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Scholarship, snobbery, skulduggery

Jim Smyth

Conservative Revolutionary, the Lives of Lewis Namier, by David Hayton, Manchester University Press, 472 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0719086038

Sir John Plumb: The Hidden Life of a Great Historian. A Personal Memoir, by Neil McKendrick, Edward Everett Root, 273 pp, £65, ISBN 978-1911454830

In 1963 historian and jazz aficionado Eric Hobsbawm predicted that in twenty years’ time the Beatles would be next to forgotten. Also in the early sixties John Brooke foresaw that fifty years hence that “all history will be done as Sir Lewis [Namier] does it”, while Namier himself believed that his team’s volumes on The History of Parliament would become the foundation stones of eighteenth century British historiography. Predictably enough, none of these projections turned out that way, and it should come as no surprise either that historians have no better a track record in the business of anticipating outcomes than economists or astrologers. And yet, in retrospect, the misplaced confidence which allows this all too human foible does provide insights into how some people thought in the past. Getting the future wrong is in itself a type of historical “fact”. Conor Cruise O’Brien scolded Namierites for assuming that “they knew more about late eighteenth‐century England than did the people who actually lived in it”. But of course they did know more. They had access to documents not then in the public domain, and they knew what happened next. Interpreting such information is called “history”.

So who, then, was Lewis Namier? The question is of more than routine historical interest because within living memory it did not need asking. Indeed, David Hayton’s deeply researched biography opens with the statement that “few historians were as well known in their own lifetime as Sir Lewis Namier”. He died in 1960. Ludwik Bernstein Niemirowski was born in 1888 in Russian Galicia. His family were landed Polonised Jews, who in cultural aspiration looked to Warsaw, and to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Although his parents were nominally Catholic, religion played little if any part in Ludwik’s upbringing, and his sense of Jewish identity lacked any religious sensibility; in fact he was to become anti-rabbinical in particular and anti-clerical in general. As a young man he engaged briefly with the politics of socialism and of Polish nationalism and, after he arrived in England in 1908, Fabianism. He later moved to the right – albeit in an unconventional way – actively opposed Polish expansionism, as he saw it, and embraced the Zionist cause, which turned into one of the master passions of his life.

He attended, again briefly, the universities of Lvov in Polish Galicia, and Lausanne, Switzerland, and the London School of Economics, before landing in Balliol College, Oxford, a truly seminal moment in his life. As a naturalised British citizen he changed his name to Lewis Namier. Multilingual and formidably intelligent, Namier failed to be elected a fellow of All Souls because (by private admission) members of college “shied at his race”: the extent of the casual antisemtisim which pockmarked his career is shocking, but not surprising. After an American interlude, Namier returned to England just in time for the Great War. He worked in the Foreign Office throughout the war and in the Paris peace negotiations as an expert on east and central European affairs, and it is during this period that his ingrained Germanophobia turned obsessional.

Unable, despite his talents, to secure an academic post, Namier spent the first half of the 1920s in business in Prague and Vienna, and the second half in historical research and writing, funded by foundation grants and personal loans. His first book, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, appeared in 1929. And on the back of that volume’s critical reception he was appointed professor of history at the University of Manchester. He never moved to live in Manchester, however, choosing for over a decade to commute from London. Namier was an incorrigible institutional, as well as social, snob. Manchester had a fine history department, to be sure, but it wasn’t Oxford or ‑ at a pinch ‑ Cambridge.

The Structure promised a radical revision of the history of eighteenth century politics, and in 1930 Namier duly published a second volume in his projected series, England in the Age of the American Revolution. But a third volume would never be, as, in that low dishonest decade, the historian’s time for scholarship was remorselessly, if not entirely, consumed by the demands of Zionist politicking, and the work of the Jewish Agency, including the resettlement of refugees from Nazi Germany. With the coming of the “second German war” the university seconded Namier to London for the duration, where he acted as liaison between the British government and the Polish government in exile. Throughout these years, though, he kept his vocational hand in, with book reviews, journalism and essays, mainly on nineteenth century and near contemporary European history, and a notable slim volume, 1848, the Revolution of the Intellectuals, marred by his signature anti-German prejudices.

