Keeping history on the straight and narrow

History in the Making - review.

A J P Taylor.
A J P Taylor. Photograph: Getty Images

History in the Making
J H Elliott
Yale University Press, 256pp, £17.50

Historians don’t have a very good track record when it comes to writing autobiographies. The lives we lead are just too ordinary. Life in the ivory tower doesn’t usually make for exciting reading and the archives, committee rooms and lecture theatres where we spend most of our working lives are hardly likely to generate reminiscences that would interest a wide readership. The exceptions to this rule are interesting mainly because of their subjects’ lives outside of academia: A J P Taylor’s A Personal History has a lot to say about his career in journalism, his participation in the campaign for nuclear disarmament and his involvement in controversy of one kind or another; Eric Hobsbawm’s Interesting Times charts his activity in the Communist Party; Michael Howard’s Captain Professor narrates his wartime experience and postwar engagement with defence issues; Richard Cobb’s anecdotal memories, scattered across a whole range of essays and slim volumes, reflect his conception of himself as a wild, untamed individualist, though one can never be quite sure how much of what he says is true.

An element of self-deprecation and irony always helps get the reader on the memoirist’s side; it’s one of the most engaging qualities in the autobiographies of Taylor and Howard, for instance; and where it’s missing, as in Patrick Collinson’s The History of a History Man, the resulting narrative comes across as hopelessly dull and naive. Collinson, a specialist on Elizabethan Puritanism, was a fine scholar but remained largely unknown outside his area of expertise; the days when Regius professors were public figures like Hugh Trevor-Roper or his successor Howard are long since gone. The same can be said of John Elliott, who succeeded Howard in the Oxford chair. A specialist in early modern Spanish history, he has produced a string of major works, culminating in a sweeping, brilliant survey, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, published in 2006. In his new book, he looks back over his long career and offers some reflections on his work.

If this is an autobiography, it is strictly an intellectual one. Unlike Collinson, who threw into his plodding narrative every last detail of his personal life, Elliott confines himself solely to his books. We learn next to nothing here about him as a man. Although he spent a long time researching in Spain while it was still under the dictatorship of General Franco, we don’t learn about his opinions of the regime or his experiences under it, except incidentally in so far as they impinged on his writing and research. Unlike Cobb, who wrote entertainingly about the many people he met and knew, Elliott tells us next to nothing about other people. Perhaps the best way to approach this book is to treat it as an extended introduction to Elliott’s collected works and those who are familiar with The Count-Duke of Olivares or Imperial Spain 1469-1716 will find much of interest to ponder here. Those who are not will find it hard going.

Elliott comes across here as a very English historian, “never having been particularly interested . . . in theoretical approaches to the study of the past” and keenly aware of the role of “personality and contingency in shaping the past”. His work is a lot better than the empiricism of these remarks suggests, partly because, having come of age in the 1950s, when materialist approaches to the past were dominant, he has always paid due attention to the interplay of economies and societies with the world of politics. However, he does venture some tentative reflections on the intersection of his writing on Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries and his life in Britain in the second half of the 20th century. Growing up in the postwar era, at a time when Britain was finding it increasingly difficult to keep a grip on its empire, and writing his mature works in the 1970s and 1980s, when British political culture was obsessed with the notion of post-imperial decline, he found compelling parallels in the history of Spain in the decades after it reached its apogee of imperial power under Philip II.

However, his reflections are less on the lessons to be learned than on the problem of how decline can be measured or studied: is it economic, political, cultural or merely a state of mind? These questions are covered above all in direct relation to Elliott’s own work, so that his conclusions have only limited relevance to historians working in other fields. For all the acuteness of its judgements, this is a book that falls awkwardly between intellectual autobiography and historiographical analysis. Elliott has always been a historian’s historian and this book, elegantly written and urbane though it is, remains a book primarily of interest not just to historians but, more narrowly, to historians of early modern Spain.

Richard J Evans Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge.