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Christopher Morley, ed. (1890–1957). Modern Essays. 1921.

Some Historians

Philip Guedalla

  • Philip Guedalla, born 1889, is a London barrister and at the present time an Independent Liberal candidate for the House of Commons. He has written excellent light verse and parodies, and a textbook on European history, 1715–1815. His most conspicuous achievement so far is the brilliant volume Supers and Supermen, from which my selection is taken.
  • Supers and Supermen is a collection of historical and political portraits and skits. It is mercilessly and gloriously humorous. Those who can always follow the wit and irony that Guedalla knows how to conceal in a cunningly turned phrase, will find the book a prodigious delight. He has an unerring eye for the absurd; his paradoxes, when pondered, have a way of proving excellent truth. (Truth is sometimes like the furniture in Through the Looking Glass, which could only be reached by resolutely walking away from it.)
  • Ten years ago Mr. Guedalla was considered the most continuously and insolently brilliant undergraduate of the Oxford of that day. The charm and vigor of his ironical wit have not lessened since his fellow-undergraduates strove to convince themselves that no man could be as clever as “P. G.” seemed to be. When Mr. Guedalla “holds the mirror up to Nietzsche” or “gives thanks that Britons never never will be Slavs,” or dynasticizes Henry James into three reigns: “James I, James II, and the Old Pretender;” or when he speaks of “the cheerful clatter of Sir James Barrie’s cans as he went round with the milk of human kindness,” there will be some who will sigh; but there will also (I hope) be many who will forgive the bravado for the quicksilver wit.

  • IT was Quintillian or Mr. Max Beerbohm who said, “History repeats itself: historians repeat each other.” The saying is full of the mellow wisdom of either writer, and stamped with the peculiar veracity of the Silver Age of Roman or British epigram. One might have added, if the aphorist had stayed for an answer, that history is rather interesting when it repeats itself: historians are not. In France, which is an enlightened country enjoying the benefits of the Revolution and a public examination in rhetoric, historians are expected to write in a single and classical style of French. The result is sometimes a rather irritating uniformity; it is one long Taine that has no turning, and any quotation may be attributed with safety to Guizot, because la nuit tous les chats sont gris. But in England, which is a free country, the restrictions natural to ignorant (and immoral) foreigners are put off by the rough island race, and history is written in a dialect which is not curable by education, and cannot (it would seem) be prevented by injunction.

    Historians’ English is not a style; it is an industrial disease. The thing is probably scheduled in the Workmen’s Compensation Act, and the publisher may be required upon notice of the attack to make a suitable payment to the writer’s dependants. The workers in this dangerous trade are required to adopt (like Mahomet’s coffin) a detached standpoint—that is, to write as if they took no interest in the subject. Since it is not considered good form for a graduate of less than sixty years’ standing to write upon any period that is either familiar or interesting, this feeling is easily acquired, and the resulting narrations present the dreary impartiality of the Recording Angel without that completeness which is the sole attraction of his style. Wilde complained of Mr. Hall Caine that he wrote at the top of his voice; but a modern historian, when he is really detached, writes like some one talking in the next room, and few writers have equaled the legal precision of Coxe’s observation that the Turks “sawed the Archbishop and the Commandant in half, and committed other grave violations of international law.”

    Having purged his mind of all unsteadying interest in the subject, the young historian should adopt a moral code of more than Malthusian severity, which may be learned from any American writer of the last century upon the Renaissance or the decadence of Spain. This manner, which is especially necessary in passages dealing with character, will lend to his work the grave dignity that is requisite for translation into Latin prose, that supreme test of an historian’s style. It will be his misfortune to meet upon the byways of history the oddest and most abnormal persons, and he should keep by him (unless he wishes to forfeit his Fellowship) some convenient formula by which he may indicate at once the enormity of the subject and the disapproval of the writer. The writings of Lord Macaulay will furnish him at need with the necessary facility in lightning characterization. It was the practice of Cicero to label his contemporaries without distinction as “heavy men,” and the characters of history are easily divisible into “far-seeing statesmen” and “reckless libertines.” It may be objected that although it is sufficient for the purposes of contemporary caricature to represent Mr. Gladstone as a collar or Mr. Chamberlain as an eye-glass, it is an inadequate record for posterity. But it is impossible for a busy man to write history without formulæ, and after all sheep are sheep and goats are goats. Lord Macaulay once wrote of some one, “In private life he was stern, morose, and inexorable”; he was probably a Dutchman. It is a passage which has served as a lasting model for the historian’s treatment of character. I had always imagined that Cliché was a suburb of Paris, until I discovered it to be a street in Oxford. Thus, if the working historian is faced with a period of “deplorable excesses,” he handles it like a man, and writes always as if he was illustrated with steel engravings:

