A patriot, not a scoundrel

Sir Arthur Bryant and National History in Twentieth-Century Britain

May 19, 2006

Arthur Bryant (1899-1985) last emerged from the shadows to be vituperatively anatomised by Andrew Roberts in his Eminent Churchillians (1994) in a fashion that would have earned Bryant a place in a compromised British pantheon to match that of scandal-ridden US historians depicted by Jon Wiener in Historians in Trouble (2005). In her brilliant, richly textured, ably supported and continually judicious study of Bryant's career and intellectual development, Julia Stapleton, senior lecturer in politics at Durham University, reveals him as a complex figure who sought to represent and sustain an inherent patriotism.

In doing so, he reflected not only deep tensions within conservatism, not least in response to socioeconomic changes and to mass culture, but also the problems of defining a popular middlebrow voice and then using it to revive the nation. Bryant sought to use his journalism and historical writing to emphasise national roots that he saw as relevant not simply to the privileged few, but to all his countrymen. Stapleton notes that this project had a sound basis in interwar society but that, despite a revival in the 1950s, it collapsed in the 1960s. She links this to wider problems in cultural life, not least the withdrawal of the intellectual elite Bryant largely despised from engagement with the needs and concerns of most of the population.

The cast is tremendous: Bryant knew, or at least corresponded with, a wide tranche of the prominent. Baldwin, de Gaulle, Montgomery, Chesterton, Trevelyan and Thatcher are all here. Guests at his 85th birthday included Macmillan, Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Gielgud, Rowse and Jack Jones.

Stapleton offers an engaged work but no apologia. All too often the puffs on the back covers of books are misleading, but Peter Mandler is spot on in hailing a "troubling and often moving" book written with "care, grace and insight".

Most academics will not warm to Bryant, despite his perspicacity in describing the lectures he heard in Oxford as merely taking up his time and upsetting his reading. His position in 1939-40, the focus of Roberts's criticism, reflected at best a serious lack of judgment, although Stapleton does a good job in showing that Roberts's citations are very selective and she indicates that Bryant's support for appeasement derived not from Fascism but rather from a serious misreading of German politics, as well as from a concern to avoid a repetition of the First World War. Nevertheless, however much Bryant's remark "that God chose [the Jews] for some special and mysterious purpose stands out in flaming letters on every page of history" took on particular weight from his deep piety, his commitment to organic notions of nationhood and to ethnic identities was not one that was comfortable with outsiders. At the same time, as Stapleton shows, Bryant's patriotism was linked with a concern with all ranks in society that took him from social work in the 1920s and adult education to support for the Beveridge Report, a refusal to stand for the Conservatives in 1945, and his episodic warmth towards Labour, for example, in 1945.

Stapleton's important study offers much to those interested in intellectual history and historiography. It is a considerable achievement and one of the most interesting books I have read for some time.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, Exeter University.

Sir Arthur Bryant and National History in Twentieth-Century Britain

Author - Julia Stapleton
Publisher - Lexington Books
Pages - 323
Price - £53.00
ISBN - 0 7391 0969 3

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