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Twenty Years On

Views and Reviews of Modern Britain


Peter Stansky


Hillsborough, CA: Pinehill Humanities Press, 2020

Paperback. 246 p. ISBN 978-0578700960. $16.69


Reviewed by Guy Ortolano

New York University



Seven books; ninety-eight essays; a bibliography spilling over eight pages. You might think this a career. Peter Stansky calls it retirement.

The Frances and Charles Field Professor of History, Emeritus, at Stanford, Stansky has enjoyed a career coterminous with the development of British Studies. In the early 1950s, when Stansky went to Yale, modern British history in the United States was more a subject than a field. Yet at that very moment, under the leadership of Samuel Clyde McCulloch and Ruth Emery of Rutgers, the Conference on British Studies began to meet at New York University. The fledgling organization included a number of distinguished women: Mildred Campbell (Vassar), Madeline Robinton (Brooklyn College), Margaret Hastings and Margaret Judson (Douglass College), and Helen Taft Manning and Caroline Robbins (Bryn Mawr). Meanwhile, up the coast in Cambridge, David Owen was supervising a clutch of Harvard dissertations on British history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When these scholars filled positions across the country, they took modern British history with them. They included Philip Poirier (Ohio State), Richard Lyman (Wash U and Stanford), Stephen Graubard (Brown), and John Clive (Chicago and Harvard). Arriving to Harvard in 1956, Stansky was part – with Standish Meacham (Texas) and Fred Leventhal (Boston University) – of a second wave of Owen’s postwar students. Upon completing his dissertation in 1961, he taught at Harvard until 1968, by which time Lyman’s move into administration had created an opening at Stanford. Today Stansky remains a fixture at the North American Conference on British Studies (as the CBS became in 1980), whose annual modern book prize is justly named for him.

Twenty Years On gathers twenty-five lectures, essays, and reviews that Stansky has written or delivered in the two decades since his previous collection, From William Morris to Sergeant Pepper : Studies in the Radical Domestic (Palo Alto, 1999). The themes span the characteristic array of Stansky’s interests, from the arts and crafts movement to the Bloomsbury Group to George Orwell. Joining these longstanding preoccupations are several pieces on a comparatively new entrant, the Blitz – the subject of Stansky’s later career, which began with London’s Burning (with William Abrahams, 1994) and culminated in The First Day of the Blitz (New Haven, 2007). Together these chatty, readable essays – none exceeding fifteen pages, most considerably shorter – range across four literary generations: Edwardian realists, Bloomsbury moderns, the Auden generation, and the Angry Young Men. Given the occasional nature of many of the chapters, delivered as talks or included with exhibitions, there is inevitably some repetition, as Stansky brings various non-specialist audiences up-to-speed on the details of Orwell’s career or the membership of Bloomsbury. He is in such command of his material that, at times, names and references tumble over one another to create an effect at once disorienting and comic: “Leonard had been devoted to his dog Charles in Ceylon and in 1926 they were given by Vita Sackville-West a cocker spaniel, Pinka, who modeled for the frontispiece of Hogarth Press’s first edition of Flush (1935), the autobiography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog” [87]. But then, about halfway through the volume, the reader is rewarded with the satisfaction of coming to share some of Stansky’s easy familiarity with Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell, Virginia and Vanessa, Quentin and Angelica and Julian. So infectious is Stansky’s enthusiasm that, while I began half-dreading the Bloomsbury chapters, I ended by proposing a new undergraduate course on Bloomsbury.

