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Thomas Cromwell

A complex man with a complex career, Thomas Cromwell tends to defy the efforts of his biographers. David Loades brings a lifetime's expertise to this new study, which is fresh, fair, lucid and a pleasure to read.
Hilary Mantel

Fluent, learned and perceptive
Paul Cavill, Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Cambridge

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, described Cromwell as one who had, he professed shown such wisdom, diligence, faithfulness and experience as no prince in this realm ever had. He had been so vigilant to protect the king from all treasons that he found it incredible that he should have fallen into that way himself. He had he professed, loved Cromwell as a friend.

The biography of the blacksmith's son who rose to be Henry VIII's right-hand man.

Thomas Cromwell was a self-made lawyer who served first Cardinal Wolsey and then Henry VIII. His time with Wolsey was an apprenticeship which served him well in his work for the king after the Cardinal's fall from power in 1529. Cromwell's time in office from 1530 until his execution in 1540 was one of the most crucial periods in English History.

This biography explores how he tried to manage his relationship with Henry VIII and why he failed. It also shows how he manipulated the politics of the Court that eventually destroyed him. The rise and fall of the Boleyns, the dominance of the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, and the executions of Thomas More and John Fisher all play their part in Cromwell's life. Eventually he overreached himself in his patronage of evangelical preachers and in arranging Henry's marriage to Anne of Cleves, which played a crucial part in his fall and death in July 1540.

To be published by Amberley Press, November 2013
ISBN 978-1-4456-1538-7    £20 Hardback

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The historians under discussion belonged to the Romantic age. As the French Revolution did more than any other political event to foster that new atmosphere, it is appropriate first to consider Ruth Scurr’s edition of its foremost nineteenth-century Anglophone historian, Thomas Carlyle. Like her fellow editors, Scurr proceeds by choosing narrative sections which best exemplify the author’s style and philosophy. Helped by the comparatively short chronological range of Carlyle’s The French Revolution, Scurr impressively sustains a sense of unbroken progression from the convening of the Estates General in 1789 to the death of Robespierre in 1794, even though her extracts range across three volumes. At the opening, we see Carlyle assuming his vantage-point at the procession opening the Estates General, fixing his prophetic eye on a succession of figures whom Time will call forward as major actors in the World-Phoenix of Revolution, one of whom, Robespierre, will preside over the intensification of the purgative madness during the Terror and perish by the guillotine to which he devotes himself. Between these two points Scurr presents Carlyle’s dramatic rendering of a series of connecting events richly amenable to such depictions: the storming of the Bastille, King Louis’ flight to Varennes, the annihilation of the Swiss guards outside the Tuileries in August 1792. Even if posterity cannot view them as world-historical in the sense Carlyle believed them to be, there is something about the Revolution’s violent repudiation of a society of orders, its attempted reconstitution of human political sociability, its paving the way for the transformations of the Napoleonic era, which make Carlyle’s metaphors – biblical, volcanic, epic - permanently resonant.

The strangeness of Carlyle’s prose and historical judgements demand an editor’s introduction which will explain something of their intellectual origins to the non-specialist audience at whom the volume is aimed. Scurr describes the fraught process of composition and summarises the events Carlyle goes on to evoke; she also explains his desire to recreate action rather than indulge in complacently detached analysis, and his related contempt for Rousseau.  But the reader stands in need of further illumination. How are we to understand Carlyle’s belief that the principles underlying ‘battles and bloodshed, September Massacres, Bridges of Lodi’ are still two centuries from burning out (p. 28); that ‘in this Time-World of ours there is properly nothing else but revolution and mutation’  (p. 61); that religion has died, and yet the revolutionary wars generate the first show of faith since the last of the Cameronians, Renwick, was shot in Edinburgh (pp.65,141)? Scurr’s introduction leaves some of the roots of these and related claims unexposed. John Burrow has connected Carlyle’s cyclical metaphors, and his relish for fire and volcanism as agents of renewal, to the Huttonian geology he encountered at Edinburgh University. His biblical allusions and sermonising vehemence are remnants of his upbringing in the valleys of fundamentalist Dumfriesshire: although the unquestioning Calvinism of his parents drained away from him, sapped especially by Gibbon, Carlyle (with the aid of an idiosyncratic reading of German transcendentalism) retained a keen faith in a divine reality that convulsively destroyed the unreal worldly semblances and forms which periodically overgrew it. He came to look beyond the Scriptures, to the course of modern and contemporary history, as a prophetic manuscript containing evidence of ongoing divine operation: hence, in part, his use of the present tense in The French Revolution, and his invocation of parallels with modern Britain.  Perhaps limited by available space, Scurr does not make these contexts explicit.

