British history

Melodrama in Disguise: The Case of the Victorian Novel

By guest contributor Jacob Romanow

When people call a book “melodramatic,” they usually mean it as an insult. Melodrama is histrionic, implausible, and (therefore) artistically subpar—a reviewer might use the term to suggest that serious readers look elsewhere. Victorian novels, on the other hand, have come to be seen as an irreproachably “high” form of art, part of a “great tradition” of realistic fiction beloved by stodgy traditionalists: books that people praise but don’t read. But in fact, the nineteenth-century British novel and the stage melodrama that provided the century’s most popular form of entertainment were inextricably intertwined. The historical reality is that the two forms have been linked from the beginning: in fact, many of the greatest Victorian novels are prose melodramas themselves. But from the Victorian period on down, critics, readers, and novelists have waged a campaign of distinctions and distractions aimed at disguising and denying the melodramatic presence in novelistic forms. The same process that canonized what were once massively popular novels as sanctified examples of high art scoured those novels of their melodramatic contexts, leaving our understanding of their lineage and formation incomplete. It’s commonly claimed that the Victorian novel was the last time “popular” and “high” art were unified in a single body of work. But the case of the Victorian novel reveals the limitations of constructed, motivated narratives of cultural development. Victorian fiction was massively popular, absolutely—popularity rested in significant part on the presence of “low” melodrama around and within those classic works.

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A poster of the dramatization of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist

Even today, thinking about Victorian fiction as a melodramatic tradition cuts against many accepted narratives of genre and periodization; although most scholars will readily concede that melodrama significantly influences the novelistic tradition (sometimes to the latter’s detriment), it is typically treated as an external tradition whose features are being borrowed (or else as an alien encroaching upon the rightful preserve of a naturalistic “real”). Melodrama first arose in France around the French Revolution and quickly spread throughout Europe; A Tale of Mystery, an uncredited translation from French considered the first English melodrama, appeared in 1802 (by Thomas Holcroft, himself a novelist). By the accession of Victoria in 1837, it had long been the dominant form on the English stage. Yet major critics have uncovered melodramatic method to be fundamental to the work of almost every major nineteenth-century novelist, from George Eliot to Henry James to Elizabeth Gaskell to (especially) Charles Dickens, often treating these discoveries as particular to the author in question. Moreover, the practical relationship between the novel and melodrama in Victorian Britain helped define both genres. Novelists like Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Thomas Hardy, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, among others, were themselves playwrights of stage melodramas. But the most common connection, like film adaptations today, was the widespread “melodramatization” of popular novels for the stage. Blockbuster melodramatic productions were adapted from not only popular crime novels of the Newgate and sensation schools like Jack Sheppard, The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret, and East Lynne, but also from canonical works including David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, Mary Barton, A Christmas Carol, Frankenstein, Vanity Fair, and countless others, often in multiple productions for each. In addition to so many major novels being adapted into melodramas, many major melodramas were themselves adaptations of more or less prominent novels, for example Planché’s The Vampire (1820), Moncrieff’s The Lear of Private Life (1820), and Webster’s Paul Clifford (1832). As in any process of adaptation, the stage and print versions of each of these narratives differ in significant ways. But the interplay between the two forms was both widespread and fully baked into the generic expectations of the novel; the profusion of adaptation, with or without an author’s consent, makes clear that melodramatic elements in the novel were not merely incidental borrowings. In fact, melodramatic adaptation played a key role in the success of some of the period’s most celebrated novels. Dickens’s Oliver Twist, for instance, was dramatized even before its serialized publication was complete! And the significant rate of illiteracy among melodrama’s audiences meant that for novelists like Dickens or Walter Scott, the melodramatic stage could often serve as the only point of contact with a large swath of the public. As critic Emily Allen aptly writes: “melodrama was not only the backbone of Victorian theatre by midcentury, but also of the novel.”

 

This question of audience helps explain why melodrama has been separated out of our understanding of the novelistic tradition. Melodrama proper was always “low” culture, associated with its economically lower-class and often illiterate audiences in a society that tended to associate the theatre with lax morality. Nationalistic sneers at the French origins of melodrama played a role as well, as did the Victorian sense that true art should be permanent and eternal, in contrast to the spectacular but transient visual effects of the melodramatic stage. And like so many “low” forms throughout history, melodrama’s transformation of “higher” forms was actively denied even while it took place. Victorian critics, particularly those of a conservative bent, would often actively deny melodramatic tendencies in novelists whom they chose to praise. In the London Quarterly Review’s 1864 eulogy “Thackeray and Modern Fiction,” for example, the anonymous reviewer writes that “If we compare the works of Thackeray or Dickens with those which at present win the favour of novel-readers, we cannot fail to be struck by the very marked degeneracy.” The latter, the reviewer argues, tend towards the sensational and immoral, and should be approached with a “sentiment of horror”; the former, on the other hand, are marked by their “good morals and correct taste.” This is revisionary literary history, and one of its revisions (I think we can even say the point of its revisions) is to eradicate melodrama from the historical narrative of great Victorian novels. The reviewer praises Thackeray’s “efforts to counteract the morbid tendencies of such books as Bulwer’s Eugene Aram and Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard,” ignoring Thackeray’s classification of Oliver Twist alongside those prominent Newgate melodramas. The melodramatic quality of Thackeray’s own fiction (not to mention the highly questionable “morality” of novels like Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon), let alone the proactively melodramatic Dickens, is downplayed or denied outright. And although the review offers qualified praise of Henry Fielding as a literary ancestor of Thackeray, it ignores their melodramatic relative Walter Scott. The review, then, is not just a document of midcentury mainstream anti-theatricality, but also a document that provides real insight into how critics worked to solidify an antitheatrical novelistic canon.

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Photographic print of Act 3, Scene 6 from The Whip, Drury Lane Theatre, 1909
Gabrielle Enthoven Collection, Museum number: S.211-2016
© Victoria and Albert Museum

Yet even after these very Victorian reasons have fallen aside, the wall of separation between novels and melodrama has been maintained. Why? In closing, I’ll speculate about a few possible reasons. One is that Victorian critics’ division became a self-fulfilling prophecy in the history of the novel, bifurcating the form into melodramatic “low” and self-consciously anti-melodramatic “high” genres. Another is that applying historical revisionism to the novel in this way only mirrored and reinforced a consistent fact of melodrama’s theatrical criticism, which too has consistently used “melodrama” derogatorily, persistently differentiating the melodramas of which it approved from “the old melodrama”—a dynamic that took root even before any melodrama was legitimately “old.” A third factor is surely the rise of so-called dramatic realism, and the ensuing denialism of melodrama’s role in the theatrical tradition. And a final reason, I think, is that we may still wish to relegate melodrama to the stage (or the television serial) because we are not really comfortable with the roles that it plays in our own world: in our culture, in our politics, and even in our visions for our own lives. When we recognize the presence of melodrama in the “great tradition” of novels, we will better be able to understand those texts. And letting ourselves find melodrama there may also help us find it in the many other parts of plain sight where it’s hiding.

Jacob Romanow is a Ph.D. student in English at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the novel and narratology in Victorian literature, with a particular interest in questions of influence, genre, and privacy.

Evolution Made Easy: Henry Balfour, Pitt Rivers, and the Evolution of Art

by guest contributor Laurel Waycott

In 1893, Henry Balfour, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK, conducted an experiment. He traced a drawing of a snail crawling over a twig, and passed it to another person, whom he instructed to copy the drawing as accurately as possible with pen and paper. This second drawing was then passed to the next participant, with Balfour’s original drawing removed, and so on down the line. Balfour, in essence, constructed a nineteenth-century version of the game of telephone, with a piece of gastropodic visual art taking the place of whispered phrases. As in the case of the children’s game, what began as a relatively easy echo of what came before resulted in a bizarre, near unrecognizable transmutation.

Plate I. Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1893).

In the series of drawings, Balfour’s pastoral snail morphed, drawing by drawing, into a stylized bird—the snail’s eyestalks became the forked tail of the bird, while the spiral shell became, in Balfour’s words, “an unwieldy and unnecessary wart upon the, shall we call them, ‘trousers’ which were once the branching end of the twig” (28). Snails on twigs, birds in trousers—just what, exactly, are we to make of Balfour’s intentions for his experiment? What was Balfour trying to prove?

Balfour’s game of visual telephone, at its heart, was an attempt to understand how ornamental forms could change over time, using the logic of biological evolution. The results were published in a book, The Evolution of Decorative Art, which was largely devoted to the study of so-called “primitive” arts from the Pacific. The reason that Balfour had to rely on his constructed game and experimental results, rather than original samples of the “savage” art, was that he lacked a complete series necessary for illustrating his theory—he was forced to create one for his purposes. Balfour’s drawing experiment was inspired by a technique developed by General Pitt Rivers himself, whose collections formed the foundation of the museum. In 1875, Pitt Rivers—then known as Augustus Henry Lane Fox—delivered a lecture titled “The Evolution of Culture,” in which he argued that shifting forms of artifacts, from firearms to poetry, were in fact culminations of many small changes; and that the historical development of artifacts could be reconstructed by observing these minute changes. From this, Pitt Rivers devised a scheme of museum organization that arranged objects in genealogical fashion—best illustrated by his famous display of weapons used by the indigenous people of Australia.

