Other organisations interested in biography

The International Auto/Biography Association is a multidisciplinary network that aims to broaden the world vision of auto/biographers, scholars and readers, to deepen the cross-cultural understanding of self, identity and experience, and to carry on global dialogues on life writing.

Also of relevance for those interested in our conference may be the National Centre for Biography at the Australian National University, and closer to home, the Centre for Life Narratives at Kingston University.

Historians and autobiography

A previous post on this blog referred to Richard Evans’ claim that historians’ lives are typically too mundane to make for interesting autobiographies. A quick bibliographical search makes clear, however, that there are plenty of them out there who disagree (or who don’t care whether they bore their readers or not), as just among historians of Britain and Ireland there are 30-odd autobiographical books and articles (see below).

Evans highlights the most notable exceptions to his rule of tedium, arguing that the life outside academia is what makes for a good autobiography. One of his examples is Eric Hobsbawm, whose autobiography encompasses many of the major events of the 20th century, and certainly fits Evans’ criteria. Yet Hobsbawm is also interesting in terms of another aspect of autobiography – namely its relation with the ‘academic’ work that the historian also produces. Fascinatingly, for a Marxist his work (epitomised by Age of Extremes: The Short 20thCentury, 1914-1991) is deeply autobiographical, and he himself stressed the impossibility of separating the historian from his history.

A variant of this phenomenon emerged with the cultural turn in historical writing, and involved historians consciously using their own autobiographies as source material. Examples of this are Sheila Rowbotham’s Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties, and Patrick Joyce’s ‘More secondary modern than postmodern’ article, and it is no coincidence that this approach tends to come from feminist and working-class historians whose ‘lifestor[ies] appear so tightly woven into [their] intellectual and political times that neither can be understood without the other’. It still helps, of course, that these times and lives encompassed more than just marking essays…

List of autobiographies from the Bibliography of British and Irish History

Briggs, Asa Special Relationships: People and Places

Buckley, Ken (Kenneth Donald). 2008. Buckley’s!: Ken Buckley; Historian, Author and Civil Libertarian – an Autobiography. [Leichhardt, N.S.W.]: A&A.

Burke, Peter , ‘Invitation to historians : An intellectual self-portrait, or the history of a historian’, Rethinking History, 13, 3 (2009), 269-81.

Clark, Kenneth Mackenzie. 1974. Another Part of the Wood: a Self-portrait. London: John Murray.

———. 1986. The Other Half: a Self-portrait. London: Hamilton.

Collinson, Patrick. 2011. The History of a History Man: or, the Twentieth Century Viewed from a Safe Distance: the Memoirs of Patrick Collinson. Church of England Record Society. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Fisher, Herbert Albert Laurens. 1940. An Unfinished Autobiography. With a Foreword by Lettice Fisher. London: Oxford University Press.

Hancock, William Keith. 1954. Country and Calling.

Heyd, Michael, and Elliott Horowitz. 2005. ‘“A Feather in the Wind”: an Interview with Sir Keith Thomas’. Journal of Early Modern History 9 (1-2): 181–92.

Hobsbawm, Eric John. 2002a. Interesting Times: a Twentieth Century Life. London: Allen Lane.

———. 2002b. ‘A Life in History’. Past & Present 177: 3–16.

Howard, Michael Eliot. 2006. Captain Professor: the Memoirs of Sir Michael Howard. London: Continuum.

Jeater, Diana, ‘Stuff happens, and people make it happen: theory and tractice in the work of Terence Ranger’, Diana Jeater, History Workshop Journal, 73, 1 (Spring 2012).

Jopyce, Patrick, ‘More secondary modern than postmodern’, Rethinking History, 5, 3 (2001), 367–82

Leinster-Mackay, Donald. 1996. ‘My Life in the History of Education, VIII’. History of Education Society Bulletin 58: 25–33.

Louis, William Roger, and Roger Adelson. 2000. ‘Interview with William Roger Louis’. The Historian [London] 62 (3): 492–509.

MacDonagh, Oliver, and Tom Dunne. 2008. Looking Back: Living and Writing History; Oliver MacDonagh, 1924-2002. Dublin: Lilliput Press.

Marriott, John Arthur Ransome. 1946. Memories of Four Score Years: the Autobiography of the Late Sir John Marriott, Etc.