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Religious crisis also shaped the historical vision of James Anthony Froude, a great admirer of Carlyle and, eventually, his biographer. As Duffy observes in his excellent introduction to his selections from Froude’s History of England , Carlylean dispositions – suspicion of the masses, racialism, and others - surface in Froude’s understanding of the sixteenth century. And, like Carlyle, Froude suffered from that very nineteenth-century affliction, an agonised loss of simple childhood faith. Froude arrived at Oxford as an undergraduate in the shadow of his bullying and by-then consumptive elder brother, Hurrell, and like him fell under the spell of Newman and the Oxford Movement. The giddiness did not last: after his election as a fellow of Exeter College he read, on the one hand, Goethe, Carlyle, Lessing, Neander; on the other, fabulous source materials for a Life of St Neot requested by Newman. His religious doubts grew, encouraged – as had Carlyle’s – by historical reading. Repulsed by Tractarianism, and soon forced out of Exeter, Froude settled into a theistic low-churchism uninterested in dogma but firmly committed to practical, Protestant religion, contemptuous of sacerdotal presumption and the constraints it imposed on human intellectual freedom. As Duffy remarks, Froude accordingly wrote his History of England as a distinctive and somewhat truculent defence of the Reformation against its recent assailants, most notably John Lingard. Duffy satisfyingly brings Froude’s personal dispositions into focus, without revealing his own very different religious assumptions. He also recognises Froude’s great scholarship: his extensive use of manuscript sources, in five languages, in an age before calendars and catalogues, point to the enormous industry which helped to make his work so enduring.

Duffy faces an unenviable task in selecting extracts from Froude’s ‘loose and baggy monster’ (p.10), which fills twelve substantial volumes. Covering English history from the fall of Wolsey to the defeat of the Armada, its chronological range is too large for Duffy to attempt something like a ‘summary’ in the way Scurr accomplishes for Carlyle. Froude’s conception of history, as Burrow once observed, is moreover ‘essentially spasmodic’ (A Liberal Descent, p.251), without the continuous, unifying protagonist of Parliament and constitution found in Macaulay and other Whigs. Duffy is therefore right to prioritise an individual episode: Froude’s account of Mary Tudor, Duffy’s co-religionist and subject of his acclaimed and decidedly un-Froudian recent study, Fires of Faith. Duffy thankfully minimises Froude’s less-than-captivating accounts of Mary’s parliaments, in favour of showcasing his facility for characterisation and the dramatic incident. In these pages, Froude ranges from the death of Edward VI to an indignant concluding apostrophe on Marian tyranny. We see Froude’s disgust at the rapacity of the Edwardian protectorate, which, he says, succeeded Henry’s deliverance of the English from bondage in Egypt only for its grandees to steal their manna in the wilderness. The great hopes which greeted Mary’s accession were to be disappointed, first by her marriage to a Spaniard, then by her allegedly savage enforcement by fire of the return to Romanist superstition. Mary herself appears pitiably and, in the end, dangerously deluded rather than actively evil, unsuccessful in marriage and her attempts at motherhood, seeking comfort in ‘the false roof of her creed painted to imitate and shut out the sky’ (p.87) and angling for divine favour by destroying Protestants, those latter-day Amalekites whom Saul had unwisely spared. Greater guilt seems to lie with the architect of her policy, Cardinal Pole, who played on Mary’s fantasies to intensify the drive to bring heretics to the stake.

