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 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.

The high point of England’s pastoral civilization, he decided, had been reached on the eve of industrialization, in the eighteenth century. “Indoors and outdoors it was a lovely land,” where “man’s work still added more than it took away from the beauty of nature.” For Macaulay the eighteenth century had been a problem. If, as he maintained, the victories of political progress in the seventeenth century had led to the reforming achievements of the nineteenth, then how was one to explain the entrenchment of oligarchy and the electoral iniquities of the era of Walpole and beyond?

Trevelyan, at least in later years, was untroubled by the oligarchy of the Walpole government, a regime which, though it may have erred on the side of conservatism, had pursued, he believed, policies of wise “moderation” and had secured for the nation the priceless gift of “the rule of law.” The eighteenth century had been a period of “calm, broad-minded optimism,” “brilliant above and stable below,” when life was “lived to the full.” He rejoiced in the economic and cultural variety of the period, and in the high value put on craftsmanship, which had subsequently yielded to the vulgarity of mass production.

In Trevelyan’s attitude to the masses and to popular politics there lay a characteristic Liberal ambivalence. England in the Age of Wycliffe, written in 1899, praised the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. In the General Strike of 1926 his sympathies were with the miners. His biography of the nineteenth-century radical John Bright, written just before the Great War, observed that the reforms since Bright’s time had not ended the “social divisions between rich and poor,” which were “a fundamental evil in our own age.” He agreed with Bright in blaming senseless wars on the selfishness of aristocrats, who sacrifice the lives and happiness of ordinary people to their ambition.

Yet, while he applauded the “bit-by-bit” extension of the franchise, he lamented the consequences of democracy. The Labour Party, he explained in 1934, was the enemy of the “individual freedom” that is “the precondition of good civilization.” He blamed the foolish humiliation of Germany at Versailles on the populist sentiment that had propelled the victors’ leaders, and compared the treaty with the wiser and more magnanimous international settlements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the makers of which had been free of that pressure.

What Trevelyan wanted was what Whigs had so long called for: a “mixed government” that would combine and balance the virtues of aristocracy and democracy. Crucial to such a system would be the contribution of “those liberal-minded aristocrats” whose existence had been “peculiar to our island.” Unfortunately “our supply of liberal aristocrats is running dry,” for democracies make “no provision for the training of a class of statesmen.”

Like so many of Trevelyan’s more readily quotable statements, his pronouncements on democracy can make him sound more simple-minded, less hard-headed, than he was. Glimmers of self-criticism seem visible in his dry references to “the radicalism of the rich,” and in his observations, in the Garibaldi trilogy, on the roots of the Liberal internationalism to which he subscribed. The movement had arisen, he observed, because the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the failure of Chartism, had relieved the ruling classes from “pressure from below.” It had given them the “leisure” to “indulge in a good deal of speculative Liberalism,” which offered them an “exciting alleviation” of the “dullness” of mid-Victorian politics.

Even so, Trevelyan’s ideal was a paternalist one, in which benevolent landowners would dominate the countryside and the countryside dominate the towns. The man who gave up a teaching career at Cambridge in 1903 and then taught instead at a working-men’s organization in London was also the man who in 1940 wrote proudly to The Times to point out “how many of the most vital interests of this country in this year of crisis are committed to Old Harrovians.” Mass education, he believed, had been a vulgarizing force. The nation’s soul was being rotted by cheap newspapers, American films, and football pools. “The advent of real democracy,” he lamented in 1947, “coinciding in time with two world wars, has done it—cooked the goose of civilization.”

Cannadine’s picture of Trevelyan is delightfully and convincingly drawn, and his book is constructed with an artistry that Trevelyan himself, a consummate shaper of his material, would have admired. His prose, though it has its cajoling moments, has a fluency and vitality that are exceptional in modern historical writing. Trevelyan cannot have been easy to write about, for he was a hard man to know. Contemporaries, even those close to him, found him bleak and distant. Yet he would embarrassingly break down in tears, particularly at the sound of poetry. He had no small talk and could be intimidatingly blunt. He lived frugally and cared nothing for appearances. When he delivered a honeymoon present to the rooms of John Elliott, then a young Fellow of Trinity and now Oxford’s Regius Professor of Modern History, the cleaner took him for a tramp. He worked unrelentingly, had an iron sense of public duty, and never feared to voice an unpopular opinion. Except in matters of religion, where he was agnostic, he subscribed to stern, even priggish Victorian standards of social conduct.

