The historian EH Carr

Why are we so interested in Historians?

The historians we love wrote about Big History at a time when Britain mattered

Artillery Row

Since the mid-1990s there has been a growing fascination with the lives of leading British historians. There have been biographies of AJP Taylor, EH Carr, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and in the last year alone, of EJ Hobsbawm, Lewis Namier and JH Plumb. In addition, there have been four books of letters and journals by Hugh Trevor-Roper, a book of letters from Richard Cobb and David Caute’s Isaac and Isaiah, about the fraught relationship between Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin. As for Berlin, a historian of ideas as well as a philosopher, since the 1990s there has been a biography, four volumes of letters and a book, In Search of Isaiah Berlin, by his literary editor, Henry Hardy, about the transformation of countless essays and lectures into numerous books of essays. 

What explains this interest? And why now? Is this wave of excellent biographies, well researched and clearly written, a tribute to an influential generation of British historians or does it tell us something about our sense of nostalgia for times gone by, for historians but also for the history they wrote?

What is immediately striking is the group of historians at the centre of these biographies. They were all in their heyday in mid-20th century England. They were all born around the turn of the century. Apart from Namier, they published their major works from the 1950s. JH Plumb’s five major books on English long 18th century history, which made his name as a historian, appeared between 1950-60, EH Carr’s 14-volume History of Soviet Russia, was published between 1950-78, Namier was knighted in 1952, AJP Taylor published The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 in 1954 and  The Origins of the Second World War in 1961, Trevor-Roper was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford in 1957, EH Carr published, What Is History? in 1961. EJ Hobsbawm wrote The Age of Revolution, the first book in his four-volume history of modern Europe, in 1962, and Taylor published his English History, 1914-1945 in 1965.

What is striking about these books, and the many others produced by these historians, is how many appeared in paperback. This was the first generation of British historians who wrote for a large, mainstream audience, students at the new 1960s universities, but also an educated readership formed by Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act. Taylor, Hobsbawm and Plumb, in particular, wrote clear, accessible prose for this huge new audience. Carr’s History of Soviet Russia and What is History? were published by Penguin, Plumb’s England in the Eighteenth Century and Taylor’s English History 1914-1945 came out in Pelican editions, Hobsbawm’s Industry and Empire was published by Penguin and his tetralogy on modern Europe came out in paperback.

In his superbly researched biography of EJ Hobsbawm, it is surely no coincidence that RJ Evans calls the chapter on 1962-75, ‘Paperback Writer’. Looking back on an earlier time, Hobsbawm later wrote, 

That was a time when British academic historians would have been shocked to think of themselves as potential paperback writers, i.e. writers for a broad public. Between the world wars hardly any historians of standing did, other than G.M.Trevelyan. Many of them even shied away from writing books of any kind, hoping to make their reputations with learned articles in specialist journals… All this has changed. My own generation, especially those passionate expositors and popular educators, Marxists and other radicals, wrote eagerly, both for the academic specialists and the non-specialist public. Publishers, increasingly, advised by academics, soon noticed that the learning public grew spectacularly, as higher secondary and university education expanded, and the chasm between sixth-form and college-level disappeared.

In the Preface to The Age of Revolution, Hobsbawm writes that his ‘ideal reader is that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen.’ In his biography of JH Plumb, Neil McKendrick says Plumb, ‘opened up a new world of popular history written for mass audiences’. Plumb, he says, was ‘a writer who reached out to millions of readers. He pioneered the route to respectable popularisation.’ These historians sold in huge numbers. 

These historians all had an astonishing range. Namier and Taylor wrote about acclaimed books about British and European history, Trevor-Roper wrote about the European witch-craze of the 16th  and 17th centuries and the Second World War, Archbishop Laud and Hitler’s last days, Hobsbawm wrote about bandits and labourers, South America and the fall of the Soviet Union. 

