(17) Cosmo Lang. Archbishop in War and Crisis

Robert Beaken, Cosmo Lang. Archbishop in War and Crisis (London, I B Tauris, 2012)

reviewed by Peter Webster, British Library

‘I HATE Cosmo Lang!’ exclaimed a member of the audience when Robert Beaken spoke to a seminar at the IHR about Lang, archbishop of Canterbury and subject of this important reassessment. As Beaken rightly notes, Lang’s reputation has suffered in the years since his death. His time as archbishop (1928–42) spanned years of economic depression, the rise of fascism, a royal abdication and the outbreak of world war. But despite this, the prevailing picture has been of a figure caught in the headlights, reactive rather than in the lead, a puritan and a snob; a image not much altered by his portrayal (by Derek Jacobi) in the recent film The King’s Speech. Lang’s case was not helped by the biography by J. G. Lockhart, published in 1949. Written without any particular acquaintance with Lang or access to his official papers, Lockhart’s book has long been unsatisfactory, but it has taken until now for a replacement to appear; and Beaken’s study goes a long way towards superseding Lockhart and presenting Lang afresh.

The book has three primary concerns: with Lang’s relationship with the monarchy; with the disputed process of liturgical reform within the Church of England; and with the Second World War. Chapter seven deals with the last, presenting a panoramic view of Lang’s work in the first and darkest days of the war, when Lang was in his mid-70s. Beaken very effectively documents Lang’s interventions at the highest level: in the articulation of peace aims; in negotiating the rhetorically difficult transformation of Soviet Russia from enemy to ally; in articulating the need for national intercession and for remembrance of the 1914–18 conflict in changed circumstances. There are important refinements to the literature in relation to Lang’s early opposition to the obliteration bombing of Germany (191–3); and, in response to the work of Tom Lawson, concerning who knew what, and when, within the Church in relation to the Holocaust (206–7).

But these national affairs were not the limit of an archbishop’s concerns. Beaken very effectively documents Lang’s interventions in relation to refugees, evacuees and conscientious objectors; on venereal disease in the army abroad, and in the observance of the Sabbath at home. Lang was supportive of the government and the war effort because he strongly believed that the struggle was a just and necessary one. At the same time, there were limits to what could be morally acceptable even in war, and Lang intervened in private and public as far as there was any likelihood of those efforts being effective.

Chapter six deals with the stalemate in relation to liturgical revision that Lang inherited after the rejection by Parliament of the revised Book of Common Prayer in 1927–8. Lang has been taxed by later historians, following both Lockhart and George Bell, bishop of Chichester and acute observer of the ecclesiastical scene, for failing to address the impasse between church and state, and the near-ungovernability of the Church while that situation continued. While this reviewer would want to stress the gravity of the crisis in church-state relations while Beaken downplays it, in the matter of Lang’s role Beaken’s interpretation is convincing. Lang may not have been gripped by liturgical reform, and so may have lacked a ‘sustained pushfulness’ (p. 179), but it was probably beyond anyarchbishop to devise a compromise solution without being able to impose it. It was to be a quarter of a century after Lang’s retirement before the means to revise the Book were finally secured, and even then not without the threat of a renewed crisis in Parliament.

Chapters four and five, which deal with Lang’s relationship with the monarchy in general, and the abdication crisis in particular, are very clearly the centrepiece of the book. Beaken’s aim is to emphasise Lang’s role in the events of the reign of Edward VIII, in contrast to Lockhart who stressed the peripheral nature of the archbishop’s role; an aim in which Beaken is certainly successful. Using recently declassified sources, Beaken provides a scrupulous and minutely detailed chronological account of Lang’s role; never public until the very end, but always (in the words of the former king) ‘a shadowy, hovering presence … invisibly and noiselessly about’. Of particular interest is the closeness of the relationship between Lang and Prime Minister Baldwin, perhaps one of the closest in modern times. The book may find a general readership for this section alone; and the recommendations on the dust jacket from A. N. Wilson and Rowan Williams suggests that this is the hope of the publisher.

It is unfortunately in these two chapters that significant problems in execution show themselves. In the chapters on the war and the Prayer Book, narrative and analysis are effectively integrated and the writing is concise and incisive. In marked contrast, the royal chapters are marred by a luxuriant, not to say indulgent, level of narrative detail, and by numerous and very lengthy quotations from primary sources, which ought to have been either radically pruned and integrated more fully into the text, or (even better) given in full in an appendix. Beaken also opts to separate out narrative and analysis, giving the latter separately at the end of each chapter, but the approach left this reader, at least, hurrying through the detail to reach the pith. There are also some matters of interpretation on which Beaken is less sure-footed. For Beaken, Lang’s radio broadcast of December 1936 (this source alone being given its full worth in an appendix) was ‘an unusually unwise and unreflective action’ (p. 122), in that Lang allowed himself to reflect unfavourably on the mores of the social circle around the former king. However, the receipt of many letters and a ‘torrent of abuse’ in the popular press does not necessarily prove that an archbishop is not doing his job, but only that he has expressed an unpopular  view. Despite Lang’s evident enjoyment of the quiet entwining of archbishop and establishment, he was able to see where lines should be drawn.

At the broadest scale, the book is strangely shaped, such that it appears not as a rounded study of an archbishop at a time of crisis, but as three substantial studies of particular issues, hedged around with some rather desultory supporting materials. The three themes of the royal connection, the war and the Prayer Book crisis between them occupy two-thirds of the book, with the royal material alone forming nearly a third. This leads Beaken to neglect other issues that merited fuller treatment. Lang’s path from bishop of Stepney (1901) to his arrival at Canterbury in 1928 are dealt with in five breathless pages (15–19); a time that included the controversy over Lang’s public comments on the First World War, which cries out for more coverage. Similarly, Beaken’s account of a pivotal time in ecumenical relations at home and abroad is perfunctory. Lang’s time in office also saw acute economic hardship and the Jarrow March, as well as the rise of home-grown Fascism and pitched violence on the streets to counter it. None of these receive the slightest treatment, in a study entitled Archbishop in War and Crisis. There is little sense here of Auden’s ‘low dishonest decade’. Significant space is instead given over to a discussion of Lang’s sexuality. Beaken is largely successful in showing that Lang was probably not a repressed homosexual, but a lonely figure who found it difficult to form close personal relationships of any kind. To this reviewer, however, it is not clear that those making the case for Lang’s homosexuality ever established why the matter should be all that important, and neither is Beaken convincing as to why it is important that Lang was not.

It is on the wider canvas of interpretation that there are opportunities missed. In the conclusion, Beaken rightly emphasises that in the period between the wars the office of archbishop still mattered in English public life. The opinion of Canterbury was sought and listened to on matters of moment; and the archbishop’s correspondence clearly shows that many of the general public expected something of ‘their archbishop’, even if those expectations were inchoately expressed and neither compatible nor realistic. All this is right, and worth emphasising; but it is difficult to recognise the ‘simple narrative of secularisation’ against which Beaken sets himself as one now held by very many historians. The work variously of Callum Brown, Grace Davie, Hugh McLeod and many others have all deepened and complicated our understandings of what secularisation is and how it occurs; and so Beaken is pushing at, if not an open door, one which has been unlocked and left ajar. Much of the respect accorded to the archbishop in the inter-war period was equally well paid to Michael Ramsey in the 1960s, by which time the pace of secularisation had quickened and its effect spread much wider.

The range of manuscript sources is impressive: this must be one of few archiepiscopal biographies that takes in sources from the FBI, alongside an interview with the Queen Mother. It is clearly and accessibly written, although prone to cliché: Lang had a ‘complex personality’ (who doesn’t); as a boy ‘with a vivid imagination’ Lang ‘was a bit of a loner’ (p. 9); parts of Lang’s radio broadcast after the abdication were ‘surprisingly boring.’ It is well-produced, with a comprehensive index (not always the case), but is let down in places by some lax editing. Both Michael Ramsey and Dick Sheppard (examples chosen at random) appear first by surname only, to be introduced formally to the reader only later on; a straightforward point that should have been picked up. These criticisms aside, Beaken’s study is greatly to be welcomed, and may open the way for a better integration of Lang into the study of the period.

Author’s response

I have enjoyed reading the various reviews of my book, Cosmo Lang: Archbishop in War and Crisis. Reviews, rather like the minutes of meetings, speak to us not just of the matter reviewed, but of the preoccupations, concerns, sensitivities and even ecclesiology of the reviewers.

I rather regret that my book has been described as a biography of Lang. It is not a word I have used. I rather think of it as a study, which inevitably strays into the biographical, in order to set its subject in context and to tell a good tale. At an early stage in my book, I make it clear that this is not a study of Lang’s influence overseas, but rather of his archiepiscopal ministry at home. It might be summed up as a re-evaluation of how this quirky man – Cosmo Gordon Lang – occupied this quirky office – archbishop of Canterbury – and how he dealt with three particular and distinct crises affecting the life of the Church of England: the Abdication of Edward VIII, the on-going crisis following the Commons rejection of the Revised Prayer Book (and here, I fear, I must take issue with the reviewer: my interpretation of the situation after December 1928 is that those in the Church of England who were always going to get worked up about that sort of thing, did; and the rest took little notice. Some things don’t seem to change much in the Church of England), and the Second World War until 1942 (the chapter which I enjoyed writing most).

Shortly before he retired as archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams sent me a letter of congratulations on my book and suggested that I might turn my attention to Lang’s influence overseas. I shall certainly give this careful thought, though I am conscious that a colleague is already researching this topic. No book remains the last word for long: soon, someone will produce another book about Lang and claim that I was too harsh, too soft, misunderstood something, or that some new document sheds fresh light. I wish them every success!

Going through Lang’s papers, I was struck by two things. Firstly, I was amazed at his intelligence and perseverance. He would carefully research and untangle a complex problem, only to find that some bishop or other person would interfere and mess it all up again. He would sort it out a second time, only for things to go wrong once more. On his third attempt, Lang might be successful. Secondly, I was very moved by Lang’s pastoral care of people. I mention in my book the letters he wrote to Jewish émigrés with families stranded in Nazi-occupied Europe. I was also moved by a little collection of letters he wrote to a disabled old man in Leeds, whom he had known years earlier when he was a curate there. The man had suffered a debilitating stroke and lived in very poor conditions. Each year he would send Lang a spidery letter, and each year Lang would send him a carefully composed reply, trying to give him hope and letting him know that he still mattered. Here, we see Lang the priest, quietly trying to help people. There was much more of that than might have been expected.

Much of the criticism of Lang was deserved, but much was not. No book is perfect, and from the outset I have been aware that, because of the subject matter, mine is somewhat uneven (as, indeed, are a good many books), but nevertheless I hope it may start to redress the balance. If Cosmo Lang, Archbishop in War and Crisis leads to Lang’s ministry being better understood and appreciated, then I shall not have wasted my time.


(16) First Lady of Fleet Street: A Biography of Rachel Beer

Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, First Lady of Fleet Street: A Biography of Rachel Beer (London, JR Books, 2011)

reviewed by Jacqueline Beaumont

Rachel Beer first caught my attention some 20 years ago when I was trawling through Who Was Wholooking for journalists. She was unusual because she was the editor of The Sunday Times in the 1890s, when no other national newspaper had a woman editor. She was also deeply conscious of her background, proud of being a member of the wealthy and important Jewish family of Sassoon. At a time when so many members of the establishment seemed keen to Anglicize themselves if they had foreign roots, this too struck me as being unusual. So the appearance of her biography is a welcome event.

But this is rather more than a biography of one woman, for the first half of it is devoted to an account of the two families of whom she was a part, the Sephardic Sassons and the Ashkenazi Beers. The authors trace the Sassoon family back to 18th-century Baghdad, where already Sheikh Sason ben Saleh was a prominent member of the large and important Jewish community in that city. They follow the career of the Sheikh’s second son, David, who eventually fled from Baghdad during the politically difficult reign of Daud Pasha and settled in Bombay. There he built up a prosperous business which increasingly relied heavily on control of the Chinese opium trade for its success. Trading bases were opened in Canton and Hong Kong and all his sons served their turn in China. Living in a territory governed by Britain and relying on support from the British navy to protect his ships from pirates, David became so conscious of the benefits of living under British rule that eventually, in 1853 he took a British passport. Two years later he sent his son Abraham to London to be educated. Significantly the boy already spoke good English. Rachel’s father, S. D. Sassoon, was sent to London in 1858 to open a branch of the family business. He was to remain in England for the rest of his life and his family became Anglicized. His wife Farha, a girl from Baghdad, became known as Flora, His brothers Ezra and Abdullah became Alfred and Albert respectively. Up to a point, they all became Anglicized, abandoning their oriental dress as well as their Arabic names, but they remained practising Jews and spoke the old Baghdadi Judeao-Arabic among themselves, as a kind of private code. The family, already extremely wealthy, changed its focus in England, embracing the new technology of telegraphic communications. Rachel’s cousin, Sir Edward Sassoon, M.P., was, at the end of the 19th century, one of the acknowledged authorities on the subject, writing for the Press and speaking in the House of Commons.

Rachel was born in India on April 7, 1858, a week before her father left for England. She was two-and-a-half before she saw him again, by which time her father had purchased Ashley Park, near Walton-on-Thames, a substantial and ancient property which was to be her home throughout her childhood and youth. We know very little about this period of Rachel’s life. That she enjoyed a life of luxury and ease from birth is self-evident. We are told that she and her brothers had an Oxford-educated tutor, but she must also have had other teachers, since we are also told that she played the piano from early youth and was also a talented composer. But the Royal Academy of Music does not seem to have been considered. Perhaps this was because she was too ‘ill at ease on stage’ to perform in public (p. 53), but no authority for this view is cited. The life of a musician was apparently unthinkable for a girl of her class and background in the England of the 1870s. It was certainly not easy, but her contemporary, Ethel Smyth, the daughter of a Major-General in the Royal Artillery, faced down parental opposition and had a distinguished career. The authors chronicle the various publications of her music and quote contemporary press opinion, but have not acquired the evaluation of a modern professional musician as to their worth. However, the authors state that Rachel was a very determined person and wanted, above all, her independence. Could it be that she abandoned her musical ambitions because somebody told her, or she realised, that her talent was not sufficient? Unfortunately, the sources which might answer this question do not exist.

In 1867 Rachel’s father died, when she was nine and her mother became responsible for her upbringing. Perhaps because she was the only girl she was not married off at eighteen, but stayed at home, doing very little. Her motherer mther’s H H’s various philanthropic activities were an approved outlet, but such a life, we are told, did not satisfy Rachel. We do not know what she really wanted to do in her twenties, and only later in life did she claim to have been unsatisfied with her lot. Apparently she had many suitors (p. 125, though no evidence is given) all of whom she rejected. One wonders why, since marriage might have given her the chance to do what she wished, if indeed she had any clear idea what that was to be at the time. Ultimately she was able to detach herself from her mother when her eldest brother Joseph married, and since he had inherited Ashley Park the rest of the family had to move out. Mrs Sassoon moved to Brighton in 1884 and Rachel, now aged 26 and in possession of her own personal fortune, went to London to train as a nurse at the Brompton Hospital. Nursing was seen as an acceptable occupation for girls, mainly because of the influence of Florence Nightingale but also because it had overtones of the philanthropic interests which were part of a well-connected upper class girl’s approved lifestyle. Rachel’s mother was deeply involved in a number of philanthropic projects and Rachel, too, was to become involved in many more. It was in  London that she met Frederick Beer.

Considerable space is given to the history of the Beer family. Frederick too came from a Jewish background. The founder of the family’s fortunes was Frederick’s father, Julius, who was born in Frankfurt in 1836. His family had included wealthy court Jews in the 18th century and the family had become westernised. By the time Julius was born the family wealth had gone, but he was well educated and ambitious. In 1855 he came to London aged 18 and set about making his fortune, initially through stockbroking, but then increasingly through investment in telegraphic and railroad communications. He never applied for British citizenship and remained attached to the culture of Germany, but he married an English Christian girl and thereafter abandoned the last vestiges of Judaism. Both his children were eventually baptised as Anglicans. His many German compatriots in London gave Julius his chances; by 1870, when he purchased The Observer, he was a rich man. Julius died in 1880, leaving a fortune of £400,000 to his 22-year-old son Frederick. Frederick did not continue his father’s business enterprises, which were sold and converted into stocks and shares. All he retained were The Observer and a magazine The Electrician which his father had revived. He was a young, cultivated, Cambridge-educated rentier, highly eligible and virtually alone in the world.

How he and Flora met we are not told and the circumstances and effects of their marriage need some explaining. We are told that Rachel knew that in marrying Frederick she would incur the anger of her mother, who had reacted very badly when her brother had married a Christian. At the same time, we are also told that it was not uncommon for Jews to marry out of the faith and that, in the case of a daughter, this was not regarded as so bad, since, under Jewish law, their children would remain Jewish. One wonders whether the relationship between mother and daughter was so bad already that Rachel used her marriage to engineer a permanent break with her mother, which became a rupture with the entire family. An orthodox Jewish family would be deeply upset when a daughter married a Christian, but these were Anglicised Jews. On the evidence given there is something provocative about her behaviour; Frederick was not, it seems, introduced to the family and the day before her wedding Rachel was baptised. Her mother never forgave her and she was cut off completely from the Sassoons. Only her divorced Christian sister-in-law Theresa kept in touch. However,  Frederick was a very wealthy man, eligible, apparently generous and easy-going. Would her mother reject him simply because he was not any more attached to the Jewish faith? The couple could live in luxury, indulge all their tastes and take their place in London society, though it seems that this place was fairly superficial, largely confined to public events and parties. Then there wasThe Observer. The paper was edited by Edward Dicey from 1870 until 1889, when he left, perhaps because the new wife was too interfering, perhaps because Frederick wanted to take a larger part in running the newspaper. By this time Rachel had decided that she wanted a newspaper of her own, but it was not until 1894 that a suitable paper became available. The Sunday Times was strictly speaking owned by Frederick, but he handed over all responsibility to Rachel and concentrated on his own paper.

Rachel made it her pulpit. Every week she would write an editorial under the heading ‘The World’s Work’, and in this she was able to express her own views on any topic that took her fancy. Her range was wide. Before she actually started she sought the advice of W. T. Stead. According to Rachel, who admired his attitude towards the role of the Press and his campaigning for what he considered right and just, he told her that the trick was to guess in advance what people are about to do and then recommend that course so that readers will be impressed by you and you will gain influence. This was only made public in an article she wrote for the Sunday Times on garden cities in September 1901. If this really was his advice, it is perhaps evidence of his disillusion after his personal fall from grace over his handling of child prostitution, and Rachel does not appear to have taken it. Her views were strong and not always well informed. She had contempt for the political system and its members. One wonders whether she had ever attended a debate in either House. The Press Gallery might be closed to her, but women often attended important debates in the Strangers’ Gallery. But she supported the call for improved conditions for the working classes, equality for women and the suffrage movement, without herself joining it. Overall she was an imperialist and took a fairly standard Liberal imperialist line on political events. Perhaps the most important event which occurred during her editorship was the retrial of Dreyfus in 1899. For this event there is more contemporary evidence than for anything else in which she was involved. Her Paris correspondent tried to hatch a scheme to persuade Major Esterhazy to admit publicly that he had forged the documents which had been the cause of Dreyfus’s original conviction. But Esterhazy was too wily to be caught and, in the end the hoped-for scoop failed.

By this time Rachel had other worries. Frederick was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1896. It weakened him, so that gradually Rachel had to take over the running of the Observer as well as her own paper. She also insisted on nursing him herself. It was a huge burden to bear and, unsurprisingly, after his death at the end of 1901, she was soon unable to fulfil her journalistic obligations. By the autumn of 1902 she had ceased completely. From the description given she was suffering from clinical depression, unable to do anything. The result was sad. Her brother Joseph accepted the responsibility of settling both Rachel and her affairs. Medical opinion was sought and she was declared to be of unsound mind. Her brother accepted this, but she was not put in an asylum. Joseph arranged for her to be looked after by several nurses in a large house outside Tunbridge Wells, filled with most of the treasures from her London house. Here she spent the rest of her life, finally dying in 1927. The two newspapers were both sold at very low prices, for the circulation, never high, had plummeted. So ended a career in journalism which only filled eight years of her life.

This is an interesting study, but there are drawbacks. First, the title hardly seems justified by the facts. True she edited a newspaper, but did this give her the influence she clearly wanted? I have not found any references to her in political papers of the period and the Sunday Times is not quoted by other papers. She seems a curiously isolated figure, sitting in her study at home and once a week descending on the paper’s offices. She complained that the great and the good would not talk to her about politics. But she seems to have tried to buttonhole them at parties. Flora Shaw, her exact contemporary at The Times, did not apparently have such problems and was widely respected. Secondly, a more technical point, the footnotes are not adequate. Citations of an author’s work should give page numbers, but this does not happen here. Sometimes statements are made without any evidence being adduced at all. Finally, although the authors have been very assiduous in reading round the subject and looking for sources, there is no substantial archive of Rachel’s or Frederick’s own papers. Too often they have extrapolated what she might have been thinking as a girl from what she wrote years later. But people change their views, even reinvent themselves. And we do not know anything very much about her life in London, clearly busy and multi-faceted, other than what can be found in the social columns of the papers or her own writings. Apart from her brother’s divorced wife, Theresa she does not seem to have had any friends, just social acquaintances. Can that really be so? Or was she really such a difficult person that this explains why even her own nephew, Siegfried Sassoon, in later life never bothered to visit her and spoke of her insultingly and without affection?


(15) The Lone Protestor: A M Fernando in Australia and Europe

Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor: A M Fernando in Australia and Europe (Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012)

reviewed by Oliver Haag, University of Edinburgh

Tracing the path of an Australian Aboriginal political activist through four decades of early 20th–century Europe must surely have been a challenging and often surprising task. With only a handful of original notebooks, no surviving photographs and a paucity of published reminiscences, Paisley’s biography of Anthony Martin Fernando (1864–1949) presents not only an innovative research of a long-forgotten political life but also a compelling insight into transnational narratives of race. The nine chapters reconstruct the stages of Fernando’s activism from his initial experiences of racism in Western Australia, which drove him to leave Australia for good, to his arrival in Europe and later relocation to London. Through registration and employment certificates, Paisley reconstructs his first movements in Austria to his eventual internment during the First World War. As an Aboriginal Australian then without entitlement to citizenship, Fernando sought British naturalisation several times to gain access to food parcels. By stressing his origin as a ‘Black man from Australia’, he could avoid British-Australian authorities assuming him Aboriginal by making them believe that he was of African-Australian heritage instead. Whereas British-Australian authorities did not recognise Fernando as Aboriginal – partly because of his western education – Austrian authorities clearly classified him as an Australneger (‘Australian Negro’). The translation of Australneger into Anglo-Saxon racial denomination as ‘Negro’ finally placed him as non-Aboriginal and prevented him from his feared deportation to Australia. Eventually, this rendered possible the conferral of British citizenship.

Already in internment, Fernando began protesting Aboriginal dispossession by British imperialism and contrasted the callous attitudes of white Anglo-Saxons with that of the Austrians, whom he termed a good and honourable people. After the war, Fernando continued his protests in Switzerland and Italy by publicly denouncing the maltreatment of Aboriginal Australians through British dispossession. Partly due to his benevolent view of German colonialism (which included the rejection of German colonial guilt) and partly by his production of professional political pamphlets, he was soon suspected of being a German agent and an ally of Fascist Italy, respectively. Paisley, through painstaking analysis, proves such allegations fundamentally wrong: Fernando, as the book’s title indicates, was a lone fighter never involved in any political movement. In fact, his leafleting of pilgrims in Rome resulted in his arrest and final expulsion from Italy out of fear that his critique of (British) colonialism might undermine Britain’s expected support of Fascist colonialism. Fernando became a critic of Fascism, bemoaning that it would ruin what he called the ‘good-hearted’ Italian people.

In London, his negative views regarding white people hardened. Wearing a black cloth adorned with white skeletons to symbolise the British killing of his people, Fernando picketed before Australia House, preached at Speaker’s Corner and even used court rooms to politically critique Australia. England, in his eyes, became the symbol of ‘savagery’ and murder, leading him to place Anglo-Saxons on the lowest ladder of human development (a reversed constellation of racial development then conferred upon Aboriginal Australians). Fernando became highly suspicious of white friendships. Paisley identifies a few Australian and British supporters, yet hardly any of them would have been designated as true friends. In contrast to many of his contemporary Aboriginal activists in Australia, he did not count on alliance with white people, neither humanitarians nor Britons. Britain, to him, was the source and not the solution of Aboriginal suffering. The author effectively shows Fernando’s sense of Aboriginal sovereignty and agency. In rejecting the help of humanitarians, Fernando not only rejected white paternalism but also reclaimed Aboriginal self-determination. His dismissive attitude towards humanitarian support ultimately proved very efficient in making humanitarians re-think their culture’s own inhumanity. A humanitarian supporter commented upon Fernando’s admission into an aged care facility: ‘At last, she concluded, he had come to see that the British did look after their elderly and, in this respect at least, were not so entirely different from the Aborigines’ (p. 172). This comment reads as a powerful subversion of British superiority gauged according to the standards of Aboriginal morality.

Paisley’s study is more than a biography of an obviously unusual life; it unearths the intricacies of Fernando’s activism, which was never backed by any political movement. The solitary nature of his protests might have reflected his wish for independence and autonomy but it equally represented his mistrust of inter-racial friendship. This mistrust leads me to expand on my own reading of two major themes that permeate the book: Fernando’s perception of race and the faith he invested in Europe. This reading is not to allude to any shortcoming (in fact, Paisley’s study made for one of the most inspiring reads I have had in the last few years), but to elicit theoretical considerations implicit in her text. Drawing from Fernando’s views on politics and history, Paisley shows that he employed a racial worldview that, partly due to his Catholic faith, was steeped in a Christian hierarchy of racialised morality. Whereas he highly valued Aboriginal Australians and South Asians, he exhibited a derogatory view towards (sub-Saharan) African, Irish and Jewish people. Britons seemed to have occupied, especially towards the end of his life, the lowest level of racial morality. These views were partly influenced by anti-Jewish Catholicism and ideas of African ‘primitivism’ and ‘savagery’. Particularly, the alleged promiscuity and sinfulness then conferred upon African races led Fernando not only to differentiate in morality between Africans on the one hand and Aboriginal Australians and Indians on the other but also to somehow exclude Africans from his critique of British imperialism. The hidden relations of racism between people of colour were in themselves highly complex. Paisley argues that Fernando’s anti-Semitism was aggravated by his own experiences of anti-black racism: ‘When castigated for being a black interloper who should go back to his own country, he retorted that the real “foreigner” was the “Jewish” shopkeeper in Petticoat Lane who had told him, “You black beast. You are the dirt (pointing to the ground). Your type should be killed’’’ (p. 152). The London of the 1920s and 1930s was a thoroughly racialised world. Racism, as Fernando’s story shows, was highly intricate and not merely subject to a simple white–black dichotomy. The category of white people here is of particular interest.