    The imbecile king now ripened rapidly towards a crisis. Surrounded by a Court in which the inanity of the day was rivaled only by the debauchery of the night, he became incapable towards the year 1472 of distinguishing good from evil, a fact which contributed considerably to the effectiveness of his foreign policy, but was hardly calculated to conform with the monastic traditions of his House. Long nights of drink and dicing weakened a constitution that was already undermined, and the council-table, where once Campo Santa had presided, was disfigured with the despicable apparatus of Bagatelle. The burghers of the capital were horrified by the wild laughter of his madcap courtiers, and when it was reported in London that Ladislas had played at Halma the Court of St. James’s received his envoy in the deepest of ceremonial mourning.

    That is precisely how it is done. The passage exhibits the benign and contemporary influences of Lord Macaulay and Mr. Bowdler, and it contains all the necessary ingredients, except perhaps a “venal Chancellor” and a “greedy mistress.” Vice is a subject of especial interest to historians, who are in most cases residents in small county towns; and there is unbounded truth in the rococo footnote of a writer on the Renaissance, who said à propos of a Pope: “The disgusting details of his vices smack somewhat of the morbid historian’s lamp.” The note itself is a fine example of that concrete visualization of the subject which led Macaulay to observe that in consequence of Frederick’s invasion of Silesia “black men fought on the coast of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.”

    A less exciting branch of the historian’s work is the reproduction of contemporary sayings and speeches. Thus, an obituary should always close on a note of regretful quotation:

    He lived in affluence and died in great pain “Thus,” it was said by the most eloquent of his contemporaries, “thus terminated a career as varied as it was eventful, as strange as it was unique.”

    But for the longer efforts of sustained eloquence greater art is required. It is no longer usual, as in Thucydides’ day, to compose completely new speeches, but it is permissible for the historian to heighten the colors and even to insert those rhetorical questions and complexes of personal pronouns which will render the translation of the passage into Latin prose a work of consuming interest and lasting profit:

    The Duke assembled his companions for the forlorn hope, and addressed them briefly in oratio obliqua. “His father,” he said, “had always cherished in his heart the idea that he would one day return to his own people. Had he fallen in vain? Was it for nothing that they had dyed with their loyal blood the soil of a hundred battlefields? The past was dead, the future was yet to come. Let them remember that great sacrifices were necessary for the attainment of great ends, let them think of their homes and families, and if they had any pity for an exile, an outcast, and an orphan, let them die fighting.”

    That is the kind of passage that used to send the blood of Dr. Bradley coursing more quickly through his veins. The march of its eloquence, the solemnity of its sentiment, and the rich balance of its pronouns unite to make it a model for all historians: it can be adapted for any period.

    It is not possible in a short review to include the special branches of the subject. Such are those efficient modern text-books, in which events are referred to either as “factors” (as if they were a sum) or as “phases” (as if they were the moon). There is also the solemn business of writing economic history, in which the historian may lapse at will into algebra, and anything not otherwise describable may be called “social tissue.” A special subject is constituted by the early conquests of Southern and Central America; in these there is a uniform opening for all passages running:

    It was now the middle of October, and the season was drawing to an end. Soon the mountains would be whitened with the snows of winter and every rivulet swollen to a roaring torrent. Cortez, whose determination only increased with misfortune, decided to delay his march until the inclemency of the season abated.… It was now the middle of November, and the season was drawing to an end.…

    There is, finally, the method of military history. This may be patriotic, technical, or in the manner prophetically indicated by Virgil as Belloc, horrida Belloc. The finest exponent of the patriotic style is undoubtedly the Rev. W. H. Fitchett, a distinguished colonial clergyman and historian of the Napoleonic wars. His night-attacks are more nocturnal, and his scaling parties are more heroically scaligerous than those of any other writer. His drummer-boys are the most moving in my limited circle of drummer-boys. One gathers that the Peninsular War was full of pleasing incidents of this type:


