A Hasty History of Histories

Surely no other historian has ever had a publication record that comes close to Jeremy Black’s. He is, according to his website, the author of 155 books published over 34 years, with 19 published in 2018 alone—a sharp increase on his overall average of 4.5 a year. He writes, he once told me, 5,000 words a day, so he can complete a book in a month or so.

Judging by the statistics on librarything.com, the professor of history at the University of Exeter and Templeton Fellow at Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute has sold more books than any other living early modern historian (though not as many as the late Roy Porter), and a glance at Google Scholar shows that some have been widely influential; most, however, have sunk without trace. Black started out as an historian of the 18th century but he now casts his net much wider, with a book on the Holocaust and a forthcoming book on Shakespeare. The man is a phenomenon, and, at his best, a serious historian. But he sometimes doesn’t pause to think; and his latest, Charting the Past: The Historical Worlds of Eighteenth-Century England, required some serious thinking.

Writing the history of historical writing is no easy task. History books tend to be long, and old ones can be crashingly dull. Even the late John Burrow, one of the most delightful of historians, could not avoid the occasional longueur in his History of Histories (2007). The best work in the field often consists of essays, such as those of the incomparable Arnaldo Momigliano. Black evidently noticed that there was no general treatment of English history writing in the long 18th century, and, in company with his friend Bill Gibson, he set out to write one. Gibson (to whom the book is dedicated) at some point withdrew from the project. This is most unfortunate, for the two-and-a-half chapters he had drafted are much the best-written in Charting the Past, the rest of which contains numerous awkward sentences and whole paragraphs of more or less meaningless verbiage.

And of course, given the speed at which Black works, there are mistakes. In 1791, according to Black, Jane Austen published A History of England, from the Reign of Henry 4th to the Death of Charles 1st, By a Partial, Prejudiced, and Ignorant Historian, an obvious parody. But in 1791, Austen was 15 years old. Her “history” is a 34-page manuscript, illustrated by her sister Cassandra, and not published until the 20th century. One has to think Black has never sat down to read it (though how he could resist doing so I really can’t imagine). Nor is it likely he’s read Lord Hervey’s Ancient and Modern Liberty Stated and Compared, a pamphlet of 1734—he thinks the ancient liberty discussed there is that of classical Rome when in fact the comparison is between medieval and modern England.

Edward Gibbon, we are told, in the infamous Chapter 15 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “made clear his view” that Christianity established itself through the Empire “under providential guidance.” Had Gibbon actually made this clear, numerous orthodox Christians would not have felt obliged to turn to works with titles such as An Apology for Christianity (Richard Watson, 1776) to find a refutation of Gibbon’s arguments. Gibbon, of course, pretended to believe that the hand of Providence was at work, but not a single reader was misled into thinking that this was indeed his view. They, unlike Black, could recognize irony when its presence was heavily signposted.

Charting the Past contains some promising lines of inquiry but on these, the author fails to follow through. “A key theme in this book,” we are told, is “the development in the eighteenth century of the market for historical writing.” But actually we learn very little about this market: about what books cost, about booksellers stocks, about print runs, about reprints, about contracts between printers and authors. “The History made Hume a lot of money.” How much? Was David Hume paid in advance or did he earn a royalty? Were copies of the History expensive? Were they published as folios, quartos, or octavos? Were they fancily or plainly bound? Were they for show or for reading? Such questions are not asked, let alone answered.

And then there are the odd gaps in the author’s knowledge (for no one can deny that Black knows a very great deal). Thus he devotes a whole paragraph, no less, to Voltaire, which ends: “Voltaire’s work was read in England, which he had visited.” Indeed. If one turns to the English Short Title Catalogue one finds, amongst the hundreds of works by Voltaire translated into English, 81 editions of historical works, 34 of which are editions of the History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, first published in French in 1731, and appearing in no fewer than six English editions in 1732. This work, which was printed more often in English in the 18th century than Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, though not as often as Hume’s History of England, is nowhere mentioned. 

Had Black paused over the History of Charles XII, it might have helped him think about an issue of which he shows a passing awareness, but on which he never manages to focus his attention. On page 73 he tells us, in a discussion that begins in the 1790s, that “biography had not fully emerged as a genre.” Yet elsewhere (see the index) he happily refers to “biographies” throughout the century as if the category were entirely unproblematic.

There would seem to be an important difference between a classical or early modern life—the Lives of Plutarch, for example, or Izaak Walton’s Lives, or John Aubrey’s Brief Lives—and a 19th or 20th century biography. But what exactly is the difference? The key to the answer surely is that histories written after the rise of the novel employed quite different narrative techniques from those written before. The aforementioned History of Charles XII is in part Voltaire’s response to his reading of English novels. “The emphasis on the individual in most historical works,” writes Black, “had novelistic themes, tone, and style,” but despite such passing references to the interaction between novel and history as generic forms, there is no attempt to analyze the ways in which the novel transformed historical writing and made biography, in the modern sense, possible.

No mention is made here of Dr. Johnson’s 1750 essay on biography, in which he argues that

no species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest, or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition. . . . the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue. . . .  the incidents which give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind.

In other words, a good biography has all the qualities of a good novel, and the job of the biographer, like that of the novelist, is to place “us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortunes we contemplate; so that we feel, while the deception lasts, whatever emotions would be excited by the same good or evil happening to ourselves.”

Johnson’s brief essay suggests that by 1750, the task of the writer of a life, and the task of the historian more generally, had been radically transformed by the rise of the novel. It offers more insight into 18th century historical writing than anything to be found in Charting the Past. Still this book must be commended for rescuing from oblivion numerous histories that were once widely read and are now forgotten—even if few will be inspired to follow Black in a reading of Ferdinando Warner (“an unsuccessful writer”) or John Wesley (who felt the role of God was insufficiently emphasized in most histories of England). Best stick to Hume and Gibbon, and, if you want to venture further, read, as they did, Voltaire’s great work on the king of Sweden.  

Or you can follow me: I am off to read Johnson’s Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744), in which, I presume, one may find him practicing what he would later advocate in his essay on biography. And then I should be ready to tackle James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). These find no place in Black’s book, but they are a new sort of history, an invention of the age of Enlightenment. Biography is a species of history that we write and read still, and Black’s map of the past is incomplete without it.