Plate III. Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, The Evolution of Culture, and Other Essays, ed. John Linton Myres (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1906).

Here, Pitt Rivers arranged the weapons in a series of changing relationships radiating out from a central object, the “simple cylindrical stick” (34). In Pitt Rivers’ system, this central object was the most “primitive” and “essential” object, from which numerous small modifications could be made. Elongate the stick, and eventually one arrived at a lance; add a bend, and it slowly formed into a boomerang. While he acknowledged that these specimens were contemporary and not ancient, the organization implied a temporal relationship between the objects. This same logic was extended to understandings of human groups at the turn of the twentieth century. So-called “primitive” societies like the indigenous groups of the Pacific were considered “survivals” from the past, physically present but temporally removed from those living around them (37). The drawing game, developed by Pitt Rivers in 1884, served as a different way to manipulate time: by speeding up the process of cultural evolution, researchers could mimic evolution’s slow process of change over time in the span of just a few minutes. If the fruit fly’s rapid reproductive cycle made it an ideal model organism for studying Mendelian heredity, the drawing game sought to make cultural change an object of the laboratory.

It is important to note the capacious, wide-ranging definitions of “evolution” by the end of the nineteenth century. Evolution could refer to the large-scale, linear development of entire human or animal groups, but it could also refer to Darwinian natural selection. Balfour drew on both definitions, and developed tools to help him to apply evolutionary theory directly to studies of decorative art. “Degeneration,” the idea that organisms could revert back to earlier forms of evolution, played a reoccurring role in both Balfour’s and Pitt Rivers’ lines of museum object-based study. For reasons never explicitly stated, both men assumed that decorative motifs originated with realistic images, relying on the conventions of verisimilitude common in Western art. This leads us back, then, to the somewhat perplexing drawing with which Balfour chose to begin his experiment.

Balfour wrote that he started his experiment by making “a rough sketch of some object which could be easily recognized” (24). His original gastropodic image relied, fittingly, on a number of conventions that required a trained eye and trained hand to interpret. The snail’s shell and the twig, for instance, appeared rounded through the artist’s use of cross-hatching, the precise placement of regularly spaced lines which lend a sense of three-dimensional volume to a drawing. Similarly, the snail’s shell was placed in a vague landscape, surrounded by roughly-sketched lines giving a general sense of the surface upon which the action occurred. While the small illustration might initially seem like a straightforward portrayal of a gastropod suctioned onto a twig, the drawing’s visual interpretation is only obvious to those accustomed to reading and reproducing the visual conventions of Western art. Since the image was relatively challenging to begin with, it provided Balfour with an exciting experimental result: specifically, a bird wearing trousers.

Plate II. Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1893).

Balfour had conducted a similar experiment using a drawing of a man from the Parthenon frieze as his “seed,” but it failed to yield the surprising results of the first. While the particulars of the drawing changed, somewhat—the pectoral muscles became a cloak, the hat changed, and the individual’s gender got a little murky in the middle—the overall substance of the image remained unchanged. It did not exhibit evolutionary “degeneration” to the same convincing degree, but rather seemed to be, quite simply, the product of some less-than-stellar artists. While Balfour included both illustrations in his book, he clearly preferred his snail-to-bird illustration and reproduced it far more widely. He also admitted to interfering in the experimental process: omitting subsequent drawings that did not add useful evidence to his argument, and specifically choosing participants who had no artistic training (25, 27).

Balfour clearly manipulated his experiment and the resulting data to prove what he thought he already knew: that successive copying in art led to degenerate, overly conventionalized forms that no longer held to Western standards of verisimilitude. It was an outlook he had likely acquired from Pitt Rivers. In Notes and Queries on Anthropology (1892), a handbook circulated to travelers who wished to gather ethnographic data for anthropologists back in Britain, Pitt Rivers outlined a number of questions that travelers should ask about local art. The questions were leading, designed in a simple yes/no format likely to provoke a certain response. In fact, one of Pitt Rivers’ questions could, essentially, offer the verbal version of Balfour’s drawing game. “Do they,” he wrote, “in copying from one another, vary the designs through negligence, inability, or other causes, so as to lose sight of the original objects, and produce conventionalized forms, the meaning of which is otherwise inexplicable?” (119–21). Pitt Rivers left very little leeway—both for the artist and the observer—for creativity. Might the artists choose to depict things in a certain way? And might the observer interpret these depictions in his or her own way? Pitt River’s motivation was clear. If one did find such examples of copying, he added. “it would be of great interest to obtain series of such drawings, showing the gradual departure from the original designs.” They would, after all, make a very convincing museum display.

Laurel Waycott is a PhD candidate in the history of science and medicine at Yale University. This essay is adapted from a portion of her dissertation, which examines the way biological thinking shaped conceptions of decoration, ornament, and pattern at the turn of the 20th century.

Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures: ‘History in English criticism, 1919-1961’

by guest contributor Joshua Bennett

A distinctive feature of the early years of the Cambridge English Tripos (examination system), in which close “practical criticism” of individual texts was balanced by the study of the “life, literature, and thought” surrounding them, was that the social and intellectual background to literature acquired an equivalent importance to that of literature itself. Stefan Collini’s Ford Lectures, in common with his essay collections, Common Reading and Common Writing, have over the past several weeks richly demonstrated that the literary critics who were largely the products of that Tripos can themselves be read and historicized in that spirit. Collini, whose resistance to the disciplinary division between the study of literature and that of intellectual history has proved so fruitful over many years, has focused on six literary critics in his lecture series: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, L. C. Knights, Basil Willey, William Empson, and Raymond Williams. All, with the exception of Eliot, were educated at Cambridge; and all came to invest the enterprise of literary criticism with a particular kind of missionary importance in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Collini has been concerned to explore the intellectual and public dynamics of that mission, by focusing on the role of history in these critics’ thought and work. His argument has been twofold. First, he has emphasized that the practice of literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical in nature. The second, and more intellectual-historical, element of his case has consisted in the suggestion that literary critics offered a certain kind of “cultural history” to the British public sphere. By using literary and linguistic evidence in order to unlock the “whole way of life” of previous forms of English society, and to reach qualitative judgements about “the standard of living” in past and present, critics occupied territory vacated by professional historians at the time, while also contributing to wider debates about twentieth-century societal conditions.

Collini’s lectures did not attempt to offer a full history of the development of English as a discipline in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, they raised larger questions for those interested in the history of the disciplines both of English and History in twentieth-century Britain, and what such histories can reveal about the wider social and cultural conditions in which they took shape. How should the findings from Collini’s penetrating microscope modify, or provide a framework for, our view of these larger organisms?

First, a question arises as to the relationship between the kind of historical criticism pursued by Collini’s largely Cantabrigian dramatis personae, and specific institutions and educational traditions. E. M. W. Tillyard’s mildly gossipy memoir of his involvement in the foundation of the Cambridge English Tripos, published in 1958 under the title of The Muse Unchained, recalls an intellectual environment of the 1910s and 1920s in which the study of literature was exciting because it was a way of opening up the world of ideas. The English Tripos, he held, offered a model of general humane education—superior to Classics, the previous such standard—through which the ideals of the past might nourish the present. There is a recognizable continuity between these aspirations, and the purposes of the cultural history afterwards pursued under the auspices of literary criticism by the subsequent takers of that Tripos whom Collini discussed—several of whom began their undergraduate studies as historians.

But how far did the English syllabuses of other universities, and the forces driving their creation and development, also encourage a turn towards cultural history, and how did they shape the kind of cultural history that was written? Tillyard’s account is notably disparaging of philological approaches to English studies, of the kind which acquired and preserved a considerably greater prominence in Oxford’s Honour School of “English Language and Literature”—a significant pairing—from 1896. Did this emphasis contribute to an absence of what might be called “cultural-historical” interest among Oxford’s literary scholars, or alternatively give it a particular shape? Widening the canvas beyond Oxbridge, it is surely also important to heed the striking fact that England was one of the last countries in Europe in which widespread university interest in the study of English literature took shape. If pressed to single out any one individual as having been responsible for the creation of the “modern” form of the study of English Literature in the United Kingdom—a hazardous exercise, certainly—one could do worse than to alight upon the Anglo-Scottish figure of Herbert Grierson. Grierson, who was born in Shetland in 1866 and died in 1960, was appointed to the newly-created Regius Chalmers Chair of English at Aberdeen in 1894, before moving to take up a similar position in Edinburgh in 1915. In his inaugural lecture at Edinburgh, Grierson argued for the autonomy of the study of English literature from that of British history. As Cairns Craig has recently pointed out, however, an evaluative kind of “cultural history” is unmistakably woven into his writings on the poetry of John Donne—which for Grierson prefigured the psychological realism of the modern novel—and his successors. For Grierson, the cultural history of the modern world was structured by a conflict between religion, humanism, and science—evident in the seventeenth century, and in the nineteenth—to which literature itself offered, in the present day, a kind of antidote. Grierson’s conception of literature registered his own difficulties with the Free Church religion of his parents, as well, perhaps, as the abiding influence of the broad Scottish university curriculum—combining study of the classics, philosophy, psychology and rhetoric—which he had encountered as an undergraduate prior to the major reforms of Scottish higher education begun in 1889. Did the heroic generation of Cambridge-educated critics, then, create and disseminate a kind of history inconceivable without the English Tripos? Or did they offer more of a local instantiation of a wider “mind of Britain”? A general history of English studies in British universities, developing for example some of the themes discussed in William Whyte’s recent Redbrick, is certainly a desideratum.