Historians, thought Trevelyan, should be guardians of morality and should hold up heroes, especially heroes with “disinterested” motives, for emulation. As the historian G.N. Clark remarked, Trevelyan “lived by admiration.” He was distressed by the twentieth century’s taste for “debunking,” and despised Lytton Strachey’s practice of it. Bloomsbury, obsessed with private values and disdainful of public ones, repelled him. There was decadence elsewhere. “All novelists since Conrad,” he ruled, “are cads.” He kept clear of the petty squabbles and jealousies of “intellectuals” and “clever people,” and was magnanimous to his critics, above all to Sir Lewis Namier, who held his work in contempt but whose career Trevelyan did his best to advance.

Should we still read Trevelyan? Cannadine invokes the suggestion of J.H. Plumb in 1980 that Trevelyan, though “now at the nadir of his reputation,” would come to “loom over the twentieth century as Macaulay looms over the early nineteenth.” But where Macaulay invented the modern Whig interpretation of history, Trevelyan merely repeated it—or, where he revised it, did so for reasons that owed more to environment and character than to fresh insight. Cannadine characterizes English Social History as the pioneering study on its subject. It did indeed attempt something new, but what does subsequent work owe to its methods or its arguments?

Trevelyan’s most obvious virtues are his gift of narrative composition, shown at its exquisite best in the Garibaldi trilogy, and his historical range. Modern scholars, whom Cannadine compares unfavorably with his hero, have lost those capacities, with grave consequences for historical understanding—though the explosion of knowledge that has killed breadth of scholarship is, like the Industrial Revolution or the decline of Victorian moral absolutism, an irreversible fact, and there seems more point in trying to find a way to deal with it than in yearning for a lost order.

Cannadine commends the “matchless quality” of Trevelyan’s “poetic imagination,” which enabled him to produce “passages of greater lyrical beauty and greater poetic feeling than any other historian in the English language.” No praise would have more delighted Trevelyan, who claimed to “feel the poetry of time” and whose ambition it was to reunite history with literature. The past was always immediately alive to him, the more so because his forebears had been prominent in it and he felt he could hear their voices. “The history of the nation,” as Cannadine puts it, “was but the history of the Trevelyans writ large.”

Historical empathy is a blessed gift. But did not Trevelyan’s imagination run away with him? Did he not perhaps take too many solitary walks? He described himself as lazy “about everything except writing.” In truth he was lazy about nothing. Yet his prose now seems overwrought, too self-conscious, too purple. A poet divines inner truths invisible to the scholar. Trevelyan was not a diviner. Color and atmosphere were his strengths. He was less a poet than a painter or decorator.

Whatever he was, he was not a thinker. His territory was the imagination, not the mind. His history of Anne’s reign, he acknowledged, had “not produced a new and startling theory,” for “any new and startling theory would have been wrong.” Instead he saw the work as a “full-dress history,” which gave him scope to re-create the varieties and dramas of the nation’s life in peace and war. Trevelyan disliked academic history, written as it was by people who knew no life beyond their own, and his anti-German prejudice fortified his dislike of the movement for “scientific history.” The English Historical Review, that organ of specialist introversion, was “the enemy’s organ.” He had no time for donnish self-importance, and scorned “the fatuous dons who compose the so-called British Academy.”

Cannadine’s sympathy with those views is undisguised. In his hands Trevelyan’s achievement becomes a stick with which to beat present-day academics who write only for each other and whose work is confined to “the mouldering pages of learned quarterlies.” But the awfulness of which dons are undoubtedly capable is one thing, the place of intellectual inquiry in historical study another. Cannadine’s rhetorical conclusion flirts with an anti-intellectualism that would deprive the writing of history of any serious analytic function and reduce it to antiquarianism. When historians do not have hypotheses and test them against the evidence, they leave a vacuum into which propagandists step. Lamenting the losses caused by the professionalization of history, Cannadine misses its gains. Scholars rise on each other’s shoulders. It is largely because of the advances in knowledge and understanding brought about by professional history that Trevelyan’s works now seem, I fear, dated.

