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Learned Lives in England, 1900-1950

Institutions, Ideas and Intellectual Experience


William C.Lubenow


Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2020

Hardcover. xi+278 p. ISBN 978-1783275502. £65/$99


Reviewed by Peter Stansky

Stanford University




This is, appropriately, an extraordinarily learned book written by an extremely learned author. It is based on extensive research in archives as well as primary and secondary sources. William Lubenow has put us deeply in his debt through a series of books on the English intelligentsia (not a word it would much like.) He began as a quantitative historian and from that he has retained a high ability to keep many individuals in play but as distinct thinking individuals. His present interest began, I believe, with his fine study, The Cambridge Apostles (1998) and then as more specific predecessors of this volume, Liberal Intellectuals and Public Culture in Modern Britain 1815-1914 (2010) and ‘Only Connect’ : Learned Societies in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2015) and now the present work. In it he has taken us through the complicated story of individuals and institutions. He states his thesis and his method as follows:

[R]obust intellectual institutions between 1900 and 1950 in Britain stabilized, legitimized and authorised learning through a sustained insistence on Huxleyite positivism: charismatic, informal societies and clubs on the margins of intellectual life—in their nooks, cranies and niches—blunted regnant positivism by fostering, curiosity, imagination and originality. This study attacks this thesis archivally, biographically and conceptually. [7]

Here the author uses, unlike his title, the term British. But virtually all the organizations he discusses are to be found in England. Some of the major players did originally come from the Empire as well as significantly from elsewhere. The American Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations play a small role in the story.

Characteristic in England is the interplay of intense individualism combined, perhaps paradoxically, with a deep proclivity to establish social organizations. There are innumerable dining clubs dedicated to particular areas of study. Perhaps not quite enough attention is paid to the role of class. The English have frequently been uncomfortable with the idea of the intellectual as perhaps implying an individual who is too intense in style even though one should be serious about one’s work. Ideally one should wear one’s learning lightly as more consistent with what it means to be a gentleman. (There are a few important and fascinating women in this study but the great majority of the numerous cast are men.)

Much of the text is devoted to a rich examination of the various organizations in which learned lives were pursued and to the most important individuals in them. We are told their life stories in extensive footnotes (with sometimes a sly joke inserted) and sometimes in the text itself. There is not much discussion of individual endeavors although they are not neglected. Not surprisingly quite a lot of attention is devoted to Oxford and Cambridge. The London School of Economics is discussed as well, although not to any extent other institutions of higher learning. As the author knows from his rich experience at Wolfson College, Cambridge (acknowledged in his dedication) there cannot be a closer interplay of the intellectual and the social than at Oxford and Cambridge Colleges. He then very perceptively discusses the role of two premier institutions, the Royal Society with its scientific members and the British Academy with its membership drawing from the humanities and social sciences. Although Anthony Blunt is mentioned a few times in the text its terminal date of 1950 means that the author need not discuss whether it was appropriate for Blunt to be forced out of the Academy when it was revealed that he was a spy. The London headquarters of the two societies are in elegant buildings on Carlton House Terrace in London, virtually next door to that great club, the Athenaeum, dedicated to the social and the intellectual, which might have figured in this study. There is comparatively little attention here to those in the creative arts who do make up a significant part of the intellectual community but are far less likely to belong to organized groups, a primary focus of this study.

Lubenow next turns to what he calls interstitial societies, a rather fancy word for smaller mixed groupings. There he pays some attention to literary sets, such as the Bloomsbury Group with its only academic John Maynard Keynes and to the not on the whole particularly significant literary figures who gathered around Logan Pearsall Smith. As with interstitial as a term, Lubenow does at times have a tendency to write in almost too learned a way with occasionally too abstract language, too many German intellectual categories and some untranslated Latin tags. This chapter also includes smaller groups, frequently dining clubs, and largely made up of scientists. The study is particularly valuable for the considerable space it devotes to scientists, giving them full credit for their participation in the intellectual life of England. It also contains a fascinating account of the moving of the Warburg art history library and its scholars from Hamburg to London because of the Nazi threat and how it enriched English intellectual life. That was also true of the influx of German and Austrian scholars escaping to England, assisted by the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, although the British government made life more difficult through residence restrictions. There is also illuminating discussion of the Russian physicist Pyotr Kapitiza and his lively and tangled relationship with British science, primarily at Cambridge as well as being harassed by his own government. It is amazing how many individuals and how many groups of such varied sorts can form a part and be illuminated in a comparatively short but densely written book. One is deeply grateful to find out so much and so perceptively how intellectual life was conducted in England, through the mind and so to speak the body in its social aspects in the first half of the 20th century. One suspects it is not all that different at present.



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