Peter Stansky: Daniel Snowman Meets the Historian of British Culture from William Morris, Via Bloomsbury, to the Beatles. (Today's History)

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`IT IS A TRUTH universally admitted that we all speak badly of others, even of those of whom we may in fact be quite fond.'

You have to warm to a historian who is prepared to embed such a sentiment in the midst of a learned treatise about the Bloomsbury Group. But Peter Stansky's writing, like his conversation, is full of colour, personality, flair and the Higher Gossip. Professor of History at Stanford for over thirty years, Stansky's own educational credentials include degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Harvard. At seventy, he can look back on a stream of articles and books, many written in close collaboration with the late William (`Billy') Abrahams, on some of the seminal figures in British political and cultural history from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth: Gladstone, William Morris, the `Bloomsburyites', George Orwell, Henry Moore, Benjamin Britten.

The elite writing about the elite? Old-fashioned American Anglophilia? On the face of it, perhaps. But there are engagingly troublesome undercurrents to much of Stansky's writing. Again and again he portrays formidably endowed characters struggling to encapsulate and communicate what they believed to be the feelings of those less privileged than themselves. He writes, in addition, of people who, by crossing conventional intellectual boundaries, were obstinately hard to label. Stansky's dramatis personae tend to be celebrated `insiders' much admired by contemporaries but who, deep down, nevertheless retained a sense of being `outsiders'.

Thus, Stansky's Gladstone was a Scot of English lineage, born to a mercantile family but pushed into a patrician education, who lived as a Welsh landowner and whose final mission, doomed to failure, was to pacify Ireland. Morris, a multi-talented genius who, like Gladstone (but unlike most people), became more radical the longer he lived, crossed every boundary between art, literature and politics. Eric Blair, a son of Anglo-India and Eton, became obsessed by the evils of poverty, modified his identity and adopted the nom-de-plume George Orwell. E.M. Forster and Benjamin Britten canalised their homosexuality into works of art that celebrated the social outsider.

Stansky's next book is about a wealthy and flamboyant pillar of inter-war British society who seems to have felt excluded from the nation's highest councils because of his (albeit non-observant) Jewishness.

Peter Stansky's grandparents were Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to New York in the late nineteenth century. His father, the first member of the family to go to college, became a lawyer, specialising in art and the art market--an interest that clearly influenced both Stansky and his sister, the art critic Marina Vaizey.

What led Peter to history? He recalls being drawn as an adolescent to a recording of the songs the International Brigade had sung in Spain just a few years before. As a Yale undergraduate in the early 1950s, he began to study history seriously, writing papers on John Cornford and Julian Bell, two of the literary jeunesse doree who participated and died in the Spanish Civil War, and two who survived their Spanish forays, Stephen Spender and George Orwell. Already, Stansky was crossing conventional boundaries between `history' and `literature'--and, moreover, writing at the height of McCarthyism, about heroes of the political left. McCarthyism and its progenitor were soon dead. But Stansky had alighted upon what was to prove a lifetime's interest.

At King's College, Cambridge, he did a second BA, learning more about Bloomsbury from Noel Annan and E.M. Forster and of wider aspects of history from John Saltmarsh, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Morris (whose wife Helen had once been Julian Bell's lover). This was followed by a Harvard PhD, with a dissertation on the post-Gladstonian Liberal Party. While working on this, Stansky teamed up with the novelist, poet and editor William Abrahams. …