Collini partly defined literary critics’ cultural-historical interests in contradistinction to a shadowy “Other”: professional historians, who were preoccupied not by culture but by archives, charters and pipe-rolls. As Collini pointed out, the word “culture”—and so the enterprise of “cultural history”—has admitted of several senses in different times and in the usage of different authors. The kind of cultural history which critics felt they could not find among professional historians, and which accordingly they themselves had to supply, centered on an understanding of lived experience in the past; and on identifying the roots—and so, perhaps, the correctives—to their present discontents. This raises a second interesting problem, the answer to which should be investigated rather than assumed: what exactly became of “cultural history” in these senses within the British historical profession between around 1920 and 1960?

Peter Burke and Peter Ghosh have alike argued that the growing preoccupation of academic history with political history in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries acted regrettably to constrict that universal application of historical method to all facets of human societies which the Enlightenment first outlined in terms of “conjectural history.” This thesis is true in its main outlines. But there were ways in which cultural history retained a presence in British academic history in the period of what Michael Bentley thinks of as historiographical “modernism,” prior to the transformative interventions of Keith Thomas, E. P. Thompson and others in the 1960s and afterwards. In the field of religious history, for example, Christopher Dawson – while holding the title of “Lecturer in the History of Culture” at University College, Exeter—published a collection of essays in 1933 entitled Enquiries into religion and culture. English study of socioeconomic history in the interwar and postwar years also often extended to, or existed in tandem with, interest in what can only be described as “culture.” Few episodes might appear as far removed from cultural history as the “storm over the gentry,” for example—a debate over the social origins of the English Civil War that was played out chiefly in the pages of the Economic History Review in the 1940s and 1950s. But the first book of one of the main participants in that controversy, Lawrence Stone, was actually a study entitled Sculpture in Britain: the middle ages, published in 1955 in the Pelican History of Art series. Although Stone came to regard it as a diversion from his main interests, its depictions of a flourishing artistic culture in late-medieval Britain, halted by the Reformation, may still be read as a kind of cultural-historical counterpart to his better-known arguments for the importance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a period of social upheaval. If it is true that literary criticism is always implicitly or explicitly historical, perhaps it is also true that few kinds of history have been found to be wholly separable from cultural history, broadly defined.

Joshua Bennett is a Junior Research Fellow in History at Christ Church, Oxford.

Shooting the Moon: Martyrdom and Sacred Kingship in the Twenty-First Century

by guest contributor Peter Walker

On the cold afternoon of January 30, 1649, King Charles I was publicly beheaded in London, condemned as a traitor by parliamentarians. Royalists, who viewed the king as head of the church, immediately began celebrating the executed King as a martyr. Three hundred and sixty eight years later, this devotional cult remains alive and well, flourishing in unexpected places. This year, the American Society of King Charles the Martyr met for a church service commemorating “Martyrdom Day” at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia, a dozen blocks from Independence Hall.

What is the appeal of a royalist devotional cult in the twenty-first-century United States? The cult of King Charles the Martyr had its beginnings in seventeenth-century conflicts between royalists and parliamentarians, and remains entangled with the political theology of sacred kingship. Politics in the United States have taken some unexpected twists recently, but—whatever else might happen—the American experiment in democracy and republicanism probably won’t end with a return to monarchy. Of course, Americans retain an appetite for royalty, as Hello! magazine attests, but Charles I is hardly a celebrity. According to Mark Kishlansky’s unfortunately-named biography, Charles I: An Abbreviated Life, he remains “the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction.” Yet to his fans, King Charles I was and remains a Christian martyr whose spiritual importance transcends the politics of the seventeenth-century Civil War.

The frontispiece to the 'Eikon Basilke' (1649)

The frontispiece to the ‘Eikon Basilke’ (1649)

Historians tend to disagree about Charles’s reign: was he a victim, a tyrant, or simply incompetent? Whatever the case, once he was deposed he played his part as a martyr with dignity, bravery, and political acumen. On the morning of his execution, he wrote that he would greet the day as “my second wedding day; I would be as trim today as may be, for before tonight I hope to be espoused to my blessed Jesus.” He wore two shirts so that he would not shiver from the cold and appear frightened. Addressing the crowd from the scaffolding, he declared himself “the martyr of the people.” He left a spiritual autobiography titled Eikon Basilke (“The Royal Portrait”), which provided an account and justification of his conduct. Here, Charles explained that he could have saved his life if he had given into the demands of the parliamentarians and abolished the bishops of the Church of England. The historian Andrew Lacey calls the Eikon “the most successful book of the century.” Its heavily symbolic frontispiece was particularly influential, showing Charles exchanging the royal crown for a martyr’s crown. Charles himself thus provided his supporters with the material for his cult.

Charles’s martyrdom was his greatest political success. Widespread uneasiness about this national sin eased the restoration of his son, Charles II, in 1660. In 1662, Charles’s martyrdom was incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the Church of England.

Portrait of Henry Sacheverell holding a portrait of Charles I (1709)

Portrait of Henry Sacheverell holding a portrait of Charles I (1709)

The commemoration of Charles’s execution on January 30 was one of three explicitly political services enjoined by the Book of Common Prayer. On May 29, congregations observed the Restoration of Charles II, and on November 5, the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. The latter, directed against Catholics, has remained popular to this day. Martyrdom Day, by contrast, was politically divisive, and was denounced as idolatrous by reforming Protestants.

Following the expulsion of the Stuart dynasty at the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89, Martyrdom Day remained part of the Anglican liturgy but its divisiveness made it a political liability. The festival was popular with high churchmen such as Henry Sacheverell, who feared that the generous toleration given to Protestant Dissenters threatened the safety of both church and state. Nevertheless, the theory of sacred monarchy articulated in the January 30 service, and the close association of Charles’s cult with the exiled Stuart dynasty, clashed with the political imperatives of the new regime. By 1772, when Sir Roger Newdigate defended the Church of England’s “only canonized saint” in the House of Commons, he was met with derisive laughter. Charles’s status as a martyr proved even more divisive in the American colonies. His memory was venerated by loyalist Anglicans during the American Revolution, who found in his patient, steadfast suffering a model for their own behavior during the political crisis. For American Anglicans who supported independence, however, Martyrdom Day was an embarrassment. Following independence, the newly-formed Episcopal Church excised the service from its Book of Common Prayer. In Britain, meanwhile, it remained officially observed until 1858, when the service was removed from the Book of Common Prayer by an Act of Parliament.

Today, the cult of King Charles the Martyr is thoroughly anachronistic, doubly so for its American adherents. The festival is not officially observed in either the UK or the US, and it no longer serves the political uses to which it was put in the seventeenth century. It nevertheless retains supporters among high church Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Anglo-Catholics. The cult was revived by the Oxford Movement, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr was founded in 1894. Part of the cult’s attraction, perhaps, lies in the nostalgic and reactionary appeal of deliberate political anachronism. This appears to have been the case for the Society’s Anglo-Irish founder, the Hon. Mrs. Ermengarda Greville-Nugent. But rather more important is its theological meaning to Anglicans who place a particularly high value on the longevity and perpetuation of the church’s institutions. As the cult’s political utility recedes, it becomes easier to see the theological concerns which have always underpinned it.

Perhaps the greatest part of the cult’s power, from its origins to the present, is not so much the sacred monarchy part as the martyrdom part. Charles provides that rare thing, a specifically Anglican martyr. The Society’s hymns celebrate “Royal Charles, who chose to die / Rather than the Faith deny.” The power of martyrdom lies in this choice: by choosing death, the martyr triumphs over the worst that the world can throw at them. Like shooting the moon in a game of cards, martyrdom turns a weak hand into a trump hand. It is the ultimate weapon of the weak, with the potential to upend structures of social and political power. This tradition is embedded in Christianity, ultimately referring to the model of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Brad Gregory showed in his classic book Salvation at Stake, martyrdom was revived during the Reformation, when the martyr’s willingness to die seemed to indicate that they died for the true faith. However, this claim was progressively undone by the undiminishing capacity of rival versions of Christianity to produce their own martyrs. While martyrdom could no longer be counted on to point the way to religious truth, it continued to demonstrate the irreducible resilience of individual religious belief, marking out the limits of the coercive power of the modern state. For all its deliberate anachronism, then, the cult of King Charles the Martyr might just be an essentially modern form of religious observance.