Although not explicitly stated by Paisley, there seems to be a fundamental difference in Fernando’s perception of white people from Britain and Europe. This becomes conspicuous in several instances, particularly with regard to inter-racial friendship. As Paisley unearths, Fernando had several British supporters who, however, he did not really deem friends (the author remains inexplicit about the extent of his friendships, but the text suggests that they were scarce); only at the close of his life did he confide that the loyal support of one of his former British employers rendered him more ‘Black’ than ‘white’. This deep mistrust of white people appears to have been highly different in case of Europeans. Paisley mentions, rather in passing, Fernando’s devastation on the ‘death notice for his dearest friend in the Milan Company, Angelo Bossi’ (p. 93). Perhaps reflecting the scant source material, the author does not provide further information on this friendship or biographical detail on Angelo Bossi. The text itself suggests that Bossi was very likely white. The salient point here is that whereas inter-racial friendship seemed to be preclusive in Britain, it appeared to exist with relative ease in Europe. More precisely, Fernando’s perception of Europeans seemed to have been carried by a trans-racial understanding of friendship, one that seemed to have written race out of friendship. This positive view of white people is also evident in his appraisal of the ‘good’ and ‘honourable’ Austrian people, among whom he initially wished to spend the rest of his life. To Fernando, racism seemed to matter less in Europe than in Britain: ‘Unlike in his later writing about life among the English in London, he did not comment on his experience of racial discrimination during internment [in Austria]’ (pp. 45–6). Determined by the political conviction that Britons and Australians were solely responsible for Aboriginal suffering, Fernando differentiated between white people in Europe and Britain, the former acting as potential friends while the latter were castigated as the most morally corrupt ‘savage’ race. This differentiation shows the complex dynamic of racial narratives, which does not necessarily evince a fixed understanding of race. Rather than interpreting Fernando’s unflattering views of white people as a homogenising view of race, I think the cultural spatiality of white people seems to have been a bendy category in his racial conception. This narrative was obviously influenced by politics and individual experiences and partly related to a wider web of sympathetic views on Europe among people of colour. Whiteness was not a simple enemy category; it showed surprising flexibility according to space and personal loyalty. Two distinct categories of whiteness, I opine, were operating in Fernando’s perceptions of white people: a European whiteness (or perhaps rather a Europeanness drained of its whiteness) and a British or Anglo-Saxon whiteness.

This exemption of white Europeans from the general critique of white people (that is, Britons or Anglo-Saxons) brings me to Fernando’s highly idealised view of Europe. This idealisation emerged during his adolescence in Australia, with the adoption of the name Fernando in an effort to dignify the Italian people. Paisley argues that his Catholic faith played a central role in the benevolent view of the Italian people. On a European level, I think, there was another dimension to his fondness, that is, Europe’s perceived detachment from Anglo-Saxon imperialism. Certainly Europeans, and not only Britons, played a vital role in the colonisation and dispossession of Aboriginal Australians, but they were (tactically?) excluded from his anti-imperial critique. Not necessarily exceptional in his positive view of Europe, Fernando promulgated the concept of self-governed Aboriginal reserves under direct European mandate. He expected Aboriginal civilisation to renew Europe intellectually and spiritually. A thus renewed Europe, Fernando reasoned, would serve as a political ally against British imperialism.  . These political possibilities must have played a central role in Fernando’s perspectives on Europe, as exemplified in the overt support of German colonialism and critique of German colonial guilt. As a (self-)educated man who was surely fluent in German, he must have come across the massive German propaganda campaigns against British exploitation of Indigenous people. Colonial revisionism in Weimar Germany and under Nazism attempted to dismantle the British accusation of German colonial guilt. The rhetoric devices to underpin the falsehood of British propaganda as a ‘colonial guilt lie’ (Kolonialschuldlüge) resulted not only in a propagandistic idealisation of German-indigenous relations (as evinced in the loyal East African Askari myth, for instance) but also in the denunciation of what was called the British extermination of Aboriginal Australians. German colonial propaganda in particular referenced Aboriginal Australia as the epitome of British slaughter. Periodicals such as Die Woche or the Deutsche Kolonialzeitung, replete with such propaganda, were widely disseminated and highly likely to have been read by, or at least known to, Fernando.

Paisley’s reference to his rejecting the German guilt reproach indicates Fernando’s thorough acquaintance with these debates. Either duped by German propaganda or (more likely) consciously transforming it into his own political narrative, Fernando came to consider Europe as a potential ally of Aboriginal Australia. Apart from his religious influence, his view of Europe appears partly like a product of political calculation to oppose Britain. German colonial propaganda, in this event, was consciously hijacked by an Aboriginal activist and thereby, ironically enough, confirmed in its supposed veracity. Thus was constructed an Aboriginal-German (and Aboriginal-European) friendship in opposition to the British imperialist project. Europe, though complicit in the imperialism that affected Aboriginal Australia, seemed the lesser evil. Surely Fernando must have experienced anti-black racism in Europe, as Paisley suggests. The reason he ignored European racism was likely to be political calculation. Germany’s strident critique of British imperialism especially must have appeared as an appealing and welcome template to underpin the agenda of protesting Aboriginal dispossession. In a sense, the lone protestor was perhaps not that lonesome – he had ‘his’ Europe as notional support behind him.

The particular merit of the Lone Protestor for Australian Aboriginal studies lies in its uncovering of the transnational dimensions of Aboriginal protest and the way it provides a sound case study of an early 20th-century Aboriginal presence in Europe. Aboriginal intellectuals have long reshaped ideas of Europe (and Britain) and, clearly, more studies similar to this are needed to understand Australian Aboriginal history in its interwoven local, national and global contexts. For Britain, Paisley’s book effectively demonstrates the intricate mechanisms of racialisation among people of colour, provides an impressive insight into an Aboriginal ethnography of white Britain and, for all the asymmetric power-relations inherent to imperialism, uncovers the agency of colonised subjects in creating counter-narratives to hegemonic racial discourse. The significance of The Lone Protestor for European history is perhaps most evident in being one of the first studies to have thoroughly examined an aspect of early 20th-century Aboriginal-European relations not from the dominant European perspective, but from the view of an Aboriginal Australian. This focus on an Aboriginal viewpoint is a highly welcome contrast to the many studies of European interest in indigenous cultures which implicitly re-inscribe the one-sided importance of Europe in what has actually been a cross-cultural encounter. Paisley’s biography leads us to consider that it is not merely Europe that appropriated Aboriginal cultures but that Aboriginal Australians also appropriated Europe for their political and personal ends. Paisley’s work invites us to further examine Aboriginal interest in Europe. In its reversal of the perspective from Europe to Aboriginal Australia, the Lone Protestor has the potential to instigate a paradigm shift in the scholarship on Aboriginal-European relations.

The author is happy to accept this review, and does not wish to comment.

(14) Museums and Biographies: Stories, Objects, Identities

Museums and Biographies: Stories, Objects, Identities, edited by Kate Hill (London, Boydell and Brewer, 2012)

reviewed by Graham Black

Slowly but surely the history presented in museums is coming to the attention of academic historians. However, the relationship between museums, memory and history remains complex. In selecting what to collect, museums seek to define what is or is not history. In preserving their collections in perpetuity they act as a permanent, if selective, memory store. In the way they display and interpret that material evidence, they construct and transmit meanings. In contemporary museum display, there is an on-going conflict between the construction of meanings that support an authorised collective memory, frequently linked to a linear narrative of progress, and an ambition to act as places of pluralism and inclusion. Furthermore, visitors to museums are not passive recipients. Rather, in the process of engaging with the collections and associated interpretive material on display, visitors add new content to their existing knowledge and understanding, and construct their own meanings. History is thus selected, constructed and transmitted by museums and then, in the process of being experienced by visitors, it is transformed into ‘something else – their own understanding of the past, a type of ‘historical sense’ independent of the professional historian’s ideal …’.(1) For the academic historian new to the debate on what makes history in museums, the variety of content, particularly in the latter half of this edited volume gives some sense of the complexity of the subject. There is much of interest that can also be garnered from the first part, not least in considering how museums and their collections came into being.

The book weighs in at two pounds four ounces, but is heavyweight also in its content, ‘… the many finely articulated and challenging contributions to this rich collection of observations on museums and biography’, as Preziosi describes them in his endpiece (p. 321). It is based on a conference of the same title, held in 2009 under the auspices of the Museums and Galleries History Group, itself founded in 2002 ‘to promote the study of the history and theory of museums and galleries’ ( The website states that the Group ‘acts as a forum for considerations of the place of museum history within academic discourse and its importance for current museum practice’. This dual ambition is evident throughout much of the 325 pages of text of the book, consisting of an introduction and endpiece, and 21 chapters positioned under six sections as a reflection of the breadth of approaches taken, and supported by 51 illustrations.

In her introduction the editor, Kate Hill, sets the challenge: ‘… to consider how biography in and of the museum can be used to become more reflexive about the 19th-century inheritance [the 19th-century museum concern to develop an objective, systematic representation of the world as knowable by the Western subject], and to develop new ways of knowing’ – no mean feat if achieved. The central structure of the book is defined by its six sections. ‘Individual biography and museum history’ ‘investigates the extent to which individuals have been identified with particular museums, and have even “become” their museum in some ways’. ‘Problematising individuals biographies’ ‘… takes issue with the extent to which simple and discrete life stories of individual selves can explain museums and their histories’. ‘Institutional biographies’ ‘… aims to examine the extent to which the institution of the museum itself has a biography’. ‘Object biographies’ ‘… brings together a number of essays which are interested in using the object biography approach to understand museums more fully’. ‘Museums as biography’ ‘… assesses the ways in which museums can produce biographical narratives’. Finally, ‘Museums as autobiography’ ‘… interrogates the ways in which museums can enable people to tell their own lives in different ways and for different groupings’.

The three chapters in the first section examine benefactors to the Cabinet des médailles et antiques in Paris, and the impact of two curators on their institutions – Hultén at Sweden’s Museum of Modern Art and Pavière at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston. What surprised me about much of Gray’s account of Pavière’s work in Preston was how contemporary many of his ambitions were, not least for the museum to play an active role in the cultural life of Lancashire and for the visitor to be the central focus of the museum. By contrast, Burch’s chapter on Hultén was undoubtedly the most troubling of the book, as he explored ‘… the pervasive influence that certain individuals are able to exert over public collections – both during their lifetime and after’ (p. 29). The lesson Burch drew from his account is one we should all note: ‘… the paramount necessity of maintaining a critical eye on museums and the people and organisations that shape them’ (p. 42).

In the section on ‘Problematising individuals’ biographies’, it falls to Anne Whitelaw to challenge the whole premise of the book: ‘In the specific case of the museum, biography’s focus on individuals risks isolating particular figures from the larger institutional structures that shape their activities, and the linear character of its narrative does not account for the complexity of the institution itself, particularly as it pertains to the relations between individuals and the roles they inhabit’ (p. 76). She illustrates this in her chapter on ‘Women, museums and the problem of biography’ in speaking of the privileging of those in leadership roles, ‘… at the expense of uncovering the anonymous, often collective labour of other women working in museums’ (p. 80). Her concluding remark is that ‘Given the complexity of the institution and the imbrications of its practices with the people – both known and unknown – who contribute to their realisation, biography is inadequate to the task’ (p. 85).

By contrast, Sandino, in researching the professional lives of Victoria and Albert Museum curators is able to argue strongly in favour of the biographical approach, placing the curators within the realms of collective memory, wonderfully borrowing from Nora to propose the community of long-term curators as a lieu de mémoire: ‘… a community that bears comparison with any village made up of a mixture of personalities, competencies, gossip, surveillance, alliances and disagreements but bound by a commitment to a particular sense of place’ (p. 91). Thus, just as we see museum collections as the cultural memory of humankind, if a selective one, so she sees the curators as an ‘active repository of memory’ (p. 91), based on their lifelong interaction with those very collections.Five chapters explore aspects of ‘Institutional biographies’ – a very contemporary issue, given the unprecedented wave of new museum developments that took place  in the late 1990s and 2000s. Janes, quoted in the first chapter in the section, has been particularly critical of this:

Although often likened to a renaissance, this architectural boom doesn’t merit this praise, lacking as it commonly does any vigorous intellectual or creative resurgence within the museum itself.(2)

MacLeod, author of the first chapter in the section, is right to state that we need to establish what we have learned from this phase, not least because ‘The sole focus on the architect and architectural style neglects any consideration of the needs of multiple users of the museum and promotes the desire among patrons and funders for a signature building by a named architect’ (p. 106) – nothing new there then. Comparing this to past experiences is one approach. Her example is the prolonged gestation period of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

The other chapters see Miller explore the complex history of Schinkel’s museums in Berlin, Apt examine the impact of the use of incorporation in the establishment of non-profit museums in the USA, Rees Leahy evaluate a recent spate of attempts to re-create past exhibitions and Whitehead discuss the ‘restoration’ of the Barry Rooms in the National Gallery in London, in the 1980s. With the National Gallery, Whitehead begins with the, as he puts it, very basic point that ‘museum buildings represent attitudes to knowledge specific to the cultures which give rise to them’ (p. 157). So he shows how the original Victorian Barry rooms were later modernised as neutral spaces, in a ‘reaction against old-fashioned ways of looking at, understanding and experiencing art’ (p. 158), but there was then a significant about face in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in a series of costly restoration projects nationally, reflecting new developments in museum studies and art history. Both Whitehead and Rees Leahy highlight the basic problem however, ‘… the fallacy of authenticity at play’ (p. 166). Visitors do not see the displays as they would originally have been. The dilemma, as Whitehead puts it, is that ‘… museums present themselves on the one hand as historical institutions which prize their own history… and, on the other, as constant re-inventors of themselves …’ (p. 167).

‘Object biographies’ is a very tight, thought-provoking section of four chapters, each exploring a different aspect of what used to be called ethnographic collections. We see the complex ways in which Chinese objects have been viewed and classified by the West over the last 150 years; the journey of a ritual red feather coat from 17th-century Brazil via the Netherlands to the Danish National Museum; the private development of a collection of Pacific artefacts; and the uncertainty felt by Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at its rediscovery of a collection of sculptures of Indian ‘types’, made in the 1930s, and accessioned into its collections in 1948 and 1951. The underpinning concept for the section relates theory directly to practice: the ability to present these objects in a way that will stimulate visitors to think more critically about them, and about the issues that underpin them.

In Tythacott’s account of the Buddhist bronzes held by Liverpool Museum, we see an early wrestling over 19th-century racial hierarchies that placed the Western male at their summit – how to distinguish between Asia’s ‘highly cultivated’ (3) races that were not a part of ethnology and the ‘aboriginal races’ that were – placing Chinese figures in a ‘position somewhere between the ‘civilised’ white and the ‘uncivilised black races’ of the world’ (p. 176). In Françozo’s chapter on the red feather coat, we discover that, from feather adornments initially being produced for religious and war rituals, local populations in Brazil had begun from early in the colonial encounter to manufacture them for exchange with European colonisers and travellers. The sculptured heads of Indian ‘types’ were linked to a belief in the interconnectedness of physical characteristics and physiological or mental capacities. In Elliott’s discussion, he notes that ‘it is the disturbing connotations of colonial oppression, racial prejudice and the objectification of individuals into representatives of primitive tribes or other anthropological categories that has influenced the ambivalent reception of Milward’s sculptures by postcolonial museum curators and academics’ (p. 222).

For Françozo, speaking of the red feather coat, ‘By simply looking at these items, one is confronted with the complexities of the colonial encounter that took place between Brazil and the Netherlands in the mid-17th century’ (p. 196). Elliott, who displayed the Indian ‘types’ in 2009-10, believed their presence ‘created a space to reflect upon more difficult and contentious periods in the history of the museum and of anthropology …’ (p. 226). The ability of museums to exhibit and encourage meaningful reflection on difficult issues is a major contemporary issue, requiring some visitor research to establish impact in both these cases.

‘Museums as biography’ are a relatively common phenomenon: ‘Museums which are focused on a single personality are a popular sub-type of the museum genre, with over 170 in the UK alone, of which the birth-place museum is the best-known type’ (p. 247). As the author of this chapter, Sophie Forgan, points out, next in popularity come artists and national heroes, while those on women or scientists form a tiny minority. Forgan briefly discusses the origins of three of the latter: Isaac Newton’s birthplace at Woolsthorpe; Charles Darwin’s Home at Down House in Kent; and the house in London where Sigmund Freud lived from 1938 to his death in 1939, 20 Maresfield Gardens in West Hampstead. She emphasises the importance of the passionate individual believer in the founding of such personality museums. Her focus is on what such museums can achieve and how this is done: ‘… presentation has to focus on the man (or woman) first and foremost; and the site, the house, its contents are seen as the key to unlocking personality. The purpose is threefold: to humanise the subject and create a sense of the person, to allow key objects to stand in for a long and complex ‘whole life’, and finally to provide models for inspiration and emulation … The museum, like the best biography, has to attempt to re-integrate the personal and the scientific life, but in a very different genre’ (p. 257). She is also very aware of the need to meet visitor needs: ‘Personality museums have the problem of maintaining that indefinable quality called ‘atmosphere’, whilst at the same time attempting to diversify the visitor experience … a sort of individualised consumption by the tourist’ (p. 259–60). This is the potentially depressing part of her story – when theory meets practice – but I feel she has over-egged it a little. To make this case would require a detailed analysis of the motivations and expectations of actual visitors to personality museums.

Booth, in her chapter in this section, goes a stage further than Forgan in her discussion of the personality represented, quoting from Parker (4) that ‘… museum professionals should admit that “we are not simply in the business of preserving artifacts; we are also in the business of calling up ghosts” … The biographical house museum is a house haunted in a way that echoes the readers’ response to written lives in non-fiction as well as fiction’ (p. 231–2). She sees such houses as lieux des memoires, but recognises how sanitised they can become. Yet the house and the objects in it – not least, for the writer, the scene of creativity with the study, desk, chair and pen – provide a public performance of the personality’s life. Like Forgan, she recognises that the house experience will be audience driven: ‘the audience constructs the house by re-reading it as inhabited’.

Coming to the final section, and the concept of the ‘Museum as autobiography’ is at the heart of current thinking in history museums. It is part of an on-going response to the rise of the new social history in the 1960s and 1970s, and the influence of the writings of Bourdieu (5), leading to a call for the ‘democratisation’ of mainstream museums through the representation of multiple perspectives, social and cultural diversity, and reaching out to new communities. Today it reflects the replacement of the single, authoritative version of the past with a multivocal alternative. We see many museums working with those previously silenced, spoken for or marginalised to reclaim ownership of their own and their communities’ pasts. In essence, it is about the democratisation of the past and the role museums can play in this. The trouble is that democratised history is messy in comparison with the more authoritative work of academic historians. How do you ensure the quality of the history presented?

The papers by Steffi de Jong and Elizabeth Crooke add to the debate. De Jong, exploring the incorporation of individual video histories into museum display, is excellent in her discussion of both the practical problems and the basic issue that the museum still retains authority in defining the interviewing process, in the selection of episodes from the life-story and the loss of individual identity as stories are used to illustrate themes chosen by the museum. By way of contrast, Crooke explores how communities research and tell their own stories as ‘contributions to community autobiography’ (p. 309). The community becomes its own author and censor. Crooke recognises the importance of this switch: ‘The expectation of what history is, with whom it is concerned, the sources it draws upon and who should be its author has dramatically changed’ (p. 311) – with academics and curators of recent history now ‘indebted to the people on the ground’ (p. 312). Crooke also recognises that communities will have different understandings and uses of the past than professional historians and will self-censor material that does not fit into the story they want to tell. Authority, identity and selectivity are all exposed in these two chapters and I would have relished more on each of these issues, and on the sheer messiness of democratic history.

So, does my account suggest the book is a useful collection of disparate accounts relating to aspects of museum history and practice or is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? As a practitioner who specialises in the development of content for museum exhibitions, I must focus on relevance to current museum practice. As the comments above make clear, the final two sections relate directly to practice while that on ‘Object biographies’ cries out for new, participative and reflective means of display that can draw out historical issues in ways that will make a meaningful difference to the attitudes of visitors. However, the chapters as a whole raise a more profound issue. In the ‘age of participation’ (6) in which we now live, museum users are no longer willing to be passive recipients of received wisdom, but are becoming more critical and challenging, and expect both to be able to contribute and to have their contributions valued. They effectively want a sense of ownership of what are public institutions, and museums must respond to this is becoming more transparent in all aspects of their activities, and more welcoming of user participation. The issue of transparency towards their users is present, if not always noted, in all of the essays in this volume. It is an issue that can only become more important.


  1. S. Watson, ‘Myth, memory and the senses in the Churchill Museum’, in Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretation, ed. Sandra H. Dudley (Oxford, 2010) pp. 204–23, p. 205, quoted in G. Black, ‘Museums, memory and history’, Cultural and Social History, 8, 3 (2011), 415–27, 415.
  2. R. R. Janes, Museums in a Troubled World (London, 2009), p.108.
  3. C. Gatty,Catalogue of the Mayer Museum II: Prehistoric Antiquities and Ethnography, (London, 1982).
  4. D. Parker, ‘Literary museums: present opportunities’, in Literary Memorial Museums, ed. W. Bartel and M. Kunze, M. (Frankfurt & Berlin, 1986), pp. 25–9.
  5. Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel with Dominique Schnapper, The Love of Art: European Art Museums and their Public, trans. Caroline Beattie and Nick Merriman (Stanford, CA, 1969 (1990 ed.)).
  6. S. McNealy, Oracle Open World Keynote Speech, 20 September 2005 <reported in press release at> [accessed 12 December 2012].

Author’s response

I would like to thank Graham Black for his detailed and useful review of Museums and Biographies. It is not an easy task to summarise and evaluate all 21 chapters, but he has done justice to the widely varying topics and approaches of the authors. While we have certainly sought to engage with the debates in current museum practice, we would not want the collection to be seen solely in that light – it is intended to help us think more widely about the nature of biography and narrative, as well as about the historical consciousness of different periods, places and individuals. In terms of current museum practice, I wholeheartedly agree with the reviewer that transparency is a key issue; for me, the process of editing the collection convinced me that transparency is very hard to museums to achieve. The complicated histories of the institutions, and the entrenched nature of their existing narratives, mean that real, meaningful transparency that allows ownership from the public can only be achieved through a painstaking, historically-informed process of unpicking and de-naturalising the museum’s constituent parts. I hope that Museums and Biographies is a contribution to that process.


(13) Kaia, Heroine of the 1944 Warsaw Rising

Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm, Kaia, Heroine of the 1944 Warsaw Rising (Lanham, MD, Lexington Books, 2012)

reviewed by Dr Christoph Mick, University of Warwick

This is a very personal book, first published in Polish in 2006. The author, Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm, tells the story of Cezaria Ilyin Szymańska, a personal friend who participated in the Warsaw Rising of 1944. Kaia is the name under which the heroine is known to her friends. The idea of writing about Kaia’s life can be traced back to conversations and an exchange of letters between the author and her heroine.

The author has combined quotes from letters with passages in which she retells what she heard from Kaia herself. The author uses a collage technique (following the example of Ryszard Kapuścinski) and a ‘mosaic method’ developed by her teacher, the Polish writer Melchior Wańkowicz. Ziolkowska-Boehm also makes use of quotes from other testimonies and from historical literature. The book has 37 chapters, many of them only a few pages long. The chapters consist of thematically arranged stories and reminiscences or summaries of Kaia’s impressions of places she lived at or visited during different periods of her life. A considerable part of the book does not deal with the Warsaw Uprising but with Kaia’s life, family and friends before and after the war. These chapters contain numerous comments by the author and sometimes include extensive quotes from books on Polish history.

Kaia’s story – as unusual as it appears to be at first glance – is a typically Polish story. She was born on 2 April 1916 in the small town of Zaysan (today in Kazakhstan) in the western part of Djungaria not far from the Altai Mountains. She and her family were not the only Poles in the region. In the 19th century the Russian government deported many Poles to Siberia or Central Asia as a punishment for socialist or patriotic activities. After the turn of the century a growing number of Poles also had economic motives for emigrating to the north and east of the Russian Empire. One of these economic emigrants was Kaia’s maternal grandfather Bolesław Szemiot, who found employment in Djungaria as an engineer building roads and bridges. Kaia’s father, Modest Iljin, was a student at St. Petersburg University who was sent to Siberia because of his underground activities. Kaia’s parents married in 1908 and Cezaria was born as their second child.

After the October Revolution the family continued to live in Djungaria and lived out the years of the First World War and the Russian civil war there. Ziolkowsa-Boehm recounts a few anecdotes from Kaia’s early childhood during these troublesome times. By 1922 life under Bolshevik rule had become unbearable and the family decided to leave for Poland. This was easier said than done and it proved to be a very long journey. The family travelled by train and it took almost a year before they arrived in Białystok where they settled. The following chapters tell of Kaia’s experiences at school and include reminiscences of Kazakhstan and her youth together with a short chapter on animals and their importance in Kaia’s life and that of her family. How these stories are remembered many decades later gives an interesting insight into the processes of remembering and forgetting. Childhood memories are often very vivid while memories of later events often fade away quickly. This can also be seen here. The reader learns much more about Kaia’s early years than about her life as a young adult.

