England's Master Historian: Trevelyan's Living Tapestry of Six Centuries

HISTORY, the master historian tells us, is the record of the crimes, the follies, and the misfortunes of mankind. But from this chronicle of manners, statecraft and politics are fled. Crime, folly, and misfortune cease to be the dominant theme. This book is the happy record of a nation without a history.
What an oasis is this in the contemporary writing of history! The modern historian eschews romance. Storytelling in its old human terms is banned and the dreary imposture of economic determinism dims the evening lamp. Currency and crops, wages and tariffs, have supplanted Caesar and Cromwell as determining factors of the past. Now Trevelyan turns the flank of the professors of this bogus science. He reminds us that our ancestors were not abstractions. We are not children of want or plenty, of plotted curves of subsistence, but of men and women, bone of our bone.
The full glory of English history cannot be compressed into a volume made of a single strand in the rope; and when all the strands are bound together, the great of the world crowd out the small. Without such a volume as this, the common man, in his habit as he lived, can never claim his share of history.
Sir George Trevelyan is a countryman. Without his habitual tramps through the countryside he could not live. It is natural then that the most delightful pages of his book picture the changing English landscape. Laws can alter a rural scene little less than the people who live in it. From Chaucer’s time long onward, enclosures were forbidden lest game be circumscribed. And then of a sudden enclosure was enjoined lest a man’s rights be infringed, though in the unforeseen sequel the expense involved transformed the small freeholder into the tenant. This, the thinning of the forests, the draining of the fens, the felling of tall trees for tall ships, changed the very look of the country from generation to generation.
Only in the eighteenth century, and then too briefly, was the perfect balance between man and nature attained. Indoors and out, says Trevelyan, England was then a lovely land. The tangled swamp, the featureless dale were gone, and in the free play given to the shifting lights and shades of sky, earth, and foliage in the water-laden atmosphere, the unique glory of the Island was revealed. How fortunate that Old Crome, Constable, and Wordsworth were there to record it. Fortunate is it also that, long after the smudge of factories blackened the land, a chronicler sensitive to beauty lives to record essential things which have ever fed the soul of man.

History is continuous

A prime obstacle in writing social history, or any history, is the difficulty of establishing its general periods. When did the Middle Ages begin? When did they end? Social processes overlap. Social habits, from creeds to coattails, live for centuries beyond their natural season. It is by a happy choice that this history begins with the age of Chaucer, for then, surely, modern thought was stirring. Language and life were taking on new forms. The Black Death, which in two fateful years, 1348 and 1349, destroyed almost half the populat ion of the Island, offered to the other half a far ampler life. Shakespeare’s England, Johnson’s England, Cobbett’s England, and Victorian England which follow, each in turn, all represent “periods” in a sense natural to the reader.
What is history made of? If it is the myriad unwritten stories of the humble and forgotten, seeds of resurrection are planted in this book. When the radio blares out reports of hockey games while you sit by in an agony of expectancy regarding the African campaign, it is comfort ing to be assured that Wellington’s campaigns were not awaited with greater interest than the prospects of horse races and prize fights. What new happiness was born when “fine wheaten bread” was first impaled upon a fork belore the fire and called toast, or when tea was first placed upon the table with sugar to sweeten it, and when the aroma of tobacco mitigated the asperities of family discussion. How emotional life became when the “First Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge” was born or when the East India Company built “goodly ships of such burthen as never were formerly used in merchandise.” An infinity of changes in thought and habit have transformed England more than ministries or Marlborough’s campaigns.
The volume sings with poetry — poetry of prose, poetry of quotation. This history is the lyric chant to the glory of Old England by an artist and a lover.