Peter Walker has a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. His dissertation is about Anglicanism and martyrdom (among other things).

Brexit for Historians

On Friday, September 9 in the Columbia University history department, British historians Susan Pedersen and Sam Wetherell led a conversation about Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union. Intended as what Wetherell referred to as an “air-clearing” for historians who still had thoughts from the summer to process, the event was attended by a range of scholars in different fields. About half the room had some connection to Britain, either through nationality or research field, but others spoke from their perspective as continental Europeans or Europeanists, as political scientists, or from other perspectives. After a brief introduction from Pedersen to the history of Britain’s relationship to the EU and the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership in the EEC, and a recap from Wetherell of events since June 23, the discussion ranged widely. Jake Purcell and Emily Rutherford felt that they had no choice but to take stock of things for the blog, and a conversation between them follows.

ER: I was looking back over my notes from the conversation, and I was surprised to realize that Susan kicked the whole thing off with some serious national British history to give some political-historical context for this summer’s referendum, because the conversation so quickly veered away from that approach! By the end, participants had raised so many questions about whether historians might best understand Brexit from a historical perspective, from a national British as opposed to a European perspective, and what kinds of lenses on British history (class? race? empire? culture? economics? politics?) might be appropriate to bring to bear. An ancient historian made the most eloquent defense of Leave voters I’ve heard thus far, and in the process invoked ancient notions of Europe and their modern reception. And of course, you’re a medievalist!

I’m a modern British historian who spent the whole summer in the UK, and who understood Brexit to be “really” about this sovereignty question that came up in the discussion, and about issues of national politics, economics, culture, the welfare state, etc. So far, given that markets seem to have stabilized for the time being, the fallout mostly seems to have taken place in the context of the parliamentary system and the national political culture that surrounds it. So I was really struck that this wasn’t actually the focus of Friday’s discussion. What did you think about how this group’s identities as historians factored into the fact that we were having this conversation? Other people present made claims for what an ancient historian or an early modernist could bring to the understanding of this political issue, but what do you think about that from your perspective as someone who isn’t a modern British historian?

JP: I’ll probably circle back to the non-British, non-modernist thing later, but two elements of the discussion struck me as particularly historianly. The first was Sam’s rather plaintive insistence that we were all there to try to get a handle on “what had happened,” and the second was Susan’s rather dense introduction to campaigns for and against British participation in a European economic system throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. In addition to removing some of the mysticism of the Brexit vote by giving it a clear context, Susan’s comments demonstrated that there were no particularly stances that different parties had to take, or lines of argument that necessarily fell to for or against. The idea that Labour had, in previous votes, been opposed to participating in EEC because it was a vote for capitalism, or that a relatively higher portion of, for example, young people voted to leave in 1975. Contingency! The discussion immediately became a project not just to figure out what arguments worked or didn’t, but why lines of reasoning were deployed or had resonance at this particular moment.

Like you say, the conversation wove through an extraordinary number of topics (I have five pages of legal pad notes, taken in a desperate attempt to keep the different strands clumped together), but do you think it’s safe to say that there was some consensus? Sam suggested that there were two dominant ways of reading the Brexit vote, one about poverty, austerity, isolationism, and the service economy, the other about a nationalist revolt against a lost idea of Britishness, and that the first of these was insufficient in explanatory power, that they had to be moved together. This assessment seemed to agree with Susan’s conclusion, that this moment we’re in is really a culture-emphasizing backlash against a politics that is only about economics. Which reminds me of another, not very historian-like aspect of the discussion, which was a genuine willingness to predict. What about this topic do you think made us willing to get over that particular aversion? Do you think the analyses that emerged gave us the right tools for that project?

ER: Mmm, I see what you’re saying about how historical reasoning crept into the conversation even when it wasn’t explicitly a conversation about how to historicize. Susan was also working in part from a recent book about Britain’s twentieth-century relationship to Europe, Continental Drift, written by a former US diplomat: so from the outset the conversation was framed as one in which history and other social-scientific methodologies for understanding contemporary politics have to work together. It reminds me of how Queen Mary University London’s Mile End Institute held a forum the morning after the referendum, featuring scholars from disciplines from public policy to law to economics, and also including a historian, Robert Saunders, whose blog has provided some of the most measured analysis of political events as they developed this summer. So I guess historians can predict, particularly if they are also drawing on other methodologies, but I’m not sure that it’s something we are innately qualified to do—particularly if we don’t work with the kind of numbers that allow a scholar to project trends in changing demographics, polling data, etc.

As to cultural versus economic arguments: it strikes me that the most interesting things the audience contributed to the discussion were cultural. I was particularly convinced by a few different speakers: one who discussed the internal workings of politics and whether it’s a “game”; another who carefully described a notion of national sovereignty (“take back control”) that can bridge class divides and appeal to people from very different groups for different reasons; and a third who asked about the working-out of loss of empire. I am not sure if all those things amount to one consensus, but they do certainly amount to one emphasis. But maybe that’s because I’m a historian of modern British elite institutions and culture myself! When I lived in Britain I became very susceptible to seeing the origins of the culture of the elite institutions that I was inhabiting in the late nineteenth century that I study; and to slipping back and forth between how a phenomenon like male homosociality worked in the late-nineteenth-century context and in the present day, the one illuminating the other. I still think some of that is true, though I’m not sure it’s the most responsible methodology when it comes to writing history. But maybe that tendency to collapse time, simultaneously inhabiting a mental universe bounded by your research and the normal outside world, is a cast of mind that historians can offer discussions like this one. I started studying Britain shortly after the 2010 general election which returned the Conservatives to power, and since then my research has helped me to understand, and to explain to other Americans, issues from the government’s education policy, to why Guardian headlines are so often ridiculous, to how Boris Johnson is the culmination of 300 years of history of elite education and its relationship to the British state (my current obsession).

But I remain struck by how so many people at the event kept pulling us out of the narrowly British, or even English, context: invoking the view from Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, America, or from a time before Great Britain. Brexit seems so irrevocably British to me, entwined with the specific context Susan and Sam began with and (I would argue) with a slightly more distant British past that accounts for those cultural phenomena and their effects on voter behavior. But is it possible that modern British history is actually the wrong framework through which to view what seems to me a peculiarly modern British event? Is there anything particularly British about Brexit at all? (This NYRB piece which links Brexit to the upcoming US election seems to think not.) Is it chauvinist to argue that there is? Why, as so many commenters pointed out, should we care about Britain at all?

JP: Yes, you’re right that it was more an agreement about what elements were critical as opposed to what the exact configuration was. Though, who knows if that’s just because of a propensity for institutional and cultural explanations among the people in that room! I like the idea that having a second frame of reference constantly in mind is part of the historian’s contribution; something like built-in “perspective.”

Trying to get out of the British-centric focus was definitely a theme! I think several people in the room would agree that “wrong” is exactly the word for using modern British history as the sole framework, not in sense of “incorrect,” but in the sense of “not quite ethical.” There seemed to be real frustrations that neither campaign discussed the effect that leaving might have on the EU, and the Remain campaign’s lack of critique somehow seemed to tie it even more closely to an all-powerful austerity bloc, at least from the perspective of some people in Southern Europe. Aside from that, even Susan did not quite think that historical context provided all of the answers. When someone asked about old colonial tensions playing out in the Irish vote, Susan pushed back against the specter of “Little England” as an explanatory element, instead pointing to demographic shifts and the massive expansion of higher education. At the same time, it doesn’t seem particularly satisfying to pretend that all populism is the same, or achieves power in the same way, especially if one of the participants whom you mentioned is right and the political game happens at the institutional level, rather than at the national or European level. For all the recent interest in transnational history, it is odd to me that we never quite developed a rhetoric for talking about what similarities in, for example, anti-immigrant politics might mean. (In addition to immigration, I can’t help but feel that the caricature of Brussels as a tiny, antidemocratic bureaucracy controlling the lives of European citizens from its paperwork-lined halls corresponds to a repudiation of Administrative Law in some corners in the U.S.)

I also think that maybe there was a scale problem in the conversation. Yes, you’re probably right that modern British history is exactly the lens that will allow us to explain in important ways the mechanics of the Brexit campaign and vote, in part because British politics has a particular flavor, but the significance—why we ought to care about Britain at all—resides in part at the level of Europe. The Council for European Studies’ major conference this year is on the themes of “sustainability and transformation,” and Brexit is a key component; it is clearly understood to have transformative potential, whatever the current calm. We need lots of national and transnational histories, not just British ones, to figure out what the impact might be.

