A Plumb with an acerbic aftertaste

August 16, 2002

Jeremy Black considers whether an obituary that eulogises its subject and glosses over the dirt failsin its mission.

How should historians record and discuss the life, work and influence of those who have recently died? Invariably, a sense of loss and sympathy for the bereaved dictates that this is handled in a delicate fashion with laudatory remarks directed towards the deceased. An aura of sanctity seems to descend in the obituaries.

Years, sometimes decades, later, when their papers are opened and scholarly study is directed thither a different picture can emerge. At the same time, this passage of years can ensure that much of the personal impression has been lost and, more particularly, that the complexity of the impact we all have on contemporaries is lost.

These thoughts were thrust into my mind by the response to the death last October of Sir Jack Plumb, professor of modern English history at Cambridge, 1966-74 and master of Christ's College, Cambridge, 1978-82. Plumb, whose will was published last week, taught and supported the careers of several prominent modern historians.

His death was met with eulogistic obituaries from former pupils such as Simon Schama, but none captured 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. More seriously, none of the obituaries explained the tensions that this animosity focused on.

Puzzled by this contrast, I sought to write an alternative appreciation, one that emphasised his scholarship as, unlike the other obituarists, I have worked on most of the material used by Plumb, and like him have published books on his period. I intended to say nothing about the man, whom I did not know well.

Yet I could not help asking other scholars if they knew Plumb, and was struck by their responses. I was told story after story, most giving a negative view of Plumb as a human being. None of this may seem of any consequence but it suggests to me that the rivalry between Plumb and Geoffrey Elton discussed by the obituarists should be placed as much in personal as in professional terms, and that his personality may have prevented Plumb from gaining the position and prestige he pursued, not least the regius chair at Cambridge and a peerage.

Position, prestige, the third is patronage. There is no doubt that Plumb's skilful, even ruthless use of patronage helped arouse the anger and maybe envy of others. This determination extended across the Atlantic. I recall the head of one Ivy League department telling me about the "extraordinary pressure" brought to bear to take a Plumb candidate. There was certainly a malignity that was the other side of his active sponsorship of his own reputation and the careers of his proteges. Others were abused, damaged and harmed.

To offer a personal note: I was too young to have anything much to do with Plumb, but in 1978 I was summoned to see him in order to be told there was no point persisting with my graduate 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 very good suggestion that I work on 18th-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 a finished text, that it is not forthcoming. Fortunately, I ignored his admonition. Less fortunately, it led me not to consult him about my own work on Walpole, which is a pity as, in his first volume, he did capture the personality of the man and the issues that surrounded his rise to power.

Other graduates who were not his pupils also experienced his range and rage. One friend of mine who had the temerity to publish a critical review of a work by one of Plumb's proteges, now the holder of a major post, was invited to dinner at Christ's and told that this was not the way to secure a career in Cambridge.

On the other two occasions I talked with Plumb I saw his variety. At one dinner, he talked agreeably about the novels of Balzac. At a reception, he was unnecessarily dismissive about the abilities of a protege for whom he said he had helped swing a post.

Plumb would not have wanted to be seen, as Walpole was by his critics, as a master of patronage but rather would have preferred his own more accurate portrayal of Walpole as a statesman who had ideas as well as interests, and supported policies as well as patronage.

Both, having gained wealth, liked to display it and enjoy its fruits. 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 brought Plumb fame, but was never finished and remains curiously emblematic of Plumb's entire career. The two volumes that appeared were popular works and attracted much attention, but their long-term impact has been minimal. The account of the rise to power was more innovative than the subsequent discussion of Walpole in power. Plumb's other biographical work, on William Pitt the Elder, was a similarly acute portrait of his character, but was a lesser work and had no lasting impact.

Plumb's most significant book in the world of scholarship, The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675-1725 , was important in its discussion of political structures and shifts, and a world away from the minutiae of political manoeuvres. Plumb searched for an overarching analysis in the manner that Sir Lewis Namier did not pursue. However, he underrated Jacobitism and the post-1715 Tory party, and his decision to concentrate on England, rather than the British Isles, provided a misleading perspective, not least because developments in Ireland and Scotland were crucial to the situation in England.

Thereafter, Plumb's contribution to scholarship on the period was less than his sense of his own importance might suggest. There was a curiously unfinished feel to his career and his work diminished in later decades. Possibly this sense of unrealised potential contributed to his frequently acerbic character. He also lacked the popular touch.

In many respects, the academic world is driven chiefly by its internal politics, but there is also a wider resonance that is of general importance. Academic debate contributes to public culture and political controversy. It is also greatly affected by a politics of personality, patronage and intellectual faction and engagement that helps determine publication possibilities, careers and the perception of quality.

Plumb's career shows this process at work, but it is one that is curiously difficult to analyse. Historians anatomise others but are not good at seeing the role of personality and patronage in their own world. Many historians recounted stories about Plumb that reflected no credit on him but did not wish to be attributed. I was told it would be personally damaging to write such a piece. But the question I am raising is this: how are historians supposed to understand people and their impact if we wait decades and shy away from any unpleasantness? At the individual level, for Plumb there is no grieving partner nor any bereft children. If the obituaries historians write are largely eulogistic and only those in some sort of magic circle know otherwise, then haven't we failed? Or should historical reputation simply rest on assessments of scholarship alone?

Jeremy Black is professor of history at the University of Exeter. A longer version of this article appears in Historically Speaking .

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