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  • Modernizing England's Past: English Historiography in the Age of Modernism, 1870–1970
  • Peter Stansky
Modernizing England's Past: English Historiography in the Age of Modernism, 1870–1970. By Michael Bentley (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2006) 245 pp. $75.00 cloth $29.99 paper

This is an intriguing book. Though fascinating to read, it is nevertheless unclear in its results. Appropriately, since most English historians of England are not inclined to theory, this book contains little theory. One might start by taking issue with its title. Is it legitimate to talk about the historians of England who wrote in the nineteenth century as modernizers of the English past (nowadays the trend is to find "modernity" as far back as the Garden of Eden)? Although less insistent than their predecessors on the Whig interpretation—liberty broadening out from precedent to precedent—the historians for most of the period covered emphasized the domination of constitutional and political history and the signifi- cance of documents. Stubbs and his immediate successors were "modern," Bentley argues, in their emphasis on the importance of intense examination of documents rather than the earlier concentration on the broader survey.1 What is particularly impressive is that not only has Bentley carefully read numerous texts but, in many cases, he has also examined private papers, catching his subjects in revealing and unguarded moments. At times, he permits himself to indulge in the irritating tendency of some English historians to make allusions and little jokes that only those in the know can fully comprehend.

Not until the late nineteenth century did history become an offi- cially academic subject in England, and the giants who made it so are reborn in these pages. Biographical footnotes of the major players are provided. [End Page 449] One is delighted, and enlightened, to find out more about such crucial figures as Thomas F. Tout, Frederic William Maitland, Albert Pollard, Richard H. Tawney, Michael M. Postan, and Helen Cam, among others (one wonderful anecdote: When denied entry to a meeting because of her sex, Cam pointed out that she was not a lady but a historian as she swept past the guard at the gate).

The two historians who dominate the text are Herbert Butterfield and Lewis Namier, particularly in their work on the eighteenth century. Butterfield was famous for his attack on earlier historians, The Whig Interpretation of History (London, 1931). Yet in some ways he was whiggish himself, holding that ideas and principles were important. Namier, comparatively neglected nowadays, emphasized the irrationality and the self-serving nature of politics, driven by ties to the land (Bentley undervalues Namier's commitment to the Zionist cause: He felt that his own people should have land, in Palestine, to provide them stability similar to that experienced by the powerful in eighteenth-century England.) Namier's emphasis on the social aspects of politics oddly led the way for less attention being paid to the political story. He helped to provide a framework for the growth of quantitative history that had a brief period of dominance. He can be seen, too, as a precursor to the longer-lasting influence of social history, most dramatically exemplified by Edward P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1963).

Thompson is denied the status of a biographical note, perhaps reflecting Bentley's misjudgment that the influence of the text mentioned above is over. He is right that the events of the 1960s ended the odd juxtaposition of the importance of politics with the unimportance of ideology—the last gasp of modernist history. Although postmodernism may have been the favored approach by the end of the 1970s, such as in the work of Hayden White and Patrick Joyce, providing the "cutting edge," many historians in England are still traditional "modernists" in their emphasis on documents and politics.

This study is full of valuable insights and information; it provides a personal view of the strengths and weaknesses of the major English historians of their own country for more than a century. Strangely, however, Bentley never discusses the paradox that though he always uses the term "English," a significant part of the history that he discusses and...


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