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Troublemaker: The Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor
Kathleen Burk*
Newhaven & London: Yale University Press, 2002.**
$20.00, xiv-491 pages, ISBN 0-300-09453-1 (paperback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

As a reviewer, weigh your words. But once you’ve settled them, stick to them. Never apologise or retreat. Above all, remember that as a reviewer you have one duty & one only: to the potential reader. You must tell him the truth about the book without thought whether you are pleasing the author or offending him. (p.359)

There are a number of ironies in writing a review of A.J.P. Taylor’s Biography. Taylor himself was a master practitioner of the craft (1) and he gave advice to would-be reviewers, as in the recommendations quoted above. Taylor wrote a biography of Beaverbrook (2), which Burk criticises with excellent arguments, thus inviting comparison with her own treatment of Taylor’s life. Taylor gave his opinion of the value of writing biography—and when Burk very appropriately reports his views, one cannot help applying his conceptions to Troublemaker.

The ironies and analogies do not stop here: there is no doubt that Troublemaker is a great biography, but just as Burk has trouble—pun intended—ascertaining just why A.J.P. Taylor was a great historian: ‘A.J.P. Taylor was possibly the greatest, and certainly the most famous, diplomatic historian of the twentieth century. How and why he was great is a difficult question’, the reader of her book has trouble pinpointing just why this is the case.

Why do we read Biography? Even more complicated, why do we read biographies of biographers? Why do historians write and/or read biographies of historians? All these questions are implicit in Troublemaker because A.J.P. Taylor raised them in some way or other at some stage, or caused his students, friends and colleagues—admiring or critical—to raise them.

As suggested above, Taylor partially answered the question of the link between biography and history, justifying biography as a serious pursuit for the serious historian, when he remarked apropos of his Bismarck (3):

It is a very good exercise for an historian to stray into biography—a field seemingly so similar and yet so fundamentally different. Perhaps no historian can really handle individual psychology or make an individual the centre of his book. All the same I think my Bismarck is the best on him ever written. (p. 279)

One more difficulty for Burk (and for the reviewer), notably in the field of psychology, is that Taylor wrote his own, very readable Autobiography (4). Again, why do people write Autobiographies? Why indeed do historians write Autobiographies? An earlier review in Cercles (5) already came across these awkward questions. Of course Burk makes full use of A personal History, an inexhaustible source for important psychological aspects of his life, like his attitude towards women, in particular his mother:

I do not think I ever became fond of her. But unconsciously I slipped into the attitude towards women that my father had before me: that one must look after them and carry out their wishes even if these were unwelcome or foolish. (A Personal History, p.20)

In fact, throughout the Biography, Burk repeatedly comments upon his complicated marital affairs, with three wives and families to support and/or visit (he always enjoyed the company of his children) in his later years. In 1969, for instance, while entertaining Éva Haraszti (who was to become his third wife) in London, ‘he began the same routine with Eve [after separating in 1968] that he had established with Margaret [his first wife, divorced 1951] years earlier, when their children were small: he began turning up at Eve’s on Saturday or Sunday, spending two nights a week with her and their two young sons’. (p.347)

The Autobiography is also a rich source for anecdotes reproduced in the Biography, like Taylor ‘knitting scarves for the forces’, ‘an accomplishment…acquired during the first world war’, to avoid ‘the waste of time’ generated by ‘College committees’ between 1941 and 1945 (A Personal History, p. 161. Troublemaker, p. 168).

But Burk’s main task is trying to set the record straight, correcting him when he makes factual errors and pointing out the most glaring examples of disingenuousness in the Autobiography, for instance over the affair of the Regius Chair—a choice bit for connoisseurs and amateurs of academic intrigue. When Taylor writes: ‘Galbraith, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, was running out, as I have already mentioned. The fact was without significance for me. I was hardly aware of the Regius Chair’ (A Personal History, p.215), Burk sternly comments: ‘According to Taylor, he had hardly noticed, a typically Taylorian aside which is wholly unbelievable’ (Troublemaker, p.207). Likewise, she writes that the ‘version of events’ relating Taylor’s initial involvement with Beaverbrook in A Personal History ‘lacks a certain plausibility’ and discusses why (Troublemaker, p.401).

Another interesting parallel between the two books lies in the choice of photographs, with two different fascinating snapshots of Taylor’s open bookcase with his own works (with Taylor sitting in an armchair in front of it in the Biography). Some of the books have been moved, but The Origins of the Second World War, with its clearly recognisable spine, seems to be in almost exactly the same position, on the far left on the top shelf but one.

Troublemaker is also of course invaluable in filling the gaps in A Personal History, the most obvious example being his omission of his second marriage, which the Biography explains with some humour: ‘Eve Crosland [his second wife] does not appear in Taylor’s autobiography because of her threats of writs, and thus their two sons appear from nowhere, conceived apparently by parthenogenesis’ (p.197)

On a more serious note, Burk naturally tries to determine Taylor’s achievements in his various capacities. As a historian, she points out, he was an adept of the ‘invention of tradition’ motif—and she makes the claim that this concept, which is ‘now widespread’, ‘possibly first makes its appearance’ in The Habsburg Monarchy 1815-1918: A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary (6) (p.231). She also writes in her Epilogue that ‘Many consider The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (7) his masterpiece and one of the greatest of all works of diplomatic history’ (p.415). This does not mean that as a historian he avoided the contradictions seen in his private life. A good example given by Burk is that of his many and sometimes contradictory pronouncements on the value of history:

By now [1959] he believed that the outbreak of the Second World War had been the result of mistakes, or accidents; the book [The Origins of the Second World War] would serve to warn people and perhaps help CND to hammer home its point. As he wrote in the first chapter of The Origins of the Second World War, ‘I doubt whether much will be gained by waiting another ten or fifteen years; and much might be lost. The few survivors of civilisation may have given up reading books by then, let alone writing them’. This is probably the most blatant example of Taylor’s ignoring his own precept that history provided no ‘lessons’ to be learned. (p.282)

This discussion of his scholarly writings will be found most rewarding by the academic historian, but Burk also pointedly reminds her readers that ‘He made history matter to hundreds of thousands of people’ (p.415)—and here we come across a highly controversial aspect of his career, which she meticulously and magnificently documents: that of the ‘history business’, as she call it in a chapter devoted to Taylor’s multifarious (and very lucrative) activities in the press (both popular and broadsheet), on radio and on television (mostly commercial television, whose birth he had helped to bring about).

