A Historian in His `Idle Moments'

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 6, 1998 | Go to article overview
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A Historian in His `Idle Moments'


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


"This is unavoidably and unapologetically a festive and high-spirited book," David Cannadine promises at the outset of this collection of 30 essays written during the near-decade 1988-1997, and composed and published in roughly equal proportion here and in Britain.

The subjects of the essays are British, grouped in three sections of 10 each under the titles "Royals in Toils," "Hindsight's Insights" and "Persons and Personalities," but there are chimes aplenty for the American reader. Who, for example, does one one think of when reading how Edward, Prince of Wales in the 1930s "had always been determined that his private life should be his own affair, and even as king, he stubbornly and naively persisted in thinking that he could make (and break) the rules governing his behavior with impunity"?

What comes to mind when, in Mr. Cannadine's 1989 review of a three-volume work on patriotism in Britain, one comes across, "Quite simply, they do not like patriotism in any guise at all"? Answer: our own current debate on patriotism versus cosmopolitanism, at the center of which storm the University of Chicago scholar Martha Nussbaum stands.

This essay shows Mr. Cannadine cutting about him with his trademark qualities: insistence on the long view and broad historical context; and willingness to tackle complexity and apparent contradictions. Thus armed, he comes down hard on the History Workshop's socialist editors:

"[W]e need to know why national myths in Britain centre round John Bull, Britannia and the monarchy, rather than - say - Oliver Cromwell and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. But questions such as these go largely unexplored here . . . One thousand pages, fifty contributors and three volumes on, we still do not know how or why `the nation' was roused in 1588 or 1940, or why so many men rushed to the colours in 1914. To say `that the country had gone mad' at the time of the Falklands War merely demonstrates the workshoppers' inability to understand the very thing they seek to explain."

Writing in 1992 about then-Prime Minister John Major's declaration that his main ambition was to make of Britain a "classless society," Mr. Cannadine takes in tow several other historians' recent writing on class - that peculiarly troubling British subject. He concludes this essay with the thought that what is needed is not a history of class or language "but a history of status" in Britain over the past 300 years - albeit it a daunting task. Reading that here in Washington, one is reminded of the recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article on social status in the United States by Andrew Sullivan, himself British-born.

Here and there Mr. Cannadine brings his sprightly analysis and argument to our own shores, lobbing the odd bomb into the American ranks. In his essay on morals, here and in Britain, he accuses the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb of missing the complexity of British Victorian values. The 1830s and '40s, he says, were decades of new bureaucracy and increasing government intervention, rather than of laissez-faire; and Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria's most popular prime minister, fathered illegitimate children and was cited as corespondent in a divorce case at age 80. He contends that Miss Himmelfarb conflates the two nations' very separate histories since Victoria ascended the throne.

In a rare indignant moment, provoked by Miss Himmelfarb, Mr. Cannadine protests that "compared with John Major's Britain, Bill Clinton's America is a much more violent nation, and also a much more religious one . . . these two societies are not in the same state of moral degeneracy today, any more than they have fallen from the same state of moral grace once hundred years ago."

The movement spearheaded by Newt Gingrich and other "fundamentalist Republicans" to restore traditional values, Mr. Cannadine reads as an attempt to take the United States back to the 1950s rather than any cultural or moral climate of older vintage.

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