The Brilliant Misfit

Lewis Namier

by Linda Colley
St. Martin's, 132 pp., $24.95

Lewis Namier
Lewis Namier; drawing by David Levine

When I studied history at Oxford in the early 1950s, there was no historian of whose intellectual presence my fellow undergraduates and I were more conscious than Sir Lewis Namier. Of course, we had never met him, for he was a professor at Manchester, not Oxford. Indeed, we knew that dislike for his notoriously obsessive personality, tinged by some residual anti-Semitism (or at least anti-Zionism), had kept him out of a succession of Oxford chairs for any of which he would, on purely intellectual grounds, have been overwhelmingly the most distinguished candidate. My own college, Balliol, however, held out the hand of recognition that the University as a whole had been unwilling to extend.

In 1948 it elected him to an Honorary Fellowship, an honor which he prized above all others, though characteristically regarding it as an act of reparation for his not having been made a tutorial fellow of the college when he briefly taught there after World War I. It was at Balliol that he had studied history between 1908 and 1911, when he came under the influence of A.L. Smith, whom he later described as “perhaps the best history teacher of our time,” and whose example of unremitting tutorial work, to the exclusion of research and publication, he determined never to follow.

As a loyal Balliol man, therefore, Namier readily accepted the invitation of the college History Society to be the guest at one of its regular dinners; and it was there that I first saw and heard him. The impression he made was intimidating, even hostile. A looming presence, with hooded eyes and a forbidding mouth, he spoke with a harsh foreign accent in an intense manner which indicated that irreverent contradiction from callow undergraduates would not be well received. I remember little of what he said, though I do recall his stressing the importance of recycling anything we might one day write: one of his essays on George III had, he said, been published in five different places; and he had been paid for it on each occasion. He also declared that historians should read only primary sources and ignore what other historians had said: he himself had never read Lecky’s History of England in the Eighteenth Century when he wrote The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III. (I was subsequently surprised to see that Lecky is cited more than once in the footnotes to that work.)

Despite his uningratiating manner, we all felt that we were in the presence of someone of unusual distinction; and the disconcerting nature of his personality did nothing to diminish the reverence in which we held his work. The 1950s were the decade in which Namier’s influence was at its peak. In 1952 he was knighted. Belated recognition came from the University of Oxford in the form of an honorary doctorate and an invitation to deliver the…

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