McDowell, R. B.  McDowell on McDowell: a Memoir

Mouton, F. A. ‘History, Historians and Autobiography’: A South African Case Study’, African Historical Review, 39, 1 (2007)

Ó Broin, Leon. 1986. Just Like Yesterday: an Autobiography. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.

Oliver, Roland Anthony. 1997. In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History. London: Cass.

Popkin, Jeremy, ‘Ego‐histoire down under: Australian historian‐autobiographers’, Australian Historical Studies, 38:129, 106-123.

Ranger, Terence, ‘From Ireland to Africa: a personal memoir’, History Ireland, 14, 4 (July/August 2006).

Read, Donald. 2003. A Manchester Boyhood in the Thirties and Forties: Growing up in War and Peace. Lewiston (NY); Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press.

Robinson, John Martin. 2006. Grass Seed in June: the Making of an Architectural Historian. Wilby: Michael Russell.

Rowbotham, Sheila. 1999. Threads Through Time: Writings on History and Autobiography. London: Penguin.

———2000. Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties. London, Penguin.

Rye, Walter. 1916. An Autobiography of an Ancient Athlete & Antiquary.

Saville, John. 2003. Memoirs from the Left. London: Merlin.

Simon, Joan. 1994. ‘My Life in the History of Education’. History of Education Society Bulletin 54: 29–33.

Supple, Barry. 2008. Doors Open. Cambridge: Asher.

Taylor, Alan John Percivale. 1983. A Personal History. London: Hamilton.

Todd, James Eadie. 1959. ‘The Apprenticeship of a Professor of History, 1903-19’. History 44: 124–33.

Williams, Glanmor. 2002. Glanmor Williams: a Life. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Witherow, Thomas, Graham Mawhinney, and Eull Dunlop. 1990. The Autobiography of Thomas Witherow, 1824-1890. Draperstown: Ballinascreen Historical Society.

Woodward, Ernest Llewellyn. 1946. Short Journey. New York.

Ego‐histoire down under: Australian historian‐autobiographers

The French historian Pierre Nora may have created the notion of ego‐histoire, but on a proportional basis, more historians from Australia than from any other country have followed his advice to write about their own lives. These autobiographies provide unique insights into the country’s evolution over the course of two generations from a colonial to a post‐colonial situation, to the contributions that historians, acting as autobiographers, can make to historical understanding, and to what the practice of history can contribute to the understanding of the historian’s own personal experience. More explicitly than the comparable efforts of historians elsewhere, these publications demonstrate the close connection between individual and national identity and the understanding of history.

Read the full article by Jeremy D. Popkin here.

The dominion of history: the export of historical research from Britain since 1850

In 1914 Britain lagged some way behind the USA and Germany in the development of historical research. Both at home and in the empire, the gentlemanly amateur tradition of history remained predominant. This lecture tells the story of what happened next: the rise of a generation of British-trained historians who went on to lead the expansion of historical research across the Commonwealth. It is a story about the influence of the University of London in its federal heyday, about the role of historians in the public life of the empire, and, of course, about the Institute of Historical Research.

Listen to the inaugural lecture of the Director of the Institute of Historical Research, Professor Miles Taylor here.

Macaulay and Son: an imperial story – Catherine Hall’s Creighton Lecture

Zachary Macaulay, the father, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the son. One a leading abolitionist, the other a great historian: both men were shaped, albeit differently, by experiences of empire.  How did each imagine the nation and its relation to empire? How significant were their visions and what are their legacies?

Listen to a podcast of Catherine Hall’s lecture here.

Asa Briggs conference podcasts

Lord Asa Briggs, one of the country’s most distinguished living historians, turned ninety last year, and he and his remarkable contribution to academic history to the development of Victorian studies, the history of communication and his role in the growth of modern universities were considered and assessed at the one-day colloquium ‘Lord Asa Briggs: A Celebration’, co-hosted with the British Association for Victorian Studies.

Podcasts of all the talks can be found here.