Many older readers of Troublemaker will remember the familiar face with the horn glasses and the bow-tie on the screen. The present reviewer indeed became acquainted with A.J.P. Taylor in the winter of 1967-68, when he appeared on ‘commercials’, enticing the viewer to start collecting one of those series of pictorial albums which one buys every week from newsagents, with a special binder. Needless to say this function as an ‘adman’ appeared extremely distateful on the part of a ‘respectable’ historian—the inverted commas implying doubt about his professional ethics for a French (then) student with the usual ‘radical’ 1960s distaste for mixing learning and commercialism. How many British viewers were actually put off by this confusion of genres is of course impossible to determine—but surely his success at attracting many to ‘serious’ history must be offset by the negative reaction which his ‘history business’ no doubt produced among others.

Still, the figures are there. Staggering figures, at that. The extraordinary Appendix compiled by Burk gives his income from: books – book reviews – radio broadcasting – TV broadcasting – print journalism, plus total income, every year from 1934 to 1990 (the year of his death). Then she gives the totals, 1934-1990. All in all, outside his teaching proper, from his ‘history business’, he earned £355,635 over the years. Taking account of inflation, this is the equivalent of £1,899,855 at 1995 prices—and for various reasons explained by Burk, this can only be an under-estimate.

Finally the ambiguous image which also survives in the academic world—to be admired by some or deplored by others (more numerous, it seems)—is that of the provocateur, a role in which he excelled as testified by this quip at Trevor-Roper (the man who got that Regius Chair), who had set out to ‘savage’ The Origins of the Second World War: ‘The Regius Professor’s methods of quotation might also do harm to his reputation as a serious historian, if he had one’. But the dimension of ambiguity is immediately given by Burk:

The whole episode, following upon that of the Regius chair, convinced many that Taylor and Trevor-Roper were sworn enemies, when in fact they were not: privately they got along well together (p.287)

Burk also gives some of Taylor’s more provocative epigrams, as that one in the Preface to the American edition of The Origins of the Second World War (and therefore probably unknown to most readers of the British edition): ‘The German problem, as it existed between the wars, was largely the creation of American policy’. One then wonders how the American publisher, Atheneum, could write of that Preface: ‘it will greatly help the chance of the book in America’ (p.293)—unless of course he too believed that provocation pushed sales.

In her final paragraphs, Burk rightly asserts that ‘the final question must be that of his lasting significance’ (p.415), and it many ways that will depend on the relative weight of the scholar-historian and showman-historian. No doubt the showman-historian will be forgotten when older viewers die, but the problems raised by his assessment as a scholar-historian were already neatly summed up in 1961 by the German historian Gerhard Ritter, whose views Burk gives in English translation:

Taylor is anything other than a famous historian. He counts with all my English colleagues-acquaintances as an outsider, not to be taken seriously, and therefore has no prospect of being called to a chair (8). His writing aims to ‘épater les [sic] bourgeois’ and under all circumstances to be nonconformist, that is to say, to disconcert and confuse the worthy average opinion of the English public. Under some circumstances he seeks to disconcert by expressing wicked thoughts that other people are ashamed to express openly, as, for example, that Germany’s division into two is the greatest luck for England’ (p.292).

Now, since Burk severely criticises Taylor for his poor Biography of Beaverbrook—because ‘it was insufficiently researched’, because ‘Anecdote dominated over analysis’ and because ‘The book cannot wholly be trusted’ in view of ‘the cloud of hagiography that envelops’ it—we can apply the same tests to her own Biography of Taylor. Looking at the Bibliography and sources, it is clear that she has ‘read everything’—published or unpublished—in the best tradition. The pages of analysis no doubt dominate over the (very often highly entertaining) anecdotes. And the critical distance is always present—this is certainly no hagiography, though the book is written with undeniable warmth. No case of tu quoque here, therefore.

Since we started with Taylor’s own words, we might as well also end with them: ‘In my opinion the writings of an historian are no good unless readers get the same pleasure from them as they do from a novel’ (372).

No doubt Burk had this precept in mind, and one evidently derives great pleasure from reading this excellent Biography from end to end. Warmly recommended.

* Cf. earlier Cercles review. The British Isles since 1945. Kathleen Burk, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

** First published in hardback, Yale University Press, 2000.

(1) ‘Over his lifetime, Taylor wrote nearly 1,600 book reviews’, p. 359.

(2) Taylor, A.J.P. Beaverbrook. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972.

(3) Taylor, A.J.P. Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955.

(4) Taylor, A.J.P. A Personal History. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983.

(5) Cf. Cercles review. Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life. Eric Hobsbawm. London: Allen Lane, 2002.

(6) London: Macmillan, 1941.

(7) Oxford: University Press, 1954.

(8) In fact, eventually, A.J.P. Taylor became a Visiting Professor at Bristol University in the late 1970s.


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