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In Churchill’s Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain
David Cannadine
London: Allen Lane, 2002.
£25.00, 386 pages, ISBN 0713995076.

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

Anybody who is at all familiar with David Cannadine’s work will remember his ferociously witty piece in History Today, ‘On Reviewing and being Reviewed’1, with the daunting opening sentence for any would-be reviewer: ‘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’. And the poor would-be reviewer can only be discouraged by the later opinion that ‘The review is parasitic on the book, and so is the reviewer’. Still, Professor Cannadine offers advice for the beginner bold enough to proceed with his undertaking after reading all this: ‘read the book; place the book; describe the book; judge the book’2. So, after all, perhaps all is not lost and one can try to apply his four precepts to In Churchill’s Shadow.

The book is a collection of essays, some written for the purpose, some revised after earlier publication. It was impossible to procure all the earlier versions, but a comparison between the essay which forms Chapter 3, ‘Thrones: Churchill and Monarchy in Britain and Beyond’ and its predecessor, ‘Churchill and the British Monarchy’ shows that substantial material was added to the original lecture delivered during a major conference on Churchill which had been organised by David Cannadine himself—something which his modesty somehow prevents him from mentioning in the first note of the chapter, which establishes the genesis of the text. We now have three versions: the oral one (2001, not published, but perpetuated by the notes taken by the audience), the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society one (2002), and the final (?) one (also 2002), in the book. No doubt future historiographers intent on finding out how great historians form their thoughts will pore over the Urtext and draw ponderous conclusions about its evolution, from a conference paper into a chapter of In Churchill’s Shadow. In the case of the Gilbert and Sullivan piece, the version in the book even appears to be the fourth.3 All this to say that those who have already read some of the earlier versions of the various essays will find plenty of new meat in their 2002 reissue.

Since David Cannadine invites reviewers to ‘describe’ the books, the least we can do is to give a list of the book’s essays, with their original details of publication and former titles where appropriate:

‘Parliament: The Palace of Westminster as the Palace of Varieties’. Originally published in Riding, Christine & Riding, Jacqueline. [Editors]. The Houses of Parliament: History, Art and Architecture. London : Merrell, 2000.

‘Statecraft: The Haunting Fear of National Decline’. Originally published in Clarke, Peter & Trebilcock, Clive [Editors]. Understanding Decline: Perceptions and Realities of Britain’s Economic Performance. Cambridge : University Press, 1997.

‘Thrones: Churchill and Monarchy in Britain and Beyond’. Originally published as ‘Churchill and the British Monarchy’ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series, 12 (2002).

‘Language: Churchill as the Voice of Destiny’. Originally published in Introduction of Cannadine, David [Editor]. ‘Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat’: Winston Churchill’s Famous Speeches. London: Cassell, 1989.

‘Locality: The “Chamberlain Tradition” and Birmingham’. Originally published in Micale, Mark S. & Dietle, Robert L. [Editors]. Enlightenment, Passion and Modernity: Historical Essays in European Culture and Thought. Stanford : University Press, 2000.

‘Piety: Josiah Wedgwood and the History of Parliament’. Originally published in Staffordshire Studies xi (1999).

‘Emollience: Stanley Baldwin and Francis Brett Young’. Originally published in Midland History iv (1978 for 1977).

‘Diplomacy: G.M. Trevelyan and R.B. Merriman’. Originally published in The New England Quarterly lxxii (1999).

‘Tradition: Gilbert and Sullivan as a “National Institution”’. Previously published as ‘Gilbert and Sullivan: the making and un-making of a British “tradition”’ in Porter, Roy Sydney [Editor]. Myths of the English. Cambridge : Polity Press , 1992.

‘Conservation: The National Trust and the National Heritage’. Originally published in Newby, Howard [Editor]. The National Trust: The Next Hundred Years. London: The National Trust, 1995.

‘Sentiment: Noël Coward’s Patriotic Ardour’. Originally published in Encounter lx (March 1983).

‘Fantasy: Ian Fleming and the Realities of Escapism’. Originally published in Encounter liii (September 1979).

Describing the contents does not mean summarizing the individual chapters—whose subjects are made sufficiently clear in the titles—but in books of this nature (i.e. collections of essays) the question inevitably arises of the coherence of the whole. In itself, the title proper is misleading: In Churchill’s Shadow tends to suggest that the book covers the period since Churchill’s death (or at a pinch Churchill’s birth), but in fact the ‘story begins’ in 1834. The book does not follow a strict chronological order, though broadly speaking we start with the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834 to end with the post-19474 world, the underlying theme being not so much one of decline from Imperial grandeur as one of dim perceptions of that decline and equally unsure responses to these perceptions, from the upper-class elite, but also from the educated middle classes. In this respect, the sub-title, Confronting the Past in modern Britain, is far more informative. But who is ‘confronting the past’ in the essays? Modern British society, as a prima facie interpretation would indicate? Or the author, as a ‘second-degree’ reading gradually suggests?