    It was midnight when Staff-Surgeon Pettigrew showed the flare from the summit of Sombrero. At once the whole plain was alive with the hum of the great assault. The four columns speedily got into position with flares and bugles at the head of each. One made straight for the watergate, a second for the Bailey-guard, a third for the Porter-house, and the last (led by the saintly Smeathe) for the Tube station. Let us follow the second column on its secret mission through the night, lit by torches and cheered on by the huzzas of a thousand English throats. “—the—s,” cried Cocker in a voice hoarse with patriotism; at that moment a red-hot shot hurtled over the plain and, ricocheting treacherously from the frozen river, dashed the heroic leader to the ground. Captain Boffskin, of the Buffs, leapt up with the dry coughing howl of the British infantryman. “—them,” he roared, “—them to—”; and for the last fifty yards it was neck and neck with the ladders. Our gallant drummerboys laid to again, but suddenly a shot rang out from the silent ramparts. The 94th Léger were awake. We were discovered!

    The war of 1870 requires more special treatment. Its histories show no particular characteristic, but its appearance in fiction deserves special attention. There is a standard pattern.


    It was a late afternoon in early September, or an early afternoon in late September—I forget these things—when I missed the boat express from Kerplouarnec to Pouzy-le-roi and was forced by the time-table to spend three hours at the forgotten hamlet of Guitry-le-sec, in the heart of Dauphiné. It contained besides a quantity of underfed poultry one white church, one white mairie, and nine white houses. An old man with a white beard came towards me up the long white road. “It was on just such an afternoon as this forty years ago,” he began, “that…”

    “Stop!” I said sharply. “I have met you in a previous existence. You are going to say that a solitary Uhlan appeared sharply outlined against the sky behind M. Jules’ farm.” He nodded feebly.

    “The red trousers had left the village half an hour before to look for the hated Prussian in the cafés of the neighboring town. You were alone when the spiked helmets marched in. You can hear their shrieking fifes to this day.” He wept quietly.

    I went on. “There was an officer with them, a proud, ugly man with a butter-colored mustache. He saw the little Mimi and drove his coarse Suabian hand upward through his Mecklenburger mustache. You dropped on one knee.…” But he had fled.

    In the first of the three cafés I saw a second old man. “Come in, Monsieur,” he said. I waited on the doorstep. “It was on just such an afternoon.…” I went on. At the other two cafés two further old men attempted me with the story; I told the last that he was rescued by Zouaves, and walked happily to the station, to read about Vichy Célestins until the train came in from the south.

    The Russo-Japanese War is a more original subject and derives its particular flavor from the airy grace with which Sir Ian Hamilton has described it. Like this:

    WAO-WAO, Jan. 31.—The rafale was purring like a mistral as I shaved this morning. I wonder where it is; must ask—. — is a charming fellow with the face of a Baluchi Kashgai and a voice like a circular saw.

    11:40—It was eleven—forty when looked at my watch. The shrapnel-bursts look like a plantation of powder-puffs suspended in the sky. Victor says there is a battle going on: capital chap Victor.

    2 P. M.—Lunched with an American lady-doctor. How feminine the Americans can be.

    7 P. M.—A great day. It was Donkelsdorp over again. Substitute the Tenth Army for the Traffordshire’s baggage wagon, swell Honks Spruit into the roaring Wang-ho, elevate Oom Kop into the frowning scarp of Pyjiyama, and you have it. The Staff were obviously gratified when I told them about Donkelsdorp.

    The Rooskis came over the crest-line in a huddle of massed battalions, and Gazeka was after them like a rat after a terrier. I knew that his horseguns had no horses (a rule of the Japanese service to discourage unnecessary changing of ground), but his men bit the trails and dragged them up by their teeth. Slowly the Muscovites peeled off the steaming mountain and took the funicular down the other side.

    I wonder what my friend Smuts would make of the Yen-tai coal mine? Well, well.—“Something accomplished, something done.”

    The technical manner is more difficult of acquisition for the beginner, since it involves a knowledge of at least two European languages. It is cardinal rule that all places should be described as points d’appui, the simple process of scouting looks far better as Verschleierung, and the adjective “strategical” may be used without any meaning in front of any noun.

    But the military manner was revolutionized by the war. Mr. Belloc created a new Land and a new Water. We know now why the Persian commanders demanded “earth and water” on their entrance into a Greek town; it was the weekly demand of the Great General Staff, as it called for its favorite paper. Mr. Belloc has woven Baedeker and geometry into a new style: it is the last cry of historians’ English, because one was invented by a German and the other by a Greek.