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  • Beneath the Skin. Or: How to Forget about the Empire Without Really Trying 1
  • Geoff Eley

Once upon a time, David Cannadine was a social historian. His first book on the urban landholding of the English aristocracy, Lords and Landlords: The Aristocracy and the Towns, 1774–1967 (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1980), was an early fruit of the specialized field of urban history pioneered by H. J. Dyos during the 1960s and early 1970s. That book displayed the best virtues of the new social history in its youthful prime, astutely complicating the equivalence usually imputed to aristocracy, archaism, and the countryside on the one side and urbanization, middle-class dynamism, and progressive politics on the other. Cannadine then persisted with urban history for a while, editing a useful collection on Patricians, Power, and Politics in Nineteenth Century Towns (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1982), and helping to collect Dyos’s essays for an important posthumous volume. 2 But for his own second book he climbed to more elevated ground, with a magnum opus on The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). In its heyday social history always embraced an extremely broad church, but these works placed Cannadine interestingly outside its main tracks — focusing on estate management and property transactions rather than working-class community, on patrician society rather than plebeian culture, and on history’s VIPs rather than its marginalized and excluded types.

From early on, Cannadine’s interests had a further dimension. Sometime in the 1970s he discovered the invention of tradition. The volume of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger bearing that name became one of the most promiscuously cited influences of the next two decades, an early word in the often contentious conversations that bridged from the high tide of social history in the 1970s to the first signs of the new cultural history. 3 By the time a second emblematic text appeared in 1983, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, it was clear that an exciting shift in the historiographical climate was under way. 4 These two books flagged a series of emergent trends: a new closeness and reciprocity in the relationship of history and anthropology; an attention to ritual, ceremonial, and associated cultural practices in particular; a “de-exoticizing” of the non-western and colonial worlds, which for many historians rendered them more comparable to metropolitan societies than before; a growing recognition of the contingency, inventedness, and relative novelty of seemingly long-established practices and institutions; and, last but not least, the radical insight that powerful universals like “the nation” or “modernity” could have other than European valency or roots.

One strand in Cannadine’s writing has stayed connected to this complex shift in the discipline. The pomp and spectacle of traditional authority, all the performative paraphenalia of social privilege, and the ritual parading of hierarchy were a key aspect of his work on the aristocracy, while he continued to explore the public purposes and consequences of royal ceremonial, building on the narrative of the monarchy’s fashioning into a national institution he presented in The Invention of Tradition . 5 On a broader front, nudged by a growing chorus of scholars from other disciplines, especially those in cultural studies implicitly attacked by Cannadine’s new book Ornamentalism, British historians more generally became interested in the forms through which patriotic identification solidified during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into a collectively sustained national history — an “island story,” in the phrase Cannadine used to launch his new Penguin History of Britain. 6 Historians working in cultural studies argued that “Englishness” became shaped into a distinctive political-cultural formation during the period 1880–1920, and they were now joined by increasing numbers in the discipline of history per se . Their attention focused on the cultural architecture of British national identification:

Public ceremonial from official occasions like coronations and Armistice Day to popular events like Guy Fawkes night; the iconographic display of artefacts such as the Tyndale Bible and the piston engine in the great museums of the nineteenth century; the official patronage of composers like Elgar; the growth of sporting events like the F.A. Cup Final; state festivals such as...