Nothing but the Truth…
Obituaries are not a place to speak ill of the dead, but how are we to tell the truth honestly if we shy away from difficulties?
Well, which of these should have been in the obituary, and which in subsequent work, or not at all?
‘As far as student politics were concerned, guests (ie, for many, sex) was the prime issue… Repeated demands for change were met with considerable hesitation, but the new Vice-Chancellor, F.J. Llewellyn, proved more accommodating than his predecessor. As an instance of the more general process of liberalism, that is possibly highly relevant to this accommodation, “Black Jack,” as he was known, was also fond of women in the city, although there were no scandals, and the serious alcoholism that was ultimately to mar his subsequent job, as Director-General of the British Council, was not yet apparent.’
‘Porter pushed the concept of being a “character” far too far. Not short of self-assurance, Porter drank a lot… personally harassed younger male staff, and did not stop the harassment of male undergraduates in the department; while he was extremely and persistently unpleasant to many female students… a good and rigorous scholar, … also noted as a stimulating teacher… could also be very witty and sociable… had the university sufficiently at heart to endow a lectureship with a bequest.’
‘The rigid Frank Barlow, an over-mighty professorial head of the old school, highly distinguished scholar and accomplished ballroom dancer. As a typo, this was originally “ballroom danger.” Barlow also enjoyed driving fast on the autobahns, on which there was no speed limit, accompanied by a younger female friend.’
Views on obituaries vary, and a pleasant break from Brexit conversations over the last month has been seeking the views of others. I am particularly concerned about the position of historians, as speaking ill of the dead might appear to describe their method, while their goal is that of the truth. How long are historians supposed to wait before offering a scholarly perspective that might be uncomfortable for friends of the deceased?
This issue is not resolved by talking, as so many do, about the need to avoid offence. On that basis, we might refrain from any critical discussion of anyone who has children alive. Grief is not something that necessarily ebbs with the years. Indeed, offence can be more readily taken as a narrative about the deceased develops and is consolidated. Moreover, periods of private mourning are not those of public mourning.
Moreover, historians are assessing public figures, and their very career ensures that the privacy that others may deserve is compromised. Historians writing obituaries, moreover, have to be aware that these may become a historical source one day. As Richard Toye points out ‘you don’t want to be the person who writes a loving obituary of Robert Maxwell in full knowledge that he was a crook.’ Possibly it is best to offer the facts to enable the reader to decide whether the subject deserves admiration or detestation. Whereas personal animus sits ill with the historical record, an account that leads to detestation does not.
Maybe there is a difference between a signed obituary that is not supposed to represent any views other than that of the writer and an unsigned obituary that hopefully tries to represent more views, but I am not sure about this point, and there are more similarities than contrasts between the two types. Separately, historians are particularly well-placed to put past events in their many and varied historic contexts. Indeed, the skill of framing life histories within a broader canvas may well make historians particularly suited to write obituaries, and notably so if they are political historians specialising in the relationship between structure and agency.
There is need to avoid being over-influenced by personal dislike and the wish to settle scores or acknowledge patrons. In addition, the question of audience is important. Who are obituaries for? If they are intended as eulogies maybe that should be the description.
Telling the truth, being fair, and contextualising. An instance may be of value. In 2001, the death of Sir Jack Plumb, former Professor of Modern English History at Cambridge and Master of Christ’s College, provided an opportunity to consider how historical reputation is constructed. Plumb taught or supported the careers of many of the most prominent of modern historians, and several repaid the compliment by writing eulogistic obituaries. Simon Schama ended his in the Independent by declaring ‘Should history somehow survive as the great art it has been … should it somehow keep a place in the indispensable archive of our beaten-up world, it will be because Jack Plumb wrote and taught and lived as he did’. In the Guardian, Neil McKendrick stated that Plumb won his ‘war’ with his great rival Sir Geoffrey Elton: ‘The study of history has marched irresistibly in the direction in which he predicted and led’. Indeed, Plumb helped to mould a powerful group of scholars and contributed greatly to the dominance of a particular interpretation of the past.
