Working on an article about the prominent Conservative activist Lady Knightley of Fawsley who has been ignored by feminist historians for far too long I came across an interesting quotation in the first volume of her diaries, edited by Julia Cartwright (Mrs Ady) and published in 1915, two years after the diarist's death.
The entry is for July 30, 1860 when the then Miss Louisa Bowater was eighteen years old, well educated (at home), widely read and fascinated by many things: politics, religion, art, literature and social matters as well as day to day gossip and entertainment. From the age of fourteen she had kept a meticulous diary that is not only very well written but is a fascinating source of information about life and political matters of the period.
This is what Miss Bowater wrote that evening:
I was in great luck this evening for my cousins Charles and Harriet Ridley came down for the night, and at dinner I sat between Charles and Mr Hough, the Vicar of our church at Ham, with Harriet on the other side. The two latter had not been together many minutes before they were deep in theology, and presently I contrived to get a word in. We discussed Kingsley first of all. Mr Hough knows him intimately, and says he is a most extraordinary mixture, a rationalist and man of very unsound principles, an inveterate sportsman, greatly in earnest and at the same time undoubtedly attractive.A few explanatory points need to be added before I turn to my main one.
The word 'earnest' made Mr Hough remark that a great deal of mistaken homage is paid to earnestness without much regard to what the earnestness is about. I said, surely there was more hope of a man who was really in earnest about something, becoming earnest about the best things, than of a trifler. He disagreed, saying that the more firmly a man was wedded to wrong opinions the more difficult it was to turn him from these.
The Kingsley mentioned in the entry can be no other but Charles Kingsley, a well known and controversial figure of the period. The Bowater family lived for at least half the year, sometimes longer at Thatched House Lodge in Richmond Park, which in 1843 had been given to Louisa's father, General Sir Edward Bowater, a veteran of the Peninsular War and of Waterloo, who was Equerry to Prince Albert and, later, Groom-in-Waiting to the Queen. On his death, in December 1861 the house was given to Lady Bowater for life. Hence "our church at Ham", whose vicar seems to have been a narrow-minded sort of person and whom Miss Bowater seems to have found rather amusing and intellectually not very inspiring.
Nevertheless, one cannot help feeling that on this point he was more nearly correct than she. Earnestness, in itself, is no recommendation any more than the presence of principles, the modern equivalent of that. We do not value earnestness particularly but there is a great deal of praise for people, especially politicians, who "at least have principles". Depends on what those principles are, say I. Vladimir Lenin had principles as did many of his predecessors in the Russian radical movement. Can we really honestly rejoice in the fact that he came out on top in 1917 - 18?
Some time ago there was a brief posting on this blog about Russian conservative thinkers who, though more influential in that country, tend to be overshadowed in the West by the more glamorous liberal and radical activists and theoreticians.
Tory Historian’s own view that a good deal of trouble has come from Sir Isaiah Berlin, who first popularized Herzen and his successors in the West in the twentieth century. This was real popularization. No university course on Russian history managed to get by without studying Russian Radical Thought. And Sir Isaiah’s admiration prevailed. He ignored the nastier aspects of that thought and concentrated on what he saw as the nobility of the struggle. Our perceptions of Russian history are still coloured by that.Sir Isaiah Berlin, though an important theoretician of liberalism, is not a hero on this blog, partly because of his behaviour at various times and partly because of his thinking about other people, such as the Russian radicals. To him, their principles, their earnestness (and goodness me, were they earnest!) and their undoubted courage in their fight with the Tsarist regime was sufficient. Their actual ideas he skated over lightly.
From 1689 to 1697 Britain was at war with France - one of the consequences of the Glorious Revolution that Whig historians do not emphasise too much. In 1702 the country went to war again with France. During the summer of 1711 Lord Bolingbroke, Queen Anne's Secretary of State for the Northern Department began secret peace negotiations with the French Foreign Minister, Torcy and a preliminary peace treaty was signed on September 27.
Two months later Jonathan Swift published The Conduct of the Allies, a withering attack on the Whig Ministry, its bellicose behaviour, Britain's allies and the great commander, the Duke of Marlborough.
In a country, exhausted by the war, the book became a great popular success and by the end of January 1712 11,000 copies were sold - a respectable number that would be envied by almost all writers even now.
What caught my eye is a comment the Dean made in his discussion of the people who, for their own nefarious purposes, opposed the peace negotiations, one that can be applied to a good many other times and political situations:
It is the Folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the Kingdom.He then explains at length why the denizens of the City and of Westminster coffee-houses are not to be trusted.
I have now finished Hugh Tulloch's Acton,as blogged about here, and should like to quote a couple of paragraphs about Acton the historian, who remains a somewhat controversial figure.