The main part of the book deals with the Second World War and the German occupation of Poland. Ziolkowska-Boehm does not offer any deep analysis of the reasons and consequences of the Warsaw Uprising. The author quotes some of the research literature but there is a greater focus on quotes taken from the testimonies of participants of the Uprising and linking these comments to Kaia’s own recollections. Kaia’s resistance initially consisted of attending courses held by the underground university. Later she participated in the Uprising and worked as a messenger, a very dangerous role as it entailed helping the different groups of insurgents to keep in contact with each other. Always at risk of being shot by German soldiers or caught in crossfire she risked her life more than once, and all the stories show her to be a very brave woman. These chapters do not exclusively focus on Kaia. They also attest to the heroism of her fellow insurgents, also containing a portrait of Kaia’s later husband Marek Szymański and descriptions of friends and acquaintances, interspersed with anecdotes demonstrating the commitment of the insurgents. Marek Szymański had been a captain in the unit of Major Henryk Dobrzański (code name: Hubal) who commanded the last regular unit of the Polish Army still fighting Nazi Germany in the autumn of 1939. Hubal also formed the first underground unit which resumed the fight against the occupiers. Ziolkowsa-Boehm praises the heroism of this unit and of its leader Major Hubal who died fighting against the German occupiers on 30 April 1940. Marek Szymański took over the command of the Hubal partisans until the unit was dissolved in June. Szymański was later highly decorated for his role in the Polish Army and in the resistance against Nazi Germany. One leitmotif of the book is the story of the Virtuti Militari order previously awarded to Major Dobrzański. It was Kaia’s task to guard the order and she managed to keep it safe during the Uprising and during her time as a Soviet prisoner.

After the defeat of the Uprising Kaia fled Warsaw but she was soon arrested by agents of the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (abridged in Russian as NKVD). She was brought to NKVD Camp 41 in Ostashkov where she remained imprisoned until 1946.

The last part of the book covers life in Communist Poland. After she was released Kaia returned to Warsaw where she worked as an architect on the reconstruction of the city. She wanted to lead a normal life, and the book tells about her travels and her work, but also shows how badly former non-Communist resistance fighters were treated. Their resistance against Nazi Germany was marginalised, although it survived in the memory of those who had lived through those difficult times. Kaia’s husband Marek remained loyal to Major Hubal even in Communist Poland. He saw it as his task to preserve Hubal’s memory.

The book includes a number of black-and-white photographs, many of them from Kaia’s personal collection. There are two appendices at the end of the book. Appendix one consists of short quotes about Siberia by people who were there but also by Americans who were asked what they knew about Siberia. It is not clear how these quotes or the subsequent quotes about the Warsaw Uprising were collected. The quotes from Americans without Polish roots indicate the lack of historical knowledge about Poland’s fate during the Second World War.

The book tries to preserve as much of Kaia’s life as possible for posterity and is also a celebration of Polish heroism and a testimony to Polish suffering. The decision to start the Uprising is not criticised but is presented as the result of a decision taken by the resistance fighters themselves. Like Kaia, the author does not question whether the Uprising made political or military sense but views the Uprising as a natural event, not unlike a volcanic eruption. She is right to point out that a posterioricriticism often does not take contemporary circumstances and the explosive mood in Warsaw sufficiently into account. There are some good arguments in support of the opinion that the Uprising would have happened anyway, with or without the approval of the local command of the Home Army and without the consent of the government-in-exile. This, however, misses the point. One of the main problems of the Uprising was its timing – it came too early. The German forces were still too strong. Starting the Uprising in August 1944 was also a political decision. The command of the Home Army and the government-in-exile wanted to liberate Warsaw before the arrival of Soviet troops as they hoped to improve the Polish position in the negotiations with Britain, France, the USA and the Soviet Union. However, the aim of the book is not to participate in these historiographical debates. Ziolkowsa-Boehm has created a moving testimony to her friend, whose biography is woven into the history of Poland in the 20th century. The Polish original won the literature prize of the Association of Polish Writers Abroad (London) in 2007.


(12) George F. Kennan: An American Life

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (New York, NY, Penguin Books, 2012)

reviewed by Charles Coutinho

‘No one knows what George Kennan really meant [to say]!’ So did the late McGeorge Bundy, my then professor, initiate me and a half a dozen other graduate students into mystery of George Frost Kennan. I say ‘mystery’ deliberately, as both at the time and later, there was indeed something distinctly odd about two aspects of the life and career of the one-time scholar-diplomat. First, what exactly were the policies that Kennan truly wished to advocate during his years in power at the American State Department in the mid to late 1940s? The second mystery consists of the amount of scholarly attention, devoted to this at times brilliant, but highly irascible and indeed almost eccentric, man. To give a pertinent example: more scholarly monographs and studies have been devoted to the life and career of Kennan then to any American Secretary of State in the 20th century, with the possible exception of Henry Kissinger.(1) Which, from a non-American perspective, might strike some as odd, given the fact that as a diplomat and public servant, Kennan can only be said to have occupied a position of the first-rank for a little over ten years: 1944–52 and 1961–3. It was, of course, during the first portion of Kennan’s official career, that he first achieved (and to his subsequent regret never quite managed to live-down) public renown as the ‘architect’ of the American policy of ‘containment’, the diplomatic strategy, which some (but never Kennan himself) claimed resulted in the eventual downfall of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe and eventually the Soviet Union itself.

At the time that Bundy made his exclamation to us (in the fall of 1988), the first of the two mysteries relating to Kennan was well on its way to being answered, and the man who has provided most of it is none other than the author of this official biography, John Lewis Gaddis. A celebrated diplomatic historian himself in later years, it is not surprising that Kennan would choose (almost more than 30 years ago) as his official biographer the man who many perhaps (I myself being one of them) regard as the dean of 20th–century American diplomatic history. For the generation of historians of American diplomacy who were in graduate school in the 1980s and the 1990s, Gaddis was the most influential scholar in our historiographical patch. With a list of important journal articles and books, running from the groundbreaking ‘Was the Truman Doctrine a real turning point?’ to the magisterial ‘We now know’; Gaddis in many ways mapped out the whys and the wherefores of both post-1941 American foreign policy and the history of the Cold War. The book under review clearly shows on every page that it has been written by a scholar who has, in one way or the other, been living with this subject for about 45 years (Gaddis’ doctorial dissertation in 1968, on the origins of the Cold War, allots Kennan a prominent if secondary role).(2)

Given the oceans of ink (much of which is Gaddis’ own) which has been spilled on Kennan what if anything new does Gaddis have to say about his subject? In terms of the substantive aspects of Kennan’s career, the answer is: not very much. And given, as mentioned, the voluminous scholarship already devoted to Kennan, as well as Kennan’s own autobiographical writings, perhaps this is not altogether surprising. This is not to gainsay the fact that Gaddis’ life will be, for the foreseeable future, the gold standard biographical treatment of this subject, but merely to state that given the reality that most of Kennan’s personal papers have been open to scholars for some years now, major surprises and revelations could hardly be expected. What, however, Gaddis does extraordinarily well is to present for the reader a series of in depth snapshots of the linear progression of Kennan’s life. From the lonely and motherless childhood in provincial Wisconsin to the even more lonely and now alienated college student at elite Princeton University, through to the young and still alienated American diplomat in Riga, Berlin and finally Moscow in the late 1920s and early to mid-1930s, holding what would appear in retrospect as a distinctly ‘un-American’ set of beliefs and points of view. From the now highly discontented (near resigning on several occasions) diplomat and budding Soviet expert, both at home and abroad; to the career-defining ‘long telegram’ from the Moscow in February 1946 and first head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, to the equally career defining, ‘Mr. X’ article in the American periodical Foreign Affairs in July 1947, and from  his gradual alienation and withdrawal from the seat of power through his many years as ‘Cold War iconoclast’ up to and indeed beyond 1989. In most respects Gaddis’s Kennan chimes with that of the man as previously known and explored.

Where Gaddis’ biography shines, I think, is in delineating some of the remaining dark corners of Kennan’s personal odyssey (or given Kennan’s Calvinist beliefs, should we say ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’?), showing the alienated outsider who by force of nothing more than a combination of a brilliant intellect, a great prose style and (equally important as per Gaddis) a change of perspective by his superiors, became for a short time, a celebrated insider. Until Kennan once again, due to a combination of personal pique, diplomatic instincts and a different set of perspectives held by his superiors, reverted once more to the position of the alienated outsider, and eventually became a near heretic to the Cold War verities of official Washington.

As per Gaddis, Kennan’s journey was of a piece with his at times tortured and self-critical personality. In the words of the American diplomatic historian, Lloyd Gardner, in George Frost Kennan ‘the Presbyterian Elder wrestled with the Bismarckian geo-politician’ (3), And according to Gaddis the  former often overwhelmed the latter. Far from being eased, much less pushed out of the Policy Planning Staff by Secretary of State Dean Acheson in late 1949, it was Kennan who in essence engineered his own gradual removal from the seat of power, since according to Gaddis Kennan believed to be right was more important than to come out on top in some bureaucratic power struggle. This tendency for Kennan to be a pure intellectual manqué, is perhaps best exemplified by the contrast between Kennan and his successor as the Director of the Policy Planning Staff , the future arch-Cold Warrior, Paul Nitze, in terms of the advice they gave Acheson on the fraught question of whether or not the United States should develop a Hydrogen bomb in late 1949. Whereas Nitze (arguing in favor) submitted a two-and-a-half-page document which was a model of brevity and concision, Kennan (arguing against) produced a nearly 80-page document of verbose and moralistic, yet at times highly insightful, prose concerning the dangers of undue reliance on nuclear weapons . There was of course no contest between the two proposals. As Kennan later admitted, notwithstanding his characterization of his paper as ‘the most important of all the documents I ever wrote in government’, his advice was completely ignored (p. 379). As Gaddis succinctly puts it, Kennan ‘had become prophetic but no longer relevant’ (p. 381).

Within three years, Kennan was to leave government service, never to return except for a short stint as John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia, a posting which Gaddis painfully shows brought Kennan little pleasure and much grief. With that being the case, perhaps there is no surprise that Gaddis devotes approximately half of this almost 700-page book to Kennan’s private existence as a scholar, and occasional commentator on public affairs. During this period Kennan won such honors as the Pulitzer Prize (twice) and the Bancroft (once) awards. Finally, he covers Kennan’s years as a Cold War gadfly (or to his harsher critics essentially a crank) and as an almost internal émigré, utterly alienated in his detestation of contemporary American civilization. On this issue, I must enter one of my few caveats with Gaddis’s opus: the subtitle of the book was chosen, one assumes, with some care in order to disparage the idea that Kennan was a Henry James character, more European than the Europeans and having little American about him. According to Gaddis, Kennan’s frequent claims to be un-American are nothing more than a form of mental irritation, and thus not to be taken seriously. Still, one scarcely can think of any public figure in American life in the last century or more, who would put pen to paper and argued (albeit privately) that the United States should adopt aspects of a European dictatorial and authoritarian governance ( specifically the Dollfuss & Schuschnigg regime in Austria), as Kennan did in the 1930s. As Walter Hixson archly noted in his own Kennan biography, Kennan’s ideas were, ironically enough, closer to those of the Soviet regime which he thoroughly detested than to those of his own native country.(4)To attribute Kennan’s alienation and detestation of American society and governance as merely forms of eccentricity with nothing substantive behind them, seems to belie the importance of and indeed seriousness of Gaddis’ subject.

Another minor caveat with this first-rate study concerns the realm of ideas. Specifically, where exactly did Kennan acquire that mishmash of ideas and concepts which was to be transformed into what became later known as the international relations theory of ‘realism’? Did Kennan obtain them via exposure to Bismarckian concepts during his two years as a student-diplomat in Berlin, Kennan being the only foreign service officer in the Russian section of the State Department to be sent to Berlin as opposed to London or Paris?(5) Gaddis does not tell us, nor does he even investigate this aspect or any related aspects of Kennan’s intellectual formation and development as a budding diplomat and Soviet expert. Indeed, the only author that Gaddis mentions who was an influence on Kennan in the years prior to his ‘long telegram’ was Edward Gibbon. To give another example, in a letter to the Hungarian émigré historian, John Lukacs, in 1984 (not quoted in Gaddis’ book), Kennan stated that the British writer-diplomat, Sir Harold Nicolson, was ‘his model of the diplomatic historian’.(6) Whether true or not, I would think that this statement would be worthy of investigation in an almost 700-page book. Certainly this is an area for further research by any future biographer of Kennan. Finally, the somewhat esoteric realm of Kennan studies could I believe stand a degree of greater of exposure to extra-American sources and indeed comparisons. While Gaddis does use some British and Russian primary source materials, one has the impression that this was more of an afterthought than anything else. Similarly, it would have been interesting to have compared and contrasted Kennan’s views on the Soviet Union during the war, with those of, say, the UK’s Post-Hostilities Planning Sub-Committee. In light of the fact that the views of both were remarkably similar, what does that tell us the nature of Western perceptions of the Soviet Union in the latter part of the War? And, given the similarity, could Kennan’s unique antennae, as they related to Stalin’s Russia, have been truly that singular?(7) That being said, can we say that Gaddis answers the second of the two mysteries of George Kennan, namely why the overwhelming scholarly devotion to this rather curious and unusual man? The answer is yes: for Gaddis, Kennan was in reality a teacher and a first-rate scholar more than he was anything else, whether he was engaged in diplomacy at the time or not. And perhaps it is this sense of Kennan as a kindred spirit which perhaps more than anything else explains the fascination exercised by him over academics and historians. He is in short, whether we agree with his record as a policy planner, ‘one of us’. The brilliance of Gaddis’s book consists of conveying this insight to his readers. He deserves many thanks from all of us for this labour of love.


  1. For the best known studies, see: David Allan Mayers, George Kennan and the dilemmas of U.S. Foreign Policy (New York, NY, 1988); Walter Hixson, George F. Kennan: Cold War Iconoclast (New York, NY, 1989); Anders Stephanson, Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 1989); Barton Gellman, Contending with Kennan: Towards a Philosophy of American Power (New York, NY, 1984); Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C, George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947–1950 (Princeton, NJ, 1992). John Lukacs, George Kennan: A study of Character (New Haven, NJ, 2007).
  2. John Lewis Gaddis, ‘Was the Truman Doctrine a real turning point?’, Foreign Affairs, 53 (January 1974), 386–402; John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know (Oxford, 1997). The dissertation was eventually made into a book (The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947), which won the Bancroft Award in 1972.
  3. Lloyd Gardner, Architects of Illusion (Chicago, IL, 1970), p. 285.
  4. Hixson, op. cit., p. 7. Stephanson in his idiosyncratic if at times illuminating study gets it about right when he says that Kennan circa 1940 was a: ‘radically conservative man, bordering on the reactionary’. See: Stephanson, op. cit., p. 117. See also Kennan’s frequent comments about his detestation and alienation from America and American life over a good number of years inThrough the History of the Cold War: The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs, ed. John Lukacs (Philadelphia, PA, 2010), pp. 91–92, 106–110 and passim. The Henry James comparison was first made by Gardner, op. cit., p. 278.
  5. This point is made in a study of the ‘official mind’ of Kennan’s generational cohort of American diplomats. See Hugh DeSantis, The Diplomacy of Silence: The American Foreign Service, the Soviet Union and the Origins of the Cold War, 1933-1947 (Chicago, IL, 1980), p. 29, where it is noted that he was ‘exposed to his teachers’ realpolitik view of international affairs as well as the intellectual current of Weimar Germany, which pulled against the dominant stream of liberalism’. Other than Kennan there were only six other American diplomats who received the specialized European study course, before the programme was discontinued. See T. Michael Ruddy, The Cautious Diplomat: Charles E. Bohlen and the Soviet Union, 1929–1969 (Kent, OH, 1986), p. 3.
  6. Lukacs, Through the History of the Cold War, p. 100.
  7. The Foreign Office and the Kremlin: British Documents on Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1941–1945, ed. Graham Ross (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 147–155, 157–171.


(11) Witness to History: The Life of John Wheeler-Bennett

Victoria Schofield, Witness to History: The Life of John Wheeler-Bennett
(New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2012)

reviewed by Doug Munro, University of Queensland

In 1929, Major-General (retired) Sir Neill Malcolm advised the 27-year-old J. W. Wheeler-Bennett on the course of his future career, telling his younger travelling companion that he should stick to the contemporary history of Germany, extend his contacts in the United States, and give Russia a miss: ‘There is no good trying to be a Russian scholar, it would take too long to learn the language and there are too many imponderables’. Malcolm imparted a further piece of advice:

What I urge you to do is to study Germany and the German people from within. Don’t just be satisfied with knowing the ‘nobs’, the upper military and political and social echelons; they have their place and their importance but there are even more important factors. Get down underground and study the grass-roots, learn what the people are thinking and saying, especially in the country districts, where consular and embassy people don’t, as a rule penetrate. Earn the confidence of ‘good’ Germans, if you can find them, and be able to assess the villainy of the ‘bad’ Germans too (p. 54).

Wheeler-Bennett later claimed that Malcolm’s advice ‘set the pattern of my life’, a statement which his biographer Victoria Schofield quotes without correction in Witness to History (see also p. 61). Wheeler-Bennett did stick with Germany as well as extending his knowledge and contacts in the United States. What he demonstrably did not do, or try to do, was to get to know the ‘mobs’ as well as the ‘nobs’. True to his background and the attitudes that flowed from a wealthy Edwardian childhood, he consorted with the upper echelons. He certainly had warmth of personality and was possessed of the common touch: he was pleasant to club porters and it’s a safe bet that he never shouted at the servants (p. 280). But his charmed circle was that of diplomats and dignitaries, politicians and monarchs. The latter is typified by the index of Witness to History, which commences with ‘Abdication (1936)’ and ends with ‘Zita, empress of Austria’. In between are the names of about 20 other members of British and continental royal families, depending on how they are counted.

What manner of man he was is also suggested by the mid-1950s photo that faces page 148 in Witness to History. Striking a pose that was typical of the decade, Wheeler-Bennett’s chin rests on cupped hands and he wears a pensive, even faraway look. Well groomed and in finely tailored clothes, he sports a heavy ring on a finger of each hand; his hair has Brylcreem waves; a trademark carnation adorns the lapel of his jacket. We are all entitled to our affectations – Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and A. J. P. Taylor went in for bow ties. Another affectation was Wheeler-Bennett’s hyphenated name but that was his father’s doing, by joining his own surname (Bennett) with his wife’s maiden name. Nothing in the photo suggests a man of the people, much less an historian who got ‘down underground’ or concerned himself with ‘the grass-roots’. Far from writing history from below, Wheeler-Bennett’s oeuvre epitomised his moneyed origins and conservative outlook: his father made his fortune in the meat-packing business and was politically reactionary. As a biographer Wheeler-Bennett wrote about ‘great men’ – a German general (Hindenburg), a British monarch (George VI) and an English life peer (Viscount Waverley). As a historian of the recent past and contemporary events, he wrote diplomatic and military history from a decidedly ‘high politics’ perspective.

By any measure, John Wheeler-Bennett (1902–75) led a singular life. He clearly thought his life of sufficient interest to warrant three autobiographies – Knaves, Fools and Heroes: In Europe between the Wars (1974), Special Relationships: America in Peace and War (1975) and Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns (1976). Born into wealth, his delicate health prevented enrolment at Cambridge University. Instead, he joined the League of Nations Union as a voluntary worker. A generous allowance from his father meant that he had no need to seek paid employment. Instead he fostered his growing interest in international affairs by founding an information service called the Association for International Understanding, which had its own publication programme. He managed to do all this while still in his early 20s. When his father died in 1926, Wheeler-Bennett took a share of an inheritance worth £684,188 (over £32 million in 2011 values), providing him with the wherewithal for travel and for living on the Continent, intermittently, between 1927 and 1934. This was when Wheeler-Bennett, following Malcolm’s advice, ‘[began] to shape his career as an expert on German affairs … observing the inner workings of the German Reich’ (p. 60), establishing an increasing circle of contacts, writing reports for his Association for International Understanding (by then incorporated into the British Institute of International Affairs) and gathering material for a number of his books –Hindenburg: The Wooden Titian (1936), Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace (1938); Munich: Prologue to Tragedy (1948) and The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918–1946 (1953). From his ‘ringside seat’ (p. 79) he became disillusioned about Germany and the prospects for world peace, increasingly so after the Nazi assumption to power. Charming and personable though he was, he nonetheless had a ruthless streak: he would terminate a friendship if he considered the person favourable to appeasement; he felt that Roosevelt’s death was timely, on the grounds that a ‘ga-ga’ president would have been disastrous (p. 173); he was insistent upon Germany’s unconditional surrender; and he opposed the return of captured German records after the war. In 1938 he was so disgusted by the fate of Czechoslovakia (‘I had never known that one could be physically sick from humiliation and impotence’) that he seriously considered migrating to the United States (p. 105). In fact, he did spend most of the Second World War there, first as a visiting lecturer at the University of Virginia and then in New York, where in 1940 he joined the British Information Agency which was attempting to change United States’ opinion in favour of entering the war.

This is by no means the extent of Wheeler-Bennett’s activities – a self described ‘observer of men and events’ (p. 42) who from time to time participated in the affairs of state. Enough has been said in the previous paragraphs to indicate a worthy biographical subject, a project replete with attractions and challenges. The disappointment is not simply that Schofield, like Wheeler-Bennett (p. 282), belongs to The Great Man School of History. She also belongs to The Face-Value School of Biography and presents Wheeler-Bennett as he saw himself. Schofield replicates rather than expands upon Wheeler-Bennett’s world-view. She assumes the mantle of ventriloquist and her evaluation of her sources is mostly uncritical. Those sources are largely Wheeler-Bennett’s autobiographical writings, to an extent that has to be seen to be believed. The most effective way to demonstrate the point is to itemise the frequency with which one or other of Wheeler-Bennett’s autobiographies is footnoted in the eighth chapter of Witness to History (pp. 170–96):

Chapter 8 of Witness to History

Wheeler-Bennett’s autobiographical work referred to in the footnote

 Footnote 1 Special Relationships, p. 207
 Footnote 2 Special Relationships, p.194
 Footnote 3 Special Relationships, p.195
 Footnote 4 Special Relationships, p.54
 Footnote 5 Special Relationships, p.196
 Footnote 6 Special Relationships, p.15
 Footnote 9 Special Relationships, p.198
 Footnote 13 Special Relationships, p.201
 Footnote 16 Special Relationships, p.202
 Footnote 18 Special Relationships, p.203-04
 Footnote 19 Special Relationships, p.205
 Footnote 20 Special Relationships, p.205; another source cited
 Footnote 21 Special Relationships, p.206
 Footnote 22 Special Relationships, p.206
 Footnote 28 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p.15
 Footnote 30 Special Relationships, p.206
Footnote 31 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p.15
Footnote 32 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p.19
Footnote 33 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 21
Footnote 34 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 20
Footnote 37 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, pp. 28, 30
Footnote 38 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 35
Footnote 39 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 35
Footnote 40 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 42
Footnote 41 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 41
Footnote 43 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 54; other sources cited
Footnote 44 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 55
Footnote 49 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 69
Footnote 55 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, pp. 72-3
Footnote 57 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 74
Footnote 58 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 72
Footnote 60 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 71
Footnote 61 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 77
Footnote 67 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 82
Footnote 69 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, pp. 81-2; other sources cited
Footnote 70 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 85
Footnote 71 Knaves, Fools and Heroes, p. 155
Footnote 74 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 90
Footnote 84 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, pp. 108-11; other sources cited
Footnote 87 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 115
Footnote 93 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 122
Footnote 101 Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, p. 124

There are extenuating circumstances for leaning so heavily on the autobiographies. In some cases – such as Wheeler-Bennett and his mother’s visit to Asia – the only significant source is one of the autobiographies, in this case The Gorgeous East (unpublished). And at certain points the documentary evidence is sparse or lacking: there are only two surviving letters to his mother (p. 302, n. 85); it is possible that Wheeler-Bennett’s reports of his American activities during the Second World War have been purged from the Lothian Papers (p. 303, n. 2); and there are no surviving letters between Wheeler-Bennett and Ruth Risher, his wife to be (p. 308, n. 31). It is also noticeable that the footnoting of the autobiographies is far less prevalent beyond chapter eight, partly because Wheeler-Bennett’s final autobiography does not cover much of the content of Schofield’s final chapters but largely because the shortfall is covered by other sources, such as the Eden Papers. Even so, there is indirect evidence that Schofield has not been assiduous in chasing up sources, unlike some other biographers of historians.(1) She explains that none of Wheeler-Bennett’s reports to the Foreign Office are among his papers at St Anthony’s College, Oxford, although it is possible that he reported verbally to General Malcolm (p. 295, n. 19). But neither is there any sign that Schofield has gone beyond the Wheeler-Bennett Papers and checked the Records of the Foreign Office.

The result is an undue reliance on the autobiographies. Some biographers of historians avoid using their subject’s autobiographical work wherever possible, preferring instead to rely on their own research.(2) Schofield has no such inhibitions. The extent to which the autobiographies drive her narrative – and consequently the extent to which Wheeler-Bennett’s self-representations are replicated – can be illustrated by giving representative examples of how closely the autobiographies are paraphrased – although, be it stated, Schofield does not go to the extremes of some biographers of historians (3) where a good half of their texts comprises quotations from diaries and letters:

Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns

Witness to History

Now I was master of my own destiny again – and I was fairly clear in my mind what I wanted to do (p. 15) For the first time since the beginning of the war, Wheeler-Bennett felt that he was master of his own destiny (p. 176)
As we boarded [the Queen Elizabeth] I was handed a cable from my sister announcing the death of our mother, who had been a hopeless invalid for some years (p. 19) As he and Ruth boarded, he was handed a cable from his sister, Irene. Their mother, whom Wheeler-Bennett described as ‘a hopeless invalid for some years’, had died at the age of eighty-three (p. 177)
[Garsington] became our property in 1945 because my sister and her husband wished to continue living in Oxford. I bought it from them in America by cable over Ruth’s protests that she did not like Elizabethan houses (p. 23) When Wheeler-Bennett heard that it was to be put up for sale, he immediately cabled his sister to say that he wanted to buy it, ignoring his wife’s complaints that she did not like Elizabethan houses (p. 178)
 (p. 20) Together we faced the new world of Britain in the middle forties: a Britain tired and war-weary, yet compelled to face the severities of continued wartime shortages while deprived of the continued wartime stimulus. I shall never forget the dour drabness of those years, the greyness of one’s daily existence…. Food was scarce, scarcer than it had been in wartime. Bread was rationed for the first time in our national history, and had it not been for food parcels which Ruth’s mother so generously sent us from America we should have been hard pressed indeed. As it was we were able to share our blessings with our less fortunate friends and neighbours (p. 20) Re-entry into England is not easy. The country was ‘tired and war-weary, yet compelled to face the severities of continued wartime shortages … I shall never forget the dour drabness of those years, the greyness of one’s daily existence … food was scarce, scarcer than it had been in wartime. Bread was rationed for the first time in our national history’. Fortunately for the Wheeler-Bennetts, their supplies were supplemented by food parcels which Ruth’s mother sent from America, and which they shared with their ‘less fortunate friends and neighbours’ (p. 178)

Witness to History contains too many direct echoes from the autobiographies. It is not a case of Hamlet without the Prince, but too much of the Prince himself, and Schofield duplicates the syrupy tone of the autobiographies. Furthermore, Schofield notes that Harold Macmillan, who was both Wheeler-Bennett’s friend and publisher,

could not but regret that, entertaining as the three volumes of John Wheeler-Bennett’s memoirs were, ‘they are too discreet. I would have liked to see on record some of the extraordinary tales with which he could fascinate us’. He acknowledged that Wheeler-Bennett probably judged rightly in deciding what material to include. ‘There is a gulf of propriety fixed between the frivolity of the spoken word and the decorum of the printed text’ (p. 280).