I find myself returning again and again to the lone, brave, self-professed Leave voter. He suggested that one might support Leave because the EU immigration system disadvantages people particularly from Europe or Africa, and that the idea of a bounded “Europe” remained too closely related to constructions of race and scientific racism for his comfort. I honestly cannot say whether or not this is true, but I’m way more interested in the fact that these lines of reasoning are exactly the same criticisms that usually get leveled against nationalism and the nineteenth-century construction of the state. Maybe historians (especially premodernists, I think) can help to de-naturalize the presence of particular institutions or relationships between ideologies and political positions.

ER: I can’t argue with that!

Shame, Memory, and the Politics of the Archive

by guest contributor Nicole Longpré

During a research trip to the University of Leeds in the spring of 2014, I requested access to a selection of files from the papers of former Labour MP Merlyn Rees which are held by the university library’s special collections facility. Staff at the facility were unsure what to do: it was possible that these files were included in the part of the collection that was closed to the public. They would have to check. I asked again the next day, and again the next: the staff were still uncertain, so I would not be able to view the files. At the Conservative Party Archive in Oxford, things were clearer: the Conservative Party staffer responsible for granting special access said it would not be possible to view the selection of files I had requested. They were not open to any member of the public.

Historians of the twentieth century in particular are frequently confronted with the barrier of the closed file: information that archivists, politicians, or others have deemed too sensitive to be read by the general public. But what do we mean by “sensitive”? “Sensitive” for whom? The files that I was requesting to view in these cases all dealt in some way with immigration to the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, they dealt with anti-immigrationism: opposition to immigrants who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean and South Asia in substantial numbers from 1948 through the 1970s. The material in these files almost certainly would not have included references to individual immigrants, so the files were not closed out of concern for those people’s wellbeing. Rather, they were closed because they might reveal that some individual, prominent or otherwise, who was involved with politics during the second half of the twentieth century opposed immigration, and may have done so in a way that was shameful.

Tony Kushner argues that “There persists a strong tendency to deny racism and exclusion—past and present—and therefore a need still to study its impact and importance in British society and culture, especially on the minorities concerned” (13). But it is not enough, I don’t think, just to study the impact of exclusion. Exclusion is not some miasma floating about in the air: it requires agency, and unless we acknowledge the role of human action in creating and maintaining exclusionary practices, we have only half the story. Kushner further argues that “Official proclamations from politicians of all hues from the late twentieth century onwards emphasise that ‘The UK has a long standing tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution in other parts of the world’. A contrary tradition of animosity has been less easily accepted in self-mythology.” (12) And since animosity is challenging to incorporate into the national narrative, evidence of its existence is suppressed, or ignored—certainly not encouraged.

Shame does not only manifest in the closure of existing archival files; it also results in the non-existence of archives themselves. There is, at present, no archive of anti-immigrationism. No repository includes among its collection the complete papers of any single-issue anti-immigrationist group, or any individual whose primary or exclusive contribution to politics and society was their anti-immigrationist activism. All of the collections which hold anti-immigrationist materials are those of mainstream political parties, MPs, or even left-leaning groups who surveyed anti-immigrationists for the purposes of information-gathering. That is, all the documentary evidence that exists on the topic of anti-immigrationism was deposited, and collected, by someone else, or because the person who possessed or created those documents did other things which were more important—or at least more acceptable. This trend reveals certain tantalizing details that might otherwise have been lost: for instance, that the Labour Party and National Front ran a series of infiltrations of each other’s organizations in which young working-class men posed as members for the purposes of obtaining information about their opponents’ tactics. But it conceals other, equally important information. For instance, what was the nature of internal organizational debates about how, and why, to oppose immigration legislation, or discussions about which tactics were best suited to challenging the political status quo? How did anti-immigrationists think about themselves, and how did they speak to each other? It is not clear whether members of anti-immigrationist groups ever offered to deposit their papers with any repository; if they had, it is similarly uncertain whether any repository would have accepted them. In both cases, shame operates to suppress the collection of data and information that might otherwise be used to construct a compelling, and complete, vision of the past. If we think it is important to preserve the papers of the National Council of Civil Liberties, presently held at the Hull History Centre, why not those of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association?

Typically when a group of individuals have not been responsible for depositing their own papers, we assume that this is because they have been in some way disempowered or disenfranchised—that they were among the oppressed and thus not granted their own voice. Anti-immigrationists in the twentieth century, by contrast, were typically citizens of the United Kingdom who were more or less uniformly entitled to a full package of civil, political, and social rights. However, the effect, and perhaps the intent, of an official disinterest in the anti-immigrationist past is to send a clear message not only to the anti-immigrationists and their successors, but also to any members of the public who may be paying attention: as anti-immigrationists you were always marginal, never mainstream, and the record will reflect this.

Assessing the complicated legacy of white supremacy in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written that “’Hope’ struck me as an overrated force in human history. ‘Fear’ did not.” Coates argues that white supremacy is likely an indelible feature of American society, and that the best remedy that can be achieved is a diminution of its impact. He means this stance not to be unnecessarily alarmist or pessimistic, but rather to militate “against justice and righteousness as twin inevitable victors in history.” Evidence of this (problematic) commitment to a positive spin on the trajectory of British history abounds in present-day commentary on the anti-immigrationist rhetoric of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in particular. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is routinely mocked, chastised, and condemned by members of the political establishment; yet he persists in his public statements, and it would be difficult for anyone in the UK to ignore the role he is presently playing in politics at the highest level. It would similarly have been impossible for anyone to ignore the role that anti-immigrationism played in politics in the 1960s and 1970s—and so to frame anti-immigrationism as strictly “marginal” is an inaccurate representation of the lived experience of this period.

Unearthing the unpleasant history of an anti-immigrationist past is not an easy task, or a straightforward one. But it is not a task that should be avoided for all that. The cumulative effect of a failure to deposit shameful documents, or of denying access to potentially shameful materials, is to render oneself complicit in the process of suppression. By pretending that these things did not happen, and by preventing others from telling the story of a shameful past, we are ourselves culpable. So what principles should guide our collection and preservation of historical evidence moving forward? Do we keep only that which we can be proud of? Or do we accept that there are certain things about humanity that should change, but which can only be changed if we confront them in all their gory detail, if we pay them as much attention as those events and individuals who we most admire? Indeed, should we continue to accept the social phenomena of pride and shame as the grounds upon which we do, or do not, remember the past?

Nicole Longpré recently completed her Ph.D. in history at Columbia University, and will take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Victoria in Fall 2016. She researches anti-immigrationism and twentieth-century British political history.

Reading for Pleasure and Shelf-Satisfaction: The Reading Sheffield Oral History Project

by guest contributor Elizabeth Ott

Debates about the proper function of public libraries—what readers they should serve, what kinds of reading they should promote, what sorts of books should stock their shelves and (perhaps most importantly) how those books and shelves should be paid for—have dogged discussions of public libraries since their first inception. These debates have never been politically neutral, yet they have been particularly charged in recent years, as conservative economic policies have forced the closure of many libraries around the United Kingdom. In this climate, libraries, librarians, and library users are charged to articulate what value public libraries offer to offset the cost of their operation.

Often these articulations rely upon the rhetoric of moral improvement: reading becomes synonymous with education, a safe activity that guards against the dubious pleasures of modernity. The library itself is cited as a place of community-building, a neutral space of wholesome civic engagement. These lines of argument have the effect of casting public libraries in relation to a sense of time: either libraries are preserving a sense of the past, a golden moment in history when reading (usually figured as inherently superior to, say, television, the internet, etc.) was ubiquitous, or libraries are a gateway to progress, an investment in national advancement.

Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader

Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader

The tension between these two modes of articulating value in public libraries can be seen in a recent interview in the Guardian with writer Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s interlocutor, Toby Litt, asks a series of leading questions, such as this one: “Isn’t the future of libraries dependent on not having gatekeepers who are scary, on libraries not looking ancient, and not being about distant, old knowledge?” This question is loaded with valuations of what is good (progress, youth, the future) and what is bad (history, age, the past). It is impossible to read it without jumping to a conclusion about the kind of library he is indicating: the scary gate-keeping crone who guards ancient tomes in a derelict Carnegie building whose sagging walls speak of years of civic neglect. Gaiman is largely uninterested in engaging this discourse, and instead uses the space of the interview to explore his own personal and imaginative interaction with libraries as a young reader. Nevertheless, his metaphor of the library as “seed-corn” which ends up titling the article, contributes to a progress narrative.

In this context, the Reading Sheffield project is delightfully radical. Though in many ways the project tropes the library as a preserver of history (the main page of the website invites readers to “be transported to Sheffield’s past. To a time without Google or Apple, a time when the world went to war and then re-built itself, a time when most children left school at 14 and most women did not work outside the home”), it significantly places no value whatsoever on reading as an improving activity, instead championing reading as an activity of leisure. Against the backdrop of a largely working class readership, Reading Sheffield is “a resource for anybody seeking to explore, celebrate, or promote reading for pleasure.”