The Anglo-American intellectual climate of the postwar era, which soon morphed into the Cold War era, suited Namier well. The alleged “end of ideology”, which merged seamlessly into the bare-boned British empirical tradition, was tailor-made for him. The Structure of Politics had concentrated on the sociology, psychology, and minutiae of parliamentary manoeuvre, on the disbursement of patronage and the pursuit of place, pension, and preferment, all at the express dismissal of political ideas, policy, or policy-making. By the 1950s all this appeared to make more sense than ever. Stock in what one critic lampooned as “Namier Inc.” rose steadily. The chairman of the board received a knighthood. New books in the Namier mode were published. The Structure of Politics and England in the Age of the American Revolution were republished, the publicly funded History of Parliament project began, and the word “Namierize” entered the Oxford English Dictionary.

Namier infected his followers with his own adamantine sense of certainty. In an article entitled “Putting History in touch with the Facts”, one follower declared: “it is sometimes difficult not to feel that, to adapt Gibbon’s famous phrase, historiography is little more than a register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of historians”. In retrospect, hubris on that scale indicates that Namierolatry was, as Gibbon himself might have put it, heading for a fall. There were other nonbelievers of course, but in George III and the Historians (1957) Herbert Butterfield mounted a full-frontal assault. Butterfield objected to “structural analysis” on the grounds that it was too narrow, reductive, and static. Political ideas and public opinion did matter, at least to some MPs, whereas (in AJP Taylor’s phrase) Namier had “taken the mind out of history”. Freezing history at one moment, in this case 1760-62, undoubtedly yielded detailed results but it could not account for change over time. That requires narrative, and Namier didn’t do narrative. George III and the Historians is an inelegant book, and Butterfield is prone to exaggeration, but he did, nonetheless, land some blows on “the Namier School”. Others would follow.

Conservative Revolutionary is a work of mature and exact scholarship, and as a former editor in the History of Parliament, the author knows whereof he speaks. His treatment is also fair-minded, although ultimately he has an understandable tendency, I think, to come down on the side of his subject – as in his appraisal of Namier’s prose and psychoanalysis, for example. Hayton describes Namier’s prose as sharp, epigrammatic, vivid, commanding, powerful, artistic, and clear. Not everyone would agree: cumbrous, and “pontifical and unreadably intricate” are two other verdicts recorded here. David Cannadine finds Namier’s writing “constipated” (but he would, wouldn’t he?). An apposite comparison can be made with Joseph Conrad, another Pole whose English prose is ‘celebrated’ today. Yet the book critic Merle Rubin deemed his style turgid, convoluted, and awkward. Or as the waitress in the film Black Widow (1954) observes, “a lot of people may think he [Conrad] is slow and deliberate … but I like that”. In short, it is a matter of taste. Namier certainly had a gift for arresting aphorisms. Of the irrelevance of high political principle he remarked: “men went [into parliament] ‘to make a figure’, and no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others might eat it”. He coined the term “political nation”. He took immense care with composition. Is the result rigorous and “polished”, or is it too dense, too overscrubbed? There is no such division of opinion over the quality of the prose ‑ however one may rate his arguments ‑ of a master stylist like Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Biographers, Hayton sensibly affirms, “should be cautious of speculation, and adhere, for the most part, to a straight chronicling of verified activities”. Namier, a convinced Freudian, exercised no such restraint. His work, in fact, is littered with sweeping, utterly assured, and utterly unverifiable, pronouncements on the psychological profiles of historical actors. Thus Tallyrand, “neglected by his parents in early childhood and brought up by dependents […] was a grand seigneur towards men of other classes but had no love of his own and contributed with cold indifference to its downfall”. It takes a leap of imagination in our post-Freudian age to comprehend the ubiquity and high standing of psychoanalytic concepts in the mid-twentieth-century Anglo-American world. Among historians Trevor-Roper and JH Plumb both subscribed to Freud’s genius. The political neurotic Arthur Koestler wrote without irony about political neuroses. Passing over epistemological fallacy, it is perhaps sufficient to note that Koestler, and Hans Eysenck, a psychologist who rejected psychoanalysis as unscientific, both went on to champion study of the paranormal. Whereas Hayton rightly mocks Namier’s “comic” investment in the “pseudo-science of graphology”, he detects without comment, and against the grain of his own self-denying ordnance, “a resurgence in interest by academic historians in psychology and psychoanalysis” ‑ though mercifully, in an otherwise meticulously documented book, no references are provided for this alarming development.

