THE MAN of the MONTH
[Longmans, Green, $7.50]
‘IF, indeed, the story of the great events and the great men of our Augustan age could be told in its truth and simplicity, as only the man of Athens could have told it, it would move like a five-act tragedy from start to finish, presenting in turn the overweening pride and the fall of Louis, then of Marlborough and of the Whigs, then of the Tories in their turn, while, through the crash of each successive crisis of war and politics, the fortune of England moves forward on the tide of destiny. And what men that little rustic England could breed! A nation of five and a half millions that had Wren for its architect, Newton for its scientist, Locke for its philosopher, Bentley for its scholar, Pope for its satirist, Addison for its essayist, Bolingbroke for its orator, Swift for its pamphleteer, and Marlborough to win its battles, had the recipe for genius.’
These words from the preface to George Macaulay Trevelyan’s Blenheim, the first volume of his England under Queen Anne, are more than the argument of tire great story which is to follow. They are an example of his plain but dramatic language, an indication of his Thucydidean principles of history, and a parade across the stage of the principal characters. The passage has even at first glance a classic quality. It will long be cited as a model prospectus for a history, and perhaps as often as the true brief syllabus of the events of Queen Anne’s reign.
Mr. Trevelyan, indeed, is not simply a dramatist or a moralist writing history. If he had been a dramatist, he would have kept his narrative down to a single volume, would have played up each successive crisis to make the crash more audible among the actions which attended it, would have used a style at once more orotund and pointed. If he had been a moralist, he would have reduced the motives of his personages to simpler terms and would have shown their deeds as illustrating, more clearly than they ever do, what moralistic historians call the laws of human life. Instead, Mr. Trevelyan has chosen to use the best current methods of investigation, hunting for all the multitudinous facts which may have a bearing upon his story, and letting the facts speak as much fot themselves as facts, sometimes sullen, sometimes eloquent, can.
His movement is unhurried. About a quarter of the first volume is taken up with a survey of the actual condition of England in the first years of the eighteenth century. The face of the country, the standard of living among the various classes, the occupations, educations, amusements of laborers, yeomen, squires, the status of the clergy and the power and influence of the Church, the position which London held with reference to the rest of the kingdom, and the various social, intellectual, and moral modes of the city — all these Mr. Trevelyan sets forth with fewer antitheses and ringing phrases than Macaulay used in his account of England in 1695, hut with more accuracy and a more many-sided judgment.
The English scene established, Mr. Trevelyan then reveals, with a fine clarity and lack of provincialism, how England with its Dutch king stood in relation to the Continent. This is of course a history of England, but of England at a time when much of its ambition and a great many of its sentiments were involved with the whole problem of Europe, it is, in a sense, the huge episode of the duel between Marlborough and Louis XIV, culminating in the battle of Blenheim, up to which the first volume leads and with which, or with its immediate consequences, the volume closes.
The technicalities of the interpretation may be left to technical critics, but something must here be said about the temper of the work. It is invariably good-humored, lucid, firm. The historian never plays with words to make them seem to do more than they are really doing. He does not point the finger of a too-emphatic irony. He does not lay heavy stress upon contrasts for melodramatic effect. He does not pretend to look deeper into the minds of his characters than the evidence gives him the right to do. He asks his readers to go with him through a highly detailed chronicle of a chapter in the history of Europe, but he asks them so much only because he holds, and proves, that the events are too important to be summed up in epigrams or syllogisms. Though he never glitters, he is never dull. Entering upon a magnificent theme, he sets out with the strong, decent pace of a man who has a long way to go and means to reach the end of his journey.
CARL VAN DOREN