Magazine article The Spectator

The Changing Face of Clio

Magazine article The Spectator

The Changing Face of Clio

Article excerpt

HISTORY AND NATIONAL LIFE by Peter Mandler Profile, L12.99, pp. 192, ISBN 1861974698

Peter Mandler's eminently readable short book deals with the changing place of history in our national life, its booms and busts. In the 18th century, history was the concern of an educated elite who read Gibbon and Hume. The historians of Victorian England reached out to a wider audience. Macaulay's History of England, published in 1848, was a bestseller, bridging the gap between the elite mode of writing history and popular history. It was read and enjoyed by working-class readers long after it had fallen into discredit with professional historians. Macaulay was a passionate admirer of Walter Scott's historical novels. They may have distorted and over-- dramatised history but their role in popularising history cannot be exaggerated. The people's edition of his novels sold seven million weekly numbers.

But the secure place of history before the first world war was more than an addiction to history as romance. What Mandler calls ,nationalist history' gave us a flattering picture of ourselves; as the gifted amateur historian Richard Ford put it in the 1840s, we had become `the leaders of civilisation'. From Anglo-Saxon days we had struggled to establish the supremacy of parliament, to enjoy a freedom which less fortunate nations did not. The Industrial Revolution had made us, with free trade, the workshop of the world. Modern historians brood over the purposes of history and may deny it has one. Their Victorian forebears knew what they were about and the purposes of their writing. For Macaulay history would draw from the past `general lessons of moral and political wisdom'. For J. R. Seeley, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, it would educate statesmen on how to rule an empire. His Expansion of England (1883) sold 80,000 copies in the first two years.

Why, Mandler asks, did the secure place and purpose that nationalist history gave history and historians somehow slip away after 1919? The drop in published history books was dramatic. The reasons were complex. But one stands out: the increased professionalising of history. For G. M. Trevelyan, a passionate advocate of history for the general public, the villain was J. B. Bury, another Cambridge Regius Professor. For Bury, history was a science, though not in the sense - God forbid - that it provided general laws that could be tested in the laboratory of history; it was scientific in that historians should be as scrupulous as scientists in their analysis of their data. Historians boxed themselves in, remote from the public sphere, as if the purpose of history was to breed scientific historians. Lord Crawford, a great patron of the arts, argued in 1939 that there was a demand for well written, imaginative history but that the supply had `slipped through the fingers of our historians'. The hungry sheep looked up and were fed with trash. H. G. Wells's Outline of History (1920) was a world bestseller. To Michael Foot, it was one of the greatest history books ever written. To the professional historians, it was a heap of ill-- researched polemics. It is a sign of the increasing sophistication of history that no publisher would be bold enough to publish it today.

Yet now we are in the midst of a history boom, its raw material supplied by professional historians. TV moguls and publishers woke up to the fact that the demand, which Crawford maintained had always existed, could be commercially exploited. A. J. P. Taylor, standing in front of the cameras and speaking without notes, to his producers' surprise held the audience of over two million who watched the performance. A. L. Rowse, in his books, supplied middle England with history it could enjoy. Both were unrepeatable phenomena. Taylor combined the skills of an accomplished actor with the memory of an elephant. The current history boom still draws sustenance from good readable history less burdened with the etalage du moi, the diatribes against the `idiot people' who had failed to vote for him as a labour candidate, that came to disfigure the less professional utterances of Rowse. …

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