Such discretion was arguably excessive in the mid 1970s. For a biographer to largely run along the same tram tracks some 40 years later is an opportunity lost.

Another contemporary criticism was that Wheeler-Bennett put ‘anecdotage before analysis’ (p. 271). Despite her over-reliance on the autobiographies, Schofield does warn that Wheeler-Bennett was in ill health when he wrote his memoirs and he did so ‘mainly from memory’ (p. 329). At numerous points in her footnotes, Schofield makes up for this lack of verification by providing correction and clarification. A notable correction (this time in the text) is that Wheeler-Bennett, whatever his assertions to the contrary, did return to Germany after the Night of the Long Knives (pp. 272–3). Schofield presents excuses for this error, one of which is that Wheeler-Bennett’s ‘memory of his presence in Germany in the mid-1930s was blocked on “psychological grounds”’. If dissociation was indeed the case, then it was sheer irresponsibility on Wheeler-Bennett’s part to write autobiographies without recourse to his diaries and papers.

What is interesting from an Antipodean perspective is that Wheeler-Bennett was never berated for his factual lapses, unlike the Australian historian Manning Clark who mistakenly perpetuated the story that he had witnessed the mayhem of Kristallnacht. He too failed to consult his diaries. In fact his wife was there and Clark was safely tucked away in England, arriving in Germany a fortnight later. To compound the error Clark, deliberately or otherwise, appropriated his wife’s experience and repeatedly presented it as an epiphany. There was a furore in right-wing circles when one of Clark’s biographers blew his cover.(4) Wheeler-Bennett is also open to the charge of not checking his memory against his diary entries, but he was such an establishment figure and so widely liked as a person – whereas Clark had made many enemies – that no one kicked up a fuss or manufactured a posthumous crisis.

A perennial question hanging over biographies of historians is the correct balance between the life and the works. There will be opinions for every taste. My own position mirrors that of Kathy Burk, one of A. J. P. Taylor’s biographers, who puts the view that there isn’t ‘much point in writing a biography of an historian – or any writer, come to that – without having closely read and thought about the books, and then making an attempt to write analytically about them. However, this very much does not preclude writing about the life. How could you have one without the other?’(5) This, of course, is not to suggest that focus be entirely on the works. Important in itself, such an approach does not constitute biography.(6) Of the recent crop, Adam Sisman’s biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper comes up short in discussing the works.(7) So too does the book under review. Schofield displays little interest, and less understanding, of Wheeler-Bennett’s oeuvre.

Take, for example, her notion that Wheeler-Bennett dubbed Hindenburg ‘the wooden titan’ because his ‘final appraisal was that Hindenburg’s life was both pitiful and tragic’ (p. 96). Another reviewer has pointed out that the description came from the wooden colossi of Hindenburg built during First World War, into which people hammered nails, with the proceeds from the sale of the nails going to the German Red Cross.(8) One wonders how carefully Schofield read Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan, where all this is explained on pages 79–80. Furthermore, the text is complemented by the book’s illustrations: opposite page 270 is a photo of ‘Hammering nails into the wooden statue’ (and in that cluster of photos is another of the unveiling of a statue). The misapprehension regarding ‘the wooden titan’ is a telling mistake that raises doubts about how thoroughly Schofield has actually read her subject’s works.

Rather than providing substantive comment on Wheeler-Bennett’s books, Schofield is generally content to provide the back stories and what reviewers said. Sometimes the more interesting details don’t get included, such as Wheeler-Bennett initially intending to model The Nemesis of Power on Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler (see Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, pp. 99–100). At other times, the back story is told far better in one or other of Wheeler-Bennett’s autobiographies, such as the lead-up to Wheeler-Bennett being becoming the official biographer of George VI (Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, ch. 5). What we do not get from either Wheeler-Bennett or from Schofield is an insight into the murky underbelly of authorised biography. The person who suggested Wheeler-Bennett for the job was Harold Nicolson, the biographer of George V. It is well enough known that Nicolson had little respect for either his subject or the monarchy. He said so in his diary, but Schofield gives no inkling despite having consulted Nicolson’s diaries. Wheeler-Bennett, by contrast, revered the monarchy, and felt that he was privileged beyond measure to have become a royal biographer. He probably had no idea of Nicolson’s real feelings.(9)

Alan Bullock put his finger on the qualities that made Wheeler-Bennett a suitable (as distinct from a competent) royal biographer – ‘He had the instincts of a courtier as well as an officer’ (p. 198) – and Schofield also quotes Wheeler-Bennett’s portentous statement that ‘Royal Biography, like matrimony, is not to be entered into inadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, discreetly, advisedly soberly and in the fear of God’ (p. 197). That is hardly the recipe for achieving critical distance or authorial independence. Nor is it any reassurance that Alan Lascelles, who was George VI’s private secretary, could not fault the draft chapters: ‘I would take [each instalment] home, armed with my sharpest blue-pencil, keenly looking forward to using it’. Alas, Lascelles said, his blue pencil ‘nearly always remained unblunted … such emendations as I have had to suggest were almost invariably the correction of typists’ errors’ (p. 209). That Lascelles was satisfied is hardly a signal for confidence. Rather, it makes the book immediately suspect, and indeed George VI: His Life and Reign is an anodyne and cloying biography.

The fact remains that Wheeler-Bennett was an anachronism in his own lifetime, and possessed of complacent attitudes, as Michael Bliss discovered. In the early 1970s Bliss was writing a biography of Wheeler-Bennett senior’s Canadian business partner, Joseph Flavelle, and he contacted Wheeler-Bennett junior

who was delighted by my project, and for three years we had Easter luncheons in Manhattan as he passed through on his way home from wintering in Arizona. Sipping straight vodka in the leather and oak ambience of the Century Club, Sir John regaled me with stories of his father, Flavelle, prime ministers, and statesmen he had known. It seemed remarkable to talk to a man who had met both Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler. Very much his father’s son, Wheeler-Bennett was among the last historians to believe that British imperialism had been an almost qualified success.(10)


Schofield quotes many examples of Wheeler-Bennett’s exaggerated and sometimes nauseating courtliness. One such example concerns the dedication of his final volume of autobiography. To quote Schofield, ‘Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns was published posthumously in 1976. Indicative of the achievement Wheeler-Bennett rated so highly – his status as royal biographer – he had chosen to dedicate “with humble duty and by gracious permission” his third volume of memoirs to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’ (p. 280). He did so ‘with deep devotion’. It is a strange thing that a biographer of an historian largely eschews substantive discussion of the subject’s books and in its place routinely mentions such trivia as who gets named in the acknowledgment sections, and to whom the books are dedicated. To give a few examples of the latter: ‘Wheeler-Bennett dedicated [Hindenburg], “With affection and gratitude”, to the elected Conservative MP Gerald Palmer and his mother who had frequently entertained him at their Berkshire home, Prior’s Court’ (p. 96); ‘Among those whose assistance Wheeler-Bennett acknowledged [in Munich: Prologue to Tragedy] were … Constance Morgan (to whom he dedicated the book)’ (p. 186); ‘John Anderson, Viscount Waverley was published on 27 September 1962, [and] dedicated to Ruth “with love”’ (p. 220); ‘[The Semblance of Peace] was duly dedicated to Deakin, “with admiration and affection”’ (p. 256); ‘He dedicated [Knaves, Fools and Heroes ] “with my love” to his sister, Irene, now in her eightieth year’ (p. 270); ‘Appropriately, he dedicated [Special Relationships] to his American wife: “Ruth, with my devoted love, John”’ (p. 274). Schofield passes these inconsequentials off as serious content – as fit items for inclusion – which indicates a misplaced sense of what is, and is not, relevant and significant. The result is that Schofield doesn’t come to grips with Wheeler-Bennett’s works.

There are also some sweeping assertions that fail to bear up to scrutiny. Schofield states that Wheeler-Bennett ‘virtually created the new early twentieth-century academic discipline of “international relations”’ (pp. 21, 282). She is explicit that this was through his earlier writings rather than his institutional work. No evidence is presented to support this claim and I haven’t been able to find any.

From the preceding discussion the question arises: who is best able to write a biography of an historian? It has been suggested that historians have the potential to make the best biographers per se.(11) I have never agreed with this, feeling instead that biographers are born, not made. You can either do it or you can’t. I said as much a few years ago when reviewing the biographies of the New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn and the New Zealand artist Rita Angus. Neither biographer is an historian but they passed with flying colours, in my view.(12) On reflection, it might be better to qualify the notion that biographical writing is an innate skill and to add that a biographer usually needs grounding the subject’s primary interests, or else be able to develop the requisite skills. Lilburn’s biographer is a composer and Angus’s biographer is an art critic. That accounts for at least some of their success in convincingly depicting their subjects. In the same way it is noticeable that biographies of historians are usually by other historians in the same or adjacent field to the subject.(13) Although Schofield has an undergraduate degree in history, she doesn’t have a background in Wheeler-Bennett’s interests, and it shows. She is not equipped, and has not been able to acquire the equipment, for the task at hand – for the same reasons that Wheeler-Bennett never became a scholar of Russia. Even then Schofield might have done better had she consulted other biographies of historians in order to realise the possibilities of the genre, not least to get a sense of how to discuss Wheeler-Bennett’s writings.(14) A good short-cut would have been to read Mark Cornwall’s article on Elizabeth Wiskemann and the Sudeten question, or even John Fair’s article on ‘The intellectual JFK[ennedy]’, whose MA thesis on British appeasement Wheeler-Bennett helped to supervise (p. 109). Each article would have served as a sure and suggestive model on how to proceed.(15)

Relentlessly descriptive and tiresomely reverential, Witness to History is an extended obituary which puts Wheeler-Bennett’s platitudes and pieties on full display. It is a missed opportunity. It presents insufficient added-value to Wheeler-Bennett’s memoirs. Rather than writing a penetrating biography, Schofield doesn’t venture beyond its subject’s frames of reference.


  1. For example Jonathan Haslam, The Vices of Integrity: E. H. Carr, 1892–1982 (London/New York, NY, 1999), p. xii; Kathleen Burk, Troublemaker: The Life and History of A. J. P. Taylor (New Haven/London, 2000), pp. x–xii.
  2. For example Jim Davidson, A Three-Cornered Life: The Historian WK Hancock (Sydney, 2010), p. viii. It would have been revealing had Schofield discussed her use of sources along the lines, say, of Erik Larson in his account of William Dodd’s first year as United States Ambassador to Germany. Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin(New York, NY, 2011), pp. 369–75. Dodd was one of Wheeler-Bennett’s many contacts.
  3. Lewis H. Thomas, The Renaissance of Canadian History: A Biography of A.L. Burt (Toronto, 1975); John and Mary Postgate, A Stomach for Dissent: The Life of Raymond Postgate (Keele, 1994).
  4. Mark McKenna, ‘Being there: the strange history of Manning Clark’, The Monthly (Melbourne), (March 2007), 22–37; republished, with footnotes, as ‘Once more with feeling: the personal voice of Manning Clark’, in Against the Grain: Brian Fitzpatrick and Manning Clark in Australian History and Politics, ed. Stuart Macintyre and Sheila Fitzpatrick (Melbourne, 2007), pp. 191–222.
  5. Kathy Burk, e-mail to reviewer, 8 January 2010.
  6. For example, Peter Ghosh, ‘Hugh Trevor-Roper and the history of ideas’, History of European Ideas, 37, 4 (2011), 483–505; Ronald J. Deibert, ‘Harold Innis and the empire of speed’, Review of International Studies, 25, 2 (1999), 273–89.
  7. Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (London, 2010); see also Doug Munro, ‘History as a blood sport – the biography of Hugh-Trevor Roper’, Journal of Historical Biography, 8 (2010), 62–76 <> [accessed 21 January 2013].
  8. Richard Overy, ‘Networker-in-chief’, Literary Review (May 2012), 21–2.
  9. David Cannadine, The Pleasures of the Past (New Haven, CT/London, 1989), pp. 32–3; see also Cannadine, History in Our Time (New Haven/London, 1998), pp. 60–1.
  10. Michael Bliss, Writing History: A Professor’s Life (Toronto, 2011), p. 160; Bliss, A Canadian Millionaire: The Life and Business Times of Sir Joseph Flavelle, Bart., 1858–1939 (Toronto, 1978).
  11. Mark McKenna, ‘The strange history of Manning Clark’, Trevor Reece Memorial Lecture, King’s College, London, 27 October 2011.
  12. Reviews of Philip Norman, Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music (Christchurch, 2006); Jill Trevelyan,Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life (Wellington, 2008), New Zealand Journal of History, 41, 1 (2007), 96–8; and 43, 1 (2009), 130–1, respectively <> [accessed 21 January 2013]; <> [accessed 21 January 2013].
  13. Doug Munro, ‘The cliographer’s craft – or, biographies of historians’, Australian Historical Studies, 43, 1 (2012), 11–27.
  14. In addition to Haslam, The Vices of Integrity, Burk, Troublemaker, and Davidson, A Three-Cornered Life, examples of biographies of historians that achieve a good balance between the life and the works include Carole Fink, Marc Bloch: A Life in History (Cambridge, 1989); Gregory M. Pfitzer, Samuel Eliot Morison’s Historical World: In Search of the New Parkman (Boston, 1991); David Cannadine, G.M. Trevelyan: A Life in History (London, 1993); Maxine Berg, A Woman in History: Eileen Power, 1889–1940 (Cambridge, 1996); John G. Reid, Viola Florence Barnes: A Historian’s Biography (Toronto, 2005); Philip Payton, A.L. Rowse and Cornwall: A Paradoxical Patriot (Exeter, 2005); David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography(Chicago/London, 2006); Michael Bentley, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, Science and God (Cambridge, 2011); Mark McKenna, An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark (Melbourne, 2011).
  15. Mark Cornwall, ‘Elizabeth Wiskemann and the Sudeten Question: a woman at the “essential hinge” of Europe’, Central Europe, 1, 1 (2003), 55–75; John F. Fair, ‘The intellectual JFK: lessons in statesmanship from British history’, Diplomatic History, 30, 1 (2006), 119–42.

Author’s response

It is never makes good reading when an author, pained at an unfavourable review, responds. But since you have asked me to comment on Dr Doug Munro’s review of Witness to History: the Life of John Wheeler-Bennett, I am making a few observations. What your reviewer has failed to appreciate is that my objective in writing Witness to History was to incorporate Wheeler-Bennett’s unpublished memoirs and papers donated to St Antony’s College (of which he was a Founder Fellow) and integrate these with his published but selective three slim volumes of memoirs in order to give the reader a more complete one-volume description of Wheeler-Bennett’s life.

That I relied heavily on Wheeler-Bennett’s writings, both published and unpublished, was a natural outcome of this process, either by quoting directly or, as Dr Munro has indicated in tabular form, by accurate paraphrasing. Since alternative source material was sparse for certain periods of Wheeler-Bennett’s life, some sections were inevitably more dependent on his own account than others.

Dr Munro mistakenly claims that I made no effort to consult Foreign Office archives. The relevant surviving Foreign Office documents are in The National Archives, Kew and these are sourced in the Notes and Bibliography. He also implies that I consulted virtually no other source material than Wheeler-Bennett’s own writings whereas, as again indicated by the sources listed in the Bibliography, this is not the case. Where possible, such as with the controversy over Adam von Trott and the German Resistance to Hitler, I highlighted instances where Wheeler-Bennett’s own narrative of events required greater scrutiny. I also excluded descriptions of events which I could not authenticate. Where caution was required regarding factual accuracy, rather than constantly interrupting the narrative by corrective comments, I chose to detail these in the notes.

As Dr Munro himself suggests, in deciding the correct balance between analysing Wheeler-Bennett’s life and works ‘there will be opinions to every taste ’.  Since I was recreating a portrait of Wheeler-Bennett’s life, I chose a balance which I considered appropriate. The objective of citing the opinion of contemporary reviewers – both positive and negative – was to give an idea of how Wheeler-Bennett’s works were viewed at the time which, in turn, explained the foundation for his reputation. Listing those people whom Wheeler-Bennett thanked in his acknowledgements – which Dr Munro deemed ‘trivia’ – illustrates to the reader the source of the advice and support he received: for example, his early reliance on Lewis Namier or how he came to have his books published by Harold Macmillan.  Dr Munro also misquotes what I have written about Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan. If I chose not to elaborate further on the ‘Wooden Titan’ it was because, as Dr Munro points out, this is explained in Wheeler-Bennett’s biography of Hindenburg.

The generally sympathetic tone in which the book is written is the result of the comments and recollections I found in other people’s works or from interviews I recorded with those who knew Wheeler-Bennett.  Finally, for a man such as Sir John Wheeler-Bennett about whom relatively little has been written, it seemed valid to give my own assessment in a concluding section, with which the reader is of course at liberty to differ. That Dr Munro disapproves so whole-heartedly ofWitness to History: the Life of John Wheeler-Bennett when others have praised it, is an indication of how wide the spectrum of opinion on any published work can be.


(10) A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century

Ann Oakley, A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century, (London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011)

reviewed by Margaretta Jolly, University of Sussex


Who first suggested community service as an alternative to imprisonment in Britain? Who got the Bill to abolish capital punishment on the statute book? Who chaired a commission on drugs which recommended reducing penalties for cannabis possession in 1966? Who indeed was the first woman to be a member of a national policy commission in 1924, go as a delegate to a League of Nations World Conference in 1927, work in the House of Lords as a life peer in 1958, and become Deputy Speaker there in 1965? Who campaigned in Parliament to abolish corporal punishment in schools, legalize assisted dying and abortion, change the laws about who could marry whom, protect the environment, and treat crime on the roads as equal to crime in other places? Who was the first Chair of the Countryside Commission? Who was a founder member of the Abortion Law Reform Society, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the British Humanist Association, the British Sociological Association and the first modern movement for human rights? Who provided the first framework for understanding how what people earn is determined as much by social as by economic factors, and participated in a famous and influential debate about the benefits of centralized economic planning versus those of free-market capitalism? Who took the first systematic look at theories about the causes of anti-social behaviour in young people, challenged professionals’ ‘expertise’ and helped to establish a new critique of medicalization? Who was the first academic and policy activist to argue seriously that welfare policies must be based on sound scientific evidence?

Who? Who? Who? Ann Oakley opens her majestic biography of Barbara Wootton with this bold and repeated question, but it is a question with a double edge. Baroness Wootton of Abinger was extraordinary, yet today, little remembered. In this puzzle, Ann Oakley finds a perfect biographee-shaped hole. And, through filling that hole, she makes an excellent case for biography as a form of historical research.

Born Barbara Adam in 1897, Wootton was the daughter of two high-minded Cambridge classicists, receiving a one-sided education that enabled both her stunning intellectual powers and her life-long rebellion against pursuing knowledge without obvious practical use. Wootton was a social scientist, but also a champion of adult education, a lay magistrate for almost 50 years, a campaigner and, eventually, an influential member of the House of Lords. Her career spans researching for the TUC and Labour Party in the 1920s, leading adult education as Principal of Morley College for working men and women in the 1930s, contributing to the foundation of the welfare state and the European Union in the 1940s as Reader in Social Studies at the University of London, and then being Professor at Bedford College in 1948. Wootton gave up her job in 1952 to produce her major publication SocialScience and Social Pathology (1959). This was aimed squarely at reforming social work, penal and medical practice together, and was deeply challenging to socialists and liberals as well as the establishment. Her blisteringly radical ideas included evidence-based redefinitions of crime that put middle-class car owners alongside so called ‘problem’ families and an analysis of unhappiness as a normal area of life being pathologised by psychologists, ideas that others only came to in the 1970s. Wootton used her public positions to apply such ideas. As Chair of the juvenile courts in London for 16 years, for example, she refused to decide for imprisonment when she could offer community service, giving the teenage John Bird the life-chance that led him later to become founder of The Big Issue. As Chair of the Countryside Commission in 1966, she helped to curb the development of airports and motorways before anyone else thought this a problem.

This combination of pragmatism with socio-political vision made Wootton an acknowledged leader throughout the century. Remarkably, aged only 26, she was appointed to sit on the Colwyn Committee on National Debt and Taxation in 1922, helping to decide what to do with the country’s huge debts in the fallout of the First World War. (The only woman to be on the committee, she wrote a short piece for Good Housekeeping at the time, recommending that women concern themselves with national as well as household budgets, if they weren’t to find half their taxes have been spent on the military.) In 1926, Everywoman stated ‘This is an age when women are coming into their own and we can get inspiration by following the remarkable career of Barbara Wootton. She is even now only 29 years of age, yet she is a considerable figure in the national life, and is, in a sense, the standard-bearer of the new generation’. The Communist Time and Tide magazine suspected she wielded ‘more power than any other woman in the country’, while the New York Times called her ‘one of the ablest people in England’. In 1958, she was one of the first four life peers, an honour she accepted while seeking to abolish ‘this creaking contrivance’. She was a Governor of the BBC and served on four Royal Commissions. In 1971 she was hailed by the London Illustrated News as ‘a sociological legend in her own lifetime’ and in 1984, she was one of six women chosen for the BBC 2 series Women of Our Century. She died in 1988 having been forced to retire as Deputy Speaker in the House of Lords when she was 89 years old.

Fade to black

Why, then, is she not a familiar name in the way of, for example, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, or H. G. Wells, with whom she helped launch a new version of an old campaign for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1939? Or J. M. Keynes, alongside whom she presented a BBC broadcast on The Necessity of Planning in 1934? Or William Beveridge, for whom she worked as a technical expert in 1943, to help with the practicalities of the post-war reconstruction programme, the year she published her own defence of government-engineered employment schemes? Or, indeed, Richard Titmuss, with whom she shared ideas about the foundation of the NHS? Titmuss was Ann Oakley’s father, and one of the most touching moments in the book is Oakley’s recall of a colleague’s remark that Wootton was ‘a more brilliant social analyst’ than her father, yet so much less noticed. This fact had ‘burnt a small hole in [her] brain’, clearly a driver for the biography. This provokes us to ask, more strangely, why haven’t other feminists found her before? She ought to be up there with other great women of her generation, peers like Edith Summerskill, Joan Robinson, Dora Russell, Vera Brittain or Eleanor Rathbone. Oakley’s explanation is partly that Wootton was not interested in her own marginalisation. If Wootton had been a feminist, she would have been easier for feminists to recuperate. Wootton’s mode was also both too idealistic and too empiricist for today’s tastes; she was a socialist magistrate and Lord. Or was it because she took on both academia and government – so neither profession really championed her?

From the biographer’s point of view too, Wootton defies easy plotting. She was not a poet like Virginia Woolf, nor a recognised creative writer like Winifred Holtby or even Naomi Mitchison, with whom her political visions have much in common. Though she did experiment with science fiction in the 1930s, and wrote an autobiography in the 1960s, tellingly titled A World I Never Made (1967), it was impersonal. She kept a stiff upper lip about her tragedies, beginning with a cruel mother, who apparently cared only for her daughter’s academic achievement, and her father’s death when she was ten. She lost her brother in the First World War, and then her first husband John (Jack) Wootton in 1917, who died of war wounds only weeks after their marriage. But, though these were terrible traumas, she surprises us by marrying George Wright 17 years later, a working-class socialist in the adult education movement, and then separating from him in middle age. Wootton’s subsequent partnership with Barbara Kyle, (a senior librarian and pioneer of information science), does not fit into the script of lesbian heroic history: Wootton continued to enjoy flirting with men, and Oakley surmises that, though the relationship was intimate, it was unlikely to have been sexual.

Oakley, biography and history

Oakley’s method in dealing with the puzzles of this civic-minded anti-hero is not to force open the door. Unlike Wootton, Oakley is a feminist and makes no bones about the fact that Wootton did all this at a time when women were discriminated against in ways that now seem brutal and absurd. Wootton gained the best first-class degree mark in economics that anyone had ever had, but women were not allowed until 1948 to graduate from Cambridge with degrees. When Wootton became the first woman to lecture at Cambridge in 1921, aged 24, her talks were advertised as being delivered by a ‘Mr Henderson’ (only a footnote revealed the lecturer’s true identity). Wootton was subsequently employed to research the voting system, without herself being eligible to vote. Oakley describes Wootton’s entrance to the House of Lords as a bomb exploding in a gentlemen’s club of arcane upper-class rituals and bald, sleeping men. But, as Wootton herself put it, these were only the corridors of the corridors that lead to the corridors of power. And then there are the subtler questions of alienation that Oakley suggests kept Wootton out of the academic establishment, that disdained her relationship with George and Barbara, that prevented her from being a mother. We certainly feel the terrible wrongness of Wootton’s lonely and ignominious death in a nursing home.

Oakley appreciates these ironies, but restrains the temptation towards psycho-biography, or even towards a kind of feminist life writing which would have given more space to the emotions. (Interestingly, the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham found the book a little lacking in this respect.) As the foreword by Baroness Tessa Blackstone also conveys, she emphasises the public, intellectual life, including a brilliant set of core chapters on Wootton as part of a mid-century left-wing intelligentsia, ‘Planning for peace’; ‘Lament for economics’, ‘Testament for social science’ and ‘The Nuffield years, and Vera’. In this, Oakley also refuses contemporary biographical fashion, avoiding autobiography or fictionalisation. The chapters which do chart Wootton’s domestic situation, remain crisply analytical. This is refreshing in its own way, and part of what makes the book so historically informative. For example, Oakley treats Wootton’s second marriage as an erotic meeting of equals across class lines in a context of shared political activism in the 1930s. Oakley also sees the disappointment of the relationship, as George messes up his Labour Party job, drinks, pursues other women, and essentially crumbles in the face of the frighteningly capable and economically powerful Wootton. But Oakley considers their relationship through feminist anthropological prisms, where polygamy and friendship are often the secret story of successful marriage, and where, simultaneously, George’s style of  masculinity doesn’t, in the end, serve him any better than Barbara. Oakley refuses to titillate, trying instead ‘to set the story of her life within its context; particularly in a life such as hers, which was so much occupied with the problem of the individual in society’ (p. 7). Oakley jokes about her own insistence on calling the book A Critical Woman, rather than ‘The Baroness Who Married A Taxi Driver’, as the newspapers chose to cover it at the time of the marriage. The book jacket features a close-up of a white-haired and serious Wootton, throwing us a demanding, old woman’s gaze from behind horn-rimmed glasses.

