Trip to the theatre beats classics

Past Masters
September 13, 2002

In 18th and 19th-century Britain, it could be taken for granted that the education given to boys in grammar schools and at universities was founded on the classics. Any reasonably educated person understood references to a range of historical and literary texts, however little they may have entered into the practice of his trade or profession.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus would no longer have a vocabulary based on Greek or Roman texts. Instead they would probably have had an education based on a core syllabus of modern and medieval history.

At least until very recently, most non-specialist teachers, lawyers, civil servants, politicians, business people and others who had been through grammar and public schools, or had taken a first degree at a British university, would share a general awareness of British, European and some US history. Many would have first degrees in history, their trade and professional qualifications having been learnt in the early years of their working lives. To some extent, history may be seen as the equivalent of the classics of an earlier period - not necessarily a subject for enthusiasm or specialist investigation but an area of interest shared by educated members of the community.

In the 19th century, British readers were entertained by a number of robust journals - mostly quarterlies - aimed at a general educated readership. In the 20th century, these died out, to be replaced by a few weeklies grouped around the political parties (but taking on board more than purely contemporary politics) and by an ever-increasing number of specialist academic journals, which moved steadily away from a general readership. With the possible exceptions of The Times Literary Supplement and The Historian , both of which were more focused on particular academic readerships and wider subject coverage, History Today has stood pretty much alone in its half century of existence in offering regular publication of historical essays that are academically reputable but presented in a form to be read by interested non-specialists. When it was founded in 1951 - by Brendan Bracken on the instructions of Winston Churchill - G. M. Trevelyan, one of the greatest of the establishment historians, noted: "History, today, has a very large popular audience." The journal's survival for 50 years would suggest that this continues to be the case.

To celebrate the half century, Daniel Snowman has selected 62 pieces published over the years that he considers represent History Today 's finest. There is plenty here to occupy long winter evenings, and it may be highly recommended as a bedside book. Each essay is distinct, and there are offerings from a fairly wide range of historical writing. Many readers of the journal would probably have made a different selection but Past Masters , like History Today itself, has the great virtue of readability.

The editor does, however, claim a greater breadth than his choice covers. This is by and large a selection from mainstream conservative historical writing, and much of the liveliest and most creative work of postwar historians finds no echo in its pages. For example, of the 62 writers, only ten are women and none of them is writing about the new fields of the history of women that have flourished in the past few decades. Anna Davin is given a few pages of scrambled cataloguing, but no example of the kind of work she catalogues appears. John Brewer's rather pedestrian plod through aspects of 18th-century legal and criminal history gives no leads into the interesting and controversial work that has been done on these subjects.

This may be because his piece was written in 1980 and pre-dated the publication of some of the more important books and articles, but this should surely have been a reason for not selecting his piece. This example raises one of the problems with the volume. Because it covers 50 years of publication, there is a temptation for the editor to publish pieces that were ahead of their time or very early statements of positions that later became mainstream. Sometimes this works well, as in the case of Harold Perkin's attack on received wisdom about the relation of the education act of 1870 to the growth of the "gutter press". The piece was innovative when it was published in 1957, and its main argument is now accepted by most historians. In this case, however, the orthodoxy that he attacks can still be found in many histories of education, and the essay remains relevant.

The history of women and most of the more creative strands of recent social history are, however, poorly represented. Theoretical considerations, too, are minimal. It would be unfair to criticise the editors for failure to record any of the controversies surrounding the influence of postmodernism on the writing of history, since no post-modernist history has actually yet been written, but other more serious intellectual controversies, some of which were tackled in the journal, have not been selected for re-publication here.

One must not be over critical. There are gems here for everyone. A particular delight for me was the extract from the diary of Charles George Barrington, secretary and warm admirer of Lord Palmerston. It is revealing to know that Barrington had served his master in early years as his fag at Harrow. He and another boy were fags to "Althorpe, Duncannon and Temple... and the last was by far the most merciful and indulgent". Temple - later Palmerston - fought gallantly behind school with a boy twice his size and returned to the school matron bloody but unbowed. Perhaps this picture of his early character helps to explain his long tenure of office, during which his secretary remarked on the same qualities of courage and good nature, as well as, of course, providing another insight into the small enclosed world of the political aristocracy. In any case, the short extract reinforces the continued pleasure to be found in going back to the language of the people who took part as actors or spectators in the theatres from which historians fashion their narratives. A virtue in this collection is that it carries such snippets from sources, as well as essays in interpretation.

Dorothy Thompson is at the Institute for Advanced Research in the Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham.

Past Masters: The Best of History Today 1951-2001

Editor - Daniel Snowman
ISBN - 0 7509 178
Publisher - Sutton
Price - £14.99
Pages - 481

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