Appropriately for a volume that inaugurates Stansky’s own foray into boutique publishing, the essay on the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press conveys that venture’s initial combination of aspiration, innovation, and sheer exhaustion. The pair of chapters bookending this one offer orientations to Bloomsbury’s public and private faces respectively. Chapter 9, adapted from a lecture marking the hundredth anniversary of, in Virginia Woolf’s formulation, human character having changed, introduces the group’s geography, relations, and core ideas. Bloomsbury moved into what Stansky calls its “major key” from 1910, prompted by the additions of E.M. Forster and Roger Fry to their Thursday meetings [75]. Lest this capsule make Bloomsbury sound too much like a seminar, though, it should be paired with Chapter 11’s exploration of the circle’s domestic dynamics. Here Stansky focuses on the relations between Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell’s children, Quentin, Angelica, and especially Julian. Together they produced The Charleston Bulletin, a hand-written “newspaper” the children circulated at their family’s house in Sussex, not far from the Woolfs’ own Monk's House. From this perspective, history turns not on the exhibition that prompted Woolf’s famous remark, but between a pair of tragic deaths: Thoby Stephen in 1906, and Julian Bell in 1937. The final chapter, exhibiting Stansky’s own ability to modulate between keys, reprints a tough-minded contribution to a forum in the American Historical Review on Simon Schama’s television and book series, A History of Britain (2000-2002). Stansky frames his reading with reference to Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004), asking whether popularizing history inevitably betrays it. Referring to the play’s rival teachers, the slick Irwin and eccentric Hector, Stansky puts the question pointedly: “Is Schama Irwin or Hector?” [233]. Despite some bracing words for the series's aesthetic choices, his judgment is on balance favorable: elements of each, perhaps, but ultimately history – and Schama – make it through intact.

But, with all due respect to Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and Alan Bennett, the main attraction here is Peter Stansky. If you own Journey to the Frontier (1966) or The Unknown Orwell (1972), you will want to add this book to your collection. The chapters sparkle with reminiscences of performances at the Royal Court Theatre in the 1950s and the Roundhouse in the 1970s, and of frosty meetings with Leonard Woolf (which went ok) and Sonia Orwell (which did not). The prefatory memoir reflects upon the factors that conspired to make Stansky a historian of Britain. Born in Manhattan in 1932, he grew up in the New York of the 1930s and 1940s. When his family moved to Brooklyn, proximity to the new, grand branch of the public library facilitated his earliest encounters with British literary culture via Dr. Doolittle and Mary Poppins. Though he never took a course in British history in New Haven, Stansky found that Anglophilic Yale stimulated an interest in its history and literature, as did his inaugural trip hitchhiking around England in the summer of 1950. His senior essay examined four Englishmen and the Spanish Civil War, pointing towards the very interests that still comprise the core of this volume nearly seven decades later. From 1953 to 1955, he spent two years at King’s College, Cambridge – a fantastical land of supervisions with Noel Annan and Eric Hobsbawm, lectures by Herbert Butterfield and J.H. Plumb, and lunches with the college’s most famous resident, E.M. Forster. Upon his return to the States, after a false start in publishing, Stansky entered Harvard in 1956. In 1961, the year he completed his dissertation on late Victorian Liberal politics, he met William Abrahams. Chapter 12, “Writing about Orwell,” picks up the story from there. Returning to the subjects of that Yale senior essay, Peter and Billy trundled around England meeting every associated figure they could find – including, in addition to Leonard Woolf and Sonia Orwell, Quentin Bell, Christopher Cornford, and Stephen Spender. Together they produced, among other fine books, Journey to the Frontier (1966), The Unknown Orwell (1972), and Orwell : The Transformation (1979). Of equal significance, though it finds no place in a bibliography, has been the boundless and good-humored kindness, generosity, advocacy, and collegiality that Stansky has extended to generations of his graduate students and fellow scholars.

“As a historian and biographer,” Stansky writes, “my main interest is finding out more about England” [118]. The clarity of purpose cuts through a thousand contortions about what we do and why. One piece of writing not included in this book’s expansive bibliography is the report of a committee that Stansky chaired in 1999, the NACBS Report on the State and Future of British Studies. “The Stansky Report,” as it has been known ever since, takes pains not to push young scholars into any subject in particular. But it is, nevertheless, a report on a field uncertain of its status in a changing university. Sensibly and shrewdly, the authors advise British history’s advocates and aspirants to situate themselves in relation to the world system that developed with Britain at its center. Sage counsel, to be sure – if also, in its cold-eyed professionalism, a contrast with the serendipity, idiosyncrasy, and ebullience that characterize these essays. Twenty Years On offers the occasion to spend time with a natural teacher and gorgeous writer, and every page affirms the sheer pleasure of a life devoted to the exploration of Britain’s past.



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