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British Civilization

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

The History of British Civilization. By Esmé Wingfield-Stratford, D.Sc, M.A. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. Two volumes. $12.00.

Fifty-five years ago John Richard Green, Oxford graduate and London clergyman, published his “Short History, of the English People.” To a land that had almost forgotten the enthusiasm with which Macaulay’s History had been received and read, and that was being trained to believe that history was a dull subject for schools and specialists, this volume was a revelation. It was readable, first-class prose; it swung along as thrillingly as a well-told romance, and left you exalted and inspired by the pictures on which you had been gazing. Equally important, it was a revolution. The drum and trumpet were thrown into the clothes closet; the details of foreign wars and diplomacies, the personal adventures of kings and nobles, the pomp of courts and the intrigues of favorites were all passed over lightly and briefly, while the main emphasis was put on constitutional, intellectual, religious, economic, and social advances. It was, in short, a history of the English people, rather than of English kings; it gathered on to one canvas the medieval town, abbey, and university, the serf, the craftsman, Chaucer, Caxton, Erasmus, the Elizabethan singing-birds, the Puritans, the Royal Society, the Methodist Revival, and the Industrial Revolution. Missionary, poet, printer, merchant, inventor, and philosopher—all were there, for the first time; but to find room for them it was necessary to commit lese majesty.

The success of the book amazed the author and annoyed the experts. Within a year five reprints were sold, and thirteen more were called for before the end of the century. Of course it was true, as the professional historians pointed out, that there were errors and misrepresentations, due to inadequate knowledge, enthusiasm for a cause, and the “confounding of brilliant hypothesis with sober fact.”

But Green made the discovery that man is really interested in his past. Academics may not realize this, but Messrs. Wells, Van Loon, and Durant have within the last decade shown that they do, and the public hunger for biography is probably little keener than it ever was—provided the style is readable. The Beards’ “Rise of American Civilization” may do for American history what Green did for British, and Cambridge University, which once chose Quiller-Couch to breathe life into the dry bones of the teaching of English literature, recently appointed G. M. Trevelyan, the arch-apostle of “literary” history, into the chair once occupied by Seeley, the man who thought of history as only “past politics.”

If an Oxford man catered so well for the general reader half a century ago, it is perhaps fitting that a Cambridge man should try to serve the grandson. In pre-war days Mr. Wingfield-Stratford wrote a “History of British Patriotism,” in which he cut a wide swath through British thought and action over two thousand years, revealed a faculty for brilliant generalization, and developed a habit of writing works of one thousand three hundred pages. Since then he has written on India, on the reconstruction of life and of mind—in the days when Englishmen were reconstructing everything, on paper—and several volumes which sound like novels. Now, after nine years work, he gives us two large handsomely-printed volumes on the “History of British Civilization.”

His aim is “to write the sort of history that since my, undergraduate days I have wanted to have on my shelves,” a book which would fuse into a unity the “disconnected and proportionately meaningless fragments” which have come from the pens of specialists and doctoral candidates. He sets out therefore to describe British civilization “in all its length and breadth as a living unity,” and his publishers claim that he has done for the twentieth century what Green did for the nineteenth. Unfortunately, Green’s book sold for two dollars, but these new volumes cost twelve dollars, and the post-war book-buyer cannot afford so much. If he can, he will soon decide the money was well-spent; if he cannot, that’s a pity, for if ever there was a book fitted for the general reader, this is it.

Nowhere in the book does the author define “Civilization”; had he done so he would have said it was the sum total of all that men did, thought, believed, felt, and said; it was their mind, soul, and body, their dreams, their ideals, their greatness and littleness, their reaction to their environment and the way they succeeded in moulding that environment; their way of expressing themselves in their work and play, their politics, their relations to other human groups, their sense of social justice, their view of the present and the hereafter. So, perhaps to an even greater extent than Green, Mr. Wingfield-Stratford sweeps all sides of human life into his net; politics, religion, institutions, laws, agriculture, industry, commerce, science, literature, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, furniture, manners, language, philosophy, all are viewed in their relation to the nation’s life.

Impossible, says the specialist. “No man can be an authority on more than two years of one nation’s history,” said Freeman—or so his critics said he said—and the modern historian finds it hard work to keep abreast of the output in his own particular field. How then can one man do justice to all sides of a nation’s development from the Piltdown skull to the Great War? Green might make a valiant effort, but the five-foot shelf of primary and secondary authorities available for him has grown since his day till it stretches away beyond the horizon. Neither in nine, nor in ninety-nine years, can a man equip himself fully for writing the story of a country’s civilization. All true, yet Mr. Wingfield-Stratford has come within measurable distance of achieving the impossible. He has not read everything, but he has chosen wisely what to read, and hence, while the specialist may trip him up here and there, and point out a mistake in fact or date, I doubt if any gross error or grave misinterpretation could be detected. Naturally some subjects are treated better than others; the pages that deal with religion and the church are brilliant, all that refers to India is first class, the outlook of the colonial is sympathetically understood, and social questions are carefully handled. Comments on art and letters are those of a cultured observer and critic, and when architecture is dealt with the very stones and stained glass cry out their message.