There is a saying that great film directors always make the same film in different guises, and this largely holds true for writers and historians, like David Cannadine, who seems to be ever faithful to the choices of his younger years, from his Ph.D. Thesis on Birmingham5 to his fascination for Francis Brett Young6, later developed into a multi-faceted exploration of class7, monarchy8, rank9, authority and their foundations, with all their contradictions and inevitable long-term decline10. In some way or other, the essays in In Churchill’s Shadow mostly pursue familiar threads11. Professor Cannadine asks the reviewer to be judgmental—an impossible task here: who would have the impudence to criticise this giant of British historical scholarship12? Those who enjoy or perhaps even admire his vast historical culture and his unpretentious style (no pseudo-‘scientific’ jargon here!13) full of witty asides14 will always ask for ‘more of the same’. Newcomers to his writings will find in this book a representative (but of course necessarily very small) selection of his general production, and no doubt most will be seduced.

At one stage in his essay ‘On Reviewing and being Reviewed’, David Cannadine has an anecdote on how he came to write of Elton’s F.W. Maitland15 that ‘Elton’s Maitland bears a resemblance to Elton’s Elton’, and the paraphrase inevitably springs to mind: In Churchill’s Shadow of course bears a resemblance to In Cannadine’s Shadow – but whereas he concluded of Elton’s Elton that ‘we have already had rather a lot of that’, his faithful readers certainly cannot have too much of In Cannadine’s Shadow. They cannot wait until the next version of the essays appear.

1 ‘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.

2 Ibid. 457, 459.

3 Cf. note 1 p.357. The original lecture was given in 1989.

4 ‘During the first half of the twentieth century, the British Empire was part of the indissoluble order of things, and it had emerged triumphant from the wars with Germany, Italy and Japan in 1945. But in the second half of the century, between Indian independence in 1947 and the return of Hong Kong to China exactly fifty years later, it disappeared with astonishing rapidity and completeness’ (p.281).

5 ‘The aristocracy and the towns in the nineteenth century: A case-study of the Calthorpes and Birmingham, 1807-1910’. D.Phil., University of Oxford, 1975.

6 Cf. This little World: The Value of the Novels of Francis Brett Young as a Guide to the State of Midland society, 1870-1925. Occasional publications, Worcestershire historical society, N°4. Worcester: Worcestershire Historical Society, 1982.

7 Cf. Class in Britain. Yale University Press, 1998.

8 Cf. ‘The last Hanoverian sovereign?: Victorian monarchy in historical perspective, 1688-1988’. In Beier, A.L.; Cannadine, David & Rosenheim, James M. [Editors]. The First modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone. Cambridge: University Press, 1989: 127-165.

9 Cf. Lords and Landlords: The Aristocracy and the Towns, 1774-1967. Leicester: University Press, 1980 and his edited book, Patricians, Power and Politics in nineteenth-century Towns. Leicester: University Press, 1982. Also Chapter 3, ‘The Nineteenth Century: A Viable Hierarchical Society’, of Class in Britain.

10 Cf. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. Yale University Press, 1990 and Aspects of Aristocracy: Grandeur and Decline in modern Britain. Yale University Press, 1994.

11 Even the piece on the National Trust, which does not seem to have had a predecessor in Cannadine’s earlier published literature, is made to rejoin the mainstream of his preoccupations through the linking with the ‘Invention of Tradition’ motif, already explored in ‘The context, performance and meaning of ritual: the British monarchy and the “invention of tradition”, c.1820-1977’. In Hobsbawm, Eric & Ranger, Terence [Editors]. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: University Press, 1983.

12 Especially if one bears in mind what he says of the reviews of G.M. Trevelyan’s works: ‘Most of them were critical, negative and sometimes downright hostile, written by second-rate figures who had seized their chance to belittle a historian of incomparably greater abilities than they, before returning to the mediocre obscurity from which they should never have emerged’. ‘On Reviewing and being Reviewed’, p.464.

13 Might there not be link with his tenderness for Noël Coward, described as ‘hostile to “the so-called high-brows, the artsy-craftsy and the intellectual do-gooders” ’? (p.268)

14 E.g. of Margaret Thatcher and the problem of arresting ‘British decline’ in 1979: ‘In part, she was herself her own answer’ (p.39) or of Noël Coward’s position in 1945: ‘he had become a stranger in his own land, out of touch and out of date – cocooned in the drawing-room in what would soon become the era of the council house’ (p.264).

15 Elton, G. R. F.W. Maitland. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1985.

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