That said, there is enough hard evidence about Namier – his disinheritance by, and estrangement from, his father, his recourse for decades to the psychoanalyst’s couch, the phantom paralysis of his left arm, his frustrated career (he never did get back to Oxford), his strange, unhappy first marriage – to safely conclude that he was a complex, troubled, man. Above all, this knighted anglophile, professor, and self-described “tory radical”, who considered English aristocrats “artefacts of Time at its most cunning”, remained an outsider. Jack Plumb, professor of history in Cambridge, who for a while succeeded Namier as the doyen of eighteenth century studies, once stayed as a guest of Queen Elizabeth in Sandringham, from where he dispatched notes on headed paper, “made it!”. But he too, a working class boy from Leicester, fretted that he had not.

Born in 1911, John Harold Plumb was a prodigious historian, editor, journalist. and tireless networker; a professor, master of Christ’s College, a member of the British Wine Standards Board, and a knight of the realm; he collected eighteenth century porcelain, paintings, wine (of course), acolytes, enemies, dowager duchesses (“the faded flowers of the English aristocracy”), and – during  what he called his bisexual “pan-amorous period” – other people’s wives; he loved America, especially New York, and flying there by Concorde; he made oodles of money, drove fast cars, and cherished the company of Princess Margaret; he had a racehorse named after him, did not much care for dogs, and may once have done away with the college cat. No wonder that this Gatsbyesque figure made his way, in fictional form, into at least six novels. Though he had about him more the whiff of a character out of Dostoyevsky, Namier made only one fictionalised appearance, in an Agatha Christie-style country house, as Dr Wenceslas Bottwink, an east European Jewish historian, turned amateur sleuth, in Cyril Hare’s An English Murder (1951). 

But perhaps a social anthropologist, or better still a naturalist, would be more professionally equipped than a campus novelist to analyse the strange fenland creatures who roamed Plumb’s (and his pal, CP Snow’s) Cambridge. Afterall Namier himself, quoting Aeschylus, likened his close study of the behavioural patterns of mid-eighteenth century politicians to the science of ornithology:

I took pains to determine the flight of crook-taloned birds, marking which were of the right by nature, and which of the left, and what were their ways of living, each after his own kind, and the enmities and affections that were between them: and how they consorted together.

The enmities of academic politics, in which Plumb revelled, were never confined to Cambridge. After Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, who had served as that university’s president before moving into the White House, considered the snake-pit of Washington DC a doddle. The venom, self-absorption, and skulduggery of feuding dons is customarily put down to “the narcissism of small differences”, to the low stakes involved, and sometimes that is undoubtedly so. However, the knives usually come out in the matter of appointments and promotions, in which case, for those on the receiving end, the stakes – livelihoods and careers – are very high indeed. Nor is there anything trivial about Namier being refused a fellowship at All Souls because he was a Jew.

Too often cronyism and what a distinguished Irish historian has called “ideological frisking” trump merit and academic integrity, and Plumb fought his corner with consummate agility and considerable success, and in the process (it should be acknowledged) did the historical profession some service. He had a sharp eye for talent, ran a rigorous teaching regime, and exercised wide influence on his student’s behalf. A stellar retinue of historians owed their careers in no small part to his mentorship, and he inspired loyalty and devotion in return. Few of their careers were made in Cambridge itself, however: there was too much animosity in the history faculty towards their patron for that. So these bright, thwarted young scholars went into exile, far from the banks of the Cam, in Oxford, London, Saint Andrews, the new world.