Yet is the book really a history? “It is the business of the historian to tell a story, and that with as little fuss and intrusion of his own opinions as may be.” That is the first sentence in the book, yet the work is rather a running commentary, valuation, and interpretation of the facts than a bare telling of a tale. Its title might well be “An Englishman Looks at England.” One gets the feeling frequently that one is reading a brilliant series of essays, and the author’s penchant for catchy section headings adds to the feeling. The Celtic Spirit, The Culture of Chivalry, Merrie England, The New Learning, Luther, The Elizabethan Springtime, The Book, The Soul of India, The Transvaluation of Values, The Law and the Blood, these and a score of other sections might have been lifted out of The Nineteenth Century or The Atlantic Monthly. The comment is often condemnation, for the author is no disciple of the “We were always right” school. Acts are “meanest, most shameful”; the perpetrators of the Peterloo massacre are “undisciplined louts of yeomanry”; missionaries’ “brains (were) often as small as their hearts were big”; Cecil Rhodes made his way by more than one “unblushing piece of sharp practice”; and Empire was often a matter of getting five per cent, overseas instead of only four per cent, at home, and the tartan colors of the Scotch lairds who evicted their hapless people are “the colors of Judas.”

For the rest, the book is a glorious collection of thumbnail sketches and bons mots. A man, an idea, an event, or a period of architecture is hit off neatly in all essentials in a score of lines. Beowulf, Tacitus, Norman architecture, Common Law, Machiavelli, Wellington, Cobbett, Shelley, Newman, Darwin, Shaw, Wilde, the Fabians, Gandhi— one picks out this handful from a heap of gems in word-painting. And there is a telling striking sentence in every paragraph. Here are just a few. “Of all families those least swayed by loyalty are royal.” “The Irish bull is the result of a too quick flow of ideas seeking instant and uncoordinated expression.” “The Vikings were not only fighters, but traders: they were in fact, as canny as the legendary Aberdonian about money.” “The Viking was never more businesslike than in his dealing with the gods, and was quite capable of running with the Christian hare and hunting with the hounds of Valhalla.” “The survival of the fittest implies, more often than not, the killing off of the best.” The descendants of the Puritans have “sobered down to a routine of respectability in marked contrast with the ardours of their forefathers. If anything is likely to be cut off as a result of their activities, it is the beer of the subjects and not the head of the sovereign,” The Manchester School leaders were “equally ardent as merchants and as Christians, and they saw nothing inconsistent in a close and mutually beneficent alliance between God and Mammon.” “The mantle of Peel had fallen on Gladstone, and needed very little tailoring to make it a perfect fit.” Mr. Balfour’s “Defence of Philosophic Doubt” “suggested that the scientists themselves might be building their house upon the sand, and that a godless world was at least as incredible as one created.” “In the first flush of victory over the Old Adam, the self-constituted apostles of the New Darwin had exploited their vietory with an extravagance worthy of Versailles.” Oscar Wilde “fairly boxed the compass on respectability, and preached freedom from the seven deadly virtues to a delighted but incredulous audience, who refused to sully their lips with his name when it came out that he had actually had the courage of his convictions.” Queen Victoria, when she emerged from her solitude for the Jubilee celebrations, had “ceased to be Victoria, and become an institution, a kind of universal mother, a Pan-Britannic Madonna.” Apropos of South Africa, Chamberlain remarked that “one cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, nor, he might have added, can one break into Naboth’s vineyard without breaking Naboth.” Under the auspices of Edward VII, “money began to talk, and not always in the purest English.” And so on; every page has its pithy revealing phrase or sentence, and at times there are whole paragraphs that startle you by their freshness of view and keen perception.

But Mr. Wingfield-Stratford is no mere maker of wisecracks. The catastrophe, the “universal suicide” of 1914 is too grim a fact, and one naturally looks at his Epilogue to discover his hopes or fears for the future. To him the future depends on our ability to cope with the “transvaluation of values” which, beginning at the Renaissance, led to a mad pursuit of power over the outer world and a neglect of the inner man. Man changed his environment, especially by the Industrial Revolution and the development of modern science, but made no such comparable change in his ability to meet the challenge of a man-changed environment. Hence came individual and national egotisms; realpolitik became the creed of class, national, and racial relations, and bankrupt faiths and ideals no longer barred the road to the edge of the precipice. So it doesn’t matter very much what this or that minister said on July 28th, 1914; given the tone of European civilization, the catastrophe could not help coming sometime, and all were to blame.

Therefore the question, “whose answer spells life or death for civilized man” is, “Are the human mind and spirit capable of being adapted to the requirements of a Machine Age? Is it possible for mankind to level up its mental capacities to the demands of the environment that its own conquest of matter has created? Is there any chance of our improving our minds in proportion to the improvement in our machines? With blind precipitancy we have revolutionized our environment: it has yet to be seen whether we can effect a corresponding revolution in ourselves.” Our author thus stands alongside that group of divines and philosophers which is suggesting that it is far more important to push ahead with ethics than with chemistry and physics, with improving morals rather than machines. Like them he is a conditional optimist. “God’s image must not be allowed to go the way of the giant lizards, its predecessors.” We must take warning and guidance from the past, and “it may well be that on British civilization as expressed in a free Commonwealth of Nations—on the limits of whose possible extension I do not presume to speculate here—the fairest hopes of mankind are destined more and more to centre.”


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