They didn’t just write books. They wrote what one might call the higher journalism for The Observer and Sunday Times, Encounter, Spectator and The New Statesman. Book reviews but also thoughtful pieces on the politics of the day. Many were also popular broadcasters on the Third Programme and later Radio 4, and on BBC and ITV. Taylor was famous for his unscripted talks to camera. From 1955 he was a panellist on ITV‘s discussion programme Free Speech, where he remained until the series ended in 1961. In 1957, 1957–1958 and 1961 he made a number of half-hour programmes on ITV in which he lectured without notes on a variety of topics, such as the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the First World War. These were huge ratings successes. He also lectured for a BBC historical series in 1961 and made more series for it in 1963, 1976, 1977 and 1978 and hosted additional series for ITV in the Sixties. Of course, left-wing historians like Christopher Hill, Isaac Deutscher and EP Thompson also reached a large audience but there is another reason why recent biographies, apart from Hobsbawm, have not been about Marxists. The focus of many of these new biographies is on Oxbridge, mid-20th century Oxford, in particular, the Oxford of Trevor-Roper, AJP Taylor and Isaiah Berlin. It wasn’t just Oxford, that placed these historians in the Establishment. Many had a good war, whether the First World War (Namier and Carr) or the Second (Trevor-Roper and Berlin in Intelligence). 

But, above all, they didn’t just write history, they wrote Big History, about great events:  The French and Russian Revolutions, the two world wars, modern British history (from the 18th century to the 20th), the  Industrial Revolution. Not dry academic monographs on small details. Namier and Plumb reinvented 18th century English history, Namier and Taylor reinvented Europe between 1848-1918, Carr offered Penguin readers the standard account of the Russian Revolution, Taylor the most readable account of Britain during both World Wars, Hobsbawm the standard account of Europe from 1789 to 1991. In the history of ideas, Isaiah Berlin wrote about The Age of Enlightenment and the Roots of Romanticism, Four Essays on Liberty and Freedom and its Betrayal, Tolstoy and Karl Marx. They wrote prolifically and accessibly about the great subjects of modern British and European history. 

Many of these historians had lived through these times. Berlin had witnessed the Russian Revolution, met Akhmatova, Pasternak and JFK. In Berlin in 1945, Trevor-Roper was ordered to investigate the circumstances of Hitler’s death. Lewis Namier was an expert adviser to the Foreign Office during World War One.    

Significantly, they wrote about Big History at a time when British history mattered. Britain had just won two World Wars, had been a world power since the 18th century, building a great empire, had been the first country to have an agricultural and industrial revolution and spoke of freedom, tolerance and democracy in a century which had experienced dictators, genocide and the rise of totalitarianism in Europe.

This generation of historians created a new narrative about the British past. Plumb and Namier re-wrote the 18th century, Hobsbawm re-wrote the 19th and Taylor painted a vivid picture of the 20th century.   

It is no coincidence that many of these historians came from Middle England. AJP Taylor was born in Birkdale in Lancashire, JH Plumb was born in Leicester, Trevor-Roper in Northumberland. All were products of Edwardian England, formed by a certain notion of Englishness. Even outsiders like Berlin from Riga and Namier from Galicia were lifelong anglophiles, who came to Britain on either side of the First World War. They knew the world of their readers in a way that historians no longer do. Many of today’s leading British historians – Niall Ferguson, Simon Schama, Mark Mazower, John Brewer – see Britain and Europe from America. Ferguson once described himself as ‘homo atlanticus’. It’s a different world from Edwardian Birkdale where Taylor grew up.   

Does British history matter as much today? Hobsbawm wrote Industry and Empire when Britain was still an industrial nation. It isn’t now. AJP Taylor ended his book, English History, 1914-1945, with the famous words, ‘Few now sang “Land of Hope and Glory”. Few even sang “England Arise”. England has risen all the same.’ This optimism had more resonance in the Swinging Sixties, a time of rising affluence when Britain had just elected its first Labour government since Attlee. Which British historians writing today could share that optimism now? JH Plumb wrote popular biographies of Chatham and Walpole. Would any of these have a wide readership today? He mentions slavery just four times in his England in the Eighteenth Century (1950). Seventy years on that could not be published. The way we think about history, especially British history, has changed. 

This wave of biographies is not just about nostalgia for a bygone world of mid-20th century Oxford. It is also about a generation of big personalities, often embroiled in controversy, who could be seen on TV and read in the Sunday papers. But, above all, they wrote about Big History at a time when Britain mattered. Perhaps that is what we miss most of all and what these biographies remind us of. 

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