Thus, Oakley faithfully follows her subject’s policy-flavoured life and in this way, easily turns biography into a grandish intellectual history. Of course, in this she refuses the methods of micro-history, Annales-school social study, or the now popular model of ‘paired’ or collective lives. The book is also long: over 400 pages, as she traces the footsteps of this polymath’s 91 productive years. The sheer size of Wootton’s contribution (the 1,792 speeches in the House of Lords alone, numerous television debates) required four years of archival research and interviews, including with Vera Seal, Barbara’s only ‘family’ by the time she died. Vera was a working-class assistant, enduring friend and executor, to whom Oakley dedicates the biography. It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine what Oakley, well known for conceptualising feminist interviewing methods, would have been able to glean from Wootton in person. Despite Oakley’s obvious respect for her subject, the meeting would probably have been cool. Oakley, introduced to the grand dame aged 13 by her father, remembers a witty know-all. Yet the book clearly comes from a profound impulse to find the woman who should always have been honoured beside him.

Who is Ann Oakley?

As a woman born half a century later, from a different social background, and politicised in the 1960s, Oakley as a biographer brings her own very wide ranging set of interests to this honouring. Who coined the distinction between sex and gender in 1972? Who set up the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre at the Institute of Education, University of London? Who, as Director of the Social Science Research Unit there, led systematic reviews of health inequality and hugely influenced the ethics of social science methods? Who stuck out for evidence-based research in a sea of deconstructionists? Who went on television to be interviewed as a post-natally depressed mother in 1967? Who belonged to the Tufnell Park women’s liberation consciousness-raising group? Who gained a PhD in 1969 for a study of women’s attitudes to housework that then became both a landmark academic and popular book in the era of second wave feminism in 1974? Who worked with Juliet Mitchell to mark the concept of sisterhood over three decades since? Who did the first big study of the treatment of mothers by the medical profession, published in 1980? Who did this despite having been treated for cancer of the tongue, while nursing a new born baby, in the years just preceding? Who wrote The Men’s Room (1989), adapted for television in 1991, starring Harriet Walter and Bill Nighy? Who indeed has produced seven novels, including some artful erotica, alongside at least 15 groundbreaking academic studies? Who also wrote a genre-busting feminist autofiction in 1984, which declared ‘All women are feminists at heart. In their psychology lies a great love for women as a class. But it’s interred beneath a great mound of rubbish’. And who, of course, has now brought Wootton back to our attention, a woman we can now assess as having had played a serious part in the history of modern Britain as we know it?

The impact of the individual

Oakley gives numerous examples of Wootton’s search for the facts before recommending any course of action, an approach with which Oakley clearly agrees. But what do these two formidable defenders of ‘evidence-based research’ say about the impact of the individual, or even of the policy committee? As left-wing social scientists, they might not be very hopeful. Yet this book persuades us that ideas like Wootton’s were much more likely to gain purchase than those of her academic contemporaries because of her willingness to engage with the institutions available. This realism brought no guarantees: Oakley recently suggested the political control over intellectual impact, noting Wootton’s experience of having been lauded for her criminal justice policy for rehabilitating offenders, but slammed for her (just as evidence-heavy) drugs policy. The crucial role of networks, of international collaboration, and of accessible writing, all appear as other determinants of ‘impact factor’, most strikingly in Wootton’s influence over the European Union. This came about because the Italian political theorist Altiero Spinelli read her ideas on European federation while he was imprisoned by Mussolini in 1941, subsequently smuggling out a manifesto on cigarette papers hidden in a false bottomed-tin box. Oakley muses: ‘The number and range of activities and networks with which Barbara Wootton engaged during this period [of post-war planning in the 1940s] is legion. It could, of course, be argued that she was just a woman who had a finger in a very large number of pies. It was a habit of the time to sign letters with one’s friends; to invent and join campaigns; to name and re-name movements. But we are left with one simple point: she was there, and she made a difference. By the time Barbara published her autobiography more than twenty years later, complaining in its title about a world she never made, it is possible that she was in part observing that the world had forgotten how much she actually had made it’.

We do not have to endorse a Hegelian notion of the great mind as ‘spirit of the age’ to appreciate that Barbara Wootton’s life is a missing piece of a puzzle, with much to teach contemporary academics who wish to find a way through the current government pressure to prove our own ‘impact’. This is not to say that the biographer, the fiction writer, and also, the librarian, typist, executor and friend, have no role: we are connected, we need each other, and we are sometimes the same person, as Oakley shows us quietly, but wonderfully. It does leave us, however, with the continuing irony that having impact does not guarantee you will make it into the history books.

Author’s response

As Margaretta Jolly notes, Barbara Wootton defied easy plotting. That is one reason why telling a (not the) story of her life was so fascinating. It is also perhaps why some reviewers have struggled with the book. A Critical Woman is not recognisable as feminist hagiography, nor as conventional great man/woman biography, and its revelations of salaciously intimate moments are disappointingly absent (from the book, not necessarily from Barbara Wootton’s life).

Barbara Wootton, a very private person in a very public world, detested labels and quick descriptions: she wanted to be known as a polymath, as a human being whose driving concern for the welfare of other human beings necessitated a wide span of expertise and understanding. It cannot really be the task of a biographer simply to retell the story of someone’s life as they told it – we all know how much reconstruction goes into the autobiographical narratives we spin in our heads. But, on the other hand, the biographee, with all her or his singular perspectives, deserves the same respect as all research participants. Writing A Critical Woman taught me a lot about the methodology of biography, about the mix of quantitative and qualitative skills required, about the meshing of oral and written accounts, about the relations between sociology and history, about how to juggle elusive secrets, about the ethics embedded in any vision of a person’s life. It also alerted me to the tendency of other biographers not to discuss why or how they did what they did, thus leaving us in the dark about the all-important choices that are made concerning inclusions and omissions, themes and sub-themes, interpretations and perspectives. The ‘housework’ of biography is a serious and under-discussed subject.

As Jolly so well observes in her review, A Critical Woman, is the product of two biographies: Barbara Wootton’s and my own. I do not think that admitting this in any way lowers the status of biography as an art – or science – form. It does account for my worrying away in the book at the topic of Wootton’s aversion to feminism, which in such a splendidly trailblazing and intelligent life remains a curiosity. It accounts, too, for the book’s concern with impact. Everywhere I looked – and Wootton’s life took me into many different places – I found that her work had made a difference, yet so often there was little acknowledgement of this, either at the time or subsequently. What isimpact, if no-one can recognise it? How do, or should, we measure the public importance of a person’s life? The answer certainly does not lie in the facile formulae of the evaluation exercises afflicting modern universities, but there must surely be a trustworthy way of ensuring that those people who make history do actually find their way into the history books.


(9) Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson

Roger Seifert, Tom Sibley, Revolutionary Communist at Work: A Political Biography of Bert Ramelson (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2011)

reviewed by Evan Smith, Flinders University

Bert Ramelson, one of the leading figures of the post-war Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the Party’s Industrial Organiser during the era of heightened industrial militancy in the 1960s and 1970s, has been a widely debated person in the historiography of the CPGB, but a new biography by Roger Seifert and Tom Sibley attempts to reassess the characterisations of Ramelson by other authors. As Industrial Organiser from 1965 to 1977, Ramelson oversaw the Party’s ‘broad left’ strategy, which outlined that the primary focus of the CPGB was to attempt to seek influence in the trade union movement by obtaining leadership positions with the unions and promote alliances with other leaders of the labour movement who were on the Labour left. This period was characterised by Willie Thompson as the Party’s ‘Indian summer’ and has been described by a number of authors as a time when the CPGB had the potential to shape the political landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ramelson has been criticised from both the right and left over the years – by the right for being a dangerous and subversive Communist agent, by the Trotskyist left for being a reformist who had abandoned socialism for a mixture of labourism and Stalinism, and by the Gramscian/Eurocommunist left for concentrating on industrial action at the expense of other areas of political struggle. In the historiography of the Communist Party after its dissolution in 1991, Ramelson and the Party’s industrial strategy was depicted by Francis Beckett as a conspiracy that directed the actions of the trade unions and wielded powerful influence over the Labour Party, while Geoff Andrews criticised the same strategy for its failure in shaping the direction of the labour movement, and in Andrews’ book, Ramelson is a marginal figure.

But it was John McIlroy and John Callaghan who explored in most detail the industrial strategy and Ramelson’s role within it. McIlroy and Callaghan had, in different papers, argued that the Communist Party’s plan to shift the direction of the labour movement by occupying key positions in the trade unions and promote working with Labour left trade unionists, such as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, had limited success in achieving this and relied on attempting to wield influence within the upper echelons of the unions, while ignoring the mass base of the rank-and-file. For McIlroy and Callaghan, the Communist Party’s claims of ‘victories’, such as the defeat of the Harold Wilson’s anti-union policies, the resistance to Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill and the Miners’ Strike which brought down the Heath Government in 1974, were spurious, as the Party’s industrial wing was largely in step with the broader leadership of the trade unions and did not seek to radically move the agenda of the labour movement at this time towards a revolutionary socialist programme.

The new biography of Ramelson by Seifert and Sibley is essentially a refutation of the arguments put forward by McIlroy and Callaghan and attempts to portray Ramelson as a revolutionary man of action, who was crucial to the direction of the labour movement during what Chris Harman called the ‘British upturn’. Seifert and Sibley claim that Ramelson and the CPGB were trying to link ‘militancy and trade union struggle to the development of a mass socialist consciousness’ (p. 340) and that the CPGB was a ‘revolutionary socialist’ organisation (p. 167), with Ramelson guided by an inherent faith in the class struggle and Marxism-Leninism. However, one of the major criticisms of this biography that can be made is that the authors do not really expand on what was ‘revolutionary’ in the Party’s industrial strategy or how the CPGB could be deemed to be ‘revolutionary’ after the adoption of the parliamentary road to socialism in 1951. The narrative contained within this biography is essentially based on the ‘traditionalist’ politics of the CPGB (now taken up by the Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star newspaper), which emphasised industrial militancy as the practical manifestation of the class struggle, combined with (critical) support for the Soviet Union. This wing of the CPGB, and its remnants in the CPB, were disapproving of Stalinism, but much more vocal in their criticism of the ‘Euros’ who took over the Party in the 1980s. The authors seem to suggest that to call the industrial/broad left strategy undertaken by the CPGB in the 1960s/70s ‘labourism’ or ‘reformism’ is a Trotskyist ultra-left slur, but the programme set out in The British Road to Socialism placed emphasis on using the trade unions to foster a Communist-Labour left alliance to achieve socialism via the parliamentary system. This is not a revolutionary programme. Even the major industrial struggles of the period when Ramelson was Industrial Organiser were not progressive struggles to expand socialist policies through the labour movement, but defensive struggles to protect trade union and collective bargaining rights, as well as the maintenance of wages in line with inflation.

The authors rightly argue that Ramelson’s life is worthy of a biography, as someone ‘who lived through remarkable times’ (p. 13), as Ramelson fled the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, lived in Depression-era Canada and British-ruled Palestine, fought in the Spanish Civil War and then in the Second World War, all before migrating to Britain in 1946 and joining the Communist Party (all dealt with in one chapter in this biography). But in their attempt to ‘trace Bert’s personal contribution to the struggle, and to show how this related to and influenced developments within the broader labour movement’, there is a tendency to overstate what Ramelson (and the CPGB) achieved in the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and downplay some of the more controversial episodes in Ramelson’s (and the Party’s) life.

For instance, the account of the fallout within the Party in 1956 over Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ and the publication by E. P. Thompson and John Saville of The Reasoner to foster debate about the Party’s uncritical support of the Soviet Union during the Stalin era minimises the lack of debate that the Party leadership allowed and the reasons why people like Thompson and Saville ended up leaving. The authors portray Ramelson’s offer of more space in the Daily Worker and World News, as well as district meetings with ‘much sharper debates and many less unanimous votes’, as reasonable, while Thompson and Saville are seen as unreasonable, writing that ‘both had had lengthy articles published in World News and Views during the Reasoner episode’ (p. 66). But the Party still refused to publish radically dissenting opinions by Party members in its press, as seen with the non-publication of a letter to the Daily Worker by a number of the CPGB’s Historians’ Group in November 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary (eventually published by the New Statesman and Tribunein December 1956). In several spots in the same chapter, the authors seem to suggest that the CPGB was at the forefront of the 1950s peace movement and nuclear disarmament activism. This is in contradiction to the arguments put forward by Nigel Young, David Widgery, John Callaghan and Geoff Andrews, amongst others, that the CPGB was slow to support unilateral disarmament and the CND in the 1950s, preferring until quite late on to promote the idea of the ‘People’s Bomb’ (this is a point also raised by Ian Birchall in his review of this book for the London Socialist Historians’ Group bulletin).

As mentioned before, in the industrial struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, the Communist Party had leading members working closely with other high level labour movement officials and these were quite successful campaigns, such as the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions’ actions against Wilson’s In Place of Strife Bill, the flying pickets of 1972 or the Miners’ Strike of 1973–4 that forced Ted Heath into an early election. However it is this reviewer’s opinion that the authors are claiming too much credit for Ramelson and the Communist Party when they write sentences, such as this about the success of the victory of the Saltley Gates picket in 1972: ‘Only the CP in 1970s Britain could have provided the strategic guidance and the solidarity links so necessary for winning the dispute’ (p. 208). As McIlroy and Callaghan have argued elsewhere, while the labour movement had forward momentum, the Communist Party looked central to the struggles of the day and Party members were deeply involved in the practical running of these industrial campaigns, but the Party was not directing these campaigns and this lack of influence became increasingly evident when the momentum of the labour movement slowed in 1974.

In this biography, after 1974, Ramelson becomes a lonely figure of the ‘correct’ Marxist-Leninist line against the right-wing of the labour movement and the impending Eurocommunists. In 1974, Ramelson broke with Jones and Scanlon over the adoption by the TUC and the Labour Party of the Social Contract, a voluntary wages freeze and a promise of mediation with the trade unions over industrial action, with Ramelson famously calling it the ‘Social Con-trick’ (p. 227). The authors state that by 1977, ‘Ramelson had been proved right and the CP line was vindicated’ (p. 236), but there is a suggestion that too many in the Party, such as those influenced by Gramsci and Eurocommunism, as well as intellectuals such as David Purdy and Eric Hobsbawm, had lost faith with the centrality of militant industrial action. What the authors do not engage with is the argument put forward by many in the Party who were disillusioned with the emphasis on this broad left industrial strategy is that even after the successes of the early 1970s, there was little to show for the massive effort involved in these campaigns and that the CPGB was powerless to stop the labour movement from adopting policies such as the Social Contract, and the alliances with the wider union leadership turned to be less than satisfactory, after Ramelson was effectively dropped by Jones and Scanlon after the TUC and Labour Party agreed to wage freezes and industrial mediation.

Ramelson retired from the position of Industrial Organiser in 1977, replaced by Mick Costello, who was a key figure in the battles between the Morning Star ‘traditionalists’ and the ‘reformers’ coalesced around the journal, Marxism Today. But as the authors show, Ramelson still contributed to Party debates and disagreed sharply with the ‘Eurocommunists’ within the CPGB, believing that theMarxism Today group had abandoned the class struggle and misinterpreted Thatcherism as something different from preceding Conservative governments. The authors are obviously sympathetic to the same position as Ramelson, but it is interesting to note that Ramelson also disagreed at times with the Morning Star group and some of the figures that were instrumental in forming the Communist Party of Britain in 1988. Ramelson favoured unity between the two factions and the book shows that he tried to get General Secretary Gordon McLennan to more strongly intervene in the factional disputes in order to save the Party from splitting irreversibly. But by this time, it seemed that intervention by the leadership would only temporarily halt the decline of the CPGB, and not reverse its fortunes. Ramelson remained a member until the end, but did not join the CPB (unlike a number of his contemporaries), with the only position held by Ramelson after 1977 being the British representative to the journal, World Marxist Review, which was published for all the parties in the Soviet sphere and edited in Prague until 1989.

This biography oscillates between some very good historical details of Ramelson’s role in the Communist Party between the 1940s and the 1980s and some very grandiose rhetorical flourishes about the importance of the class struggle and the revolutionary outlook of the CPGB. Its use of Ramelson’s personal papers, interviews with leading CPGB activists and other primary source materials makes it definitely worth reading for those interested in the history of the Communist Party, and modern British labour history more generally, but some readers may be frustrated by the particular language used, as well as some of the claims made, by the authors.

Author’s response by Tom Sibley

I would like to thank Evan Smith for his considered review of our biography of Bert Ramelson. Readers will not be surprised to learn that the authors do not share a number of Smith’s assessments.  But we hope that the review will encourage a wider readership for the book and that readers will make their own judgements about the criticisms made by the reviewer.

There are a number of contentious points in the review which I will deal with in the order they occur in the text.  In preparing the book we read Geoff Andrews’ account of the period 1964–91 with great care, recognising that it is an important, if deeply flawed contribution to Communist historiography. It is not the case, as Smith asserts, that Ramelson is presented by Andrews as a marginal figure.  In the first of some 30 odd references (in a 250 page book) to Ramelson, Andrews says this of the Party’s trade union work ‘… its strength in this area was rigorously renewed from the mid-1960s under the leadership of Bert Ramelson … and meant that the Party was to play a big organisational role in the major period of industrial militancy in the 1970s’.(1) And the experienced industrial journalist Robert Taylor (no friend of the Communist Party), in his analysis of the Social Contract’s demise in the mid late 1970s (just before Ramelson retired as Industrial Organiser) has this to say ‘… Ramelson was a key influence on the TUC General Council broad left … certainly the TUC leaders believe that the Communist Party had been very important in the collapse of the Social Contract (p. 249).  These are not descriptions of a ‘marginal’ person in a ‘marginal’ Party.

Our book is strongly critical of McIIroy and Callaghan’s work but it is to misrepresent the former to claim, as Smith does, that McIlroy’s position is that the Party ignored the mass base of the rank and file.  On the contrary McIlroy recognises the key role of Ramelson and the Party in developing the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions and the impressive mobilisation achieved against ‘In Place of Strife’ (1968) and ‘Industrial Relations Act’ (1971).(2) But he is not content to leave it there and goes on, incorrectly in our view , that the Party’s sole concern was to use rank and file strength to pressurise the official movement into action and to support progressive left policies.  Of course that was an essential part of the story.  But the objective was also to create a movement, parallel to but not separate from or reflexively antagonistic to the official movement.

During the Heath Government (1970–74) there was a constant battle between the left and right in the labour movement about the strategy and tactics to adopt to combat the Tory oáffensive.  The Party’s short term objective was to assist the left in mobilising mass action against the Tories while clearing presenting the case for socialism and revolutionary change in the longer term.  Generally speaking the Party’s approach to anti-Tory struggle prevailed and it was able, with others on the left, to advance a broad range of policies addressing important working-class concerns (both national and international) over and above traditional trade union demands.  Such campaigning involved developing new forms of struggle such as the use of flying pickets (the 1972 miners’ strike), workplace occupations (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders ,1971-72) and preparations for a General Strike (the Liaison Committee and the Pentonville Five dockers, 1972).  Our book shows that the CP was in the thick of all of these developments, often as the initiator, always in the vanguard.  But it also shows that there were setbacks and near things – the Shrewsbury Three building workers (1972-73) pickets were incarcerated for trade union activities and the decision to defy the Court judgements during the Con-Mech dispute (1973-4) was taken on the casting vote of the AEU President Hugh Scanlon.  So it was not the case that the CP simply mirrored the position of the broad labour movement.  Neither did the Party fail to present a revolutionary alternative.  In the event it was unable to make a political breakthrough but it was not for the want of trying.  But for the left as a whole significant, if unsustained, political progress was achieved.  The Labour Party, in particular, adopted policies far to the left of anything seen since the 1945 Election Manifesto while a number of unions, notably the NUM and TGWU, became centres of left-wing control.

The essence of revolutionary politics in a capitalist society is the pursuit of state power in order to advance the interests of the working class and its allies while creating conditions for the new ruling class to control all important aspects of society.  It is just as revolutionary to do this using parliamentary institutions as it is to storm the gates of the Winter Palace.  The crucial challenge is to destroy the capitalist state and replace it with institutions and personnel fully accountable to the working class and its allies.  How to do this and how the Party’s industrial strategy was a crucial component of its revolutionary programme is discussed in detail in our book (see pages 83–91), and we are disappointed that the reviewer appears to have overlooked this.

The section on The Reasoner, unlike Callaghan’s account (3), and challenging received wisdom, explains how Party leaders, in particular Ramelson, attempted to meet some of Saville and Thompson’s concerns.   However, the two lecturers did not reciprocate, and the Hungarian events ensured there would be no possibility of a rapprochement.  It is important to note that it was not in Ramelson’s gift to offer space in the Party press for views critical of the leadership – this as Ramelson pointed out was already being done, though not to the extent that the two contrarians were demanding.  And readers should bear in mind that many rank and file members took exception to two of their number, with access to publishing resources, arrogating the right to publicly defy Party decisions and challenge the collective judgement of a vastly experienced leadership elected democratically at Congress.  Such individualistic approaches by two academics were seen to be both arrogant and an offense to the norms of communist democracy.  But as the book points out, Ramelson recognised that ‘The Reasoner played a positive role in exploring a number of key issues … e.g. democratic centralism and Stalinism’.  In retrospect it would have served our readers better to have explained why, for example, the Daily Worker refused to publish certain letters, particularly those which appeared in Tribune and the New Statesman.  In this respect the reviewer is correct to accuse us of a certain imbalance.

In dealing with the peace movement in 1960s Smith gets it badly wrong.  Before CND (that is, up to 1958), the CP and the British Peace Council (a CP front) were almost alone, apart from the Quakers and other radical church people, in campaigning for peace and disarmament including nuclear disarmament.  From the late 1940s onwards (two years before the Soviets had developed the A-bomb) the Party campaigned for the total worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons.  It never promoted the idea of a ‘people’s bomb’.  There were some differences in the peace movement between those advocating multilateralism (the campaign to rid the world of all nuclear weapons by negotiation) and unilateralism (banning the bomb in Britain alone).  But this was resolved in 1960 when the CP recognised, following the US Pentagon’s scuppering of Summit Talks, that total abolition was not on the agenda of the Western nuclear powers and would not be for the foreseeable future.  At the same time CND accepted that, prior to 1960, its campaigning activities were too narrowly based and accepted that multilateral objectives such as the disbanding of NATO and a Test Ban treaty were essential complements to unilateral disarmament by Britain.

The section in the book on the miners’ strike (p, 207) is perhaps a little over done.  Ramelson was certainly a key figure but he would have been the first to object to being described as the player.  But our assessment of the role played by the Party holds up.  No other group in the NUM, least of all the right wing Executive, offered the leadership or the ideas injected by CP members in influential positions over a period of twenty years or so. As the book explains, the transformation of the NUM from a bastion of right wing control in the 1950s to a militant left union owes much to the strategic nous of Communist Party activists over some two decades.

Smith accuses us of ‘not engaging’ with the arguments of the neo-Gramscians including Eric Hobsbawm.  These centred on the role of the industrial working class in the struggle for socialism and its relationship to progressive social movements which could be described as objectively anti -monopoly capitalist e.g. the women’s movement, black people, small business people and so on.  And yet pages 342–9 do precisely that under the sub-headings ‘Analysing the decline of the Party’ and ‘Some critics’.  On pages 260–2 there is detailed analysis of, and comment on, Hobsbawn’s seminal article ‘The forward march of labour halted’.(4)

Lastly a comment on the language used in some parts of the book, and the often upbeat assessments made of Ramelson’s contribution to the Socialist cause.  Readers should bear in mind that we have written a well researched and thoroughly referenced book drawing on diverse primary and secondary sources.  This is a serious work which engages with many of the important debates in the labour movement and international communist movement over several decades but it is not a book written for academics in industrial relations and labour history faculties – threatened species both.  It is aimed primarily at a much wider audience, particularly at comrades active in the labour movement and others interested in the ideological struggle as well as the nuts and bolts.  So it seeks to be inspirational as well as analytical.  One reviewer has expressed it thus ‘both authors knew Ramelson personally and while this book amply demonstrated their admiration for their subject they do not descend into obsequiousness or hagiography.  They write well and engagingly, avoiding the density of style that so often mars academic books of this sort’.(5)

On the upbeat assessments – in our view we have satisfactorily backed these with rigorously researched and reason argument.  Of course readers will disagree with some of our judgements, and our book is far from the last word on Ramelson’s life and the issues and challenges that he faced.  We hope that readers and future generations will take inspiration from Ramelson’s example to better understand the pressing need to build a world free from capitalist and imperialist exploitation.


  1. Geoff Andrews, End Games and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964 – 1991 (London, 2004).
  2. J. McIlroy and A. Campbell, ‘Organizing the militants: the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions 1966–79’, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 37(1) (1999), 1–31.
  3. J. Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: a History of the CPGB 1951–1968 (London, 2003), chapter 2.
  4. Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The forward march of labour halted’, Marxism Today (September 1978).
  5. John Green, (‘Working USA’, forthcoming).


(8) The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe

Nwando Achebe, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2011)

reviewed by Ogechukwu Ezekwem, University of Texas at Austin

The Female King of Colonial Nigeria is the story of a woman, Ahebi Ugbabe, who rose from the status of a local girl and commercial sex worker to that of a village headman, a warrant chief and a king. Ahebi was born in Enugu-Ezike, an Igbo community, in the late 19th century. At the age of 13 or 14, she fled into neighboring Igala land to escape marriage to a deity as propitiation for her father’s sins. While in exile, she became a commercial sex worker, and in this way, aligned herself with powerful men such as the ruler of Igala, and British colonial officials. She also became fluent in pidgin English and other African languages, a skill that proved relevant to her future political ambitions. The early 20th century was a period of British incursion into Igboland, and Ahebi used this to her benefit by leading the British forces into Enugu Ezike, her hometown. As a reward for her support, the British invaders installed her as a village headman. Due to her efficiency and continued loyalty, she was elevated to the post of warrant chief, a feat that was contrary to British policy of female political exclusion in colonial Nigeria. With the help of the Attah (ruler) of Igala, whose influence extended to Northern Igbo land, Ahebi Ugbabe became king of Enugu-Ezike, therefore upsetting the gendered politics in her community. As king, she performed female masculinities, and superceded all existing male political hierarchy and authority. However, when she attempted to assume full manhood by introducing her own masquerade, a deed performed only by men fully initiated into the masquerade cult, she met serious resistance from which she never recovered. For fear that her society may not accord her a befitting burial, Ahebi performed her own funeral in her life time. When she eventually died in 1948, she had a very quiet send-off. Notwithstanding, she became deified as a goddess in her mother’s hometown, and is remembered in many Enugu-Ezike songs and parables.

