Radicalism and the Emerging Historical Profession in Victorian England: The Case of John Richard Green

Article excerpt

There has been a renewed interest by scholars during the last decade in the historians of the Victorian era, focusing on two aspects of the history writing of that period: 1) the Victorians' obsession with tracing the origins and gradual evolution of the English constitution, or what J. W. Burrow has termed a Liberal Descent; (1) 2) the complex transition, starting in the latter half of the nineteenth century, from general, popular, "literary" history to narrower, more specialized works intended largely for academic audiences--a transition depicted in the works of scholars like Rosemary Jann and Philippa Levine as one from amateurism to professionalism. (2) Both of these elements are illuminated by considering the life and work of John Richard Green (1837-1883). An overemphasis on Green's attachment to "liberal descent" doctrine has obscured an advanced radicalism in his writing that was scornful of traditional elites and hereditary power. The bracketing of Green with Edward A. Freeman and William Stubbs in the "Oxford School" of historians has compounded this misinterpretation. (3) Concerning the transition to professionalism, there is a parallel problem. The tendency to regard Green as an "amateur" because of the sweeping scope, literary quality, popular tone, and brisk sales of his Short History of the English People (1874) misses an essential point: the closing out of radical perspectives in the narrowly-focused institutional studies that came to characterize "professional" history writing at universities by the late-Victorian period.

The roots of the historian's radicalism are to be found in his social marginality and a painful and protracted crisis of faith. Growing up in Oxford as the son of a hardworking, financially pressed tailor, Green developed an ambivalent attitude towards the University. There was an attachment to it from his father's position as a maker of silk gowns for Fellows and from his frequent injunctions to the boy to emulate a great uncle who had been Vice-Principal of Magdalen Hall. (4) It was this worthy who was constantly held up for emulation to John Green and his younger brother Richard. As the historian's wife Alice put it many years later, the boys were "brought up in the idea that they were to take him as an example, and to restore the family to a better position." (5)

On the other hand, the frail but spirited boy showed an early disdain for the Tory and Anglican pieties of his family, which of course were also those of the university. This rebellious spirit was roused in part by the civic pageantry of Oxford and Green's perception of the historic antagonisms between town and gown. From his earliest years Green was attracted by the colorful rituals of Oxford town life, which offered a more historic and equally impressive counterpoint to the pomp of academic life. The struggle for civic liberties (often against the Church and University) was to be a central feature of his Short History. As a scholarship boy at Magdalen Hall Grammar School, Green outraged the Headmaster by criticizing King Charles I in an essay, declaring that Parliament had been the true champion of English liberties in the Civil War. Such defiant impugning of the "royal martyr" led to Green's expulsion, which served only to bolster his iconoclastic spirit. This was made all the more intense by his father's untimely death, for Green was taken in by his uncle, a prosperous hatter in Oxford with markedly High Church and Tory prejudices. Constantly enjoined by his uncle to be submissive and orthodox, young Green responded with defiance, especially when reminded of his "disgrace" at Magdalen Hall: "I look back on my expulsion with no regret, for moral fault I see none in my conduct, but rather with a triumphant satisfaction." (6)

This truculent spirit persisted into his undergraduate years at Jesus College, perhaps the least distinguished of the Oxford colleges of the 1850s. Green referred to it as "that vile place" where the Fellows had "nibbled down to nothing the reforms proposed by the Commissioners. …