Duffy includes a number of Froude’s vivid descriptions of these burnings, including the martyrdoms of Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer in Oxford, where Froude had himself once been persecuted, albeit less fatally, for his own religious opinions. Froude’s heavy reliance on the recent Cattley and Townsend edition of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments for these descriptions is noted only incidentally in Duffy’s introduction, while the original footnotes revealing this are removed. Foxe’s great composition, and its reception in later ages, has recently attracted significant historical interest in the work of Patrick Collinson and others; and one of the aims of Continuum’s series is to introduce today’s readers to the significance of how one age engages with another. Froude’s use of Foxe surely merits greater emphasis than Duffy accords it.                    

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Froude’s relative unconcern for constitutional details, and anxious preoccupation with religion, set him apart from that great, unspiritual panegyrist of Parliament and suburban ease, Thomas Babington Macaulay. As Hugh Trevor-Roper argued, Macaulay’s place today as the quintessential ‘Whig’ historian obscures the novelty his History once represented. He departed from the older Whig historiographical tradition, overthrown by Hume, of a static, ‘free’ constitution, inherited from the barbarian conquerors of Rome and encroached upon by the Stuarts, whom the Whig patriots finally repulsed. Accepting that history is essentially the history of progress, the lesson of eighteenth-century Scottish sociology, Macaulay fastened this forwards advance to the Whig party as its guarantor down the ages to the present day; a party whose victory in 1688, much more than any medieval event, finally secured England’s political freedoms and economic advance. John Burrow’s edition accordingly presents the undoubted Schwerpunkt of Macaulay’s extraordinarily popular History of England: the overthrow of the tyrannical James II and his replacement, by the Convention, with William and Mary of Orange. Burrow successfully condenses a substantial section of Macaulay’s narrative into almost-continuous prose. James’ Declaration of Indulgence, leading to the sensational prosecution and acquittal of several Anglican bishops who refused to publicise it, encourages a group of conspirators to seek the nation’s deliverance by William of Orange; his arrival causes James II to flee, and William is installed to popular acclaim. This occasions Macaulay’s famous aside on the ‘peculiar character of the English Revolution’, coloured by his own triumph in 1832 and the disturbing spectacle of political instability across Europe in 1848.


Burrow’s introduction is a marvel of brevity. It raises most of the biographical and contextual points necessary for an informed understanding of the text that follows; though he could have said more of Macaulay’s contact with Romanticism, especially the novels of Sir Walter Scott.  He rightly observes that Whiggism was more important to Macaulay as a label for a perennial force in English political life than as a narrow party label. Macaulay dims his partisanship at points where he wishes to celebrate moments where Tories and Whigs come together to oppose arbitrariness: ‘not a few of William’s followers,’ Macaulay reports, ‘were zealous Tories’ (p.105). Macaulay’s political career, oratorical prowess and training as a barrister shape the historical judgements he delivers and reveal themselves in the kind of event he delights most in describing. He enjoys the dynamics of high politics and takes sides at set-piece parliamentary occasions, interposing his own strident views to demolish the opposing side and thoroughly remove its foundation-stones; the public are there somewhat passively, to admire and applaud. Macaulay directly connected the triumph of constitutional politics to the material wealth of nineteenth-century Britain, pausing in his description of William’s landing at Torbay to imagine the contrast between the scrawny Stuart settlement and modern Torbay, decked out in ‘crowded marts’, ‘luxurious pavilions’ and ‘gay villas’ (pp.89-90). This is the clearest instance in the edition of Macaulay’s recurrent interest in processes of material sophistication, revealing the obligations to the Scottish Enlightenment most obviously on show in the third chapter of his History. Macaulay was very much the modern Whig here; but his formation owed just as much to the classics. His third chapter, as Burrow suggests, has the character of a Herodotean digression; his reports of speeches recall Thucydides, and his occasional roll-calls of participants and spectators, Homer.