Nwando Achebe reconstructs Ahebi’s story in a very interesting and engaging way. She surveys the society in which Ahebi grew up, the possible influences on her life while in exile, and the nature of the society in which she re-emerged as a man. She takes the reader through every step of her journey in search of Ahebi. Throughout her text, she describes the processes in which she gathered her information and arrived at her conclusions. Her approach is instructive to students of history in terms of the possible challenges of oral history, especially community silence and selective memory, and field research methods. It also offers a practical insight into the process of balancing and validating oral data. Achebe’s book is a brilliant reconstruction of local history through a combination of oral interviews, archival sources, published materials, and, interestingly, personal communications. The manner in which she documents and applies personal communications is commendable. It is through one of these private correspondences that she learns of Wangu Wa Makeni, a Kikuyu woman chief, who became recognized by the British in 1901. She points out that Wangu was not made a Warrant Chief by the British, but her existing status as a female chief was only endorsed (p. 225).

Achebe’s study of Ahebi Ugbabe is significant because it salvaged the history of a woman who became the only warrant chief in colonial Nigeria, and perhaps Africa. Her book distinguishes between Western concepts of gender and sexuality, and the indigenous meanings of these concepts in an African setting. She highlights the fluidity of gender and sex in Igbo land, where a woman, under certain circumstances, can assume the religious and social status of a man. A menopausal woman of wealth and integrity can also socially transform into a man, and enjoy the rights and obligations accorded to men. Such fluidity of gender and sex in Igbo land is portrayed in the life of Ahebi who, as warrant chief and king, became a man and assumed otherwise male roles, including marrying wives for herself and her brothers. Achebe repeatedly and rightly states that, in Igbo land, this practice of woman-to-woman marriage is totally unrelated to homosexuality. It is only a mark of wealth and social status. These wives married by women had sexual relations with men. However, children born of such marriages belonged to the female husband.

Another routinely misunderstood issue which Achebe analyzes is the concept of bride- price. The bride-price is routinely interpreted in Western feminist thought as a payment for a wife, and therefore derogatory. Achebe chooses to interpret this practice as ‘child price’ (p. 40) since it has nothing to do with the wife. This is an important and valid assessment because, in traditional Igbo land, when a couple marries or cohabits without paying the bride-price, all children from such marriage belongs to and can be claimed by the girl’s family. As Achebe points out, the symbolism of the bride-price is not a payment for the woman, but a transfer of the right to all children born of that marriage to the groom and his family.

Achebe further offers an African interpretation of commercial sex work which she distinguished from its Western form. She portrays it as an individual affair often practiced from the comfort of one’s home. Her book shows that African social and cultural institutions can have meanings and symbolisms different from their Western counterparts

While Achebe acknowledges that her book is about ‘interpretation of knowledge about gender in Africa’ (p. 206), and is a story of one woman’s agency in an era of marginalization of women, she does not seem to be concerned with immersing Ahebi’s story in the broader historiography of female rulers in Nigeria and Africa. At first, I was concerned that her book does not relate to a wider historiographical context, and I am sure that several readers will be quick to draw this conclusion. However, I realized soon enough that this is the kind of history she set out to write. Hers is a deliberate attempt to reconstruct the history of a local people, devoid of Western interpretive models and theoretical frameworks. She argues that ‘there are some stories that simply need to be told’ (p. 14). Elsewhere, she states that ‘I write for several audiences, but my primary audience is the people who own the stories I am telling’ (p. 229). Thus, Achebe’s approach is a conscious choice which every historian has a right to make. While this approach may limit her audience, it enables Achebe to tell the Igbo story through an indigenous Igbo lens.

However, I find Achebe’s use of the Igbo language across the text cumbersome for non-Igbo speakers. There are terms which do not have a satisfactory English version, and thus need to be written and then further explained in English, but Achebe goes beyond this. She prefers to write both complex terms and certain simple phrases in Igbo language. For instance, she wrote that ‘Ahebi visited be ikwu nne ya (her mother’s village)’ (p.7 7). It is simpler and sufficient to say that ‘Ahebi visited her mother’s village’. Though she offers the English meanings of these Igbo words in the text, in many cases, the English explanations suffice.

Achebe’s book also serves as a contribution to Igbo studies. It reveals the nature and symbolism of various Igbo practices such as marriage to a deity and woman-to-woman marriage. Achebe traces these practices to the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade when entire communities were pillaged. As a result, deity marriage and woman-to-woman marriage were instituted in Northern Igbo land in order to replenish the population (pp. 58–9). She also reinterprets oral traditions of state formation in Igbo land, which she depicted as having connotations beyond the actual stories. She offers an alternative interpretation of Enugu-Ezike traditions of origin. According to one of these traditions of origin, Ezike, a man from Igala, went on a hunting expedition, shot an elephant and followed it to Ugwueka hill in the present Enugu Ezike where it died. In the process, Ezike was met by the priest of Ugwueka who allowed him to settle on the hills. Ezike’s descendants eventually formed the town of Enugu-Ezike. According to Achebe, this story of a dead elephant and Ezike’s settlement in Ugwueka hill may be an allusion to a contest between a settler community and the indigenous population (p. 32). This is an interesting way to interpret various Igbo traditions of origin.

In the final chapter of her book, Achebe writes about Ahebi’s final bid to realize full manhood by introducing her own masquerade. This was regarded by the elders of Enugu-Ezike as the ultimate insolence. In Igbo land, masquerades were considered as the spirits of the ancestors, and it was a taboo for any biological woman to control them. Even men had their proscriptions. Unless a man was fully initiated into the masquerade cult, he could neither control the masquerade nor behold a naked mask. Ahebi’s introduction of her own mask was therefore viewed as an abomination which, according to Achebe, led to the ultimate resistance to her powers, and her decline. This resistance, in Achebe’s words, revealed ‘Igbo society’s resolve about the extent to which female gendered transformations would be allowed to materialize’ (p. 206). I would like to point out that Ahebi’s successful transitions from an ordinary woman to a female headman, a warrant chief and a king were mostly successful because she had British support. Becoming a female king was as daunting and bizarre to her community as attempting to introduce her own masked spirit. Prior to Ahebi’s ascent, Enugu-Ezike had no king, least of all an autocratic female one who had no regard for traditional male authority or hierarchy. Ahebi was only able to become king and remain one because she had the support of the British colonial government, and the Attah of Igala. Had the British not suddenly withdrawn their support from Ahebi over the issue of the mask, and therefore encouraged open defiance to her authority, perhaps Ahebi would also have succeeded in this final quest of achieving full manhood. When her mask was confiscated by the male elders of Enugu-Ezike, she took the matter to a colonial court which transferred the case to the British resident in Onitsha. If the British resident had ruled in Ahebi’s favor, the male gerontocracy would have yet again become helpless over this new ambition. Therefore, I do not think that her failure in this regard was because of limitations of the Igbo regarding female gender transformation, but mostly because she had lost the otherwise unwavering support of the British, who obviously had no further need of her. Moreover, unless Achebe implies that the male leaders of the community did not resist Ahebi’s accession as king and her disregard for established male authority, it would have been relevant if she elaborated on the form this resistance had taken. Otherwise, one is left to believe that they simply threw up their hands in frustration and accepted Ahebi as King.

Nwando Achebe’s book is well-written, amply researched, and efficiently documented. It is a major contribution to African history and the practice of oral history. It also offers African-based insights and interpretations to various Western concepts in gender and sexuality studies. The Female King of Colonial Nigeria not only tells the tale of Ahebi Ugbabe, the woman who became king, but also takes readers on a field trip through her life and times. The greatest significance of Achebe’s writing style and methodology is that it enables the reader to criticize and analyze her use of data and her conclusions. It also enables one to make his/her own inferences from Achebe’s work. This is only possible because she reveals the intricacies surrounding her data collection and her findings. She engages her readers in the entire process of her field work, from her decision to study Ahebi to her final days in Enugu-Ezike.

The author acknowledges receipt of the review, but does not wish to comment.


(7) The Queen’s Hand; Power and Authority in the Reign of Berenguela of Castile

Janna Bianchini, The Queen’s Hand; Power and Authority in the Reign of Berenguela of Castile (Philadelphia, PA, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)

reviewed by Elena Woodacre, Bath Spa University

Berenguela of Castile (1180–1246) is a figure who is often overshadowed by her famous relatives, including her grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine, her sister Blanche of Castile and her son Fernando III of Castile and León. However, there is no doubt that during her lifetime, she exercised considerable political power as a part of the ‘plural monarchy’ in both Castile and León in a range of roles. During her childhood, she was heiress apparent of Castile until the birth of her brothers displaced her. Next, she became queen consort of León, until her marriage to Alfonso IX was annulled for consanguinity in 1204.  She served briefly as regent for her brother, Enrique I, between November 1214 and February 1215, when Alvaro Núñez de Lara took control from her. Finally she served as co-ruler of Castile and later León during the reign of her son, Fernando III between 1217 and her death in 1246.

That Berenguela shared power with her son Fernando III is undeniable, her agency is enshrined in contemporary chronicles and documentary evidence from their reign. However, whether Berenguela should be considered a queen mother or queen regnant is a matter of some disagreement. Bianchini argues strongly for the latter, emphasizing Berenguela’s hereditary right to the crown and dismissing what she terms ‘the canard’ that Berenguela abdicated in favour of her son Fernando in 1217. While this ‘canard’ has become established in Iberian historiography, Bianchini has made it her goal to overturn this premise and ensure that Berenguela is accorded her due as a Castilian monarch and given credit for her prominent role in the political events of the first half of the 13th century. Bianchini stresses the concept of ‘plural monarchy’, that power was exercised by a group of individuals working in tandem, rather than one royal figure. Throughout the book, Bianchini underlines Berenguela’s constant presence at the core of the plural monarchy, even though her title changed and her position moved at times between the centre and periphery of power, her birthright, marriage and maternal role gave her the authority to remain a key player in both Castile and León throughout her lifetime.

The book moves chronologically through Berenguela’s life and political career and is divided into chapters which focus on particular periods of her life: as heiress, as queen consort of Léon, after the annulment of her marriage, during the regency for her brother Enrique, as queen of Castile with her son, Berenguela’s role in the Leonese succession crisis of 1230 and finally her years of co-rule in both Castile and León with her son, Fernando III.

A recurring theme, which is alluded to in the title, is Berenguela’s cultivation of clients who were accorded titles, lands and positions through the ‘queen’s hand’. Bianchini emphasizes how Berenguela was able to use the relationship between lord and client to build a power base of loyal men and women. She notes the considerable territory, including key strongholds and towns given to Berenguela by her father and husband, which were often located in the strategic border region between Castile and León known as the Tierra de Campos. Bianchini claims that Berenguela’s years as heir apparent gave her vital training in exercise of authority and administration of territory that she leveraged in her role as ‘domina’. Moreover, Berenguela’s effective management of these lands and her careful placement of loyal clients in these territories enabled her to retain an important position even during challenging moments in her life such as after the annulment of her marriage or when she lost the regency for her brother Enrique. Berenguela’s territorial lordship and loyal clientele also facilitated her son Fernando’s ability to seize the throne of León in 1230 from his half-sisters, Sancha and Dulce, who were Alfonso IX’s designated successors.

Berenguela’s role in the Leonese succession crisis and indeed the unique nature of the situation itself is worthy of greater attention and the entire chapter devoted to it in Bianchini’s monograph. As Bianchini notes this particular episode was ‘a rare opportunity to observe a power struggle that was defined by its female participants’ (p. 181); Berenguela, Alfonso IX’s first wife Teresa of Portugal and the Infantas Sancha and Dulce. In the latter years of his life, Alfonso IX faced a difficult choice with regard to his successor. His eldest surviving son, Fernando, had inherited the throne of Castile with his mother Berenguela and Alfonso IX was reluctant to confirm Fernando as his successor in León as it would unite the two kingdoms. The king chose instead to vest the succession in Sancha and Dulce, his daughters from his first marriage to Teresa of Portugal. This was a surprising option, not only because of their gender but because they were named as joint heiresses. Significantly, neither of the two women were married. Finding a suitable husband for an heiress, who would be expected to take part in the rule of the realm as king consort was always a difficult process. The fact that the sisters were co-heirs made this an even more delicate situation as it would be impossible to ensure that four co-rulers, the queens and their respective husbands, could rule cooperatively and effectively as a group. This would be perhaps pushing the boundaries of plural monarchy too far. This situation was unusual although there had been a precedent of sorts in the case of Byzantine Empresses Zoe and Theodora Porphyrogenita in the 11th century. As Bianchini notes, the situation was made even more distinctive by the involvement of both Berenguela and Teresa of Portugal as two of the most significant participants in the events of the crisis. Both Berenguela and Teresa fought for the rights of their offspring to rule León, using familial connections and their territorial lordship to command support. In the end, when it was clear that Fernando would triumph, both mothers met to hammer out an accord to satisfy the honour of the two infantas, assigning them properties and rents which would ensure the maintenance of their royal status. Bianchini counters the widely held perception that the two ‘modest and pious’ maternal figures met to work together to bring peace to the kingdoms and argues instead that the signing of the Treaty of Benavente marked ‘the last throes of a rivalry that had stretched across decades, and that was no less fiercely fought because the protagonists were women’ (p. 205). Indeed it is very interesting to note that in this case ‘Sancha and Dulce’s bid for the throne was not undone by their womanhood. Rather, it was undone by another woman: Berenguela’ (p. 207). This episode therefore is not only significant because of its unusual nature or the precedent for female succession but because it demonstrates the political agency and rivalry of women, even though it ultimately resulted in a male claimant’s triumph over his elder half-sisters.

This book is a useful contribution to both studies of ruling women and to the history of medieval Iberia. It adds to other recent works on Iberian queenship, including examinations of the more well known Castilian queens regnant Urraca and Isabel, studies of other powerful Iberian queen consorts such as Maria of Castile and Maria de Luna and a current research project on the Infantazgo in Castile and León which has also touched on the concept of ‘plural monarchy’ and female lordship.(1) Bianchini is not the first to focus on Berenguela, but her instance on Bereguela’s place as a monarch, not a consort, regent or queen mother is uncommon.(2) Bianchini carefully documents Berenguela’s exercise of the royal prerogatives such as diplomatic negotiations with internal factions and external powers and dispensing justice. She also notes how Berenguela was perceived as a ruling sovereign in both contemporary chronicles and by her subjects and royal peers. One of Berenguela’s great strengths was her ability to work successfully in tandem with her advisors and family members, including her son and his two wives. However, this ability to function harmoniously as a member of the plural monarchy may have led to the perception in Iberian historiography that she was less powerful or prominent than she may have been in actuality.

Berenguela is also an important case study for both queenship and royal authority which Bianchini claims ‘requires a reconsideration of the structure and gendering, of medieval monarchy’ (p. 257). Bianchini claims that female monarchs needed a broad base of support for their rule to combat the inherent prejudice against women in positions of the highest authority. Berenguela’s construction of a noble clientele and her ability to command the support of the church through her patronage and her careful construction of the image of a virtuous and pious mother were arguably factors in her success. Bianchini’s argument that women could not inherit a crown or exercise sovereign authority without a male co-ruler is compelling although it is bound to generate discussion. Certainly Elizabeth I of England, arguably one of the most successful reigning queens, may have owed her success in large measure to the fact that she did not marry nor sire a son who could replace her or push her aside. However, Elizabeth’s rule is part of a very different geographical and temporal context than Berenguela’s. Certainly, Bianchini’s emphasis on the idea of plural monarchy and the manner in which it supported and enabled female agency and authority supports her central argument that Berenguela was not replaced by her son Fernando but co-opted him as a partner in their mutual reign. In summary, Bianchini’s study of Berenguela is an insightful and fascinating look at a figure who certainly merits greater recognition of her place as a female sovereign, and who shaped the destiny of her native Castile and played a significant role in the political events of both Iberia and Europe in the 13th century.


  1. A recent work which demonstrates some of the interesting research on Iberian queenship isQueenship and Political Power in Medieval and Early Modern Spain, ed. Theresa Earenfight (Aldershot, 2005). The classic work on Urraca is Bernard F. Reilly, The Kingdom of León-Castilla under Queen Urraca, 1109–1126 (Princeton, NJ, 1982). Recent works on Isabel include Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile: Critical Essays, ed. David A. Boruchoff (London, 2003) and María Isabel del val Valdivieso, Isabel la Católica y su Tiempo (Grenada, 2005). Example of recent monographs on powerful Iberian consorts include Theresa Earenfight, The King’s Other Body; Maria of Castile and the Crown of Aragon (Philadelphia, PA, 2010) and Nuria Silleras-Fernández, Power, Piety and Patronage in Late Medieval Queenship: Maria de Luna (New York, NY, 2008). For the project led by Therese Martin (CSIC-Madrid) which investigates the use of the Infantazgo see <> [accessed 2 January 2013].
  2. Another excellent recent monograph on Berenguela is Miriam Shadis, Berenguela of Castile (1180–1246) and Political Women in the High Middle Ages (New York, NY, 2009).

The author appreciates Dr. Woodacre’s thoughtful reading and does not wish to comment further.


(6) Into Africa: The Imperial Life of Margery Perham

C. Brad Faught, Into Africa: The Imperial Life of Margery Perham (London, I B Tauris, 2011)

reviewed by Helen McCarthy, Queen Mary, University of London

Once upon a time, as every schoolboy knew, the history of the British Empire was the history of great men. Clive, Rhodes, Cromer, Curzon, Lugard, Milner: the names of these imperial pro-consuls, military leaders and administrative visionaries tripped off the tongue as paragons of the civilising and adventurous spirit which drove the expansion of England over three centuries and painted the globe pink. Any number of adulatory biographies documented these and other purportedly exemplary lives before the political reckoning of decolonisation and the new intellectual terrain opened up by post-colonial theory forced a radical re-thinking of the entire imperial project. More recent historiography has recast such imperial heroes, if not exactly as villains, then as knowing participants in a system of racialised power relations which at best produced a self-serving paternalism and at worst perpetuated unspeakable acts of colonial violence.

The role of white women within these power relations has also come under critical scrutiny from historians, with wives, female missionaries, moral reformers and celebrated travellers viewed as complicit – albeit to varying degrees and in different ways – in the shoring up of British colonial rule. Women are certainly no longer marginalised in the history of empire; yet only a tiny handful – Flora Shaw and Gertrude Bell are the exceptions which spring most readily to mind – can be said to have had a direct hand in or influence over the business of imperial governance, as opposed to the more general production of colonial knowledge serving to justify and entrench white supremacy. This in itself is hardly surprising: women were excluded from the administrative mainstream of the Colonial Service until the 1940s, restricted to posts as nurses, educators and social workers, and nearly always found engaged in activities concerned with the welfare of ‘native’ women and children. The bureaucracy of empire was, then, founded on gender difference and a maternalist ideology which positioned white women ambiguously, as both insiders and outsiders.

It is at this highly charged intersection of gender, race and empire that we find Margery Perham (1895–1982), the subject of C. Brad Faught’s new biography. Towering authority on colonial Africa, pioneer of the subfield of imperial history, and central figure in the reform of British colonial administration in the mid-20th century, Perham was the subject of a special issue of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History in 1991 (1), but has only now received the full biographical treatment that her extraordinarily rich and consequential life indisputably deserves. Faught follows for the most part a conventional biographical format: he starts with Perham’s middle-class Edwardian childhood in the elegant Yorkshire town of Harrogate and follows her story through from student days at Oxford to her first thrilling African encounter in Somaliland in 1920; subsequent chapters track Perham’s career as she cultivated her academic reputation, policy influence and public profile as an expert Africanist, with only a brief diversion by way of a chapter detailing her long association with Frederick Lugard, the celebrated imperial governor whose own life Perham would write in two compendious volumes (in so doing contributing, ironically enough, to the great man version of imperial history).

Although Perham was a woman of many parts (as well as the above, she published two novels, threw herself into amateur theatricals and maintained a complex relationship with Christianity), three facets of Perham’s professional activities emerge especially prominently in Faught’s narrative: Perham the (Oxford) academic; Perham the policy advisor; and Perham the public intellectual. Faught does a good job of explaining Perham’s broader historical significance on each of these fronts whilst also capturing something of his subject’s lively personality, often through direct quotation from her many private writings.

Perham, as Faught reveals, did not hold any particular aspirations to a career in scholarship, although her obvious ability plus fortuitous circumstances (supportive parents and a scholarship to St Hugh’s, Oxford) set her on the path to academic success, her first-class History degree securing a lectureship in Sheffield, where Perham first taught the subject – imperial history – which she would make her own. Sheffield also indirectly propelled Perham towards Africa, for it was the nervous breakdown brought on by overwork and loneliness there which prompted her to seek a rest cure in Somaliland, staying in the home of her sister, Ethel, and her dashing husband, Harry Rayne, a District Commissioner and first of the many rugged men of empire whose acquaintance Perham would make during her many subsequent African tours.

It was by witnessing first-hand how colonial administration functioned (or failed to function) on the ground that Perham gradually crystallised her thinking on empire over the next two decades. Faught sees her as a high-minded liberal who believed emphatically in the virtues of British colonial rule in Africa, but only where the rulers genuinely governed in the interests of the indigenous population and placed the needs of Africans – for education, welfare and economic development – above the self-serving claims of white settlers. As she moved from Government House to Government House, and from British Africa to neighbouring French and Belgian territories, Perham drew lessons about good and bad forms of governance, and about the qualities which allowed one District Commissioner to inspire respect and authority amongst his colonial subjects, and another to invite contempt and even hatred.

These observations made in the field provided the basis for Perham’s emergence in the 1940s as an influential voice within Whitehall, where ministers and officials were grappling with the problem of how best to preserve the legitimacy of Britain’s colonial empire into the post-war world. As well as sitting on various government committees and forging a close working relationship with Arthur Creech Jones, Labour’s Colonial Secretary between 1945 and 1950, Perham helped to form the minds of Britain’s cadre of colonial administrators; her Native Administration in Nigeria (1937) became required reading for Colonial Service probationers, whilst Perham propounded her views on good governance in person to the hundreds of officers who passed through the Oxford Summer School on Colonial Administration or later attended the famous Devonshire Courses for the ‘rising rockets’ of the post-war Colonial Service.

Faught sees this policy role as Perham’s ‘defining identity’, and the one for which she would be best remembered, but he does not neglect to discuss her public-facing activities, most notably the newspaper articles and broadcasts which she began to produce in the 1930s on African and general colonial themes. Over time, these confirmed Perham’s status as a leading authority on imperial matters amongst the wider public, perhaps the leading authority when it came to Africa, as the invitation to deliver the BBC’s prestigious Reith Lectures in 1961 (the first woman to do so, Faught omits to mention) on the subject of African nationalism would suggest.

Faught deals with these several dimensions of Perham’s professional persona extremely efficiently, almost too efficiently in fact; he concludes his study of this fascinating, complicated woman who left more than 700 boxes of papers to the Bodleian Library in Oxford in barely 160 pages (excluding notes). This approach makes for an easily digestible text, but some readers may feel that what is gained in pace and accessibility is lost in terms of depth and subtlety of argument. A good example of this is in relation to gender. Faught notes throughout that Perham was operating in a masculine world, but he never really develops the analysis beyond this general observation. Perham’s views on feminism are touched on only briefly; we learn that she was sceptical of the Women’s Liberation ‘of the 1960s’ (he means 1970s), but Faught is silent on Perham’s attitude towards earlier feminist struggles, including the campaign in the 1930s to open posts in the Colonial Administrative Service to both sexes. Faught also seems unaware of the Colonial Office’s wartime experiment of posting Women Administrative Assistants (WAAs) to Africa to make up the shortfall in suitable male candidates, a scheme which remained in place after 1945. It would be interesting to know whether Perham held any views on the suitability of women for administrative work and what she thought of the WAAs, as well as her reflections more broadly on the curious position in which she found herself in the late 1930s: as a recognised expert and policy advisor on an arm of government – colonial administration – from which women were barred from participating.

In seeking to contextualise Perham’s status as a woman in a man’s world, Faught draws some passing comparisons with Gertrude Bell, the celebrated traveller who served as Oriental Secretary in Iraq after the First World War, but these feel rather superficial. A more illuminating comparator might have been the Persian scholar Nancy Lambton, who was temporarily employed in the British Legation in Tehran during the Second World War and went on to teach Persian to Foreign Office Arabists and to provide informal policy advice on Anglo-Iranian relations. Lambton experienced a similar paradox to Perham insofar as she trained diplomats and advised on a region of the world – the Middle East – to which it was believed inadvisable to post women (who had only been permanently admitted to the Diplomatic Service in 1946). More careful contextualisation of Perham’s influence in government of this kind thus might have shed light on how exceptional individuals armed with highly-valued expertise could defy the institutionalised sexism which more widely held women back from exercising real power.

Biographers often dabble in amateur psychoanalysis of their subjects – particularly in relation to matters sexual – with varying degrees of success. Faught’s suggestion that Perham’s professional dedication was ‘the redirection of a multifarious psycho-sexual drive into a complete devotion to Africa’ (p. 100) is actually rather plausible in light of the evidence, but again, one would have liked a fuller account of this voluntary spinsterhood. Perham apparently fell in love several times, mostly with men who embodied the active heterosexual masculinity which was hegemonic in the Colonial Service; but these relationships were unrequited (Perham was probably a virgin), a fact which Faught attributes to her Victorian sexual morality, but one wonders whether there was more to it than this (one of the objects of her affection was her brother-in-law, Harry Rayne). It would be interesting to know whether Perham was ever attracted to any African men; her later championing of Seretse Khama, the heir to the chieftainship of Bechuanaland (then a British mandated territory), following his marriage to the white Englishwoman, Ruth Williams, suggests that Perham had no difficulty with inter-racial relationships. But what were her views during her earlier African tours, at a time when ‘miscegenation’ was widely condemned?

