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A History of Greece: From the Time of Solon to 403 B.C

By George Grote; J. M. Mitchell et al. | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Grote in his time

In 1849 Ernest Jones, leader of the radical Chartist movement, was languishing in Tuthill Fields Infirmary, as he had been since 1845. To cheer himself up, especially after the failure of the 1848 'events' both on the continent and in London, he executed an accomplished ink drawing, a diptych of sorts depicting an idyllic Grecian scene of the past counterposed pointedly to a gloomy Victorian town of the present. 1 It would be hard to conjure up a more graphic image of Victorian radical nostalgia, common to both the Left and the Right ends of the political spectrum, each habitually looking back to the Greeks with a view to sighting a better political future. 2

At the time of Jones' drawing, George Grote, of Dutch and (Hanseatic) German descent on his father's side and Huguenot on his mother's, was hard at work producing what was eventually to be his 12-volume A History of Greece from the Earliest Period to the Close of the Generation Contemporary with Alexander the Great (1846-1856). George Jr was more hard-headed than Jones, perhaps as a result of inheriting and occupying a position in the family bank of Prescott and Grote for many years. But he was nevertheless every bit as absorbed as the Chartist radical with the Victorian passion for the ancient Greeks, which amounted almost to self-identification, at least among the leisured and educated classes. 3

Leisure and education were of the essence. Grote was born on 17 November 1794, the year that Edward Gibbon, Esquire, died. The writing of history was then only barely emerging from the shadow of belles lettres to claim the status of a nascent discipline, although it was not to be codified and routinised as such - involving a university degree and the appropriate apparatus of scholarly journals and so forth - for almost a century more. Unlike Gibbon, a sickly child and largely an autodidact, Grote received as good a formal education as was on

1 The drawing is currently (August 1999) on display in the special exhibition hall of the British Library, Add. Ms 61971A ff. 28v-29.

2 Jenkyns 1980; Turner 1981.

3 Dowling 1994.

-ix-

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