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Epic qualities, and the afterlife of eighteenth-century philosophic history, may also be discerned in the work least likely to be familiar to British readers, William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico. Hernán Cortés is the hero of the work and his exploits give it a dramatic unity. Sir John Elliott accordingly presents to us his the first, ill-starred expedition to Tenochtitlan in 1519-20: surely among the most mesmerising subject matter ever available to a historian. Although full of western condescension towards the Aztecs, the weak spirit of Montezuma acting as a kind of extended metaphor for the inferiority of the society he ruled, Prescott emerges an even-handed judge by nineteenth-century standards. His treatment of the Catholic Spaniards is not vitiated by what John Burrow has called the Protestant ‘provincialism’ displayed by the slightly younger Boston historian, John Lothrop Motley, author of The Rise and Fall of the Dutch Republic. And Prescott, speaking for Cortés, grants to the Aztecs a measure of the ‘intellectual progress, mechanical skill, and enlarged resources of an old and opulent community’ (p.44).


Behind Prescott’s history lies a fascinating intellectual biography, which Elliott’s introduction brings out well with the aid of the author’s unusually full Literary Memoranda. He came from the same Bostonian milieu that sustained the other great American historians of his time, Motley and Parkman. Prescott’s prose is shaped by the epic poetry in which he read deeply, and by Romantic-era interest in the heroic and colourful depiction. In this he bears a similarity to Macaulay, still more noticeable in their shared debts to Enlightenment sociological categories: in Macaulay’s essay on Milton (1825), and Prescott’s on ‘Scottish song’ (1826), both advanced remarkably similar theories of poetry which connected its most natural expression to primitive stages of society. This Enlightenment heritage, to which Elliott draws attention, deeply colours Prescott’s History. It is perhaps most visible in Book I, absent from this edition, where  Prescott surveys the state of Aztec civilisation; but it also surfaces in the extracts Elliott has selected chiefly for their literary merit rather than ‘philosophical’ character. We read of the ‘slavish forms of Oriental adulation’ paid by the Aztecs to Montezuma (p.31), and the ‘superstition’ allegedly inherent in ‘savage’ man (p.134). After noting the historical context for these views, Elliott explains how the scholarship of recent decades has dispensed with them. No longer do historians gloss over the brutality of Cortés and imperial Spain; they also aim to evaluate Mexican society on its own terms, and to reconstruct how natives came to terms with the rapid shattering of an assumedly permanent world.

Continuum’s series will hopefully broaden public interest in the great historical literature of the past. The editors introduce the works judiciously. Handling the texts themselves, the editors successfully trim back the authors’ elaboration of detail which, though necessary, even enjoyable in works of the original size and scope, may have appeared cumbersome in these slimmer, deliberately fast-paced volumes. Sometimes this topiary is undertaken rather too vigorously. It seems a pity that Elliott should have removed a paragraph where Prescott meditates on the dauntless spirit of Cortés, after his withdrawal from Tenochtitlan (p.150). Burrow’s sharp curtailment of one of Macaulay’s cherished lists – this time of notables publicly siding with William of Orange after his landing – makes the cumulative collapse of James II’s support seem rather less crushing than Macaulay had intended it to appear (p.104). Despite these occasional problems, the literary merits of these works remain plainly in view. But should the historian, rather than just the lover of literature, still take them seriously? The editors, all with special interests in the writers or the periods they describe, appear to think as much. The historical explanations offered by Carlyle, Froude, Macaulay and Prescott have variously lost their force. Their texts stand, however, as fascinating documents of the ages in which they were written. More than this, they supply what the growing complication and fragmentation of academic history has tended to diminish; an idea of history, as Sir Steven Runciman expressed it, as attempting ‘to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man.’ It is, one hopes, an ideal that will never completely lose its attractions.

J.M.R.Bennett
Christ Church, Oxford

J.M.R.Bennett is the author of:

The Victorian High Church and the Era of the Great Rebellion

Davenant Press, 2011 www.davenantpress.co.uk

For other Continuum titles visit www.continuumbooks.com

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The History House is a resources site. It provides information, including links to websites, on a range of historical matters - books, people, places to visit, conferences to attend, societies to join, anniversaries to celebrate and invites visitors to the site to send in information.

