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Twentieth-Century Britain: An Encyclopedia
Fred M. Leventhal, ed.
New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
$55.95 / £38.00, xxxi-640 pages, ISBN 0-8204-5108-8.

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen


It is always extremely satisfactory for an author or editor to sell out the first print run of a book—and even more so to be able to offer an updated second edition. The Encyclopedia under review, now published by Peter Lang, is the second edition of the version originally published by Garland in 1995. One much-needed update was of course the entry on ‘Blair, Anthony Charles Linton (1953-)’, which duly takes note of his victory at the General Election of June 2001. So, even those libraries and private individuals with the Garland edition will find it worthwhile to acquire the updated version.

Professor Fred Leventhal of Boston University, the editor, is a respected figure in the not-so-small world of twentieth-century British Studies and History, not only in the United States, as former President of the North American Conference on British Studies, but also in Britain, where he is to be seen each year in July attending the Anglo-American Conference at the University of London, and where he also co-edits the OUP journal, Twentieth-Century British History. He was therefore able to rely on his many friends and connections on both sides of the Atlantic to gather a team of experts on the fields covered. This in fact is one of the tests of this type of encyclopedia: is it written by unknown authors who only consider the undertaking as a pot-boiler, or is it written by specialists—if possible with the authority on the subject for each entry?

If we go back to the entry on Tony Blair, it is written by Andrew Thorpe, well known for his work on the Labour and Communist Left : as there is yet no accepted ‘authority’ on Tony Blair, the choice of Thorpe, whose credentials are of course impeccable, is a happy one. Likewise, John Macnicol on Titmuss or Pat Thane on Women are choices which cannot be disputed in fields where there might have been many contenders. But to take John Macnicol’s example, it seems curious to the outsider who knows that he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the subject (1) that he should not have also been entrusted with Family Allowances—but then of course the entry is written by Susan Pedersen, who has also worked extensively on the subject (and the alphabetical order favours Macnicol in the Bibliography which follows the entry, as his seminal book of 1980 on Family Allowances is listed first (2)). Still, Macnicol got the entry on Old Age Pensions, and even though Pat Thane might have been a serious contender (she got Ageing), there is no disputing that he is the current expert in the field (3). In the same vein, one could argue that Stuart Ball, if not the authority on Baldwin and the Conservative Party, is on a par with the greatest specialists (4).

To continue this little game of identifying ‘authorities’, Virginia Berridge on Public Health (5), Richard Cockett on Dawson, Garvin, The Observer, The Times (6) Peter Stansky on Orwell (7), Penny Summerfield on Women in Wartime (1914-1918 and 1939-1945) (8), Chris Wrigley on Citrine, Taff Vale Judgment, J.H. Thomas, Trade Union Legislation, Trades Union Congress (9), are obvious choices—not forgetting the Editor himself, who does Brailsford and Henderson after writing authoritative biographies of these two prominent figures of the Left (10). These are only soundings, and it would be idle to pursue the exercise further—but the point has been made: from the point of view of the ‘quality’ of the authors, therefore, the Encyclopedia passes the test with flying colours.

After ‘quality’, ‘quantity’: in other words, is the corpus of entries offered sufficiently comprehensive to deserve the label of ‘encyclopedia’? In the back cover ‘blurb’, the publishers explain that ‘In contrast to the political focus of other guides (11), Twentieth-Century Britain gives comparable attention to literature, music, social currents, and family life,’ and it is a fact that it includes many authors, ballet dancers, composers, dramatists, film makers, as well as entries on artistic movements like Vorticism (though not Angry Young Men as such—one has to go to Osborne for that—and know the connection before looking).

