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

George Macaulay Trevelyan
George Macaulay Trevelyan; drawing by David Levine

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…

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