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W. J. Mander, British Idealism. A History (Oxford, 2011)
ISBN: 978-0-19955- 929-9.    628pp    Hardback   £85.00
Reviewed
By J.M.R. Bennett

For details of other titles by OUP visit www.oup.co.uk

William Mander’s fine book crowns twenty years of his scholarship on the Idealist movement.  His study seeks to follow the development of Idealism in Britain from its curiously late emergence in the 1860s until its surprisingly recent disappearance in the second half of the twentieth century: G. R. G. Mure, the last Oxford Hegelian, died in 1979, a few months after the publication of his elegiac Idealist Epilogue. Mander’s aim is to help to restore British Idealist thought to the knowledge, and even the respect, of philosophers within an Anglo-American tradition who are today traditionally inattentive to developments in British philosophy from Mill to Russell and Moore.  Idealists held to a range of common intellectual dispositions, despite their considerable diversity, which were in marked distinction to the hues of twentieth-century British thought. They saw an underlying unity in the world of knowledge, which it was within the power of philosophy to unlock. Just as early modern philosophers were preoccupied by epistemology, and twentieth-century philosophy was often rooted in the philosophy of language, Idealists affirmed the centrality of metaphysics. They were also optimists, who saw in philosophy a means of both understanding and advancing the progress they saw around them in religion, politics and society.

Mander begins the book with a discussion of the forerunners to and influences on Idealism, as it gathered pace from the mid-1860s onwards. Although he accepts that the ‘location of its historical origins uncovers vital clues to understanding the character of the movement’, he thinks that an excessively contextual discussion ‘risks losing the reader’s patience and interest before he ever (sic) begins his main task’ (13). The question of the movement’s historical beginnings is accordingly treated in too cursory a manner for historians (such as the present reviewer) to be left feeling wholly content; philosophers, with different intellectual priorities, may reach a different conclusion. Mander argues that the two main schools of British philosophy in the mid-nineteenth century – the ‘common sense’ tradition in Scotland, and the psychologistic tradition in England – were ‘largely moribund’ and ‘becoming increasingly sterile’; this state, he contends, is a major part of the explanation for the rise of a newer mode of thinking (13-15). There is certainly something in this, but the argument is not developed at length and appears rather unhistorical. Would the adherents of the older traditions, who presumably - like the Idealists – did not simply disappear once a new fashion took hold, have seen themselves as boring and outdated? It seems strange that Mander, who rightly complains about easy dismissals of Idealist thought by later analytic philosophers, should mete out such treatment to the predecessors of Idealism. He writes more satisfyingly once he moves on to the formative sources of Idealism proper. He stresses its eclecticism. Kant and Hegel were crucial, the latter making a later entrance than the former, but the Idealists tended not to refer to themselves as ‘Hegelians’ and believed that they were advancing beyond what was offered by their German stimulants. They moreover turned to a number of other sources of inspiration, including Herman Lotze (an important critic of Hegelian absolute idealism) and Thomas Carlyle, whom Mander oddly understands to have ‘championed the natural equality of all’ (26).

The Idealists were themselves deeply concerned to elaborate a narrative of their own intellectual heritage, as Mander shows in his admirable chapter on their understanding of the history of philosophy. For them, as for Hegel, the history of philosophy was not a chronicle of discrete intellectual systems, but a progressive evolution, in which successively higher philosophies lifted up and preserved the insights of their predecessors whilst disposing of their errors. According to the Idealists, just as Kant’s failings had led to Hegel, so the inadequacies of classical empiricism had led to Kant. Spinoza was to them a great Idealist, albeit once whose monism could seem too abstract. They esteemed Aristotle as well as Plato; Mander emphasises that the Idealists’ reverence for these philosophers, however inflected it may have been by Hegel, substantially stemmed from the strength of classical education in British universities. This cautions against the view that Idealism was straightforwardly a German import.

