Wolfson History Prize
Robert Skidelsky
Tuesday, June 09, 1998

 
The greatest pleasure in serving on the jury for the Wolfson History Prize is the chance to read so many good books. The Prize was established by the Wolfson Foundation in 1972, at the personal instigation of Leonard Wolfson, to encourage historians 'to make accessible to the general reader as well as to their professional colleagues original historical writings of high quality'. In making their decisions Wolfson juries have been guided by the literary qualities as well as the originality of the works submitted. The first prize was won by Sir Michael Howard for his book Grand Strategy and though most of the prize winners have been academics, there have been notable exceptions such as Frances Donaldson, Alistair Horne, Antonia Fraser, Kenneth Rose, John Grigg, and Fiona McCarthy, proving that good history writing is not confined to the groves of academe. Because of its inherent connection with story-telling, good history is still written and read by non specialists. About how many disciplines is this any longer true?
 
What is the purpose of a literary prize? It is first of all to reward the author for having written an outstanding book. And secondly, to invite the public to read that book. The aim of the Wolfson Prize is to encourage historians to write for a large audience, while maintaining the highest standards of historical scholarship. We - I think this is true of all members of the jury - believe passionately in the cultural importance of history. If it becomes merely the plaything of scholars, the glass bead game of Herman Hesse's novel, it will shrivel and die.
 
This is my second year of jury service. The 160 odd history books we received in that time are probably broadly representative of the history being written in Britain today. I thought it might be interesting to classify them into categories. It's not surprising that biography heads the list with 30 titles. National history comes next with 25, France being by far the most popular of the nations. Cultural history is third with 19, followed by Gender History with 16.This last is a bit of a ragbag of feminism, witchcraft, and family history, unified only by the focus on women. Geographical history - books with a strong emphasis on the history of places and what used to be called voyages of discovery - claim 13 titles. Some of the traditional topics - military, imperial, political, international, and general history, while represented, are clearly in retreat. There is no instance of straight economic history - possibly because it tends to be unreadable - and relatively little ancient and medieval.
 
I hasten to add that I make no scientific claims for this little exercise. The categories are to some extent arbitrary, many of them overlap, and significant trends in history writing are revealed as much by changes in treatment as by changes of subject. Perhaps we can see in all this the current ascendancy of what Hobsbawm calls 'identity' history, which in turn reflects the decline of the nation and its concerns as the automatic reference point for historical writing.
 
I now come to our two prizewinners.
 
According to Clive Bell, an interesting, if by no means infallible guide, there were three peak periods of civilisation, Periclean Athens, the Renaissance, and the18th century. What defines a civilised age, according to Bell, is not the production but the consumption of works of art, and the ways in which intellectual and cultural artefacts shape the sensibility of the age. The broadening of the cultural market in 18th century England and its civilising influence is the theme of John Brewer's richly researched and endlessly fascinating book, The Pleasures of the Imagination.
 
The book's complex historical machinery is built on a very simple idea, which is that by the end of the 17th century, high culture - and I quote - 'slipped out of palaces and into coffee houses, reading societies, debating clubs, assembly rooms, galleries and concert halls; ceasing to be the handmaiden of royal politics it became the partner of commerce'. Two forces combined to produce this development: growing commercial prosperity, especially in the towns, and the poverty as well as lack of taste of the post-Stuart monarchs -'I prefer my fat Venus' George II remarked memorably after his wife, on Hervey's advice, had removed his favourite pictures from Kensington Palace and replaced them with fine canvases from the royal collection.
 
John Brewer's book is about the civilising influence of the arts on the urban bourgeoisie, and he explores it with a wealth of detail from both London and the provinces. Only one of his ambitions is less than triumphantly fulfilled, which was not to inflict on the reader a work portable only 'if your horse be not too weak'. This book is weighty in every sense of the word.
 
History not only distances us from the present, but also shows how the past leads to the present. The immensely highbrow Anna Larpent will be instantly recognisable as the type of 'culture vulture' we all know today. Yet one gets the impression - perhaps it is a mistaken one - that what would now be called high culture penetrated lower down the social order in the 18th century than it does now: the atmosphere was not one of 'dumbing down' but climbing up. Put aside London's pleasure gardens, and just consider the seating capacity of its indoor theatres. In the 18th century the New Drury Lane held 3,600. The largest London theatre today - the Coliseum - seats 2,360. New Covent Garden held 2500, today's Royal Opera House 2,200. And there are many other comparable figures. Yet in mid 18th century London's population was about a seventh of what it is today.
 
The other contemporary reflection evoked by Brewer's book is that already by the eighteenth century the concept of state patronage of the arts had been decisively rejected in favour of the market. This was not true on the continent of Europe. The difference reflects, in part, the different fate of monarchical government here and there. State patronage of the arts springs from a tradition of royal despotism, which we never had in Britain. From 1688 onwards our monarchs were compelled to rule through Parliament, which in practice meant that public spending was controlled by a penny-pinching Treasury. Although the Arts Council was set up by Keynes in 1945, it wasn't till 1964 that we got our first Minister for the Arts who, typically, knew and cared little about any art except the theatre. Her name was Jennie Lee, and she is the subject of Patricia Hollis's remarkable biography.
 
'Jennie Lee was the Winnie Mandela of the Labour Party' Denis Healey once remarked. In the 1950s she was dubbed Nye Bevan's 'Lady Macbeth'. Such epithets were commonplace. Some loved Jennie Lee, few liked her. Ben Pimlott in his review of Lady Hollis's book asks: 'is it possible simultaneously to be a force for good, and an insufferable human being?' Having written an unflattering, but admiring biography of Hugh Dalton, Pimlott would evidently answer his question with a 'yes', and so, I think, would Patricia Hollis. This is no Victorian hagiography, but a compelling study in the best traditions of modern biography, in which the biographer's admiration for her subject is won in the face of some of this subject's highly unappealing personal characteristics.
 
Patricia Hollis does not hide the fact that Jennie Lee was manipulative, self-centred, embittered, and ruthless. She was also passionate and idealistic. Her biographer calls her 'brave and strong and resolute; which meant that she was also obstinate, bull-headed, sometimes wrong, and could seldom be shifted'. With enough political will, she believed, you could always 'blast your way through the system'. She had no time for women's causes - her politics were driven by class, not gender. In this respect, at least, she was a traditionalist.
 
Was she also a force for good? I have my doubts. Had she had her way at any time I doubt if Britain would have been a better place. She was a revolutionary constrained by a parliamentary system. Harold Wilson eventually found her a safe Ministerial haven where, buttressed by the massive suavity of Arnold Goodman, she could do some good without any chance to do harm. Asked why she had never married Goodman, who adored her, she replied with engaging candour 'You do not just marry the mind, you marry the body as well'. The Open University and increased state funding for the arts are her political monuments. The first survives, the second has to be continually fought for in the teeth of the commercial tradition whose origins are so expertly traced by John Brewer.
 
I am delighted then to announce our two winners, John Brewer for The Pleasures of the Imagination, and Patricia Hollis for Jennie Lee: A Life, two splendid books, equally deserving of an accolade and a wide readership. I would like to call on each author in turn to receive the Wolfson Prize for History and say a few words. John Brewer.