At the core of the Reading Sheffield project is series of sixty-two interviews with residents who lived in Sheffield, England during the 1940s and 1950s, conducted over a two-year period by twelve trained volunteers. These oral histories of reading are fully transcribed and available on the website, along with embedded audio files. Interview subjects recollect how they accessed the library, when they first became readers, what they read, and how their reading intersected with their daily lives. These recordings have significant historical value as a record of reader activity—an aspect of reading history that’s especially fleeting and difficult to capture—and as markers of social history. In recounting their memories of library use, each interviewee also records detailed information about the culture of post-war Britain in which they read. Archival quality audio recordings of the interviews have been deposited with the Sheffield Archives and Sheffield Hallam University, in addition to being made available online.

One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.

One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.

Because of the average age of interview participants, the Reading Sheffield oral histories recall the privation of post-war England in the 1940s and 1950s. Readers reference the scarcity of paper, shortages of food, the sheer difficulty of visiting library branches when tram rides proved too expensive and a trip across town meant an arduous trek in both directions. The interview format prompts recollections along a defined pathway: when did you first learn to read? What were your first books?  Which library branches did you visit and how did you get there? What books did you own and what books did you borrow? This last question is one that particularly highlights the library’s function as a place of pleasure reading, as often interviewees make a distinction between the kind of practical books purchased for the home (bibles, trade manuals, school books) and the books vividly recalled from library visits: “Well the books from the library I think were all novels.”

Beyond its function as a repository of oral history, the project seeks to imaginatively engage with readers’ histories in a variety of ways—most interestingly through its Readers’ Journeys: “interpretive articles based on our readers’ interviews,” written by project team members, that may “not necessarily represent the views of the interviewees.” These articles attempt to match oral histories with the places and spaces they recollect, drawing out tangential narratives that emphasize the importance of libraries and library buildings in the social life of the community.

Sheffield, like many cities in the United Kingdom, has weathered threats of library closure. It was the site of community protests in 2014 over the planned closure of approximately 16 branch locations; these closures were only avoided through the use of volunteer labor, replacing professional and staff positions at many branches. Reading Sheffield, too, is built on the labor largely of volunteers, whose efforts to preserve community history in the face of erasure are commendable, as is their message that readers deserve a community space for shared pleasure, outside any system of utilitarian value.

Elizabeth Ott is Assistant Curator of Rare Books at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Libraries. Her doctoral work is on the history of subscription and circulating libraries in England.

Antonin Scalia’s Originalism and the Rhetoric of Judicial Office in Early Modern England

by guest contributor David Kearns

Since his death on 13 February 2016, much has been written on Antonin Scalia’s legacy as a Supreme Court justice. A significant strand within this literature has focused on Scalia’s enduring fascination—both in his judgments and in his statements outside the court—with the relationship between law and morality. Scalia famously remarked that lawyers were “not moral philosophers“; and that judges were not tasked with determining what rights should exist, but rather with what rights exist according to accurate Constitutional interpretation, a doctrine he described as “originalism.” A judge reasoning not through such interpretation but rather through the application of moral philosophy was, in Scalia’s words, a “charlatan.”

Commentators interested in this aspect of Scalia’s work have alleged that this supposed amorality was either a cover for actual immorality—his discussions of homosexuality, in one account, “reflect ugly, stubborn, unevolved beliefs”—or in fact was itself immoral. For Laurence H. Tribe, Scalia’s dedication to originalism precluded him from embracing the “just and inclusive society” that laws “should be interpreted to advance.”

This essay will focus on this latter response, and will show that Scalia’s rhetoric about the importance of accurate interpretation and application of existing law over moral concerns is a modern contribution to a judicial rhetoric that emerged in late seventeenth-century England in response to the British Civil Wars. In particular, it will explicate how Sir Matthew Hale—King’s Bench Chief Justice from 1671 to 1675—justified an amoral legal system rooted in accurate interpretation and application of past law as the only means to protect England against future civil conflict.

Hale was born in 1609, and after briefly attempting to join the priesthood, took up a career in law. He studied at Lincoln’s Inn before working as a barrister, and was appointed to judicial office under Oliver Cromwell, as Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Under the restored monarchy of Charles II, Hale served as Chief Baron of the Exchequer from 1660 to 1671, and as Chief Justice of King’s Bench—the highest common law court—from 1671 to his retirement in 1675. As well as his work as a judge, Hale wrote extensively on the common law, though published little in his lifetime.

In these works, Hale articulated his understanding of the common law and the role of the judges working in it. In his History of the Common Law in England, written in the 1670s, Hale explained that the common law consisted of the lex non scripta, the laws which existed from “before Time of Memory”: a legal term referring to the period before 1189, even if such laws still existed in written form (Hale, History, 3-4). The laws that made up the lex non scripta had three different origins: customs, practices of governance that survived “from Age to Age”; statutes; and previous judicial decisions, not laws as such but precedents which could aid in interpretation (44-5). Judges were bound to dispense judgments in line with these laws and with the lex scripta, statutes made post-1189 (166).

Hale expanded on this in his manuscript Reflections by the L[o]rd. Chiefe Justice Hale on Mr. Hobbes his Dialogue of the Lawe, written roughly simultaneous to his History. Hobbes’s A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England comprised a lengthy attack on common lawyers: particularly Edward Coke, King’s Bench Chief Justice from 1613 to 1616 and one of Hale’s mentors. In the initial exchange between the Philosopher and Lawyer, Hobbes’s Lawyer claimed that, according to Coke, common law judges possessed a form of legal reason distinct from men’s natural reason. This was the “Summa Ratio“—the highest reason—an artificial form of reason constituted through “many successions of Ages,” through which it had been steadily refined by common lawyers (Hobbes, Dialogue, 9, 18).

Hobbes’s Philosopher rejected this argument, insisting instead that lawyers and judges possess no special form of reason, as “all Men… when they have applied their Reason to the Laws… may be as fit for, and capable of Judicature as Sir Edward Coke himself” (18). Judges should not rely on earlier judgments, as these were often contradictory (55). Instead, the king’s judgment, as expressed particularly in statute, should ground judicial work. Furthermore, the Philosopher asserted, the laws that constituted the common law had been made by kings—kings were “Legislator both of Statute-Law, and of Common-Law”—and it was thus the reason of these kings that guided the law (26).

Writing against this, Hale contested Hobbes’s conception of legal reason, arguing that those trained in the common law possessed a form of reason specialized to their discipline. By applying their natural “Facultie of Reason” to the law through “readeing, Study and observation,” men “habituated” their “reasonable facultie” to the law, preparing them to serve as lawyer or judge (Hale, Reflections, 287-8, 292). No natural nor royal reason could thus adequately perform the duties of a judge, which involved interpreting the breadth of existing law—the lex non scripta and lex scripta—and accurately applying it to the present case.

Hale went on to extol the virtue of this method against those who would seek to root law in moral philosophy, deploying a vocabulary very similar to that later used by Scalia. Judges attempting to adjudicate through reference to “Casuists, Schoolmen, Morall Philosophers, and Treatises touching Moralls in the Theory” are “Co[m]monly the worst Judges” (289). Moreover, the accurate application of existing law was preferable to the deployment of any personally formulated legal principle “tho’ I am better acquainted w[i]th the reasonableness of my own theory” (291). Hale acknowledged that this process of interpreting and applying past law without concern for moral questions may indeed result in “some mischief,” but that “more must Suffer by the inconvenience of an Arbitrary and uncertaine law” resulting from a resort to moral theory.

The preservation of peace over legal innovation was particularly pertinent for Hale given his context. Hale had lived through the British Civil Wars and the Interregnum period following Charles I’s execution in 1649. He had witnessed the instability and violence of this period, as well as the threats to the common law that arose in the monarchy’s absence. Hale had chaired Cromwell’s Hale Commission, charged with developing law reforms, none of which were ultimately accepted by Cromwell’s government. As Commission chair, Hale was brought into contact with an array of opponents of the common law, including those who proposed dismantling the common law in favor of a scripture-based legal system (such as Hugh Peters in his Good Work for a Good Magistrate).

Writing in his History after the Civil Wars and Interregnum, Hale described this period as characterized by “Errors, Distemppers or Iniquities,” and claimed that it was only the common law that had “wasted and wrought out those distempers” (History, 30). Hale’s certainty that the common law protected the English state and that threats to his judicial method constituted threats to the state is palpable throughout his Reflections, as he warned of the “Instability, uncertantie, and varietie” threatened by a law grounded in moral theory. Such a grounding would risk “the happiness and Peace of the Kingdome”; it was instead preferable that judges apply “a Lawe by w[hi]ch a Kingdome hath been happily governed four or five hundr[e]d yeares” (Reflections, 291). For Hale, then, the amoral process of accurately interpreting and applying past law was to be preferred to any attempt to reconcile law with moral theory, which he saw as threatening to plunge England back into a state of violence.

