History Books

Greatness Recollected 

British historian David Cannadine's latest collection of essays, In Churchill's Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain, is a model of its kind, for it reads like a book, not a miscellany. Although the book's twelve essays were written at different times and for different occasions, they share a common focus - the lost greatness of Britain - and a common tone. While each essay stands on its own - I urge every Gilbert & Sullivan fan to read "Tradition: Gilbert and Sullivan as a 'National Institution'" - the cumulative effect is a heightened awareness of the ordinarily occult processes that transform past events into traditions.

If the lost greatness of Britain has a material form, it is surely the subject of the first essay, the pile that Mr Cannadine fastidiously calls the New Palace of Westminster. This exuberant but controlled Gothic seat of government hearkens back to the misty days, long before the centralizing Renaissance, when English genius developed the supremely reasonable but superbly irrational Houses of Parliament, long regarded by its admirers as the noblest of human institutions. Built at the dawn of Victoria's reign, the New Palace was designed to stage-manage the ritual at the heart of the unwritten British constitution: the rule of Crown in Parliament that is manifest in the annual State Opening. While the Commons were relegated to a dingy chamber barely large enough to hold the membership enlarged by the Reform Bill of 1832, the Lords sat in a lofty hall at the summit, so to speak, of a suite of ceremonial rooms and staircases, with its own special entrance, that was put to use but once a year, when the Monarch opened the session of Parliament by reading a speech written by the Prime Minister of the moment. Diligent in the performance of her duties while her husband lived, Victoria opened Parliament only seven times in the forty years that she ruled after Albert's death, a poor record that has been effectively erased by her even more diligent great-great-granddaughter. Mr Cannadine loses no time in establishing the theme that will run through all the subsequent essays: at the very moment of its erection, the New Palace was more a monument to vanished past than the home of a truly living organism. Within sixty years, the ornamental nature of the House of Lords would be decided by statute. Nowadays, when the Prime Minister operates almost without check, the deliberative nature of the Commons - the purpose of which was by many considered to be the prevention of new legislation - has also passed into eclipse.  

There follow three essays about Winston Churchill, the man of the hour in May 1940 but never a popular figure among his peers in the Establishment. Mr Cannadine addresses Churchill's determination to resist 'decline,' a passion that he shared with Joseph Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher, and one that committed him to a tarnishing opposition to Indian Independence; Churchill's relations with the Royal Family over his long career; and, the most lasting aspect of Churchill's fame, his oratorical power. This familiar but important topic - someday we must once again have great speeches - brings us up against the some of the sharper apparent contradictions in Churchill's character. Compare

Indeed, his extraordinary career may fittingly be regarded as one sustained, brightly lit and scarcely interrupted monologue. Day after day, and often night after night, he turned out words and phrases in tumultuous torrent and inexhaustible abundance - inspiring, exhorting, moving persuading, cajoling, thundering, bullying, abusing and enraging. In private engagement or public appearance, Cabinet meeting or Commons debate, car or boat, train or plane, dining-room or drawing-room, even bedroom or bathroom, his flow of oratory never ceased.


The politest thing that may be said about it is that for much of his career, Churchill's oratory was far more important and interesting to himself than it was to the British political classes or to the British people in general...

For the fact is that Churchill tended always to speak in apocalyptic tones; 'abyss' was too favorite a word. By the late Thirties, his denunciations of the Nazi regime in Germany were routinely taken as exaggerations - the boy had cried 'wolf' too many times. It took a real war to make his countrymen pay attention to him, and the disaster of Dunkirk to promote him to the leadership that he had craved for decades. And when the war was over, voters wasted no time in getting rid of him, as if he were merely another memory of bad times that everyone wished to forget. Like his great Blenheim-building ancestor, Churchill was a warrior, whether in arms (as a soldier of redoubtable courage) or in words. In a century that has longed for peace while slipping helplessly into conflict, he was a souvenir of the past, an emanation from more glorious times.

