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.
Université de Rouen
is always extremely satisfactory for an author or editor to sell
out the first print run of a bookand 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
who only consider the undertaking as a pot-boiler, or is it written by specialistsif
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 Macnicols 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 Allowancesbut 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
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 choicesnot
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
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
In the back cover blurb, the publishers explain that In
contrast to the political focus of other guides (11), Twentieth-Century
comparable attention to literature, music, social currents, and family
life,’ and it is a fact that it includes many authors, ballet dancers,
film makers, as well as entries on artistic movements like Vorticism (though
not Angry Young Men as suchone has to go to Osborne for thatand
know the connection before looking).
As always, navigation is sometimes uneasy. Looking for Cinema, one
finds nothingthis 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 Masters 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 reviewers 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 therewith one exception: there is no entry on Devaluation,
arguably a major source of political debate (and anxiety for Labour) from 1931
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. Ramsdens 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 concisenessa 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
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 labouri.e. a reduction in real wagesbut
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 thisand much morebut
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, Britains 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
Britishnot only historians and scholars with primarily a professional motivationwill
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,
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
5). Cf. Berridge, Virginia. Health and Society in Britain since 1939. New
Studies in economic and social History Series. Cambridge: University
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: Womens Experiences in the
Two World Wars. London: Pandora, 1987.
9). The latest work in his remarkable output on the subject
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.
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:
2002, reviewed in Cercles: http://www.cercles.com/review/r6/ramsden.html
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
Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain: http://www.cercles.com/review/r5/cannadine.html
13). Drabble, Margaret. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford:
University Press, 1985 (Reissue, 2002). See discussion
of the Companions usefulness
to the historian in the Ramsden review: http://www.cercles.com/review/r6/ramsden.html
14). Cf. Dudley Edwards, Ruth. Victor Gollancz: A Biography. London:
Victor Gollancz, 1987.