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José Harris, 24 July 1986

Wallis and Edward: Letters 1931-1937 
edited by Michael Bloch.
Weidenfeld, 308 pp., £12.95, May 1986, 0 297 78804 3
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Rat Week: An Essay on the Abdication 
by Osbert Sitwell.
Joseph, 78 pp., £7.95, May 1986, 0 7181 1859 6
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... The abdication of Edward VIII belongs to a class of events that can never be adequately treated by historians, since both the act and the actors transcend the conventional boundaries of the historian’s craft. All the evidence suggests that Edward was a mediocre character of limited intelligence and scant scruple, remarkable only for his gigantic powers of self-deception ...

Principal Ornament

José Harris, 3 December 1992

G.M. Trevelyan: A life in History 
by David Cannadine.
HarperCollins, 288 pp., £18, September 1992, 0 00 215872 8
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... Until this week I had read no work written by G.M. Trevelyan since my schooldays. No Cambridge supervisor that I can recall ever recommended any of his books, and I have certainly never prescribed them to my own students. Like most people, I knew – or thought I knew – that he had defined social history as ‘history with the politics left out’, and that he was one of the chief stuffed carcasses in the mausoleum of Whig history ...

Sour Apple

José Harris, 5 July 1984

H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life 
by Anthony West.
Hutchinson, 405 pp., £12.95, June 1984, 0 09 134540 5
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by Anthony West.
Secker, 305 pp., £8.95, April 1984, 0 436 56592 7
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... One of H.G. Wells’s abiding obsessions was the fear that the ‘woman of the future’ would bring about ‘race suicide’ by refusing to bear children: which may be a reason why he embarked on fatherhood so energetically, with a variety of women in addition to his wife. One of Wells’s most famous liaisons was with Rebecca West, mother of the author of the latest Wells biography ...


José Harris, 1 December 1983

John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883-1920 
by Robert Skidelsky.
Macmillan, 447 pp., £14.95, November 1983, 0 333 11599 6
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... John Maynard Keynes, grandson of the minister of the Bunyan chapel at Bedford, was born into a religious tradition that for two hundred years had stopped its ears against the blandishments of Mr Worldly Wiseman and sought only the Celestial City of Eternal Life. The City was to be found, as all readers of Pilgrim’s Progress knew, not by piety or public-spiritedness or good works or moral behaviour, but by that indefinable state of inner consciousness known as Salvation by Faith ...

Nobody wants it

José Harris, 5 December 1991

Letters to Eva, 1969-1983 
by A.J.P. Taylor, edited by Eva Haraszti Taylor.
Century, 486 pp., £20, June 1991, 0 7126 4634 5
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... A cynic? How can I not be when I have spent my life writing history?’ Alan Taylor’s love letters to his Hungarian third wife created a predictably prurient, though transient, stir when they were published earlier this year. Their more lasting interest may lie in the light that they throw upon Taylor the practising historian, musing to a fellow historian about the mysteries of his craft ...

Tales of the Unexpected

José Harris, 20 November 1986

Marriage and Morals among the Victorians, and Other Essays 
by Gertrude Himmelfarb.
Faber, 253 pp., £15.95, July 1986, 0 571 13952 3
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... For the past thirty years Gertrude Himmelfarb has sounded a discordant and unusual note among writers on Victorian England. She defended a (small c) ‘conservative’ perspective long before conservatism became intellectually fashionable. She was deciphering ‘ideas in context’ more than a decade before such an approach became the new orthodoxy of academic journals: indeed, her stock-in-trade has been to show that the great minds of the past look quite different if viewed from their own setting rather than from the time-capsule of highbrow reputation ...

Chamberlain for our Time

José Harris, 20 December 1984

Neville Chamberlain. Vol. I: 1869-1929 
by David Dilks.
Cambridge, 645 pp., £20, November 1984, 0 521 25724 7
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... The two things that everyone knows about Neville Chamberlain are that he was the son of Joseph Chamberlain and that he returned from Munich promising peace for our time. Between these two peaks of notoriety his historical reputation stretches dim, grey and obscure. An official biography by Sir Keith Feiling, written during the Second World War when Chamberlain’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, eloquently defended his subject’s personal integrity, but did little to dispel the impression of an essentially private and limited individual who had greatness thrust upon him by the high drama of historical events ...

Alternative Tories

José Harris, 23 April 1987

by Roy Jenkins.
Collins, 204 pp., £12.95, March 1987, 9780002175869
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Rab: The Life of R.A. Butler 
by Anthony Howard.
Cape, 422 pp., £15, March 1987, 0 224 01862 0
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The Political Culture of Modern Britain: Studies in Memory of Stephen Koss 
edited by J.M.W. Bean.
Hamish Hamilton, 306 pp., £15, January 1987, 0 241 12026 8
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... No political transformation of the past hundred years has been more profound and far-reaching than the change in the canons by which British statesmen are judged. In the late 19th century it was almost universally regarded as a test of political virtue that a politician did not make promises; he did not have a programme, he did not make deals with foreign powers, he abstained from all but the barest minimum of policy-formation and legislative change ...