Subsequent chapters engage in a detailed and properly demanding way with Idealist metaphysics, their philosophy of religion, ethics, political and social philosophy, logic and aesthetics. His aim here is primarily to rescue Idealist thought from obscurity and caricature and to show how it should rightfully continue to be a part of an ongoing philosophical dialogue in the present day; he therefore points to the strengths of Idealist philosophy as well as its problems. Mander notices the close affinity which the Idealists identified between philosophy and poetry: they were united in a search for ‘the most hidden, most profound and most universal principles and work behind both thought and reality’ (340); the disappearance of this sense of relationship is one that the author evidently regrets. Against L.T. Hobhouse’s alleged misrepresentations of Bernard Bosanquet’s social philosophy, Mander argues that Bosanquet’s conception of the general will amounts not to an abstraction but, more concretely, to the shared leading ideas of a society, without which no social organism can function.

This highly valuable study cannot be evaluated except in the light of the author’s starting principles. As has been indicated, Mander frames his study as a history of philosophy aimed primarily at philosophers, as distinct from a completely historical study. He sees the importance of placing past thinkers in historical context, if what they were actually saying at the time is to be made intelligible, but the main focus is on the exposition and assessment of their ideas, rather than the delineation of intellectual networks and religious, social, political and institutional contexts. It would not be right to criticise this decision by dogmatically asserting the superiority of the historical approach to the philosophical. Clearly, the latter has its own agenda sui generis and its own merits. Had a historian written this book, it is unlikely (unless he had picked up a logical training along the way) that it would have contained Mander’s fascinating chapters on the origin and development of a distinctively Idealist conception of logic (cc. 8, 12); nor would a historian have set about evaluating the truth or otherwise of Idealist notions understood on their own terms, which, though it is not a historical procedure, certainly holds interest for the philosophically engaged. But from a historian’s point of view, his approach inevitably leads to omissions. ‘Too much context’ may, as he says, lead ‘to an uncritical descriptivism’ (11), but too little context can leave historians – interested in institutions, networks, reception – concluding that they been insufficiently acquainted with Idealism as it developed in time.

Mander’s approach to his subject means that he leaves unanswered, because unasked, a number of significant historical questions. At times his primary interest in delineating and judging ideas leaves the historical location of his subjects looking rather bare. This is not true in all cases. He handles the significance of Darwinism well. The cultures of formative institutions also feature in his explanations. The young men who studied at Oxford and Glasgow were acquainted with Plato and Aristotle long before the future Idealists among them met Hegel. The Scottish Common Sense school gave the Glaswegians John and Edward Caird something to react against. However, religion is more of a weak point when Mander seeks to proceed contextually. The significance of Anglicanism for T.H. Green, and Presbyterianism for the Cairds, is not discussed in the chapter in which Mander discusses the ‘Idealist Philosophy of Religion’ (c. 5). Edward Caird’s The Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers (1904) is examined in terms of Caird’s wider interest in the history of philosophy; but what might be seen to be distinctively theological rather than philosophical in the two-volume work is passed over or subordinated to the latter. For instance, Caird conceived the work at least partly as a critical response to Harnack’s attack on the Hellenisation of Christianity by the early church: and his interest in Harnack is also recorded in his letters. Mander makes no mention of the German theologian. He might also have been more historically sensitive to what, exactly, Idealists were trying to achieve by their engagement with religious subjects. He says that ‘by the late nineteenth century, religion in many people’s eyes had failed’ and suggests that in Green and the Caird brothers we see an attempt ‘to replace theology by philosophy’ (342-343). Would it be closer to the truth to argue that (at least in the case of the Cairds) they were using philosophy to understand theology in its true light, finally to grasp the truths at which theology had been aspiring for so long, rather than to dispense with it?

Mander’s dominant interest in providing a technical exposition and evaluation of Idealist thought as philosophy leaves open a number of other questions to which future historians could profitably pay attention. We hear rather little of intellectual networks; Mander pays attention to teacher-pupil relationships, but not to any correspondence between figures or intellectual engagement across borders (he deals with Kant, Hegel and Lotze only in translation, and could have made more of Idealist contacts with North America or India). He is certainly aware that opponents of Idealism existed before Moore and Russell, but he does not provide especially detailed discussion of their opposition to Idealism or how Idealist works were received by commentators in other books and in the periodical press. One of this work’s great strengths is its presentation of how the Idealists themselves read the history of philosophy, from Plato to Hegel, but it is less strong in treating the Idealists’ historical thought insofar as it lay outsider what can reasonably be called the history of philosophy: it is either missed out (as with Green’s Lectures on the English Revolution) or treated cursorily (as with Caird’s Evolution of Religion) (160-166).