Momigliano and Gibbon

Jonathan Blaney, Institute of Historical Research

When I was an undergraduate I lived in a house formerly owned by the great classicist Eduard Fraenkel. Fraenkel left Germany to escape the persecution of Jews and others and became one of ‘that remarkable group of refugee classical scholars who congregated in the library of the Ashmolean Museum’. Another of this group, from whose ODNB entry the above quotation is taken, was Arnaldo Momigliano, who left in Italy in 1939 and spent the rest of his life as an expatriate, teaching primarily at UCL and Chicago. Momigliano had a lifelong interest in biography and a clear intellectual commitment to it as a way of understanding the past, as the editors’ introduction to one collection of his essays emphasises:

It was the complex interplay of intellect and personality that particularly attracted Momigliano. His essays are major contributions to intellectual history, and yet personality and character are never far away. The more one reads Momigliano’s essays on modern scholarship, the more one sees that their exceptionally profound insights into the humanity and thought of their subjects reflect an unceasing struggle on the part of their author to comprehend the counterpoint of thought and action in his own career.[1]

Religion was a preoccupation of Momigliano’s work, and it is tempting to wonder what effect his own life’s events – fleeing religious persecution in a Christian country, and finding refuge in another – had on his writing about Christianity and Judaism in the ancient world.

We can get a firm sense of Momigliano’s attitude to the historical study of religion in his writing about a historian he engaged with frequently, Edward Gibbon. Gibbon converted to Catholicism when an undergraduate and was sent by his father to Lausanne to be unconverted forthwith. Gibbon duly obliged and credited the invigorating intellectual atmosphere in Lausanne with turning him into a historian.

Certainly Gibbon’s time in Lausanne enabled him to become completely at ease in the French language. Momigliano connects Gibbon with the intellectual heritage of Montesquieu and Voltaire: ‘He was entirely at home in the new Paris of the encyclopedists and he shared many of their convictions’[2] and even ascribes Gibbon’s famous style, a blend of ‘malice and erudition’,[3] to the powerful influence of Pierre Bayle.

Yet an essential part of Gibbon’s greatness as a historian was his open-mindedness – to Islam, for example. Indeed elsewhere Momigliano carefully contrasted Gibbon’s approach with that of Voltaire:

Even here, where the thought is Voltairean, and where Voltaire himself would have wrapped everything up in an epigram, the writing loosens up and carefully defines its subject.[4]

Momigliano then goes on to quote a passage from chapter 47 of Decline and Fall where Gibbon is fulsomely generous about the historical Jesus:

The familiar companions of Jesus of Nazareth conversed with their friend and countryman, who, in all the actions of rational and animal life, appeared of the same species with themselves. His progress from infancy to youth and manhood was marked by a regular increase in stature and wisdom; and after a painful agony of mind and body, he expired on the cross. He lived and died for the service of mankind: but the life and death of Socrates had likewise been devoted to the cause of religion and justice; and although the stoic or the hero may disdain the humble virtues of Jesus, the tears which he shed over his friend and country may be esteemed the purest evidence of his humanity.

Naturally Momigliano wondered what effect Catholicism, rather than the manner of his leaving it, might have had on the historian: ‘An unresolved and, I think, irresolvable problem in his biography is what remained of his brief conversion to Catholicism’.[5] Despite Gibbon’s own claim that his Catholicism left no trace, Momigliano notes his general preference for Catholic over Anglican historians. Then, in a way which is clearly connected to Gibbon’s biography, Momigliano pays tribute to his predecessor’s general approach to religion, in words which have something of a credo about them:

In Gibbon’s irony there is much scepticism and much prudence; but there is also something more: a solid realism which refuses to condemn what being considered, even if it not believed.[6]

Momigliano died as Peter Brown’s celebrated The Body and Society, was going to press; Momigliano was the book’s dedicatee and Brown took the opportunity pay tribute – in words that remind me of Momigliano’s praise of Gibbon – to his late friend’s

sense of truth, as we all to the magnificently unconstricted range and human warmth of his concern for the role of Judaism and Christianity in the history of the ancient world.[7]


[1] AD Momigliano, Studies in Modern Scholarship, Bowersock and Cornell (eds), introduction, p. xi

[2] ‘Gibbon’s Contribution to Historical Method’, p. 42 in Studies in Historiography

[3] Ibid., p.43

[4] ‘Anche là, dove il pensiero è volteriano, e il maestro avrebbe risolto tutto nell’epigramma, il discorso si snoda lento e attento a delimitare l’oggetto’, ‘La Moderna storiografia sull’impero romano’, p.203 in Contributo alla storia degli studi classici.