Among the “scholarly snipers” whose “contempt” for Trevelyan dismays Cannadine, the “most persistent and pejorative” has been Sir Geoffrey Elton, historian of Tudor England and Trevelyan’s eventual successor as Regius Professor. Cannadine quotes Elton’s references to the “soothing pap” that Trevelyan “lavishly doled out” to “a large public,” to Trevelyan’s “offences against moral and intellectual standards,” and to his “easy saunter around problems of intellectual gravity.”

Yet Trevelyan is conspicuously absent from the long line of the targets attacked in Elton’s most recent polemic, Return to Essentials, which reprints his inaugural lectures for the two chairs he held at Cambridge and publishes three lectures on the study of history delivered at the University of Michigan. In an inaugural lecture for a Regius Chair, even so fearless a critic as Elton must be polite about his predecessors. Nothing else can explain Trevelyan’s omission from Elton’s list of “whigs” who “have had their day.”

Elton’s book is a plea for the professional history that Cannadine derides. Though, with Cannadine and with Trevelyan, Elton criticizes the dullness and self-consciousness of current professional history, he stands for principles opposite to theirs. For Elton, the modern creation of professional history—of history that is “sympathetic, thorough and grounded in the sources”—has provided the sole and necessary instrument for distinguishing truth from myth. Documents interpreted by people who are not professionally trained to read them are misused where they are not abused.

In Elton’s mind the professional historian is the guardian of reason in an irrational world, and has to contend with an army of myth-makers and trend-setters who seek to mold history to their own imaginations. Recognizing the objective reality of the past, and its independence of us, is a part of growing up. For him, Marxists and French intellectuals and post-modernists and new historicists have yet to leave the playground. The young whose education is entrusted to them become victims of “anti-reason,” “the most marked feature of the age in which we live.”

It is not always wise to publish lectures. Elton scores, it is true, many palpable hits. Yet in his hostility to modern ideas, which is as deep as Trevelyan’s, he lumps the achievements of intellectual inquiry with the abuse of it. The cause of reason may be better advanced by reasoned argument than by adjectival scorn. Besides, if professional history is so central a source of wisdom, why has it not made the world a wiser place? The past hundred years have, in most countries and most times, given historians of the Western world a far greater degree of political independence, and far greater resources for research, than ever before. Yet during that time Germany, the source of professional history, became a terrible madhouse. Since the 1960s, writes Elton, the carnage wrought by “liberal myths” has shown that “the world is now in the hands of adolescents.” Doctoral students toiling in the archives seem unlikely to deliver us from them.

Yet beneath the imprudent surface of Elton’s book there lives a conviction of fundamental importance. There also lies an anger that is understandable. His own greatness lies in the practice of research on the Tudor period and in the formidable standards he has set. No one is better equipped than he to perceive the threat to reason, and to the essential purposes of a university, from those who tell themselves that the past is of our own making and that we are therefore free to make it up as we like, or at least to colonize it for present-day ideological purposes.

“What is real” about “objectivity” and about “history’s independence of the historian,” maintains Elton, “can only be experienced by the historian in the course of doing his work—which is why the charges against these truths are always being levelled by people who have not tried to do the real work of history.” Perhaps his argument would win more converts if it were less absolutist. Historians are always shaped, and in some respects limited, by the world around them. Their vision of the past and present is blinkered—though that is no argument for failing to see as clearly as they can. Yet in essence Elton is correct. Research involves the shedding, not the confirmation, of our preconceptions. If historians go to the archives expecting certain answers to their questions, careful study of the evidence will almost invariably change their minds. It will alter not merely their answers but their questions.

Without scholarship there is no history, merely fashion. A quarter of a century ago Elton questioned how long universities would continue to exist as places where fundamental rules of evidence and argument were respected. The intervening period has evidently not reassured him. Return to Essentials is a defiant battle cry, in the evening of a heroic career, from one of the few academics of such eminence who have had the courage to speak out.

This Issue

July 15, 1993