One Nation

José Harris, 23 June 1988

The Health Services since the War. Vol. I: Problems of Health Care: The National Health Service before 1957 
by Charles Webster.
HMSO, 479 pp., £27.50, April 1988, 0 11 630942 3
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... At a time when British national identity appears more fragile than it has been for a very long time, the National Health Service bids fair to become the only major national institution that expresses the unity and commands the undivided loyalty of all but a tiny minority of the people living in this country. Shorn of empire, of economic pre-eminence, of religious certainty and racial separateness, many of them have nevertheless come to see the NHS as something peculiar and intrinsic to the British way of life: a sort of utilitarian church, mediating the beliefs and presiding over the rituals of a society incapable of advancing any more metaphysical conception ...

Office Parties

José Harris, 10 May 1990

The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 
by Harold Perkin.
Routledge, 604 pp., £40, May 1989, 0 415 00890 5
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... The Victorians, who idealised work, nevertheless reserved the palm of social esteem for persons whose private means enabled them to lead lives of pleasurable idleness. We in the late 20th century make a fetish of leisure and pleasure: yet for most of us status, self-regard, identity and personal relationships are inextricably bound up with access to paid employment ...

Their Way

José Harris: On the Origin of Altruism, 12 March 2009

The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain 
by Thomas Dixon.
British Academy, 420 pp., £60, May 2008, 978 0 19 726426 3
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... Possibly no political moralist in modern Western culture has been so widely influential – nor so often overlooked and forgotten – as the 19th-century French mathematician and philosopher Auguste Comte, the inventor of positivism, altruism and the ‘religion of humanity’. In libraries throughout Europe, weighty editions of Comte’s works remain with their pages uncut more than a hundred and fifty years after his death ...

Last Victorian

José Harris, 10 November 1994

Selected Writings. Vol. I: Crime and the Penal System 1 
by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean.
Macmillan, 158 pp., £42.50, November 1992, 0 333 56676 9
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Selected Writings. Vol. II: Crime and the Penal System 2 
by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean.
Macmillan, 185 pp., £42.50, November 1992, 0 333 56677 7
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Selected Writings. Vol. III: Social and Political Thought 
by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean.
Macmillan, 195 pp., £42.50, November 1992, 0 333 56678 5
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Selected Writings. Vol. IV: Economic and Methodological Thought 
by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean.
Macmillan, 199 pp., £42.50, November 1992, 0 333 56679 3
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... Eminent social scientists are not normally household names, but in the middle decades of the 20th century Barbara Wootton was well-known far outside the dim corridors of universities. Paradoxically for one who lived an intensely private life, she was perhaps best known as the lady professor who had flashed across the tabloid headlines by marrying a taxi-driver ...

Politics First

José Harris, 19 April 1984

The Chartists 
by Dorothy Thompson.
Temple Smith, 399 pp., £19.50, February 1984, 0 85117 229 6
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Languages of Class: Studies in English Working-Class History 1832-1982 
by Gareth Stedman Jones.
Cambridge, 260 pp., £22.50, January 1984, 0 521 25648 8
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Class Power and State Power 
by Ralph Miliband.
Verso, 310 pp., £18.50, March 1984, 0 86091 073 3
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... Chartism has long been, and continues to be, of interest to historians on many different levels. To analysts of institutional change the campaign for the People’s Charter between 1837 and 1848 has been a major, if at the time abortive, episode in the history of parliamentary democracy. To labour historians, Chartism has been mainly significant as the medium of a great upsurge of autonomous working-class consciousness and working-class culture ...

Nature’s Chastity

José Harris, 15 September 1983

Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the 19th Century 
by Barbara Taylor.
Virago, 402 pp., £9.95, March 1983, 0 86068 257 9
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Virgins and Viragos: A History of Women in Scotland from 1080 to 1980 
by Rosalind Marshall.
Collins, 365 pp., £13.50, June 1983, 0 00 216039 0
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... Tame’, ‘peaceable’, ‘dogmatic and utterly hopeless’ were the adjectives used by Engels to describe English socialists in his Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. By ‘English socialists’ Engels meant, not the wide range of heterogeneous sects whom the term would have embraced at any later period, but one specific group – the followers of Robert Owen ...

Tethering the broomstick

José Harris, 18 April 1985

Lloyd George: From Peace to War 1912-1916 
by John Grigg.
Methuen, 527 pp., £19.95, February 1985, 0 413 46660 4
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... Who shall paint the chameleon, who can tether a broomstick?’ wrote J.M. Keynes of David Lloyd George in 1919. ‘How can I convey to the reader ... any just impression of this extraordinary figure of our time, this syren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity?’ This passage was left out of the original text of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, because Keynes felt that he had tried and failed to do justice to the British prime minister’s baffling complexity of character ...

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