The obituarists, former pupils who testified to his positive impact on them, certainly did not capture the animosity inspired by a man spoken of as evil by Richard Cobb, Jack Gallagher and other major scholars of their and Plumb’s vintage; nor, more seriously, did they explain the tensions on which this animosity focused. There was certainly a malignity that was the other side of his active sponsorship of his own reputation and the careers of his protégés. Others were abused and damaged, and thus the expression of different views was affected.
The range of plumb’s interventionism was extensive. Although only just starting as a graduate student, I was summoned to see him in 1978 in order to be told that there was no point persisting with my work on Walpole’s foreign policy, as he was going to publish the third volume of his life the following year and any other work would be redundant. Plumb offered the good suggestion that I work on eighteenth-century espionage, but he must have known that he was lying about volume three. There is a difference between attempting to finish a book and knowing, through the absence of finished text, that it is forthcoming. Fortunately, I ignored his admonition.
Plumb would not have wished to be seen as Walpole was by his critics – as a master of patronage – but, rather, would have preferred his own portrayal of Walpole, one that is in fact more accurate, as a statesman who had ideas as well as interests, and supported policies as well as patronage. Any such comparison between scholar and subject cannot be pushed too far. There were major differences in personality as well as role, although both had the quality that in the past was described as parvenu: having gained wealth, they liked to display it and to enjoy its fruits. As the obituarists noted, Plumb lived life to the full, enjoying fine wines, collecting porcelain and paintings, and offering a reminder of the princely magnificence shown by Walpole in the great house he built at Houghton.
The Walpole biography (1956-60) brought Plumb fame, but was never finished, and remains curiously emblematic of Plumb’s entire career, probably because he lacked the necessary persistence, energy and ability. His obituaries did not bring this out, perhaps because of the network of patronage that he had created.
There is need to avoid personal dislike and the wish to settle scores
A more bracing engagement ,with politics to the fore, was offered by Norman Stone in his 1983 London Review of Books obituary of E H Carr and, in turn, by Richard Evans in his 2019 Guardian obituary of Stone. Each demonstrated the political dimension of the more scathing type of obituary when combined with a dislike of the other as an individual, or, at least, for what they stood for. This was historiography in the raw, a work that captured the extent to which writing on history overlapped with politics, and involved real people, and not the interchange of impersonal ideas. The obituary of Carr dealt heavier blows because he lived in a sanctimonious environment. Stone understood the moral and material bankruptcy of Communism long before others, and Carr had written extensively in favour of the Soviet Union. The obituary of Stone somewhat flailed because of its subject ‘s clear engagement with freedom and conversely because Evans’ favour for Hobsbawm and support for Labour under Corbyn sat uncomfortably with his outrage. Each however underlined the limitations of the concept of an apolitical obituary.
To leave the politics of personality, patronage, and faction out of an obituary is misleading. Instead of the seamless rise of an individual into a career in any field, what were the crucial episodes that differentiated him or her from the others in the same position? Whose appreciation proved crucial and why? One problem is the wish to appear all-knowing, and the failure of most obituarists to suggest explanations. Another is their reluctance to engage with favour and factionalism. To that extent, the biography, however short, tends to be a totally different work in character and quality, to the obituary, however long. That leaves the place of the latter, however, unclear. In particular, how are we supposed to understand people and their impact if we wait decades and shy away from difficulties?
If obituaries are largely eulogistic, and only those in some sort of magic circle know otherwise, then obituarists have failed. Furthermore, writing in code, a solution to the issue urged on me by several people, simply compounds the problem, while adding a somewhat snide aspect and misleading superior attitude. Ironically, as the British Medical Journal suggested some years ago, many individuals would be more honest and searching than much that is written about them.
Returning to the examples at the start, Barlow’s personal living arrangements were widely known, but in restricted circles, Llewellyn’s personal life was relevant to his policies, and this account of the theologian Roy Porter (not the historian of the same name), who was referred to in the history of the university published during his lifetime as holding his chair ‘with distinction,’ leaves out the very messy legal case in which he was criticised about his testimony by the judge.
Hopefully, The Critic can lead the way in obituaries by offering a different approach to the conventional one. There is a real need for such honest candour.
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