Academic journal article CLIO

Mary Anne Everett Green and the Calendars of State Papers as a Genre of History Writing

Academic journal article CLIO

Mary Anne Everett Green and the Calendars of State Papers as a Genre of History Writing

Article excerpt

The massive Victorian project of disseminating state papers as "the people's records" in the form of Calendars has received scholarly attention primarily in the context of histories of the Public Record Office (PRO), or as an example of the use of documentary history in nation-building. (1) Critics of historical narrative have not been inclined to tackle those scores of eight hundred-page volumes from cover to cover in order to describe their generic features, yet not only was their form a subject of critical debate among Victorian reviewers, but they were also understood to have created an original and influential genre of historical writing. T. D. Hardy, who oversaw the editing of state papers as Deputy Keeper of the Public Records from 1861-78, declared that the Calendars constituted a uniquely valuable, uniquely English genre of historical writing, precisely because they were not authored by men, but seemed to be the progeny of English history itself: "A Chronicle may be said to be perfect in itself," Hardy wrote in 1870,

   but it must be remembered it is only the view of an individual
   author. We have in our days a Hume, Macaulay, Mackintosh,
   Lingard and a Froude, as we formerly had a Bede, Malmesbury,
   Hovenden and Matthew Paris; each writing on the same subject,
   and from the same materials, and we know how differently those
   materials are used by each--each gives his individual opinion of
   events and transactions from the State Papers of the period.
   The Calendars ... on the other hand are a species of historical
   literature peculiar to this country--exclusively of English birth
   and growth--for no other nation as yet has attempted anything
   of the kind though both France and Germany are now
   commencing works of the same description and on the same
   plan. (2)

Although the Calendars remain a standard research tool for historians of early modern England, Hardy's claims for their importance as a genre of "historical literature" are difficult for contemporary literary critics and historians to appreciate. Through an examination of the Calendars produced by Mary Anne Everett Green (1818-95), the most prolific and methodologically innovative editor of state papers, I wish to describe here the peculiar features of this form and to recover Hardy's reasons for celebrating this genre of history writing, which differ significantly from what we conventionally take to be the principal Victorian contributions to that practice--Rankean empiricism and the professionalization of the discipline in the universities by such historians as S. R. Gardiner and A. W. Ward. The Calendars, I will argue, justify Hardy's remark in several respects. First, their peculiar nature as representations that could serve in lieu of originals called for new standards of paleography and deciphering, which are generally associated with the professionalization of historical writing. (3) But insofar as the abstracts may also describe the physical condition of documents, they look forward to constructions of objectivity in historical study that, as Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob put it, "locat[e] objectivity in the object" of the document itself. (4) Second, their purpose also means that they display many features of historical writing that have been claimed as the defining characteristics of poststructuralist historiographies, New Historicism in particular. Because they are abstracts of documents arranged chronologically, they do not subsume their materials into a hierarchicalizing narrative and therefore could be seen as resisting such teleological narratives as Whig history. Furthermore, Green's practices both of abstracting and introducing can be seen as promoting the significance of the anecdote as well as of social history.

Several qualifications should be made at the outset of my argument. Regarding the Calendars themselves it should be stated that my argument does not hinge upon any claim to their unique status. …

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