History that improves with age

February 25, 2000

The complete revision of a history book, first published in I959 and widely used as a textbook on both sides of the Atlantic, is bound to be a daunting task. I had made minor changes to The Age of Improvement over the years, but more than once I had rejected the idea of a total revision.

This was not on the grounds that it would involve a formidable amount of work. I believed rather that the first edition, a vol­ume in a series, should stand as a record of how a young historian ‑ on the eve of a transformation in the study of history ‑ thought and felt about what was just begin­ning to be regarded as a critical but hitherto somewhat neglected period in British history.

I changed my mind because I came to believe that if The Age of Improvement was still being used as a textbook, it was only fair that those who were using it should be offered a text that took account of the many developments in historical scholarship since I959. There had been a mass of writing on such broad topics as industrialisation, the place of women in society, the conduct of war, constitutional, political and, not least, administrative history, "Victorianism", and the arts and sciences, not to speak of shelf­fuls of biographies. I had followed the devel­opments diligently, read most of the biogra­phies and contributed to some of the debates. What convincing reason could there be for withholding what I now knew? Why not leave the first edition to historiographers?

As it was, I enjoyed the revising process, which was highly concentrated. In looking back I pick out, highly selectively, three Fs ‑ framework, footnotes and foreign reader­ship. The home readership I have mentioned. A part of it consisted of my own students and students in other universities and schools who had heard me lecture. I had carried out my own market research on their reactions, not only by talking with them but by exam­ining scribbled comments on tattered copies of my 1959 text: "rubbish" is the most elo­quent, but ticks and crosses also matter.

I had left The Age of Improvement far behind me by the time I started revising so that it seemed almost like a new book. Between 1959 and 1999 I had written most of my more specialised books on the period, including the trilogy Victorian People , Victo­rian Cities and Victorian Things . I had also written and twice revised my Social History of England , which placed 19th‑century expe­rience within a longer time frame. Inevitably, as my knowledge deepened and broadened, my perspectives had changed. It was curious to read what I had written, for example, about Chartism before I had edited Chartist Studies . Much of the revision has been related to my more recent work so that I regard The Age of Improvement , old and new, as part of what used to be called an oeuvre.

There is nothing new about this. Back in the 1950s, when I considered and assessed the work of historians on the period who preceded me, including E. L. Woodward, whose Age of Reform in the Oxford Histo­ries was the only competitive book in 1959, I had always tried to relate their various books, whatever their subject matter, to each other; in Woodward's case, for example, to Three Studies in Conservatism . I did the

same with Lewis Namier, with whom I dis­cussed the early part of my book. I was brought up in a Cambridge historiographi­cal tradition. I still appreciate it. Yet I have always wanted my books, including The Age of Improvement , to attract a non‑academic as well as an academic readership and while not sharing his background or his approach, I had G. M. Trevelyan in mind as much as Woodward or Namier.

Turning to the first of my three Fs, very early in the revising process I decided to retain the first framework. There is continu­ity there. In 1959 the period from 1783‑1867 was an unconventional historical unit, cer­tainly for examining purposes. Since then, 1783 has been treated as a beginning or an end by historians very different from me, including Paul Langford who chooses an even more unconventional period than mine, that from 17 to 1783, in his impressive New Oxford History of England . It was not only the period but the title which seemed strange to some readers in 1959. Used to the idea of "reform", they balked at the word "improvement", although it had been a favourite word of contemporaries. I still believe that my closing date is right. Much has been written since 1959 on the "leap in the dark" of 1867, where my book concludes, rightly, with a question mark, without changing substantially my conclusion.

Footnotes matter profoundly in a history textbook, for they not only point to the evi­dence for statements made in the text, but through their dates outline the development of subsequent interpretation of issues and persons by historians and biographers. There is often a narrative concealed in them. I decided in 1959 to refer my readers to primary sources whenever possible - to a greater extent than is common in text­books ‑ and I have followed the same prac­tice 40 years on. Fortunately the publisher agreed on both occasions to print the foot­notes at the foot of each page. They can then be "interactive".

Foreign as well as British readership always matters to me. The two places where most of The Age of Improvement was writ­ten were Harvard, where little British histo­ry is now studied, and Leeds, which was my own vantage point, not London. Awareness of foreign readership helps to shape the unfolding of the narrative. Each country has its own history, though the histories some­times converge. I have always wanted The Age of Improvement to encourage forays into comparative history. This is still a neglected area of historical writing and of study.

Lord Briggs was formerly provost, Worcester College, Oxford.


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