and National Life
London: Profile Books, 2002.
£12.99, 184 pages, ISBN 1-86197-469-8 (hardcover).
Technische Universität Darmstadt
When visiting Wallington Hall, the Northumberland family home of the
Trevelyans, the historian Stefan Collini started pondering the possibilities
of writing "the national history". While one distinguished
member of this family, the historian G. M. Trevelyan, had no difficulties
in establishing "the national history" and its relevance
for national life, Collini mused that in today's Britain the past
only rarely seems to assume urgent political significance; the very
notion of "national past" does not seem to be as clear-cut
now as it was for Trevelyan's generation. In short, Collini realised
"just how problematic the whole enterprise of writing 'the national
history' has now become".  Convinced of the lack of political
urgency of history, it was with some surprise that Collini registered
the 'public fuss'  about history, especially on the occasion of
historical anniversaries, since the interest created by the media
seems to disappear rapidly after the commemoration of the great event.
Like Collini in the essay quoted above, Mandler offers reflections
on the relationship between "history" and "national
life". He differs from Collini, however, in the way he treats
public interest in history with somewhat greater respect; he tries
to understand what kind of needs history can satisfy in our time and
in what sense the multiple popular ways of presenting history express
these needs. Thus, Mandler's short bookrather a long, insightful
essayapproaches Collini's question on the changed role of the
past in national life with a different attitude.
What are the uses of history for national life in the first place?
In an introductory first chapter, Mandler rejects common answers to
this question, which may be heard in university seminars or on the
political stage, as far too simplisticanswers such as: History
may teach us lessons; history provides guidance for political action;
history makes people support desirable aims, e. g. social justice
or racial tolerance. None of these answers guarantees a particular
role for history in national life; you may be convinced of the importance
of these aims without any historical knowledge at your disposal. Moreover,
these answers seem to fit neither the highly specialised pursuits
of the professional historian nor the interests of "lay"
history consumers who visit exhibitions, play history-based computer
games or spend their week-ends re-enacting medieval knights. A more
convincing answer has yet to be found.
Being a historian, Mandler approaches the question by way of historical
analysis. He argues that the relationship between history and "national
life" is inevitably shaped by the professional identities of
historians and the conceptions of "national life" that emerged
ever since history became established as an academic subject in the
era of nationalism from the late eighteenth century onwards. Consequently,
the main part of this short book is devoted to a historiographical
exploration of ideas about the uses of history as suggested by (mainly
British) historians past and present. These pages, full of stimulating
and entertaining detail about the history of British history (with
occasional forays into further European countries), are divided into
three chapters, each presenting a clearly identifiable stage in the
relationship of history and "national life". This stark
separation of phases has a slight 'Cannadinesque' quality about it
, showing history moving from great national importance via deep
neglect to the renewed boom of our time.
The first main chapter describes an era (about 1800-1880) when history
was recognized as a cornerstone in the building of national identity.
NovelistsSir Walter Scott being only the best-known among themproduced
a vision of an old English past that offered patterns of identification
to the English public. Historians such as T. B. Macaulay or John Richard
Green delivered narratives of national development that placed "the
'imagined community' of the people" (20) at the centre of their
stories. Mandler singles out Green's "Short History of the English
People" (1874) as the first example of a truly popular national
history which turned from the high-born heroes of much history writing
to the achievements of the common people. Writers and historians became
"great public figures" (45). Their voice was heard on all
kinds of national issues because history was seen as crucial for an
understanding of national character and for providing social cohesion.
This situation was not to last. Mandler's next chapter (covering the
period between 1880 and 1960) presents history's fall from grace.
Many factors contributed to a reduction in history's role in public
life. Self-professed "modernists" rejected the uses of tradition
straight away, a position culminating in Henry Ford's famous dictum
"history is bunk" (61). The social sciences rather than
history provided the inspiration for attempts to understand or shape
national life, even permeating the practice of academic history. In
any case, the historians themselves, in the process of professionalisation
of their discipline, had helped to break the link between academic
history and the wider public. They substituted "the minute and
critical study" (H. A. L. Fisher) of the past for the broad general
accounts of national life produced by the preceding generation of
historians (49). This increased scientific accountability, but it
also surrendered the claim to have anything worthwhile to say to the
nation at large. Mandler presents George Macaulay Trevelyan as a unique
exception (71). Trevelyan popularised history for wide audiences,
shaping a vision of England as a land of rural and gentlemanly values.
With much sympathy, Mandler traces Trevelyan's fight against all attempts
to claim for history the status as a predominantly academic science,
knowing this would ring the "death knell for history" (p.
