Speaking Volumes: Return to Camelot

July 7, 1995

Jeffrey Richards on Mark Girouard's Return to Camelot .

Although books are now a central and indispensable part of my life, I grew up like many of my generation with films. It was films that shaped my mental universe. One film in particular gave me the set of beliefs to which I adhere to this day. At the age of 12 in the late 1950s I saw on television the 1937 film version of The Prisoner of Zenda starring Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll. Since then, I have been a devout monarchist, an exponent of the chivalric ethic and a firm believer in the primacy of duty, service and selflessness above all other values. So much for those "experts" who claim films have no effect on the young.

The same sense of discovery and wonderment has attended my reading. It begins with a tingling sensation down the spine, then breathlessness and light-headedness and finally an inability to put the book down until it has been consumed, as you realise you are reading something of major significance, something that will alter forever the way you understand history. I have experienced this sensation with heartening regularity. It occurred, for instance, when I read Harold Perkin's Origins of Modern English Society, Peter Brown's The Body and Society, Norman Cohn's Europe's Inner Demons, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's The Invention of Tradition and Linda Colley's Britons, to name but a few. My immediate reaction to such a reading experience is to canvass the virtues of the works far and wide with an enthusiasm that has earned me rebukes from time to time. One mean-spirited and curmudgeonly academic denounced me in print for praising the works of other historians too lavishly. But I wholly reject a philosophy that begrudges recognition to fellow historians and takes pleasure in clever-clever denigration and captious nit-picking. As R. H. Tawney sagely put it, "an erring colleague is not an Amalekite to be smitten hip and thigh". In the assessment of individual historians, it is courteous and constructive criticism that is the most valuable, while no one is seriously damaged by a little praise from time to time.

The books that have meant most to me are the broad overviews with shaping themes. In J. H. Hexter's celebrated distinction, they are books by "lumpers" rather than "splitters". Hexter said: "Splitters like to point to divergences, to perceive differences, to draw distinctions. They shrink away from systems of history and from general rules, and carry around in their heads lists of exceptions to almost every rule they are likely to encounter". This approach is completely negative. For all the good they do, the splitters might just as well pack up and go home. Lumpers on the other hand, "instead of noting difference, note likeness, instead of separateness, connection. The lumping historian wants to put the past into boxes and then tie all the boxes together into a nice shapely bundle". That is more like it.

It is therefore in an unashamedly lumpist spirit that I would nominate as the most influential book in my recent past and the one I would most like to have written as Mark Girouard's Return to Camelot, an admirable blend of analysis, synthesis, interpretation and accessibility that explored the revival of chivalry in all its aspects in Victorian England. It explains the emergence and dominance of an entire world view and the one that causes me to see the historian as a knight errant, seeking the Grail of truth, slaying the dragons of ignorance and misunderstanding and adhering to a code of honour, duty and self-sacrifice. For some this may make my historian a Don Quixote, to me it makes him a Galahad.

Jeffrey Richards is professor of cultural history, Lancaster University.

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