Here is Tulloch on Acton's writing style:
He attempts to disarm and persuade with the aid of every cunning literary device. The insidious conjunction of adjectives in his essay on the St Bartholomew Massacre - 'holy deceit'. 'pious dissimulation', 'cruel clemency', 'inhuman mercy' - subtly suggests moral disorientation and reinforces the central thesis of the Counter-Reformation's perversion of religious faith.Later he adds:
In private correspondence, especially, he rarely enters a qualifying clause and the unequivocal assertions harden into ruthless gems. His editors Figgis and Laurence, asserted euphemistically that Acton was not prone to doubts; the more detached Henry Sidgwick observed that he threw off highly questionable assertions as if they were trite commonplaces. Readers of Acton should always beware and be on their guard.
He [Acton, obviously] leaves an uncertain legacy: an unobtainable ideal and a life and writings whose flaws exemplify its impossibility. But perhaps his sublime confidence is a worthwhile corrective to the more prevalent vanity of misguided humility. Acton's historical vocation was shaped from his childhood. He possessed the necessary fascination and respect for facts and for details of the actual.How many academic historians have the imagination to see matters in that way?
He possessed a highly developed sense of historical continuity and was intensely aware that the unseen past was always present and weighed down upon us. He wished to reimagine and recreate that elusive but significant past, and its physical remains helped to evoke it: the singed volume which Servetus carried with him to the stake that Acton inspected in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the yellowing plumes on Henry IV's armour which he saw in the Venice arsenal, the almost perfectly preserved remains of Tilly, the imperial commander during the Thirty Years' War.
He believed that a study of the past bestowed an extra sense, which enabled the historian, steeped in time and the specific, to step outside it altogether. Why wait for posterity's judgement on Mr Gladstone? Following an earlier conversation, Acton offered it at once: 'shut your eyes to my handwriting,' he wrote to Mary Drew, 'and ... you shall hear the roll of the ages.' By a strange alchemy a contemplation of the unique and particular allowed the historian to escape the temporary and the transient, and to fasten on abiding issues. History redeemed man from time.
The character and achievement of Lord Acton, quondam Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge (though he had not been allowed to study there as a Roman Catholic) and editor of the Cambridge Modern History remain fascinating and controversial among historians. On the whole he is now considered to be of greater significance than he was at one time when all his work had been dismissed by such men as G. R. Elton and A. J. P. Taylor. There have been numerous books written about hims and most of his writings, including letters have been published.
I was rather pleased to find a short summary of his life and work by Hugh Tulloch, published in the series Historians on Historians. (In fact, I am now on the look-out for other volumes in the series). Tulloch's attitude, as he says himself, wavers between admiration and dislike, thus making it possible for him to give a more or less objective account of this complex man and his voluminous writings (oh yes, he did write).
This is what he says at the end of the introductory chapter, which charts Acton's reputation during his live and after his death:
For I do not believe that he was whig or naive, innocent or optimistic, and in hoping to rescue him from his detractors I have had to to treat him in a profoundly un-Actonian way. He always insisted that the historian must disappear entirely from his history: I am unable to separate the two. Despite his many disavowals, the man and the historian were not distinct, nor were his historical writings separate from his personal history.The historian whose personality and preoccupations do not intrude into his (or her) writing is, I suggest, impossible to find.
At each juncture of his life, as combative Catholic, as arch-enemy of ultramontanism, as Gladstonian Liberal, the pressures of his current preoccupations subtly intrude, moulding and distorting his vision. I hope that a study of the historian enmeshed in his time will contribute towards a clearer and more balanced understanding.
Seventy years ago the first atom bomb to be used in war was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, the second one, on Nagasaki to follow two day later. It undoubtedly ushered in a new world politically and militarily and has remained in many people's minds the pre-eminent example of a war crime. In fact, the casualties incurred by the firebombing of Tokyo were higher and when it came to war crimes, there were many competitors for the title of the worst.
The decision to drop the two atom bombs was taken by President Harry S Truman because he considered, probably rightly, that the this was the only way to bring the war in the Pacific to an end speedily without further very high American and Japanese casualties. That alternative would have probably meant many more British, Australian, Indian and other casualties.
As last year's overwhelming and not always accurate memorials to the outbreak of the First World War slide away into memory, we can start discussing the subject a little more seriously and look at the conflict as well as its aftermath, the Versailles order, from other points of view. In January after watching Testament of Youth, I wrote a dissatisfied posting. I had hoped that the centenary would bring out more than just more stuff about the Western front, the mud, the barbed wire, the sensitive young men hardened by the horrors, etc etc. The film, as I said, was very much in that group and not a particularly good example of it, either. As it happens, the film did not garner particularly good reviews and disappeared from the cinema screens surprisingly quickly. Had everyone had enough of the whole subject by the beginning of this year? Or was the film simply not appealing enough?