Hale’s theories of law have remained central to modern jurisprudence on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as being cited heavily by William Blackstone, who himself remains regularly cited in modern law (see, for example, Lord Fraser’s citation of Blackstone in the immensely influential Gillick v West Norlk and Wisbech AHA), Hale’s judgments have been cited as precedent as recently as 1991, where his 1675 conviction of John Taylor for claiming that Christ was a “whore-master” and “bastard” formed part of the basis of Salman Rushdie’s acquittal for blasphemous libel (R v Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate). This early modern English jurisprudence has also had a continuing influence on American law. This appraisal of Hale’s treatment of the law-morality relationship thus ought to give us pause in our criticism of Scalia. Whether Scalia lived up to his own challenge to accurately apply existing law, and whether such a practice continues to constitute a valid judicial method given its now-remote origins, remain questions for current legal commentators. We cannot, though, simply dismiss Scalia’s concern with the primacy of precedent as a personal moral failing, but must contend with it as a contemporary engagement with an enduring and powerfully justified tradition within the law.

David Kearns is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on English common law from 1660 to 1688, and in particular, the relationship between the common law and religious thought.

Friendship, Idealism, and Federating University Women in the Early Twentieth Century

by Emily Rutherford

Working my way through my most recent archival findings, it’s tempting to conclude that, in early-twentieth-century England, men’s visions for the future of higher education revolved entirely around conservative retrenchment, while women’s embraced exciting new progressive ideas including coeducation, curricular innovation, and education’s relation to international relations. To be sure, my sample size is small, my research as yet inconclusive; previous historians have done much to trace the transformation of liberally- and Liberally-minded academics in my period into public intellectuals who pronounced on everything from social reform and imperial policy to the League of Nations.

Still, while schoolmaster-turned-Cambridge don Oscar Browning or American art collector-turned-Oxford benefactor Edward Perry Warren were working hard to defend the distinctly cloistered, masculine culture of the Oxbridge collegiate system, women’s educational community had grander and more outward-looking aims. Their vision marked a significant departure from that of men who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, had sought to use the residential college model and a broadly classical curriculum to inculcate morality and civic duty in their students. However idealistic some of these men might have been, their visions usually turned inward. By contrast, in a 1922 speech, the London English professor Caroline Spurgeon argued that an organization connecting university-educated women from around the world might prove a more successful vehicle for “international friendship” than the League of Nations (Caroline Spurgeon Papers, Royal Holloway PP7/6/3). I want briefly to tell the story of Spurgeon and some of the friends with whom she came to hold this belief—and to suggest, perhaps, a different account of early-twentieth-century elite higher education in Britain from the perspective that the Oxbridge men’s colleges offer.

Caroline Spurgeon, the daughter of an army captain, was born in India in 1869, and later went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College and King’s College London. She received a doctorate in medieval literature from the Sorbonne in 1911. Margery Fry, born into a prominent Quaker family in 1874, read mathematics at Somerville College, Oxford. Rose Sidgwick, born in 1877, was the daughter of a prominent progressive Oxford don; she attended Oxford High School for Girls and read history as an Oxford Home Student. Virginia Gildersleeve was also born in 1877, into a prominent New York family; she attended Brearley and Barnard, and did a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Columbia. All four were “new” women: a generation who came of age in the 1890s, the first women for whom education opened doors to an independent, public life that would have been inconceivable to their mothers. They were committed to their fields of research, and to building institutions that could offer to women what university education had long offered to men—whether that meant residential colleges to rival Oxbridge and the Ivy League, or large coeducational institutions committed to offering a higher education in a wider variety of fields to anyone capable of doing the work.

Somerville College, Oxford, where Margery Fry and Rose Sidgwick met. Wikimedia Commons.

Somerville College, Oxford, where Margery Fry and Rose Sidgwick met. Wikimedia Commons.

For all this progress, most women who pursued a professional career were thereby making the choice not to marry. In her volume on women in British universities in this period, Carol Dyhouse offers the remarkable statistic that 79-85% of women academics at the turn of the century “remained lifelong spinsters” (161). Instead, women who worked in universities—like those in other professions, like social work, newly open to women—were emotionally sustained by the close friendships they formed with each other. Rose Sidgwick and Margery Fry are a typical example: they met when teaching at Somerville College, Oxford early in their careers and became committed partners, moving together to Birmingham University in 1904 to start a residence hall for women there. While we can’t, and shouldn’t, speculate about whether a relationship like Fry’s and Sidgwick’s might have looked like what we would call “lesbian” today, the collection of Sidgwick’s letters and poems that Fry saved are a testament to the two women’s intimacy; ardent expressions of love from the 1900s give way to anxiety after Fry decided to join the Quaker ambulance corps on the Western Front in 1915. It’s difficult to do justice to this extraordinary collection of documents here. But through them it may be possible to tell a detailed and difficult story about the ways in which “new women” intermingled love and labor—of the kind which Seth Koven has begun to explore and which could benefit from more perspectives and forms of evidence.

As the higher education sector expanded, it became an important component of the cultural ties that intellectuals and politicians believed united the English-speaking world. As Tamson Pietsch has shown, universities were an important vector for communication across the settler empire; as early as 1902, Cecil Rhodes’s will evidences that the United States was imagined as part of this network as well. By the summer of 1918, when the end of the war was in sight and the British and American governments were both planning avidly for a new peacetime order, universities were part of their picture. The US Department of Defense invited the British Foreign Office to select a group of prominent British academics to tour US universities in a so-called “British Educational Mission,” a highly-publicized diplomatic event which would explore what higher education could contribute to a new Anglo-American alliance. The Foreign Office selected five men who were prominent in academic administration or in their research fields—and then, after these had already departed, they concluded that it was no longer appropriate for only men to participate in such an initiative. Hastily, they contacted Spurgeon and Fry, two of the more senior women then working in academia. Spurgeon, by then the first woman in Britain to achieve the rank of professor, accepted. Fry was exhausted from her wartime service and needed to care for an ailing father. She suggested that Sidgwick go in her stead.

University House, the hall for women at Birmingham that Fry and Sidgwick founded. Author photo.

University House, the hall for women at Birmingham that Fry and Sidgwick founded. Author photo.

Sidgwick and Spurgeon set sail for New York in September, 1918. They were hosted there by Virginia Gildersleeve, by now Dean of Barnard and a member of the reception committee. Barnard became their base as over the next four months they toured colleges across North America: from the Seven Sisters to the universities of Michigan and Texas, and—making a brief sojourn for the sake of imperial relations—McGill and Toronto in Canada. While their male colleagues reviewed ROTC parades, they collected information about the ways American women undergraduates lived (Sidgwick’s travel diary records her surprise that Americans were more independent and outspoken than English women students, if not as learned) and promoted the idea of scholarships to send American women to do graduate work in Britain. In her memoir, Gildersleeve recalled that she, Sidgwick, and Spurgeon were all sitting perched on trunks in a tiny New York hotel room when they conceived the idea of an International Federation of University Women (IFUW), a body that would work for international fellowship and cooperation. For Gildersleeve, that moment was also the start of a decades-long relationship with Spurgeon: in addition to working on the IFUW together, the two women bought a cottage at Alciston in Sussex, where they spent summers until Spurgeon retired to Arizona. In strikingly modern fashion, they contrived to spend sabbaticals at each other’s institutions. For Spurgeon and Gildersleeve, as for Fry and Sidgwick, their relationship was always intertwined with their common work, in medieval and early modern literature and in bringing international university women together.

Fry and Sidgwick would have no such future. In December 1918, Sidgwick was admitted to the Columbia University Hospital. She died just after Christmas, a casualty of the Spanish influenza epidemic. Gildersleeve organized the academic equivalent of a transatlantic state funeral: a High Anglican service in the chapel of the only university in the Thirteen Colonies to have been founded by royal charter, with the coffin draped in a Union Jack and pallbearers including the British ambassador and the presidents of Columbia, Yale, and NYU. Effusive eulogies were delivered on both sides of the Atlantic, and Gildersleeve later recalled that “I felt that she had died as truly in the service of her country as had the thousands of her young countrymen who had fallen on the fields of Flanders and of France” (Many a Good Crusade 130). The British Educational Mission might in retrospect seem parochial, but Sidgwick’s death makes clear just how entwined it was with large-scale questions of international diplomacy.

So too did Sidgwick’s death galvanize Spurgeon and Gildersleeve to follow through with founding the IFUW in her memory. One of the organization’s first actions was to create a scholarship for American women to study in the UK, named in memory of Sidgwick. A benefactor donated a house in Paris—a symbolic place due to being the location of the Peace Conference—to serve as an IFUW clubhouse. Annual conferences were held in cities around Europe. Papers of the IFUW Council record discussions about paths to education and careers for married women, research statements from women whose scholarships the IFUW sponsored, requests for official recognition from the League of Nations (the League declined to take action on the IFUW’s proposals). In speeches in the early ’20s promoting the IFUW to women’s groups around Britain, Spurgeon argued that international relations were not just for statesmen. They were something everyone could practice by joining organizations like the IFUW that could facilitate the formation of friendships across national borders—like, perhaps, the friendship she had found with Gildersleeve. Drawing on ideas about women’s role in politics popular in both the British and American suffrage movements (whose gains were still a novelty), she suggested that this kind of affective connection was women’s version of peacemaking, equivalent and no less important to what men pursued in Geneva. In some ways, she went a step further than seemed possible in Geneva in the early ’20s: her papers include a 1926 cutting from a German women’s magazine which celebrates her achievements alongside those of women scholars and researchers from the German-speaking countries (RHUL PP7/8/2).