As always, navigation is sometimes uneasy. Looking for ‘Cinema’, one finds nothing—this being primarily an American undertaking, the entry is perhaps under ‘Movies’? Nothing there either. The third attempt, at ‘Film’, is a hit: Film Industry. The terminology is different from Ballet, Opera and Opera Companies or Orchestras. Likewise, there is nothing under ‘Music’: one must look for Composers and Music. Why is cinema an ‘industry’ when music is not? Is (or was) the Rank organisation (older people like the present reviewer remember the famous gong) more commercial or ‘industrial’ than His Master’s Voice (EMI for younger readers)? Surely The Beatles, who rightly deserve an entry of their own, were a commercial as much as a cultural phenomenon? At the other end of the taste spectrum, Kathleen Ferrier, who is the object of a minor cult (arguably both cultural and commercial, like the Beatles) in Britain, apparently does not deserve a mention.

Fred Leventhal wrote a clever disclaimer in his Preface, when he speaks of ‘idiosyncratic’ ‘editorial policies’ which do not ‘warrant…apology’. It would of course be extremely facile to disclaim his disclaimer, but as David Cannadine puts it in a phrase which should constantly be at the back of every reviewer’s mind, ‘As anyone knows who has tried their hand sufficiently at both activities, it is a great deal easier to review books on history than it is to write them’ (12). It is clear that one could argue endlessly on what should or should not be included in an encyclopedia with this title, but all the key names, key words or key notions which sprang to mind were there—with one exception: there is no entry on ‘Devaluation’, arguably a major source of political debate (and anxiety for Labour) from 1931 to 1997.

When looking for ‘Sterling’, which might have provided information on devaluations, I chanced upon the two Stracheys, Strachey, John (1901-1963) and Strachey, (Giles) Lytton (1880-1932). I hoped that at last I would know if there were any family links between the two, as this had always puzzled me. Unfortunately, the answer in not in these entries. Still, in this particular instance, Leventhal is one up on two of his main competitors. Ramsden’s Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century British Politics only has Strachey, (Evelyn) John St Loe (1901-63), whereas Margaret Drabble, in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (13), only has Strachey, (Giles) Lytton (1880-1932), and in both cases the entries in the Encyclopedia are clearly more copious, and therefore a priori more informative. On examination, therefore, the Encyclopedia does offer the more comprehensive coverage claimed in the ‘blurb’, and this is obviously a capital point in its favour.

In evaluating this type of reference work the next test must be that of clarity of exposition for the newcomer to the subjects treated in the various entries. That is why I was looking for ‘Devaluation’, because anyone who has had to teach the mechanism knows how difficult it is to explain with clarity and conciseness—a prerequisite for an encyclopedia entry. Next best, I looked up at Gold Standard, another tough nut to crack. The explanation of the psychological aspect is excellent, but the layman finds it difficult to understand why ‘the downward adjustment of domestic prices that overvaluation necessitated [after its restoration in 1925] would involve large-scale Unemployment’. If British prices had to go down as a result, there would have to be a reduction in the cost of employing labour—i.e. a reduction in real wages—but the link with unemployment is not clear, as overall activity would not be affected. Here, conciseness makes the text misleading, since the author has no space to explain that in fact selling prices in sterling did not always go down, and that on foreign markets British goods became more expensive in local currencies. And with British goods now uncompetitive, British exports inevitably suffered, and British activity could only diminish, thus producing ‘large-scale unemployment’. Dintenfass, the author of the entry, of course knows all this—and much more—but the uninitiated who hopes to find the link between the return to the Gold Standard and unemployment will not find it in his entry.

Facing that entry is Gill, (Arthur) Eric Rowton (1882-1940). I had personally heard of his action in the peace movement (of which no mention is made), but had no notion of his importance as a sculptor, ‘Britain’s last thoroughly national artist’. The discussion (by Ian Jeffrey) of his work and of his difficult ‘involvement in society’ is absolutely exemplary. After Gold Standard comes Golding, William (1911-1993), and here again Leventhal tops the score since Drabble has in fact a shorter discussion in what is primarily a literary guide. The reader is agreeably surprised to find more on a writer in the Encyclopedia than in her updated Companion to English Literature.

