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Reviewed by:
  • Past into Print: The Publishing of History in Britain, 1850–1950
  • David Finkelstein (bio)
Leslie Howsam, Past into Print: The Publishing of History in Britain, 1850–1950 (London and Toronto: British Library and the University of Toronto Press, 2009), pp. xvi + 181, £50 cloth.

This work is about the publishing of history books in Britain (or, more accurately, England, as there are no Welsh or Scottish examples) during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, developed from a prestigious series of lectures delivered at Oxford in 2006. As Leslie Howsam acknowledges at the start, the chapters are more work-in-progress than final statements, aimed at pushing boundaries between history, book history, and bibliography, and challenging historians to examine the material production of history books issued by English-based publishers during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Howsam’s prodding of the professions is astute and timely: as she reminds us, the study of the material production and shifting themes of past historical texts is a neglected area of historical enquiry in contemporary historical circles. In part this is due to the constant renewal and superseding of academic and cultural interests: where one period might favour sweeping narratives focused on policy and national aspiration, another might see value in chronicling history “from below.” What is written before is discarded and revised. Howsam’s goal is to demonstrate how “obsolete” texts such as school textbooks can be immensely valuable artefacts for evaluating the social and cultural contexts in which they were produced. Likewise, interrogating the production and editorial processes of history book publishing tells us a great deal about the commercial and career motivations that steered such projects to fruition. [End Page 449]

Howsam concentrates her efforts on case studies gleaned from the archives of three publishers of the late Victorian period: Macmillan, Cambridge University Press, and Oxford University Press. What emerges from her research is an interesting tension between (1) the professionalization of history within English university circles, which though evident in publishing terms from the 1860s onwards, really develops at the turn of the century through the stimulus of commissioned multi-volume history series; and (2) the expansion of history book publishing in the same period in the form of school textbooks, general readership narratives, and narrative-led work. The shift in focus at the academic level from anecdote-led accounts to more scientifically aimed, objective, and rigorous analyses of events increasingly clashed with publishing interests focused on commercially attractive material aimed at contemporary readers.

Alexander Macmillan was one key player in this debate, capitalising on and expanding English-speaking markets for history texts from the 1860s onwards; commissioning popular authors such as Charlotte Yonge, Charles Kingsley, and Edward E. Freeman to produce visually arresting and accessible children’s history books; supporting the founding of key journals in the academic field (such as the English Historical Review, which after long negotiations was eventually initiated in 1886 under the imprimatur of Longman & Co.); and creating popular collections such as the long-running “English Men of Letters” series, edited by John Morley.

On the other side stood the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge, whose energies became increasingly focused on multi-volume, collaborative series of academic works from the 1890s onwards. By the Edwardian period, Cambridge and Oxford had supplanted Macmillan as preeminent players in the field of history publishing, shaping the look, format, and readership expectations of historical material in such key publications as the Cambridge Modern History series, issued between 1902 and 1912, or through imaginative linking of contemporary literary figures with historical narrative, such as Oxford’s commissioning in 1918 of a European History schoolbook from D.H. Lawrence.

Such activity fed into late Victorian and Edwardian debates about the difference and value of serious history written for academic consumption and popular history written for mass readership. In flagging up the significant input of publishers in shaping this debate, Howsam pays close attention to key figures in the relevant publishing firms, such as Richard Wright, Cambridge Press secretary, who wrote much of the marketing material for the Modern History series, and Philip Lyttelton Gell, Secretary of the Clarendon Press between 1884 to 1897, who was a driving force...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-526X
Print ISSN
0709-4698
Pages
pp. 449-451
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-14
Open Access
No
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