[5] ‘Un problema non risolto e, credo, non risolvibile, della sua biografia e ciò che sia rimasto della sua breve conversion al Cattolicesimo’, ‘Edward Gibbon fuori e dentro la cultura italiana’, p.234, in Sesto contributo alla storia degli studi classici.

[6] ‘Nella ironia di Gibbon c’è molto scetticismo e molto prudenza; ma c’è anche qualcosa di più: un fermo realismo che si rifiuta di condannare ciò che serve, anche se non ci si crede.’ Ibid.

[7] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, p. xx

Lord Asa Briggs’s autobiography

© University of Sussex

In May 2012, Pen & Sword books published the second volume of Asa Briggs’s autobiography, Special Relationships: People and Places. Earlier in this blog, I noted that Richard Evans’s main criticism of John Elliott’s recent ‘autobiography’ was that its subject’s life was simply not that interesting. According to Nigel Jones’s review for The Guardian, this is not a criticism that could be levelled at Asa Briggs. He begins: ‘It is unusual for a historian to play a role in great events himself, but Asa Briggs has both interpreted history to a mass audience and played no small part in the making of it’.

Lord Briggs is a man who counted among his friends Clement Attlee, Denis Healey, Harold Macmillan and Jim Callaghan. Jones notes that the book ‘is scathing, by comparison, about today’s generation of political leaders, deploring the ignorance and lack of interest in Britain’s history displayed by Cameron and Clegg’.

From his wartime work at Bletchley Park, to his political connections and his interest in Chinese revolutionary pottery, the life presented is not that of an ordinary historian, or indeed an ordinary man.

A short biography of Rudolph Ackermann

A guest post by Dr James Baker

As he strolled the exquisite rooms of his Repository of Arts in 1810 Rudolph Ackermann (1764–1834) might well have afforded himself a wry smile. Nearly three decades earlier he had arrived in London unknown, today his business was turning over around £30,000 annually. Posthumously Ackermann would perhaps be best known as a publisher of satirical prints, in particular Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827) and William Combe’s (1742–1823) Doctor Syntax series (1812–1821), but to restrict our understanding of him to satire alone would be to misrepresent a Georgian business phenomenon.

Rudolph Ackermann was born in Leipzig and trained as a coachmaker in Basle, Switzerland, coming to London from Paris around 1786. From his so-called ‘Repository of Arts’ at first 96 Strand and later 101 Strand Ackermann’s entrepreneurial adventures extended to drawing classes, books, fine paper, inks, decorated screens, transparencies, fine art, and prints after master paintings. He produced and sold ‘Superfine’ water colours sold either as single cakes or in presentation sets, with each cake stamped with the name of the colour. In November 1805 he was commissioned to design and build the funeral carriage for Admiral Nelson’s state funeral. Around this time he installed gas lighting at number 101, and a year later he closed his drawing room to create a lavish library offering refreshments to his increasingly female clientèle. In 1807, at the height of the Napoleonic wars, he proposed to the government of his adopted home a scheme for using a balloon equipped with an automated paper distributor to spread British propaganda in France. Thus Ackermann was much more than a seller of satirical prints. In fact this colourman, stationer, art dealer, and innovator was perhaps as much a metropolitan celebrity as the satirists he employed.

When Ackermann sold satirical prints, he favoured the designs from the likes of Isaac Cruikshank, George Sauley, and George Woodward. But it was Thomas Rowlandson’s particular brand of warm social satire that most strongly appealed to Ackermann’s sense of his business as a place of decorum, politeness, and civility. In addition to Doctor Syntax, Ackermann’s hand in publishing the hugely influential Miseries of London Life (1809), English Dance of Death (1815), and Dance of Life (1817) series, all including designs from Rowlandson, demonstrate his preference for making and selling serial work dealing with generic social comedy as opposed to ephemera and politics.

Located in the heart of the Strand, Ackermann’s business was almost equidistant from West End satirical print sellers such as Hannah Humphrey (c.1745–1818) and their burgeoning City rivals on Cheapside. Ackermann’s remarkable business reminds us that although over twenty businesses made and sold satirical prints in late-Georgian London, putting them all under the umbrella of ‘printseller’ fails to explain the diversity of businesses these metropolitan entrepreneurs made their life’s work.