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March 17, 2010

John Burrow's chose the sane face of Whiggism, argues David Womersley: Lord Macaulay's History of England: Introduced and Selected by John Burrow

Posted by David Womersley

Lord Macaulay's History of England: Introduced and Selected by John Burrow
Pp. 174. London and New York: Continuum, 2009
Paperback, £9.99

John Burrow, who died last November, was one of the most distinguished English intellectual historians of the latter part of the twentieth century. After a Cambridge education, he taught for short periods at Cambridge and East Anglia, before settling down for the core of his professional career at the newly-founded University of Sussex. There, with Donald Winch, he developed (the careless word often used is "founded"; but Burrow would have shrunk from its jacobinical connotations) the "Sussex School" of intellectual history, which was to produce scholars of the calibre and significance of Mark Goldie and Stefan Collini. Although in its day perhaps overshadowed by the "Cambridge School" of Quentin Skinner and (with differences of nuance) John Pocock, it may be that posterity will find more lasting interest in the products of the downs rather than the fens. Certainly, in the case of Burrow, they will find that they are better-written.

Burrow admired the work of Skinner and Pocock, and held both men in high esteem; but he also knew, and I think did not much regret, that his ways were not theirs. Burrow's flexible, playful humanity and his acute sense of the ridiculous meant that, in his hands at least, the Sussex School never lapsed into oracularity, or succumbed to the Circean charms of "theory".

Burrow's publications fell into two areas. The first was the intellectual history of the nineteenth century. It was to this field that he devoted his first book, Evolution and Society (1966), in which he demonstrated that Victorian ideas provided a rich soil for evolutionary thinking, and that in consequence it was misleading to attribute the sole influence here to the work of Charles Darwin. And it was here too that he returned at the end of his academic career with The Crisis of Reason (2000), a synthesising history of European thought in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The second field Burrow tilled was the history of historiography, and it was here that he truly excelled. A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (1981) won the Wolfson Prize and showcased Burrow's gifts of mind and pen perhaps better than any other. His brief study of Gibbon in the Oxford "Past Masters" series (1985) remains the best short introduction to its subject, while the autumnal A History of Histories (2007) allowed Burrow to decant the fruit of a lifetime's reading and reflection into a series of essays to delight the general reader, but by which the scholar might also be guided and illuminated.

The obliquity of history as a form, pursuing as it does analytic ends by means of narrative, was well-adapted to the sinuousness of Burrow's mind (always an amusing contrast with his exceptionally un-sinuous body). A man of the broadest literary culture, he responded instinctively and precisely to the literary qualities in historical writing.

At the same time, he could be tenacious in sensing and pursuing the intellectual import of historiography. Rarest of all, he was alert to how those two aspects of historical writing might reinforce (or in some cases, fail to reinforce) one another. Histories were also better suited to Burrow's humanity, to his un-doctrinaire instincts, and to his simple curiosity, than was the more austere (or perhaps I mean simply thinner and duller) world of the abstract intellect.

Two days before Burrow died his family and friends held a party to celebrate the publication of his memoirs, Memories Migrating: An Autobiography (2009) - a work which deftly settles some old scores without rancour, but with precision. Burrow's last scholarly publication, however, was his selection from Macaulay, which he prefaced with a brief but excellent introduction.

Macaulay brought out the best in Burrow. The section on that great Victorian in A Liberal Descent is an exceptional act of imaginative and intellectual recovery which wonderfully eludes the Scylla of eulogy and the Charybdis of lampoon - opposed but also conjoined pitfalls which have, one way or the other, claimed so many of those who preceded Burrow on this subject. Macaulay is harder to write about than, say, Gibbon, even though he is, intellectually-speaking, a much less demanding writer. In Gibbon's case, the magnificence of the intellectual equipment is so self-evident and undeniable that this restricts the role of the commentator to informed admiration. Macaulay's mind was blunt and coarse in comparison with that of Gibbon (as whose is not?), and this makes it harder to do him justice.

Burrow's introduction scatters insights before its readers on Macaulay's style ("a prose that seeks to overwhelm rather than insinuate"), on his politics of reform as the prudent alternative to revolution, and most persuasively of all on Macaulay's interpretation of the role of the historian as an "impresario . . . of dramatic action". The central contention of the essay, that Macaulay invites his readers to join him in "a common jubilation, not a covert smile", is crystallised and sealed by means of a comparison with Bagehot. Both writers, as Burrow points out, were aware that the constitution contained within it a good amount of fiction and pretence.

Macaulay, mindful always of the cross-Channel comparison, and chastened by the thought of the French Revolution and its excesses, believed that the "antique façade was functional and worth preserving. The alternative was the tabula rasa confronted by the French National Assembly". Bagehot, who had studied Macaulay and whose essays he often cites, phrased the "central Whig paradox" in a more cynical way: "it is necessary to keep up the ancient show while we interpolate the new reality". There is no doubt where Burrow's own sane sympathies lay in this choice of Whiggisms.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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