Perham’s racial thinking more generally deserves greater consideration than Faught is able to pack into his slim volume. He notes that Perham always commented on human physiognomy – white as well as black – in her travel diaries, and describes her as a product of an era in which ‘all manner of science and pseudo-science spoke to the existence and supposed profound meaning of racial difference’ (p. 47). Yet the 1930s and 1940s was exactly the time when scientific racism was becoming increasingly discredited, at least in academic circles, and it would be formally (and famously) denounced by UNESCO in 1950. Where did Perham’s personal experiences of colonial Africa and Africans place her in relation to these shifts in the debate over race?

On a related theme, Faught portrays the mature Perham of the post-war years as suffering little if any existential angst over the end of Empire. Her Reith Lectures, entitled ‘The Colonial Reckoning’, are presented as a calm, carefully thought-through exercise in preparing the British public for the inevitable, with an argument essentially in line with Perham’s earlier progressive views on the need for colonial development and welfare as a step along the road to eventual self-government. Where, one might ask, is the post-colonial trauma in all of this? Perham grew up in a world imbued with the certainties of British imperial rule, one in which the black man existed in a state of tutelage under the white man. As she reached retirement age, the values underpinning Britain’s historic imperium had already embarked on their journey away from the central, celebrated place they once occupied in national life, towards a more marginal, liminal space in which they could be derided, mocked or both. As Bill Schwarz has recently shown, this process was deeply traumatic for many Britons; racialised memories of the colonial past were an ‘active, combustible element’ in domestic politics and culture, as evidenced by the high psychic charge accompanying debates over immigration and race relations, which culminated in the ‘Powellism’ of the late 1960s and early 70s.(2).

Was it traumatic for Margery Perham? She watched her expertise in colonial administration fall steadily into obsolescence as the Union Jack was lowered across the African continent and as younger colleagues in the academy embraced the radical post-colonial critiques of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. Did she feel left behind?

Into Africa is a well-researched and highly-readable study and it will be the first stop for any reader curious to learn more about one of the 20th century’s most significant voices on Empire. But, for the reasons suggested above, it is not the definitive biography of Margery Perham. Nor does it part company with the established conventions of imperial biography. In reconstructing his subject’s enchantment with Africa, Faught renders Margery Perham herself as a highly romantic figure, as the very cover of the book suggests: a lush African vista at sunset, Perham’s soulful face superimposed above.


  1. Special issue of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 19, 3 (1991), edited by Alison Smith and Mary Bull.
  2. Bill Schwarz, Memories of Empire, Vol.1: White Man’s World (Oxford, 2011), p. 5.


(5) Edith Sitwell: avant-garde poet, English genius

Richard Greene, Edith Sitwell: avant-garde poet, English genius (London, Virago, 2011)

reviewed by Dr Jane Dowson, De Montfort University

‘The Sitwells belong to the history of publicity rather than of poetry’, famously pronounced F. R. Leavis in New Bearings in English Poetry (1932). Greene believes this ‘toxic wisecrack’ by Leavis had an overlong shelf life and ensured ‘that the one British woman of her time who briefly enjoyed status as a major poet was not merely pushed back into the second rank, but dismissed by many as a fraud’ (p. 237). Greene’s biography, with its subtitle, ‘avant-garde poet, English genius’, flags a challenge to Leavis’s verdict. For a start, he separates out the three siblings, giving Edith (1887–1964) a book of her own, then daringly asserts that at the height of her fame she was ‘the best British-born poet’ of her day (p. 320). Although much is known about the Sitwells and their milieu from John Pearson’s close study, Façade: Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell (1978), and about Edith in particular from her autobiography, Taken Care Of: an Autobiography (1965) and the anthology Edith Sitwell: Fire of the Mind, edited by Elizabeth Salter and Allanah Harper (1976), Greene explains why we need a biography now in his prologue (p. 8). One reason is the wealth of material available since Victoria Glendinning’s biography of 30 years ago (1981) and since the Selected Letters (1997) that Greene himself edited. Additionally, since she is a writer ‘who matters’ the very strangeness of Sitwell’s life and character warrant documentation rather than derision. Contingently, Greene aims to enhance readers’ engagement with her poetry by tracing its evolution. Nevertheless, in determining to accentuate Edith’s genius, Greene is up against longstanding mythology about her eccentric appearance and personality. Reviews with titles such as ‘Epistles of a great English eccentric’ or ‘Withering heights’ (1), continue to pick on her clothes and caustic wit, which might only add to the appeal if she were a male public figure. ‘Edith Sitwell in her own words’, the section that prefaces the book, displays such Wildesque quips as, ‘I am fundamentally kind, if you discount my conversation, which is very often not’ or ‘All the Pipsqueakery [hostile critics] are after me in full squeak’, inviting us to laugh with rather than at Edith. Indeed, while presenting a kaleidoscope of perspectives on his subject, Greene’s gently persuasive counsel for her defence is surely crucial to the success of a biography.

Since any life-story consists in a mixture of events that can be checked for accuracy and varying degrees and kinds of unfathomability, the biographer necessarily combines authenticity with speculation. Greene’s credentials as an authoritative recorder of Sitwell’s life permeate the book from start to finish. It is the work of several decades in which Greene visited all the places that Edith and members of her family inhabited or visited. The acknowledgements reveal the extent of individuals, including key members of the family, who provided interviews and papers and the useful family tree at the front sets up a factual framework for the ensuing narrative. The chapters chronicle Edith’s life, from her parents’ background, through the five decades of her publishing career to her death from heart failure. Consequently, tales of quarrels, reconciliations, battles with health and poverty thread through the chapters and provide stimulating narrative coherence. The pleasure of speculation is afforded as Greene treads a path that both validates and undermines human testimony, including Edith’s. For example, referring to her well-circulated protest against the ‘hell’ of her childhood (2), Edith later stated that she was an unreliable witness of her own life. Greene painstakingly recounts how Edith’s curvature of her long spine was treated by the medical profession but defends her parents and the doctors against charges that the corrective iron straitjacket, what she called her ‘bastille’, was maliciously prescribed. While implying that Edith’s complaints exaggerated her childhood suffering, Greene revives the reader’s sympathy by details of her parents’ arranged and unhappy marriage that endorses Edith’s sense of rejection by them, and by alluding to the back problems that plagued her all through her life.

The fact that Edith felt an outsider in her own family and left it at the age of 17 maintains our warmth towards the protagonist, while the book offers fascinating social history about aristocratic life in the early 20th century. Chapter two, ‘A sense of place’, describes, with the vividness of an eye-witness, how Edith spent much of her adolescence between London and the family seat, Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, with annual journeys to the continent. Belvoir House in Scarborough was another Sitwell family home for decades. The miseries and falls of a mighty titled family only add to the biography’s appeal; inherited wealth did not protect the family from ill health, emotional turbulence or debt. Lady Ida Denison and Sir George Sitwell embodied a transition from Victorian to modern cultures while undergoing a human drama of difficult relationships. Lady Ida’s depression, drinking and gambling, the attendant pawning of possessions and her humiliating imprisonment form the backdrop to Edith’s fortunes, rendering their world at once remote and recognizable: the three strange siblings simply took strength in each other when their parents proved unreliable. Corroborating her autobiography, Greene outlines how Edith did not conform to the femininity expected by her parents yet, as a girl, was cheated of legacies from an aunt and her father, while her brothers squandered their inheritances. The history of her education at home is instructive. We learn the curriculum for a girl educated at home at the turn of the century (pp. 32–3). However, her father’s belief, echoing the dominant discourses of medicine at the time, that study made women unfeminine meant that Edith did not go to university. Instead, she left home for London where she met writers, painters and musicians, becoming increasingly serious about modern art.

The story of the eponymous subject is also the tale of a generation and as Louis Menand comments, a biography deals with who controls the narrative about a person.(3) Greene frequently offers counter-perspectives to received versions, leveling the playfield between figures with grand reputations and those with diminished profiles. He broadens Edith’s much trumpeted eccentricity to a brand that is peculiarly English and peculiar to an artist; he places her among a cast of larger-than-life figures whose personal relationships were synchronous with their professional lives and intrinsic to their creativity. Like her, all the characters come across as both sinned against and sinning in their loves and losses, fluctuating reputations, sensitivities to critical reception, financial pressures and heavy drinking. However, Greene privileges Edith with the voices of her many admirers that show up the mistreatment by her family, by men and by the critics. Sitwell had an inside view of the domestic life of Robert Graves and his wife and we have his unusual view of her, spending time on the sofa hemming handkerchiefs. The mutual regard between Sitwell and T. S. Eliot waxed and waned along with their friendship. Edith professed to love the Waste Land (p. 173), which she read while Eliot was recovering from mental collapse, and defended him against charges of ill-treating his wife (p. 125) but when Edith and Osbert refused Vivienne’s appeal for help, relations cooled between the Sitwells and Eliots. They were reunited later but Edith was appalled at Tom’s second marriage and denounced the Four Quartets that she had earlier adored. Personal and professional interests were also in conflict in her relationship with D. H. Lawrence, whom Edith and Osbert eventually met in Florence. Edith was convinced that the unflattering portrait of Clifford Chatterley was subsequently based on Osbert and denigrated Lawrence’s book ever afterwards. Similarly, Greene explores existing anecdotes about the personal and professional kinship between Edith and Virginia Woolf (pp. 134–5). He prints a rarely cited and lengthy extract from Woolf’s diary (pp. 187–8) that is one of the most compassionate and perceptive observations of Edith, crystallising what is told in fragments all through the biography.

Greene’s depiction of Edith’s governess, Helen Rootham, who became a literary mentor and friend (pp. 42–3), treads the line between unfixing other versions and fixing a new one. One view is that Edith could not accept her former governess as an equal, though Greene indicates that Helen’s musical talent encouraged Edith’s fine ear. Helen also accompanied Edith to Paris in 1904 to save her from the finishing off process expected of a girl with her social status. They set up home in 22 Pembridge Mansions, in a house that became a famous meeting place for writers and artists throughout the 1920s. Greene’s meticulous description transports us to the block of flats and immediate neighborhood so we can imagine the room in which Edith started to write and host the ‘at homes’ that are part of the literary history of modernism. Later, Greene particularises the souring of relations between Edith and her governess turned friend (p. 142) and then Edith’s care of Helen as she fell ill and died in 1938. His judgement that Helen was really very difficult allows our sympathy for Edith to remain intact.

Ultimately, the nature of Edith and Helen’s relationship is educated guesswork and unlike the historian, the biographer need have no qualms about embracing enigmas. The big mystery is Edith’s life-long attraction to the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew and recourse to his recently available letters is one distinguishing mark of this biography: ‘a reading of Tchelitchew’s immense correspondence with Edith reveals him as extravagant, visionary, superstitious, cruel and selfish’ (p. 191). Greene’s conclusion, that Edith, although colluding in his hold over her, was a victim of Tchelitchew’s unpredictable personality and uncertain mental health, keeps us on her side in the tempestuous relationship. At the same time, Greene even-handedly suggests that Tchelitchew was part of a neglected group of neo-romantic artists that drew inspiration from classical, Renaissance, symbolist and surrealist movements and deserves his own biography. Do we need to know whether or not Edith had sex with Tchelitchew or with any other man or woman if we are considering her genius as a poet? Greene returns to this question sporadically and intensively in the chapter ‘Her loves’. He treats all verdicts, including Edith’s, with caution but his allusion to her attraction to other bisexuals such as Alvaro de Guevara and Siegfried Sassoon is something of a non sequitur. If there is no proof that she was a lesbian (p. 213), do we need to consider whether she might have been? Perhaps the importance is in having some unsolved mysteries so that we leave each chapter and the book with something to ponder.

As for ‘avant-garde poet’, Greene claims Edith as ‘a pugilist for the modern movement in the arts’ (p. 167). In tracing the evolution of her poetry, however, Greene disagrees that she moved from a phase of satire, associated with Façade (1922), to vision, associated with ‘Still falls the rain’ (1940), but that comedy and tragedy entwined is the mark of all her writing. He also unsettles the polarity between her pre-war linguistic innovation and post-war social engagement with close readings of works like ‘The dancers’, a fine but little known First World War poem (p. 108), stressing that the Sitwells viewed war as an imposition by the older generation. Edith wrote to Sassoon in sympathy with his public anti-war protest (p. 122) and, with Sassoon, edited Wilfred Owen’s poems. From 1926, Sassoon became one of her main fans and a critic to whom she looked for feedback for the next four decades (p. 185). During the 1920s she was in demand as a speaker and could fill a room. In the chapter ‘Too fantastic and fat-heads’ Greene evaluates all accounts of the making and rendering of Façade, moderating sensationalism without minimizing the historical importance of the first performance that was succeeded by many more in the following decades. She was in the company of groundbreakers who were attacked in the provocative A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), edited by Laura Riding and Robert Graves. Unlike some of her contemporaries, however, Edith associated a fight against traditionalism with a fight against injustice and believed she had always written about it (p. 175). If not already converted, Greene’s carefully contexualised reading of ‘Gold coast customs’ (pp. 199–200), A Song of the Cold (pp. 319–20), and ‘His blood colours my cheek’, ‘one of the best of her old age’ (pp. 414–16) would send a reader to her poems. Edith’s compassion for the less privileged is traced back to a childhood friend in Scarborough who was poor and beaten by his mother. Additionally, she and her brothers spent more time with the servants than with their parents and according to Osbert, one nurse, Eliza Davis, had a special affection for Edith. Edith emerges as a pacifist and at the height of her reputation was in demand as a spokesperson for causes such as the campaigns against Apartheid and for Nuclear Disarmament.

We are on side with Edith against the literary critics who severely damaged her reputation. In the chapter ‘Let the devils have it’, Greene concedes where they have a point, but also exposes the malice in Geoffrey Grigson and Leavis, tempering their hostility to her Aspects of Modern Poetry (1934) and other works with words of praise by others. Greene has a sympathetic insight into the special challenges of being a woman poet, about which Edith wrote considerably and controversially. He believes the performative elements in her poems are partly negotiations with iconographies of the feminised poetess (p. 128). She championed her contemporary Charlotte Mew (p. 134) and later the Americans Gertrude Stein, H. D. and Marianne Moore. She would seem to have much in common with the avant-garde Stein whom she met in Paris via an editor of Vogue magazine, but there were rivalries over Tchelitchew who was initially Stein’s protégé.

How is Edith Sitwell a genius? Her knowledge and talents were extraordinary and she always got people talking. She knew several languages, was an authority on art, music and ballet, claiming that Stravinsky’s work inspired her rhythms. She formed a short-lived Anglo-French society, consisting of many great figures and that gave recitals with Sitwell and Arnold Bennett as a class double act. Although they had several fallings out and reconciliations, Bennett maintained that Sitwell was a genius (p. 140). Edwin Muir was an advocate and critic of her work and as editor of The New Age had her poetry published in the magazine. Another friend and admirer was Graham Greene (p. 16) whom Edith believed completely understood her poetry. She was ‘one of her century’s great letter writers’ (p. 199) and her only novel I Live under a Black Sun (1937, repr. 2007), was considered the work of a genius by the writer Wilfrid Gibson (p. 261) and a masterpiece by others. Her historical portrait Victoria of England (1936) was a best-seller and her first study of Elizabeth 1 (1946) sold 19,000 copies in three weeks, while her anthologies and critical works always made waves. There is still living memory on which to draw about the later decades of Edith’s life that have been eclipsed in academic and popular worlds by the excitement of the 1920s. The chapters on her work during and after the Second World War illuminate the brightness of her reputation and output in the 1940s and 1950s (p. 322). Greene’s full discussion of such poems as ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Serenade: any man for any woman’ testify to their neglect in canons of Second World War poetry (pp. 273–6). The biography begins with the air raid on Sheffield in 1940 that left a deep mark on Edith’s imagination and inspired the poem ‘Still falls the rain’ that is unequivocally acclaimed. There was a special edition of Horizon magazine in 1947. Her engagement with the American literary tradition as well as contemporary American poets, notably Robert Lowell, was allegedly greater than any British-born poet of her generation (p. 311). Greene reads the Whitmanesque multi-syllabled lines in ‘Heart and mind’ from Green song and other poems (1944). Her visit, with Osbert, to New York on the Queen Elizabeth liner in 1948 was a triumph and included a rendition of Façade. She impressed the major cultural figure Lincoln Kirstein who believed she had star power. She made several more trips to the United States, including a three-month lecture tour that included ten weeks in Hollywood when she met Marilyn Monroe. They would seem poles apart yet connected through some mutual recognition of their common psychological wounds. Sitwell edited an anthology, An American Genius (1951), Her new Collected Poems (1955) was accompanied by numerous accolades in America and Britain. There was a mixed reception to her bumper anthology, The Atlantic Book of British and American Poetry published in 1958 in the United States and the following year in Great Britain. She was awarded Honorary Degrees from the universities of Leeds (1947), Durham (1947) and Oxford (1951) and an OBE in 1954.

In summary, while necessarily nurturing the reader’s appetite for human interest, the biography is part social history, part literary history and part Künstlerroman. Greene maintains a fine balance between the oddness and ordinariness of an artist’s life and temperament. At times, Edith stands out head and shoulders for the longevity of her career, the quantity and range of her output and extreme mix of strength and vulnerability. She was a fighter to promote modern art, to be herself and to protect her friends when necessary. She comes across as someone whom those close to her, such as Natasha Spender, perceived as quiet (p. 240) and Winfred Bryher found worth sponsoring (p. 280). This book puts the record straight with material that has been excised by lazy scholarship or popular gossip or only recently made accessible. In dissecting the records about one life, the biographer at once exposes how records that present themselves as authentic history are skewed by selection, subjectivity and faulty memory. At the same time, the inevitability of gaps in all attempts to construct a life permit the pleasure of imaginative play and speculative recreation.


1. ‘Epistles of a great English Eccentric’, by Philip Zeiger, Daily Telegraph (1 March 1997) and ‘Withering Heights’, by Miranda Seymour, Sunday Times (9 March 1997), reviews of Selected Letters of Edith Sitwell, ed. Richard Greene (London, 2007).

2. Edith Sitwell to Geoffrey Singleton, 11 July 1955, Edith Sitwell: Selected Letters, ed. John Lehmann and Derek Parker (London, 1970) pp. 198–200.

3. Louis Menand, 2007. ‘Lives of others: the biography business’, The New Yorker, 6 August 2007 <> [accessed 4 December, 2012].

(4) J. C. Beaglehole. Public Intellectual, Critical Conscience

Doug Munro, J. C. Beaglehole. Public Intellectual, Critical Conscience (Wellington, Steel Roberts, 2012)

reviewed by Dr Colin Newbury, Linacre College, Oxford

The author of this very short monograph is well-known in New Zealand as a biographer and historian. The work is a reprint and revision of his chapter on John Beaglehole in a book published in the United Kingdom three years ago.(1) By way of explanation, Munro submits that few copies sold in New Zealand, so this revision has been prepared ‘for a parochial audience’ and cheaper distribution (p. 2). That aside, it is a pleasure to review for a wider readership in Reviews in History his insights into the life of a scholar who will be familiar to historians for his superb editions of Cook’s voyages and his unsurpassed biography of the great navigator’s life. Readers expecting new insights into Beaglehole’s tireless work as an editor, however, will find them more readily elsewhere.(2) Munro’s emphasis is on a Pacific scholar’s engagement in public affairs and his long campaign in a variety of causes to improve the quality of intellectual life in a society that was mostly indifferent, even hostile, to challenges to its complacency in the inter-war years.

Accordingly, this biography falls into two parts – Beaglehole’s personal formation as an intellectual when a student in Wellington and as a postgraduate in London, followed by seven chapters covering his reluctant return and fraught engagements in academic and public life. He was lucky enough to be born into a cultured middle class family in Wellington in 1901. His three brothers became engineers and a professor of psychology. The young John Beaglehole, intelligent and with a sharp and critical pen, made his mark from 1919 at Victoria University College, by using a student newspaper to excoriate civic leaders for the Wellington environment and lampoon academic heads for the structure of the University of New Zealand which controlled the country’s four regional colleges. Nevertheless, his MA thesis in History (3) earned him a travelling scholarship which took him to London University in 1926. His PhD, however, on the rather dull topic of ‘Royal Instructions to Colonial Governors’, under the supervision of A. P. Newton, did him no favours and never found a publisher. But other contacts such as Harold Laski sharpened his scepticism for the received wisdom of any political establishment and the imperial metropolis enlarged his appreciation of music and the visual arts. So much so, that he took little pleasure in returning to New Zealand in 1930.

From then on, a comfortable reintegration into a country in the midst of the Depression was unlikely. His first post was as a tutor with the WEA in Otago in 1930 . His radical support for waterfront strikers set him at odds with university authorities and sent him into periodic unemployment when his contract was not renewed. It is all the more remarkable that with only odd jobs for material support he managed to produce between 1934 and 1937 a very good history of Pacific exploration, a very critical history of the University of New Zealand and an unflattering short history of his homeland that was light on historical background and heavy on the social consequences of recession. Despite that output (or perhaps because of some of it), he missed out on tenured posts, until his successful rival for the chair of history at Victoria, aware of his qualities, generously found him a lectureship in 1936.

That date and the election of a Labour Government with sympathy for cultural causes marked the beginning of a vitally constructive period for Beaglehole. There were several reasons for this turn in his fortunes, one of which is not mentioned – notably the improvement in New Zealand’s economy in the immediate pre-war and war years. More specifically, he moved into the sphere of government patronage extended through the Internal Affairs Department and its very broad-minded under-secretary, J. W. Heenan. Through Heenan, Beaglehole was relieved in 1947 of some of his teaching duties with the award of a government-funded professorial fellowship affording him time and money to tackle his Cook research in all the relevant archives and to follow his subject’s explorations in fieldwork at his most important Pacific landfalls. As if that did not keep him busy enough, prior to the first Cook edition appearing in 1955 he also produced books on Tasman’s discovery of New Zealand, an edition of New Zealand attitudes to the Statute of Westminster and a book on the university college that employed him.

But no matter what government was in power, there were inevitable rifts even with generous patrons. In the same year as the award of his professorial fellowship he took issue with the unwise insistence by Heenan and the government on the appointment of Andersen Tyrer as conductor of the country’s new National Orchestra. Tyrer’s inaugural performance fell far short of Beaglehole’s balanced but critical expectations, published in a review.(4 ) There was a long battle with the incoming National Government over its threat to end funding for an Historical Atlas (eventually resolved by compromise); and there was a much more serious and public opposition to repressive legislation following a waterfront strike in 1951.That stand may have cost him his part-time advisory position with the Department of Internal Affairs, though the evidence discussed is not entirely conclusive on this point (pp. 50–2). There were further battles with whatever government in power over resources for an Arts Advisory Council, over the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties, the banning of Vladimir Nabobkov’s novel, Lolita, (for which the Council sued the government – and lost). More enduringly, Beaglehole was the power behind New Zealand’s Historic Places Trust and the successful preservation of Old St Paul’s Anglican Church, Wellington, which later honoured him with a memorial plaque suitably reproduced here as an illustration (p. 12). But that was about his limit in time and energy spent on public causes. In his mellower years he did not participate in other issues of the 1960s that engaged New Zealanders, such as Vietnam, rugby tours of South Africa or French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

By way of conclusion, in chapter eight Munro supplies some thoughtful answers as to what kind of public intellectual Beaglehole was (pp. 64–74) on the basis of the evidence surveyed. He finds it easiest to typologise him for what he was not. With one exception (5) he did not write works that engaged directly with contemporary affairs; he was never part of a party machine; and he deplored violence in street confrontations. In short, he was no revolutionary in the grand style of the philosopher, John Locke, who opposed the late Stuart kings, worked from exile and assisted in the bloodless change of monarchy in 1688. True, the times from a New Zealand perspective were very different from the 1930s through to the 1950s, though, arguably, no less fraught than for intellectuals in Europe caught up ideological wars more bitter than those of the 17th century. It is curious that Beaglehole’s long and very active association with the New Zealand branch in the Institute of International Affairs did not yield material on his attitude to great power questions.

It may simply be, therefore, that Beaglehole’s ‘critical conscience’ was not global, but domestic, in the sense that he battled for excellence in the performing arts and in literature as much as for civil liberties at home. Munro draws a parallel with G. M. Trevelyan: ‘both were modest and hard-working and each was infused with a sense of altruism’ (p. 65). It is an interesting assertion. Both were certainly liberal minded and given to public service and conservation work; they both believed that big books on big subjects were essential to any civilised nation.. But there were differences, apart from Trevelyan’s ancestry, war service and independent means. As a ‘public intellectual’ Beaglehole never indulged himself in patriotic nostalgia in his historical work on New Zealand in the style of Trevelyan’s History of England, or made a heroic figure out of Cook in the manner of Trevelyan’s glorification of Garibaldi.

Munro is on safer ground explaining his subject’s public intellectualism. He argues that Beaglehole’s adherence to causes came from a sense of duty, as much as moral conviction. His sense of ‘freedom’ was freedom to disagree which he encouraged in his students, and a freedom to read whatever was published which led him to oppose censorship. It says much about New Zealand society over the period under discussion (and I remember it well) that such views aroused indignantly intolerant opposition. ‘It was not a receptive setting for the social critic; Beaglehole was definitely not regarded as being in ancient and honourable company’ (p. 66). The fact that he campaigned at all, let alone with such a sharp tongue, on his return in 1930 marked him out as subversive and dangerous. Later in life, in calmer waters, he did not get so worked up about early ratification of the Statute of Westminster which would have allowed separate and independent diplomatic representation abroad, but welcomed it when it came in 1947. He set more store by the Canberra Pact of 1944 which asserted the right of Australia and New Zealand to have a say in regional Pacific issues, though I am not sure he thought through the eventual implications for defence costs.

In the end, Munro does not try to pin his subject down with a slick phrase; and that is to be applauded. If I were asked to summarise Beaglehole I would make a slightly different approach and place him among the foremost artists and writers who defined New Zealand’s home-grown renaissance by selecting from their cultural roots – and especially the English language and its literary wealth – to fashion a distinctive idiom in which they came to terms with their natural and social environment. In that way New Zealand became less alien to the generation of the 1920s and 1930s. His monumental work on Cook was among those roots, as a product of Europe’s age of Enlightenment. His civic causes were more parochial with a leaven of feeling for natural law and a visceral opposition to injustice. Much of the documentation for that view derives from the abundant literature used and cited by Munro. For that synoptic and well-researched account New Zealanders will be grateful.


(1)    Doug Munro, The Ivory Tower and Beyond: Participant Historians of the Pacific (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2009).