The next entry is Gollancz, Victor (1893-1967), written by Ruth Dudley Edwards, his great biographer (14). All the expected (and some unexpected but extremely useful) cross-references are there: Left Book Club, Capital Punishment, Oxford, Dorothy L. Sayers, Popular Front, Fascism, Second World War, Jewish Community, Pacifist. All this is obviously encyclopedia-writing at its best, and is confirmed by soundings elsewhere in the volume which it would be tedious to detail.

The Encyclopedia also includes very useful appendices: a twelve-page Chronology covering the years 1900-2000 (the first event mentioned being ‘Labour Representation Committee established in February’, and the last ‘Opening of the British Museum Great Court’), a page of common Abbreviations (from ANZAC to WSPU), a Guide to Further Research (two pages of Bibliographies, Guides to Sources, Reference Works, Biography, Dissertations, Periodicals). To make searches easier, three complementary aids are provided: a Table of Contents listing all entries in alphabetical order, a list of Topical Contents (with topics in alphabetical order, from Academic to Women) and a final Index with names and words found in the entries (from Abbado, Claudio to Zanzibar). All this is of course invaluable, and really makes the Encyclopedia a very convenient reference work. A dozen or so photographs on various aspects of British twentieth-century life are included as an added bonus.

The proof-reading is of the highest standard: not a single misprint was detected in the repeated soundings made.

It is clear that the updated Encyclopedia, now covering the whole of the century, is an invaluable tool which all University libraries should possess, as already suggested. Private individuals who take an interest in all things British—not only historians and scholars with primarily a professional motivation—will also find it a very handy reference guide. Unreservedly recommended.

1). Macnicol, John. ‘The Movement for Family Allowances 1918-1945: A Study in Social Policy Development’. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1978.

2). Macnicol, John. The Movement for Family Allowances 1918-1945: A Study in Social Policy Development. London : Heinemann, 1980.

3). Cf. Macnicol, John. The Politics of retirement in Britain, 1878-1948. Cambridge: University Press, 1998 (Paperback reprint, 2002)

4). If only thanks to the mammoth volume edited with Anthony  Seldon, Conservative Century: the Conservative Party since 1900. Oxford: University Press, 1994.

5). Cf. Berridge, Virginia. Health and Society in Britain since 1939. New Studies in economic and social History Series. Cambridge: University Press, 1999. 

6). Cf. his Ph. D. Thesis, ‘The Government, the Press and politics in Britain, 1937-1945’. University of London: 1988.

7). His two books with William Abrahams, The Unknown Orwell. London : Constable, 1972, and Orwell: The Transformation. London: Constable, 1979 have had many paperback reissues.

8). Cf. Women Workers in the Second World War: Production and Patriarchy in Conflict. London: Croom Helm, 1984 (Second Edition: Routledge, 1989), and with Gail Braybon. Out of the Cage: Women’s Experiences in the Two World Wars. London: Pandora, 1987.

9). The latest work in his remarkable output on the subject being British Trade Unions since 1933. New Studies in economic and social History Series. Cambridge: University Press, 2002. 

10). Leventhal, Fred M. The last Dissenter: H.N. Brailsford and his World. Oxford: University Press, 1985 is the only biography of Brailsford. Leventhal’s Arthur Henderson: A Biography. Manchester: University Press, 1989, however, has a later rival by Chris Wrigley: Arthur Henderson. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1990.

11). The obvious ‘other guide’ that springs to mind is of course John Ramsden, ed. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics. Oxford: University Press, 2002, reviewed in Cercles:

12). From ‘On Reviewing and being reviewed’. History Today 49-3 (1999): 31-33. Reprinted in Snowman, Daniel [Editor]. Past Masters: The Best of History Today. Stroud: Sutton, 2001: 457-465. See review in Cercles of In Churchill’s Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain:

13). Drabble, Margaret. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: University Press, 1985 (Reissue, 2002). See discussion of the Companion’s usefulness to the historian in the Ramsden review:

14). Cf. Dudley Edwards, Ruth. Victor Gollancz: A Biography. London: Victor Gollancz, 1987.

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