In 1976 one member of the Plumb diaspora, John Brewer, published a paradigm-busting book, whose very title challenged the Namier thesis: Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III. But Plumb did not found or preside over a “school”: Brewer wrote on eighteenth century English, and Simon Schama on seventeenth century Dutch, culture; Schama’s other subjects include “Landscape and Memory”, while Roy Porter offered a brief history of madness. That rich and diverse corpus of work is patently preferable to the one-dimensional, namierized, world of historical studies once fondly imagined by John Brooke.

There is a bit of puzzle here. Cronyism begets mediocrity, and after his death a former colleague declined an invitation to a memorial dinner for Plumb because “in his old age he was as corrupt and offensive as an over-ripe stilton”. On the other hand, as another colleague remarked, “Jack loved to count his FBAs [Fellows of the British Academy] a metric that he really valued”. Neil McKendrick. a protégé and lifelong friend of Plumb, eleven of whose own students have won the Wolfson Prize for history, is surely correct in identifying Plumb’s mentoring, and the glittering cast of historians whom he nurtured, as his “most notable achievement” and his “most enduring legacy”. He is also correct, in my view, in selecting The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675-1725 (1967), from among Plumb’s many books, of uneven quality, as the one most likely to remain in the library stacks.

As to other measures of professional success Mr McKendrick (as he still is) professes “blithe indifference to the standard marks that are used in the academic world to chronicle one’s progress”. The standard marks, or at least the really important ones, are dutifully recorded all the same: “Dr Plumb (as he then was)”; “the then Dr CP Snow (later Sir Charles Snow, and later still Lord Snow)” who, we later learn, “was always accorded the respect due to someone who had collected his C.B.E. in 1946, his knighthood in 1957, and his peerage in 1964”; David Cannadine received his knighthood earlier in his career than did Plumb, while AL Rowse scooped a CH (Companion of Honour), “which trumped anything which Plumb received”. Imagine that!

In a world where such things matter, it is astonishing that some of Plumb’s old friends were “astonished” at this once “passionate socialist’s conversion to febrile conservatism. In that after all, he merely conformed to the dismal stereotype of the young dissenter turned crusty, overtaxed, reactionary; of the Marxisant republican, decades later, fetching up in drag in the House of Lords. In the late 1950s the Thatcherite journalist and popular historian Paul Johnson had advocated the abolition of the House of Lords, the public schools and the monarchy. The seductions of the Establishment are hard to resist, noted another historian, a near contemporary, and an even more public intellectual than Plumb, AJP Taylor. A professor, Oxford don and wine connoisseur, Taylor considered himself an “hereditary dissenter”, and at some level he must have been right, because the Establishment never bothered trying to seduce him. In 1979, after prime minister Thatcher exposed Sir Anthony Blunt as a Soviet spy, Plumb led the campaign to expel him from the British Academy as a traitor. Taylor led the opposition, arguing that treason had nothing to do with academic merit, and besides “it was wrong to kick a man when he was down”. Taylor won the vote, but Blunt resigned his fellowship anyway; as did Taylor and two others, in sympathy, or protest, or both.

Plumb and Namier were very different kinds of historian. McKendrick states that Plumb made an enemy of Namier, but that is not true. It is quite clear from the correspondence that Plumb was careful not to beard the lion in winter – ceding that task to Herbert Butterfield – although he did, subsequently, savage the dead lion, writing in 1964 that “it is a sad comment on the state of historical writing in England that his reputation should have been so high”. They had this much in common however: snobbery and angst. John Brewer observed that his old mentor “never felt he received his due”. Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) sniffed that he was a “parvenu”. And, he might have added, a provincial. Namier, a notorious bore, passed over by Oxford, was an exotic cosmopolitan. For all their plaudits, gongs, and titles, both in the end were outsiders. Securely Establishment figures like Dacre or Sir Anthony Blunt, keeper of the queen’s pictures, felt no need to proclaim, as Plumb once did, that they had “made it”. Much too vulgar, dear boy.

1/2/2020

Jim Smyth is emeritus professor of history in the University of Notre Dame and editor of Remembering the Troubles, Contesting the Recent Past in Northern Ireland.

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