Part Two of In Churchill's Shadow, "Politics in Diverse Modes," locates four very different ideas of Britain's greatness. For Joseph Chamberlain of Birmingham, it was commercial empire, which he celebrated during his terms as Lord Mayor of the city with a succession of public buildings in the Venetian Gothic style, which he thought represented Birmingham's truest antecedent. For Josiah Wedgwood (the twentieth century Member), it was the history of Parliament, envisioned not as a typical summary of reigns and conflicts but rather as a biographical register of all Members since the days of Edward I - a project that Wedgwood approached with a grandiose amateurism that antagonized the very historians on whom he depended for the actual work. For Stanley Baldwin, three-time premier - the greatness of England was the sweetness of its countryside, which he saw very much through the rose-tinted glasses of a nouveau riche. For the historian George Macaulay Trevelyan, it was the spunkiness of the English people, constitutionally determined to fight against tyranny and for freedom. Mr Cannadine stresses the importance to each of these men of attractive but partial visions of England. 

Part Three, "Vanishing Supremacies?" covers the trajectories of four English celebrators, or celebrations, of English exceptionalism: Gilbert and Sullivan, the National Trust, Noel Coward, and Ian Fleming. Coward and Fleming came from opposite ends of the middle class, but both dreamed of an England that increasingly required exile in order to be savored. Both made a specialty of portraying the Englishman Abroad as an attractive figure of implicit, unquestioned superiority, and Mr Cannadine does a fine job of tracing these projections back to the wish-fulfillment of disappointed snobs. As for Gilbert and Sullivan, it is often forgotten that, in their twenty-five year run, from 1871 to 1896, they reformed the British stage by making it both respectable and intelligent. Their portrait of England, even when refracted through the , fun-house mirror of Titipu, was always at least as implicitly respectful as it was overtly satirical - except as regards the aristocracy, which, as we know from Mr Cannadine's magisterial Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (Yale, 1990), was on the way down throughout the period. A mere ten years separates the 'first run' of the partnership's works from their revival, which has been ongoing ever since; as if by magic, 'G&S' became an English tradition in that short space. From Gilbert's death in 1911 until the expiry of the D'Oyly Carte family's rights in 1961, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas were performed with sacramental adherence to original texts; only thereafter was it possible to stage the imaginative reinterpretations that alone can keep a tradition alive. This is the kind of paradox that seems to interest Mr Cannadine the most, and he certainly makes it interesting to me.

Most of us think of the National Trust as the owner, operator, and savior of England's 'stately' homes, but in "Conservation: The National Trust and the National Heritage," Mr Cannadine outlines the history of an organization that began as something like our Nature Conservancy - and that may be on the road to reasserting that mission. The essay traces four distinct phases of leadership. Founded in 1895 by three middle-class critics of urban-industrial encroachment (including Octavia Hull, the pioneering advocate of sound housing for workers), the Trust's initial objective was the protection of green spaces.

The national heritage which [the founders] sought to preserve was natural rather than man-made, rural rather than urban. Like many of their contemporaries, they believed that the essence of Englishness was to be found in the fields and hedgerows, not in the suburbs and slums.

The Trust was a small-potatoes operation until after the Great War, when its leadership shifted upwards and rightwards. Backed now by the government and the media, the Trust increased its holdings dramatically between the wars. But the access to natural beauty that the founders had stressed was now almost discouraged. This was preservation for the elites. It was only after World War II, however, that the Trust acquired numbers of country houses. Initially deferential to the former owners (who continued in occupation), limiting opening days and hours to suit their convenience, the Trust only gradually asserted the rights of the British public to visit its 'heritage' on a '7/7' basis. Mr Cannadine points out that the Trust has not acquired many of the very stateliest homes - Blenheim, Chatsworth, Longleat and Holkham all remain in private hands. "Most of the Trust's country houses came, predictably, from the poorer survivors of he old landed class." Most recently, the Trust has renewed its commitment to environmental protection, and it has also assumed the preservation of buildings, some of them old factories, that are not country homes. At every stage of his history, Mr Cannadine shows that while the leadership of the moment was convinced that it was acting on an eternal mission, nothing of the kind existed.

 For anyone interested enough in history to appreciate the history of history, In Churchill's Shadow makes for very satisfying reading. Never attenuated or dogmatic, ever generous with lively examples, David Cannadine takes great relish in analyzing the conundrum presented by traditions that never turn out to be as venerable or authoritative as they're made out to be. I can think of no more important critical skill - especially in jingoistic times. (April 2003)

Permalink | Portico

Copyright (c) 2004 Pourover Press

Write to me