74). In one respect, though, Trevelyan was in accordance with his
fellow academics: if asked about the contribution history might make
to national life, they tended to come up with the outdated "nation-based"
reply that history explained where the nation came from and helped
to understand where it was goingnot a very persuasive answer
in an age of social sciences and diversification of national life.
In the following chapter, Mandler argues that from the 1960s onwards
history started bouncing back from its trough. Again the reasons were
manifold. Local and family history started to take off, underlining
people's interest in their personal history; television, museums and
theatre productions created images of the past that reached wide audiences.
The expansion of education is one of Mandler's particular favourites
in accounting for the overall surge of interest in history. In a process
moving from "ironic affection" to "wholehearted enjoyment"
(93-94), history entered the current boom phase, with serious historical
books entering bestseller lists and historical TV programmes enjoying
large numbers of viewers.
At first glance, history may seem to have been re-established at the
heart of national life. But as Mandler points out, the claims on history
in our time are driven by needs and questions different from the ones
in the nineteenth century. The "nation" has become so diversified
and fragmented that no vision of a national past would be able to
give cohesion to society any longer. Rather, the history boom seems
driven by people's search for their personal history and the need
to find adequate ways of self-expression. Last but not least, history
serves as a sort of intellectual entertainment for the well-educated
section of the population in the generation after university expansion.
If there can be no moving back to the nineteenth century, the question
remains: which contribution can be expected of history to national
life, long after national life has ceased to be organised around the
concept of the nation? Any answer requires the historian to leave
his academic ivory tower and to enter public discussion. Yet many
university-based historians continue to fear for the academic integrity
of their subject if exposed to the contagion of popularity. Mandler
does not share this position, although he does not seem to be a wholehearted
supporter of "telly dons" such as Simon Schama or David
Starkey either. His ideas on the role of history in national life
move at some distance from flashy television performances and bestseller
lists. Still, when Mandler closes his book with an account of how
he managed to correct mistaken historical data in an article in the
Guardian, this comes as a bit of an anti-climax to this excellent
essay, although surely there is nothing dishonourable in modestly
claiming for history "quality-control functions in the information-rich
society" of our times (162). However, Mandler directs the main
thrust of his argument elsewhere. Apart from the ethical and intellectual
capabilities of history suggested by academic historians, Mandler's
sympathy belongs to the "imaginative capabilities" it offers:
"It exposes the student to the full range of human possibilities"
(146), allowing him to participate in a world of human experiences
not usually available in everyday life. So it is "human enrichment",
not "abstract" lessons that flow out of history (5-6). In
many ways, this position harks back to the uses of history as defined
by G. M. Trevelyan, "but they now have relevance to many more
people" (143). Thus, Trevelyan makes a return as an inspiration
to historians for combining academic research with popular (if not
overly flashy) ways of presenting history. But from Mandler's exposition
of historiographyas from Collini's musingsit is obvious
that one element of Trevelyan's approach has been irretrievably lost
in the past; old certainties that allowed for a unifying vision of
the "national past" have been eroded, and the national
history does not seem possible anymore. Today, there are many more
different versions of history than in Trevelyan's age. It is one of
Mandler's central contentions that this is not a thing to be deplored,
but the starting point on history's avenue into the future.
With such thoughts, Mandler aims to answer the question about the
uses of history in our society. Are his answers convincing? May the
"full range of human possibilities" not be explored equally
well by immersion into fictional literature? Should the historian
give in to the fragmentation of experiences and identities, or should
he/she be the one to try and overcome the fissures in society? Whatever
the reader may feel about it, Mandler's answers are deeply humanistic
ones and as such differ wholesomely from today's emphasis on the functional
utility of knowledge for "practical life", conceptions in
which goals like "human enrichment" tend to get short shrift.
Since this trend is common to many countries, Mandler's essay will
make thought-provoking reading for continental readers as well as
anyone interested in British history. As is often the case with excellent
essays, Mandler's is much more pleasurable to read than to summarize.
The stylistic elegance of the essay-writer combines several threads
of argument that can only be disrupted by the necessarily short presentation
in a review. Fortunately, Mandler manages to discuss a set of wide-ranging
issues in only about 160 pagesso his book offers much "human
enrichment" to the reader at the least possible expense of time.
 Stefan Collini, English Pasts: Essays in History and Culture,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 9.
 For David Cannadine's most recent book, In Churchill's Shadow:
Confronting the Past in Modern Britain (2002), see the review
by Antoine Capet in Cercles.