, as they manifested themselves in the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, of the wicked attempts by tyrannical Stuart kings to turn the clock back to despotic, personal rule. It all added up to a story of success which gave grounds for rejoicing over the confident possession of such a marvelous past: “an invitation to national jubilation at which the shades of venerated ancestors are honoured guests.”

This particular version of a usable English past went back a long way. In the seventeenth century it was maintained by lawyers intent upon hailing…

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