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Trevelyan: English Social History

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Trevelyan came from a distinguished family of whig social reformers and was a great-nephew of Macaulay (the initials stood for George Macaulay). He took family loyalty very seriously: he deeply resented criticism either of his illustrious great uncle or of Carlyle, of whom he was a great admirer. Like Macaulay, Trevelyan specialised in the Stuart period; his England Under Queen Anne was, in effect, an attempt to continue Macaulay’s History of England. He adhered to an unashamedly romantic and nostalgic view of the past, in which Englishmen were born deferential royalists and lived in happy communities overseen by the benevolent local squire. He robustly challenged the idea put forward by J.B. Bury, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, that history ought to be considered as a science; in 1927 he had the satisfaction of succeeding Bury at Cambridge. Nevertheless, the whig tradition was losing ground: the idea that history explained Britain’s political, economic and moral supremacy rang pretty hollow by the middle years of the twentieth century. In 1931 the Peterhouse historian Herbert Butterfield, himself later to occupy the Cambridge Regius Chair, wrote an essay on The Whig Interpretation of History which attacked the very foundation of whig history, the idea that history traces a process of progress through less sophisticated ages towards the more advanced and morally superior present. It was very obviously an attack upon Trevelyan, the ‘last whig’ as he termed himself.

However, if whig political history was passing out of fashion, the idea that there was something special about the social history of England survived a little longer. Whig social history was linked to a nostalgic view of ordinary and especially rural life in the past, in a fondly imagined land often termed ‘merrie England’. The idea was lampooned in Kingsley Amis’s novel about 1950s campus life Lucky Jim, but it remained popular with readers. Its best illustration is Trevelyan’s English Social History: a Survey of Six Centuries which was first published in the United States, in 1942. The book caught the wartime patriotic mood very well and it remained in print and in demand long after historians had turned their backs on it, a popular offer with subscription book clubs well into the 1970s and 1980s.

Trevelyan’s definition of social history, ‘history with the politics left out’, would be regarded as inadequate nowadays, but was an accurate description of his own approach. He characterised different periods in terms of their famous writers – ‘Chaucer’s England’, ‘Shakespeare’s England’, ‘Dr Johnson’s England’; this fitted his evocation of a romantic English past and, since their reputations remained intact throughout the twentieth century, it also allowed his readers to retain a sense of patriotic pride even when it had passed out of fashion.

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