Like the rest of the interwar internationalist moment, the IFUW never again enjoyed the intense burst of enthusiasm it had between about 1919 and 1926. Due to blockades, delegates were not able to make it to an IFUW conference in Copenhagen in 1939, and after the war they did not resume the habit. Like the branches of the League Secretariat absorbed into the UN, the American and British branches of the IFUW still offer scholarships—but they are dwarfed by other, higher-profile initiatives. Along with liberal internationalism, the postwar period saw the decline of women’s education as a separate enterprise to men’s, which embodied a different ethics and sense of social relations and at times a different curriculum. The Cold War Anglo-American alliance was cemented with new, coed scholarships like the Marshall and the Fulbright; that imperial holdover the Rhodes finally admitted women in 1977—around the same time as most Oxford and Cambridge men’s colleges. The conservative men who in the early twentieth century had tried to protect the distinctiveness of their own domain were no more successful than were the progressive women who sought to enrich theirs. But Gildersleeve’s, Sidgwick’s, Fry’s, and Spurgeon’s story is a way into a world we’ve lost: one of extraordinary idealism in which the idea, however zany, that friendships engendered between the women university graduates of the world could prevent another Great War, had real and urgent currency.

Gildersleeve and Spurgeon toboggan

Virginia Gildersleeve and Caroline Spurgeon sledding (n.d., probably early ’20s). Gildersleeve Papers Box 80, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University.

Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Race: Notes on an Ongoing Controversy

by guest contributor Georgios Giannakopoulos

The wave of student protests for racial tolerance and university reform in America recently crashed against the name of Woodrow Wilson. The eagerness to address Wilson’s racism prompted a discussion about his political legacy and the history of the university he came to represent. The controversy, enacted through petitions and counter-petitions, took on a symbolic dimension following demands for the renaming of a handful of institutions bearing Wilson’s name in Princeton and elsewhere in the United States.

Although some may argue that the so-called ‘Wilson controversy’ is somewhat disconnected from the very real challenges of people in color in universities today, it merits further attention. The debate brings out hitherto underappreciated connections between race, education, domestic and international politics, for Wilson’s name has come to define a moment in world history.

A handful of commentators have taken upon themselves the task of assessing Wilson’s racism. A New York Times op-ed highlighted the segregationist side of the Wilson administration and argued that, under his tenure, the White House reversed earlier policies of racial tolerance. Forgotten stories about Wilson’s treatment of Black politicians have resurfaced. Others have turned to the links between race and international/imperial politics and have insisted on de-provincializing the discussion. Finally, another thread of the debate revolves around efforts made by scholars to discern between the racial hierarchies underpinning Wilson’s vision of inter/national order and the purported benevolence of ‘Wilsonianism’. This maps onto a broader theme regarding race, liberalism and the empire.

There are three interesting points I wish to raise with respect to the debate. The first connects with the centrality of ‘race’ as an analytic category in the history of twentieth century international politics across the Anglo-American world. One may think of Robert Vitalis’ recent work on the Birth of American International Relations. Vitalis has sought to recover the neglected contribution of racism and imperialism in the the emergence of the discipline of International Relations. Another example is recent work by Duncan Bell on the hefty racial baggage of projects for Anglo-American unity in the turn of the twentieth century. Such works problematize the standard narratives of Wilson’s idealist benevolence, to which many Europeans like myself were exposed in their undergraduate years. In our diplomatic history textbooks in Greece, Wilson was synonymous to national self-determination and was portrayed as the tragic hero of an unfulfilled world order.

Yet Wilson’s fame never quite rose up to Truman’s reputation in Greece, as attested by the fascinating story of the Truman statue in Athens, which over the years have become a symbol of Anti-American sentiment. This brings me to my second point, the contentious politics of institutional memory—be it public artworks and monuments or simply naming practices. As a matter of fact, Larry Wolff recently reminded us of the relation between Wilson’s appeal as a harbinger of a new inter/national order in Eastern Europe and the politics surrounding the practice of lending his name to cities and train stations. From this perspective, the student demand to efface the name of Woodrow Wilson from the institutional memory of the university is not new. Although commentators have rightly raised suspicions about the validity and effectiveness of such claims, the fact remains that they bring about broader questions on the politics of institutional memory.

How are institutions of learning to deal with the racist baggage of their founding fathers? Moving across continents, similar concerns have recently been raised against the imprint of Cecil Rhodes’ figure in contemporary South Africa. A few months ago, Cape Town University students succeeded in removing a statue of his located prominently in the campus, while other students staged protests in Rhodes’ intellectual home, the University of Oxford. The more one reads about the #Rhodesmustfall protest movement, the more one is convinced that institutions of higher learning have a lot to do to facilitate critical reflection on their own history. Moreover, the eventual withdrawal of Rhodes’ statue from the campus brings in another dimension in the debate. Does it suffice to argue that such a move ought to be complemented with the erection of theme parks along the lines of similar developments in post-communist Europe? Although in Cape Town it might make sense to imagine a statue park of disgraced segregationists and white supremacists, many would argue that such a move would be unimaginable in the United States.

Such events—in contexts as diverse as Cape Town and Princeton—beg the question of how do we make space for polyphony and critical thinking without silencing voices or conveniently effacing aspects of embarrassing and politically charged histories? Here cultural and intellectual historians have a role to play. And this role exceeds the customary emphasis on Wilson’s culpability or the degree of his racism. In seeking ways to deal with this, I propose we turn to the field of contemporary art and, more specifically, to the so-called movement of institutional critique, as a means to make institutions, such as the modern university more responsive to the challenges of critiquing their own foundations.

The striking image of Cecil Rhode’s statue, covered in cloth, awaiting to be deported to another safer location, brought to my mind one of Hans Haacke’s widely discussed installations. The German-born artist is well known for his public artworks and his provocative attitude towards the the institutions which commission and facilitate his work.

Hans Haacke, "Und ihr habt doch gesiegt" (Et pourtant, vous étiez les vainqueurs), 1988, Graz, Autriche, via imagesanalyses.univ-paris1.fr

Hans Haacke, Und ihr habt doch gesiegt (1988, Graz, Austria; via imagesanalyses.univ-paris1.fr)

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss, Haacke joined sixteen artists from eight countries invited to produce public artworks on the theme of ‘Guilt and Innocence in Art’, with reference to Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Haacke ventured to reconstruct a Nazi obelisk covering one of Graz’s older monuments, the “Mariensäule”. The ‘Column of the Virgin Mary’ was erected in the late seventeenth century to commemorate victory over the Turks. In 1938, the Nazis encased the column in an enormous obelisk, draped in red fabric, bearing the inscription Und Ihr Habt Doch Gesiegt (‘And You Were Victorious after All’). Haacke’s reconstruction added one crucial feature: an epigraph around the base of the obelisk listing the victims of Nazi aggression in Graz. The ambivalence of the inscription fuelled a heated debate in the public arena. A few days before the end of the festival, the reconstruction, which now stood in the square as an art piece, was firebombed causing sever damages to the engulfed Virgin statue. In the aftermath of the event, local artists and political groups protested against the act of vandalism. The press referred to the ruin of Haacke’s memorial (Manhmal) as a ‘monument of shame’ (Schandmal). Haacke’s intervention surfaced the lurking tensions with regards to thorny matters of historical memory. Crucially, Haacke’s installation was made possible only because a public institution, in this case the cultural foundation linked with the city of Graz, commissioned it.

steirischer herbst 1988 Bezugspunkte 38-88 Hans Haacke, Und ihr habt doch gesiegt

Hans Haacke, Und ihr habt doch gesiegt (steirischer herbst 1988 Bezugspunkte 38-88)

One may wonder, how does Haacke’s work relate to the so-called ‘Wilson controversy’, or even to the Cecil Rhodes incident? This brings me to my third point. There is something in the movement of institutional critique, and in similar artistic practices, that points to creative ways through which an institution can critically engage with its own history. The past, no matter how traumatic, is not to be effaced, neatly forgotten or even deflected. This example says much for the ways in which institutions of learning today, be it Princeton or Cape Town, or even Oxford ought to make space for the critical exploration of their own historical foundations and facilitate, if not actively promote, the uncovering of inconvenient truths.

Georgios Giannakopoulos holds a PhD in History from Queen Mary, University of London. He is Visiting Fellow at the Remarque Institute, NYU. His research revolves around ideas of nationalism, internationalism and the prehistory of area studies, with an emphasis on Anglo-American debates on South/Eastern Europe.