Such problems as there are with    British Idealism: a History are problems of omission and simplification, rather than any more fundamental difficulties with its conception and range. No work can ever be exhaustive, especially when viewed from the point of view of a different discipline. This study raises, as good books do, many issues which other scholars may wish to explore further or clarify. But as a full study of the movement, it will surely have no rival for years to come.#

Joshua M.R.Bennett

Christ Church, Oxford

Joshua Bennett is the author of The Victorian High Church and the Era of the Great Rebellion 
Published by The Davenant Press, April 2011
(see paperback section of www.davenantpress.co.uk)
 

For Joshua Bennett's reviews of Continuum titles see the Review page

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Published by Boydell and Brewer, 2012


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J.M.R.Bennett, Christ Church, Oxford reviews a Continuum Books, Series

Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, introduced and selected by Ruth Scurr (Continuum: London and New York, 2010), 195 pp.
ISBN 978 0826440525

J. A. Froude, The Reign of Mary Tudor, introduced and selected by Eamon Duffy (Continuum: London and New York, 2009), 167 pp.
ISBN 978 1441186850

T. B. Macaulay, History of England, introduced and selected by John Burrow (Continuum: London and New York, 2009), 174 pp.
ISBN 978 144113748

William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico, introduced and selected by J.H. Elliott (Continuum: London and New York, 2009), 152 pp.
ISBN 9781441146991

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In the introduction to his Religion, Politics and Society in Britain 1066-1272, Henry Mayr-Harting recalls how a Sunday broadsheet once declined to publish his review of an edition of analytical essays examining the reign of Richard I, on the grounds that he had not ‘told the story’. Historians of all periods are today inclined to shy away from bold attempts at ‘telling the story’, for a host of well-known reasons. Free of the mixed blessings of modern academic conditions, such reticence did not affect the Victorian historians, some of the greatest of whom are now presented to a new generation of readers by the Continuum publishing group. Private scholars, they sought, and in these instances deservedly won, fame, riches and reputation from their magnificent narrative histories. The principal works of Carlyle, Froude, Macaulay and Prescott are today most likely to be read not by the eagerly receptive publics which first greeted them, but by undergraduates and their teachers: Macaulay and Carlyle more so than Froude or, in Britain, Prescott. It is regrettable that their principal audience today should be so narrow. They remain not only classics of English literature: they may also profitably be read as exhilarating evocations of the subjects they describe and, more indirectly, for what they reveal of the societies in which they were composed.

Continuum’s new editions will hopefully enlarge the readership of these richly rewarding texts, by offering short selections from multivolume studies that are today mainly out of print, prefaced by brief introductory essays and lists of suggested secondary studies. They may be of interest to academics in search of readily-available set texts for first-year historiography courses, but their chief audience will surely and appropriately be the general readers for whom they were originally intended. They are inappropriate for higher-level or scholarly use. The editors omit the authors’ footnotes. They have moreover made selections, not reproductions or abridgements: the editors have not each provided a continuous expanse of the original prose, nor can they, in under two hundred pages, provide balanced samples of all sides of the authors’ narrative interests. To focus attention on the main thrust of the vivid episodes they bring into prominence, they remove detail, truncate chapters, even merge paragraphs. This is desirable, given the stated purpose of the series, and is usually accomplished seamlessly. But this additional layer of editorial involvement, made without citations, does mean that readers are not always hearing the voice of the author in all its fullness (one might uncharitably say verbosity). For that, readers will have to turn to the original texts.

History House of Oxford, The Davenant Press, The Cottage, Priory Lane, Burford, Oxfordshire
OX18 4SG, Great Britain