There were, of course, a number of serious historical works published as well and, maybe, I should do a blog about some of them but the one that came out recently is of superlative interest to anyone who really wants to know about the causes of the war, its development and its aftermath.
The book is called Towards the Flame and subtitled Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia and is by the eminent historian, Professor Dominic Lieven (yes, he is of that family though not, I believe, a direct descendant of the Russian Ambassador of the early nineteenth century).
Professor Lieven chastises his colleagues, historians in the English-speaking world for concentrating too much on the Western European aspect of the war. In his Introduction he says:
This underlines a basic point about the First World War: contrary to the near-universal assumption in the English-speaking world, the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict. Its immediate origins lat in the murder of the Austrian heir at Sarajevo in southeastern Europe. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, led to a confrontation between Austria and Russia, eastern Europe's two great empires. France and Britain were drawn into what started as a conflict in eastern Europe above all because of fears for their own security: the victory of the Austro-German alliance over Russia would tilt the European balance of power decisively towards Berlin and Vienna.The question before 1914 was who would be the dominant power in Central and Eastern Europe: Germany and Russia, with Austria-Hungary (as it was by then) naturally inclining to support Germany.
Germany, says Professor Lieven, did not really have to win in the West: a draw would have been sufficient as long as Russia was defeated, something that was confidently predicted by 1916. In the end, Russia's defeat did not help Germany as the war in the West ended with the Allies' victory, thanks to the American entry into the war and those Eastern gains had to be surrendered.
I must admit this all seems fairly obvious to me but, perhaps, not to a number of better known historians. (Much better known.)
The Versailles order, set up in the wake of the victory in the West could be put together only because the situation in the East was rather peculiar. A war that started as a bitter to-the-death contest between Russia and Germany ended with both countries defeated and destroyed. It was, therefore, possible to dismember the Austro-Hungarian Empire and set up a number of small states that could not defend themselves against a strong and aggressive Germany or Russia (or, perhaps, both as it happened in 1939 in Poland and the Baltic states). The assumption that this state of affairs could go on indefinitely was rather strange. Sooner or later and probably sooner rather than later Germany and/or Russia would become strong again and there would be another catastrophe for Europe. So it turned out. The Versailles order that had excluded both Germany and Russia was inherently unstable.
I hesitated whether this should come in this series of articles or not as it is a short piece, linked to an article by an historian who is most definitely not a Conservative and raises a question about modern politics. However, the article by Linda Colley, the well known historian, links present day arguments to Magna Carta and who am I to disagree with that.
The article is well worth reading in full as it quotes various constitutional historians and thinkers with great verve and knowledge. Essentially, Professor Colley argues that Britain's exceptionalism in that the country with some of the oldest constitutional documents in modern history has no written constitution has to be brought to an end. Britain must have a written constitution, especially as, Professor Colley argues, Scotland is probably about to have one.
There are one or two points on which I disagree with Professor Colley if I may be so bold and, indeed, insolent. In the first place, the idea of an independent Scotland has been put on what might be called a back burner since the referendum in which the Scots voted with a handsome majority in favour of staying in the United Kingdom. In any case, the offer of independence within the EU was a constitutional oxymoron.
Secondly, it is not entirely true that Britain has no written constitution. She does not have a single constitutional document along the lines of the United States Constitution and it might be a very good idea to acquire one. I see no particular need for a Constitution like the French one, which has been re-written on a number of occasions and that applies to most others that are around. But the American one is important, particularly as it and its first ten Amendments, better known as the Bill of Rights, utilized many English ideas.
Britain has a series of constitutional documents, of which Magna Carta is the first (well, more or less) and one of the most important ones. There are many others and the present government is suggesting that we should add to it with a new Bill of Rights. I wonder if Professor Colley agrees with that idea. Somehow I suspect that she might prefer the Human Rights Act and its overarching document the European Charter of Human Rights. But I may be wrong.
That brings me to the most important problem: we do, as it happens have a written Constitution and that is the Consolidated European Treaties, which are the Constitution for the EU and its Member States. For some reason Professor Colley does not refer to it.
Whether we need a single written constitution or not (and that needs to be discussed) there is no point to it while we are in the European Union, while European legislation comes above British Parliamentary legislation, while the ECJ and the ECHR are considered to be superior to British courts and while the Consolidated Treaties remain the overarching constitutional document. Is Professor Colley arguing for Brexit?