(2)    Most notably in Tim Beaglehole, A Life of J. C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar (Wellington, 2006).

(3) Later published as Captain Hobson and the New Zealand Company: a Study of Colonial Administration (Northampton, MA, 1928).

(4) J. C. Beaglehole, ‘Reflections on an orchestral performance’, New Zealand Listener, 21 March 1947, 8–9.

(5) New Zealand: a Short History (London, 1936).


(3)  A Victorian Gentleman & Ethiopian Nationalist

Peter Garretson, A Victorian Gentleman & Ethiopian Nationalist: the life and times of Hakim Warqenah, Dr Charles Martin (Woodbridge, James Currey, 2012)

reviewed by Richard Reid, School of Oriental and African Studies

Peter Garretson’s biography of Warqenah Eshete – Ethiopian statesman, diplomat and occasional businessman – is nothing if not meticulous: drawing extensively on Warqenah’s own autobiography and diary, Garretson succeeds in gathering an enormous amount of detail on the myriad stages of the man’s life and doings, personal and professional. And it was quite a life – bizarre and individual in some ways, representative of his time and place in others. Warqenah was born in 1865 – or 1864, according to Bahru Zewde (1) – to highland Ethiopian nobility, and spent his infancy in imprisonment at the hands of the emperor Tewodros who in the final years of his reign was distrustful of many such old aristocratic families. His ‘liberation’ was an ambiguous one: abandoned (apparently inadvertently) by his parents on the field of battle in the face of the famous British assault on Tewodros’ stronghold in 1868, he was picked up by a British officer and taken to India. The boy was shifted from guardian to guardian, ending up at the Church Missionary Society station at Amritsar, where he was named Charles Martin, an amalgam of the two men who had been most important in his ‘rescue’ and resettlement. He went on, as Garretson chronicles in painstaking detail, to become a denizen of the British Empire, living (and serving, as a colonial official) in Burma, and studying to become a medical doctor in Britain, but also spending increasing amounts of time in Ethiopia, the place of his birth but a place, too, with which he had not unproblematic relations. In Ethiopia in the 1920s, he became close to Ras Tafari – the future Haile Selassie – and served as political and economic advisor, regional administrator (in Charchar province), and ultimately as diplomat, the highpoint in his career coming during Ethiopia’s nadir, the Italian invasion and occupation in the second half of the 1930s. During that period, he was Ethiopia’s ambassador to Britain and one of its chief overseas activists and fundraisers. Yet he was by no means immune from the vagaries of the personalised politics which characterised Haile Selassie’s court, and fell from the Emperor’s favour in the course of the 1940s. He died, in Addis Ababa, in 1952.

His was a remarkable life, and yet his footprint in much of the mainstream Ethiopian scholarship is faint. In recent years the major treatment of Warqenah has been in Bahru Zewde’s work on Ethiopian ‘reformist intellectuals’, of which he is posited as one of the most important – more on which below.(2) Richard Pankhurst awarded Warqenah considerable significance in his study of Ethiopian economic history (3), while in Paul Henze’s survey of the Ethiopian past, he is reduced to a footnote, albeit quite a substantial one.(4) Otherwise, he makes fleeting appearances in more ‘popular’ histories of the Ethiopian-Italian war of 1935–6, where he is known by his Anglican name, Charles Martin.(5) In terms of contemporary sources, he appears in the Daily Mail journalist Geoffrey Harmsworth’s account of the 1935 crisis, in which the ‘Ethiopian Minister in London’ is incorrectly (and rather bizarrely) described as someone completely detached from the land of his birth and who had ‘only revisited Abyssinia once or twice during the last thirty years’.(6) The explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who dealt with Warqenah while the latter was governor of Charchar, recalled him as a man whose ‘European background made him easier than most Abyssinian officials for foreigners to deal with’.(7) Rather more interestingly, Emperor Haile Selassie himself, in an autobiography dictated in exile in 1937, mentions Warqenah only once, as his representative in London and special envoy to the US.(8) Warqenah’s relative invisibility is a little puzzling, given his supposed importance as Haile Selassie’s advisor and representative overseas, although relations between the two would indeed deteriorate through the late 1930s, over money (or more precisely the Emperor’s lack of it).

This book is a significant correction to this seeming neglect in the historical record, and certainly reconstructs Warqenah’s life in exhaustive detail. There are some fascinating insights into the man’s career, into critical passages of Ethiopian history, and into Ethiopian political culture. An otherwise highly descriptive third chapter, dealing with adventures in the Ogaden and a return to Burma, is punctuated (pp. 44–7) by a discussion of Warqenah’s personal relations with some of the key Ethiopian figures of the age, including Emperor Menelik and his redoubtable wife Taitu. This section offers some fascinating insights into the political culture of the age – a culture based so much on sound personal connections, at which Warqenah worked assiduously. In chapter four there are intriguing glimpses into palace life, and the burgeoning town of Addis Ababa, in the early 1900s. Chapter five, dealing with his growing stature in Ethiopia, contains some useful material on the precarious nature of political favour in and around the imperial court. On pp.77–9, the description of Warqenah building his house in Addis Ababa illuminates the importance, again, of political connections, and offers some nice detail on the logistical challenges involved in getting hold of construction materials in Ethiopia in the 1910s. Amidst a fair amount of strictly narrative detail in chapter six, there are again some useful insights into political life in what was a volatile and uncertain period in Ethiopian history. On pp. 115–23 we are offered an excellent account of Warqenah’s role as an advisor to Ras Tafari, and of the latter’s 1924 trip to Europe, in which Warqenah played a major part. Students of Haile Selassie’s early regime, in the first half of the 1930s, will find the discussion of Warqenah’s governorship of Charchar, and of the various political personalities of the era, especially valuable; there are insights, too, into the operation of the slave trade and the institution of slavery, to the abolition of which Warqenah dedicated much of his time in the 1920s.

Arguably the most interesting section, and with perhaps the widest appeal, is that dealing with Warqenah’s role as ambassador to London in 1935–6, and thereafter as one of the main protagonists in raising Ethiopia’s profile during the Italian occupation. Some excellent detail is provided on the nature of the pro-Ethiopian lobby in London. Inevitably, there was collaboration with the passionate Ethiophile Sylvia Pankhurst in London. There was much unsuccessful lobbying of the British Foreign Office, but some support was mobilised from Nazi Germany (Hitler wanted Italy to win, but not too quickly, and was keen to see Mussolini’s attention diverted for a time from European affairs). This period is presented as the ‘climax’ of Warqenah’s career, yet it was a tragic time for him and his family: the Italians executed two of his sons in 1937 in the clampdown following an assassination attempt on Graziani in 1937. Notably, both men had left the guerrilla struggle, returned to Addis Ababa, and become (like many Ethiopians) reconciled to Italian rule. Indeed, while his family in Addis undoubtedly experienced great trauma, many of them ended up ‘less anti-Italian than their father’ (p. 255) – a rather guarded phrase, and a theme which surely begs closer examination. In the end, Warqenah fell out of favour with the capricious Haile Selassie, as the latter struggled to come to terms with impoverished exile and apparently blamed Warqenah for his reduced circumstances. And the accusation was not entirely unfounded, it seems, for when Warqenah sold a house at Prince’s Gate in London – supposedly for the use of the Ethiopian cause – he kept the money for himself. Even Garretson – sympathetic to his subject throughout – is compelled to note that Haile Selassie’s eventual granting of forgiveness was ‘magnanimous’ (p. 245).

There is certainly plenty here to get to grips with, in terms of Warqenah’s various challenges, projects and achievements; his unhappy childhood; his struggles with identity and belonging. In some ways, however, this book is a reminder that good biography can be a tricky thing to pull off. At times the story is rather flat in the telling; there is much detailed description but often little in the way of analysis or reflection. In terms of context – the world which Warqenah inhabited – much is implied, but rarely is substantial analysis provided. In some respects the author has missed an opportunity to explore the imperial world in which his subject lived; even the Ethiopian politics and culture of the era are only occasionally, and at times seemingly inadvertently, glimpsed through the basic narrative. Opportunities to expand and reflect are often overlooked – for example an early encounter with racism (p. 27), or the young Warqenah’s striking sense of his own foreignness when he first returns to the embryonic but expanding settlement of Addis Ababa in the late 1890s (p. 28). This reviewer found especially frustrating the silence on Warqenah’s dealings with the India Office in London: What were colonial attitudes toward him? How was he perceived in official circles? It would have been delightful to have more detail on his and his wife Qatsala’s life in Burma during the First World War (pp. 98–9). In the intellectual realm, the man was clearly a pragmatist – his views on ‘practical’ education for the ‘native’ echoed that of his erstwhile colonial employers – but his writings on various subjects (pp.260–8) are presented in a rather summary and piecemeal form, and needed to be developed a little more carefully, if indeed the author believes these writings to be worthy of notice.

One of the key issues here is that Garretson has essentially re-packaged Warqenah’s own autobiography and his extensive diary, and seems rarely to move beyond what is to be found in these two core sources. Almost the whole of chapter four, for example, is based on Warqenah’s diary, with apparently little deviation and only the most basic elaboration. At times, indeed, this reviewer wondered if it might not have been better to present an annotated and translated edition of Warqenah’s own work. The man himself remains oddly elusive: there is little on his personality, his strengths and weaknesses, and the reader reaches the end of Warqenah’s life appreciative of the fascinating journey which that life represented, but with strangely little sense of who he actually was – despite the considerable detail, for example, on his various spousal relationships. Much is made in the early part of the narrative of Warqenah’s ‘evangelical Christian morals’ (p. 55) – but he certainly does not appear to have been ‘evangelical’, and in truth he seems at times to have interpreted his Christian morals pretty loosely. On p. 241 we are told that he could be ‘stubborn’ – a remarkably rare glimpse into his otherwise largely absent personality. Perhaps this is asking too much of the source material, although presumably interviews of family members might have filled in some of the gaps; but in the end, the story feels a little colourless.

On a rather more mundane note, the prose occasionally leaves something to be desired: the book sometimes reads like a first draft, complete with the grammatical slippages and clumsy expression associated with rough early versions of text. The prose is episodically lazy, and the author reverts to cliché: relationships go through ‘highs and lows’; there are numerous ‘turning points’ in Warqenah’s life; events and periods are frequently referred to as ‘significant’ and ‘important’, without ever really being reflected upon at any length. Oddities in the text, which appear to have been missed at copyedit stage, include the repetition of abbreviated forms of key sources at the beginning of each chapter.

As for the subject matter itself: how noteworthy a figure was Warqenah Eshete? Garretson describes an extremely busy man, involved in a dizzying number of projects, often simultaneously: advising the future Haile Selassie on the abolition of slavery; representing Ethiopia overseas; building schools. In the latter half of the 1920s, he is a judge, a businessman, a political advisor. He spreads himself pretty thin, and so congested does his life appear to be that one wonders about the level of his actual involvement in these various projects. But there is a somewhat larger issue here, which is the degree to which the biographer ends up consciously or otherwise promoting his subject. There are points in the narrative where this book borders on hagiography: Warqenah is the exemplar of the energetic, multi-talented reformer, involved in just about all the important issues of the day and quite a lot else besides. Readers interested in human failure will find relatively little to edify them here; there are few warts, other than those inadvertently and implicitly revealed, in this telling of the story. On pp.184–91, indeed, the author simply lays out all the various reforms and achievements worthy of note. Elsewhere, we are repeatedly reminded in the bluntest of terms just how much Warqenah ‘played a key role’. Sometimes this is presented in a rather odd fashion, as on pp. 233ff, when we jump lightly from Warqenah’s ‘key role’ during the period of Italy’s aggression to his importance in the RSPCA and the Masons. Garretson does seem, at times, to play the role of advocate rather than critical assessor, or even critical friend.

In the Ethiopian context, much is made of the Warqenah generation as comprising ‘reformers’ and ‘modernisers’. Bahru Zewde’s work, again, has characterised Warqenah and a number of his prominent contemporaries as ‘pioneers of change’.(9) This reviewer has often struggled to understand quite how true this description is. Warqenah and many of his peers were fascinated by some of the accoutrements of modernity, but it takes a leap of the imagination to see them as genuine ‘reformers’. In the title of chapter six, he is referred to as a ‘progressive’ (p.101), but in truth Warqenah was a rather unconvincing ‘progressive’. His intellectual life was fairly restricted, and he was, in Garretson’s own words, ‘quite conservative and traditional’ (p. 264). Warqenah and his contemporaries tinkered with bits of the system, but in the end were implicated in the steady strengthening of neo-Solomonic power, a highly personalised and profoundly unstable system of which many of the ‘reformers’ – Warqenah included – themselves fell foul, at one time or another. Much vaunted anti-slavery activism aside, it is difficult to appreciate what Warqenah and his peers actually achieved in terms of profound and enduring ‘reform’. There was always an eye for the main chance, certainly – the occasional railway or mining concession, some business on the side, the building of large houses. One is left with the sense, perhaps unfairly, that while Warqenah was indeed something of a patriotic entrepreneur – political, social and economic – much of his frenetic activity was self-serving, and he was a rather self-possessed individual. One of the causes of his rift with Haile Selassie during the Second World War, as noted earlier, was that he appeared to be feathering his own nest by keeping the profits from a house sale – with rather tarnishes the image of the great patriot. He was certainly personally ambitious, and keenly aware of his own status in Ethiopian society. For sure, the sharpening up of local administration, for example, might well involve some wider public benefit. Yet one might argue that it was precisely the failure of that generation to achieve serious political or economic reform which meant that it was left to a later generation, coming of age a decade or so after Warqenah’s death in 1952, to lay their lives on the line in order to effect change, for better or worse.(10)

Biography is an ill-developed genre in the field of African history, certainly in the context of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The few that exist are firmly in the ‘life and times’ tradition: in the Ethiopian region, one might point to Harold Marcus on Emperor Menelik, or Haggai Erlich on Ras Alula (11); elsewhere in eastern Africa, examples include Norman Bennett on Mirambo, in nineteenth-century Tanzania (12), and Michael Twaddle’s study of the Ugandan soldier and administrator, Kakungulu.(13) Otherwise, the relative lack of a biographical tradition in African historiography can be ascribed to some extent to methodological obstacles – there is often simply not enough source material to facilitate full-length biographical studies of individual Africans – although in fact sources for this period (between, say, c.1860 and c.1940) are actually reasonably good. Moreover, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a sharp turn toward ‘history from below’, in African history as elsewhere, which meant that there was a shift away from the study of ‘great men’. In that sense, the book under review represents something of a refreshing anomaly. The real value of this story is the light it sheds on the ways in which exposure to outrageous fortune, education and putative ‘modernity’ opened up interesting choices for men like Warqenah Eshete. Although he remains something of an enigma throughout this biography, and while one might have wished that the author had gone further in elaborating upon the ‘times’ as well as the ‘life’ – this detailed and occasionally insightful narrative illustrates much that is important about this turbulent period in Ethiopian, and indeed global, history.

1          Bahru Zewde, Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia:  the Reformist Intellectuals of the Early Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2002) p.36.

2          Ibid., pp.36–42.

3          R. Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800–1935 (Addis Ababa, 1968), for example pp. 648–9.

4          P. Henze, Layers of Time:  a History of Ethiopia  (London, 2000) pp. 202–3.

5          See for example T. M. Coffey, Lion by the Tail:  the Story of the Italian-Ethiopian War (London, 1974), p. 144;  A.Mockler, Haile Selassie’s War:  the Italian-Ethiopian campaign, 1935–41 (London, 1984) p. 150.

6          G. Harmsworth, Abyssinian Adventure (London, 1935) p. 191.

7          W.Thesiger, The Danakil Diary:  Journeys through Abyssinia, 1930–34 (London, 1998), p. 87.

8          My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress, 1892–1937:  the Autobiography of Emperor Haile Selassie I, ed. and tr. E. Ullendorff (London, 1976), p. 144.

9          Bahru Zewde, Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia.

10        See for example Messay Kebede, Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960–1974 (Rochester, NY, 2008).

11        H.Marcus, The Life and Times of Menelik II:  Ethiopia 1844–1913 (Oxford, 1975);  H. Erlich, Ras Alula and the Scramble for Africa:  a Political Bography.  Ethiopia and Eritrea, 1875–1897 (Lawrenceville, NJ, 1996).

12        N. R. Bennett, Mirambo of Tanzania, 1840?–1884 (London, 1971).

13        M. Twaddle, Kakungulu and the Creation of Uganda, 1868–1928 (London, 1993).

(2) History as a blood sport – the biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper

This review article by Doug Munro (University of Queensland) considers Adam Sisman’s Hugh Trevor-Roper: the Biography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010). It was first published in the Journal of Historical Biography, 8 (Autumn 2010), 62-76, and we are very grateful both to Professor Munro and to the editor of the journal for permission to reproduce it in full here. Adam Sisman will be speaking at our conference, in a panel considering ‘The historian as biographical subject’. History as a blood sport is available as a PDF.

(1) Online Dictionaries of National Biography

Martin Farr, University of Newcastle

American National Biography Online (Oxford University Press; Susan Ware, General Editor; subscription)
Australian Dictionary of Biography (National Centre of Biography/Australian National University; Melanie Nolan, General Editor; free access)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [‘British’] (Oxford University Press; Lawrence Goldman, Editor; subscription)
Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (University of Toronto/Université Laval; John English, General Editor; free access)
Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge University Press/Royal Irish Academy; James McGuire and James Quinn, General Editors; subscription)
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (Encyclopedia of New Zealand/New Zealand Government, Ministry for Culture and Heritage; Nancy Swarbrick; free access)

Though not so established or essential an indication of nationhood as a flag, an anthem, or an airline, systematised collections of national biographies have long been commissioned as both research tools and public statements. ‘Let us celebrate the birth of a giant’, the Australian Book Review wrote in April 1966 on the publication of the first volume of the Australian; ‘[o]nly once does a nation undertake so prodigious a task’. The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, recently lauded it as ‘our greatest historical work’. The Canadian welcomes the reader to a place where ‘you will meet people who played an important role in the formation of what is now Canada’. The American presents those ‘whose lives have shaped the nation’; the ‘British’ of those who ‘shaped the history of the British Isles and beyond’. The Irish sees itself as being ‘especially important in helping to sustain Irish studies courses in universities throughout the world’. Indeed, the scholar of the Anglophone world is blessed by this type of resource.(1) This is a review of only those dictionaries of national biography that are available online (and are designed so as to be), and are in English.(2) There are too many biographical websites and portals easily, or purposefully, to enumerate, given how many utilise, or cannibalise, the same information from similar sites. Many of them are wikis, most prominently Wikipedia, a source certainly not disparaged by this reviewer, but one for another review.

Gillard was only partly correct about the uniqueness of such an undertaking. There were original, printed, equivalents and/or precursors to most of these dictionaries (which in most cases have been uploaded online themselves): The Dictionary of National Biography (DNB,1895–1900; 1912–96, though the somewhat hidden ‘archive’ tab on the new DNB website serves the same purpose), The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1891–1910) and The Dictionary of American Biography (1928–36, 1944–95), the Dictionary of Australian Biography (1949), and the Dictionary of Irish Biography (1978). In a model it was to retain, New Zealand incorporated biography in the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966). The new versions, with the exception of the New Zealand, still originated in printed form. The Australian was born in 1957, a national, co-operative enterprise, funded and maintained by ANU. The Canadian was founded in 1959, after a bequest to the University of Toronto to create an equivalent of the DNB. The first volumes of both the Australian and the Canadian were published in 1966. The American online is entirely new and recent (1999), as is the Irish (2009). The New Zealand is part of Te ara (in Māori, ‘the pathway’) the new Encyclopedia of New Zealand, which, when complete, ‘will be a comprehensive guide to the country’s peoples, natural environment, history, culture, economy, institutions and society’, and so is the only one of the national biographies not conceived of as free-standing. It is the closest to an official publication, being funded by and (overtly) linked to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. This is doubtless the main reason the New Zealand looks so good (the funding appears generous) and is so culturally sensitive (not just ‘Is Māori’ and ‘Is Not Māori’ as search terms, but what is – very probably – every ‘tribal affiliation’ too). It amounts to a national portal, and demonstrates more than any other reviewed here (the nearest equivalent being the now-defunct Australian Biography) how national biography can be positioned to reflect and disseminate the collective national experience.

The dictionaries’ remits vary, but are shaped by modern social and cultural sensitivities. ‘The ADB does not pretend to be setting up a pantheon of immortals’, the Australian says, and as well as the ‘orthodox fields’ of public life includes ‘representatives of every social group and sphere of endeavour … The ADB prides itself on its blend of elitism and egalitarianism’. The ‘British’ included all those present in the original DNB (its contents being the very definition of elites), but in many cases revised or replaced; the New Zealand claims to have ‘subsumed’ entries from the 1966 Encyclopedia, but there are actually many present in the first who are not in the second. In the Australian print and online entries are identical, and only factual errors are corrected. The Canadian is, essentially, an online reproduction of the print version, republished on CD ROM in 2000 (how limited that medium now appears, though it did not at the time), but there is a pledge that it will be ‘continually expanded and enhanced’. The Irish is closely connected to the nine-volume hard copy (indeed links to explanatory and supplementary material produce PDFs of the printed version), whereas the ‘British’ is subject to three updates a year. The Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian are free, but the American, ‘British’, and Irish sit behind paywalls (though the ‘British’, certainly, is effectively free to the public through manifold library subscriptions).

The websites vary, from the Irish being the most aesthetically appealing and the Canadian the least, and the New Zealand appearing the most ‘modern’ and the Canadian the least; yet the Canadian is better in the round than either. The Australian has limited functionality: indexing but no hyperlinks, except to the other subjects of an author. The Canadian is a little better, with only name and subject links, though the functionality is better than that of the Australian, if not the American. In the New Zealand, biographies are cross-referenced with links between the dictionary and the encyclopaedia as well as galleries with embedded video; the lives themselves are however often little more than sub-headed paragraph after sub-headed paragraph, not unlike their wiki equivalents. The Irish, superficially a modern interface, links those qv, but nothing else: no links, or clickable headings to navigate longer entries, as do the New Zealand and the ‘British’. There are no illustrations of any kind; it is print uploaded online. The ‘British’ has the clearest, most intuitive design. It is also the largest and most extensive, and the only one largely to have been rewritten for the digital age. These are not coincidences.

All were established and are operated under academic auspices. The American, Australian, ‘British’, Canadian and Irish are maintained by universities or university presses, and edited by academics, and the New Zealand by government. This is significant, because the value of the individual and collective biographies in guides of this kind depends on the author. The reader is less able to exert the usual scrutiny warranted by the potential purchase or directed reading of a published biography: he or she is in the hands of whomever the editor has chosen to write the life in that particular dictionary. Here again there is great diversity. The ‘British’ and Irish are written by specialists, and peer-reviewed. The New Zealand accepts and encourages contributions to the public, as perhaps befits so civic a mission, and even though inclusion is not guaranteed, the information submitted will be retained in a biographical database for the benefit of posterity. Given that entries are usually relatively short – 200 words or so – this cannot be said greatly to matter. In addition to the two general editors, the Irish has an editorial board of four senior academics. For the Canadian there are two editorial teams, in Toronto and Quebec City, which ‘share the work on a geographical basis, with each office taking responsibility for certain regions of the country’ and that each entry is an ‘original and scholarly treatment of its subject, based on reliable and, as far as possible, primary sources and presented in a succinct yet attractive literary form’. Most authors work ‘in the field of education at the university and college levels, but the DCB/DBC also recruits authors from among postgraduate students, freelance historians, museologists, archivists, librarians, writers, and others’. The American clearly sets out its two general, 18 senior, and 233 associate editors, and a 14-person editorial advisory board; all but four are academics. It is impressive, but makes the relatively limited range of lives covered in the American the more surprising. The Australian has an editor, supported by editorial staff based at the National Centre of Biography, with four distinguished Editorial Fellows to offer review of entries before publication; but, and consistent with its egalitarian ethos, it is keen to reassure readers that they have lots of authors, but ‘not all of them academics’.

Basic information about content can be gleaned. The New Zealand has ‘over 3000’ entries, the Canadian 8,400, the Irish 9,700, the Australian 12,000, the American 18,700, and the ‘British’ 58,000. The Irish boasts 700 authors, the Australian 4,500, the ‘British’ 11,500; The American, Canadian, and New Zealand offer no means of collating such information. One of the great limitations of the original dictionaries was that they were effectively Dictionaries of National Male Biography. These all offer ‘gender’ as a search term (and the American offers ‘Women’s history’ as a research idea), but the male to female ratios are: American 16,121 male to 2,702 female, the Australian 10,512 to 1,397; the ‘British’ 51,868 to 6,230, Canadian, 7,934 to 504, Irish 8,913 to 943, New Zealand 2,260 to 802 (in this respect, as in others, the most balanced). The better reflection of female lives was explicitly in the remit of the new ‘British’, but, even with the best of wills, these dictionaries are constrained by the limited opportunities for women to occupy positions of national significance in their national pasts.

It is nevertheless possible, however impressionistically, to sketch portraits of the nations, made possible only because these are digital resources. The Australian provides a ‘Faceted Browse’ whereby the reader can peruse records by definition, such as occupation (1,532 Members of Lower House, 121 emancipists, one ice-skating rink owner (James Bendrodt, 1891–1973, roller skater and restaurateur)). This is a helpful tool to the researcher, but also the reviewer of national biographies, as it reveals in black and white what constitutes this particular dictionary. The Canadian offers ‘browse by identification’, and also has a novel (but wholly justifiable) option to search geographical location. Thus the province of Nunavut has furnished four individuals deemed worthy of note in Canadian history, and no one since 1930. The function is also global: there are 1,370 Canadians connected to the UK, 247 to France, and 31 to the whole of Africa. In the New Zealand, North Island produces nearly twice as many (2,336) lives as South Island (1,430). The Australian contains 2,949 Anglicans, 1,199 Catholics, 243 Jews, and one Jehovah’s Witness (John Barnes, 1904–1952, publican and politician). ‘Ethnicity’ records 4,541 English, 1,537 Scottish, 164 ‘indigenous Australian’, and one Pakistani (Dervish Bejah, 1862–1957, camel driver). The Canadian offers 54 varieties of aboriginal people (and ‘Blacks’, of which there are 39 individuals). The Irish offers the opportunity to browse only by subject or contributor, which is browsing of rather an unfaceted kind. Advanced search includes categories for place, religion, floruit date (date of activity), and occupation/field of interest. There are also manifestations of linguistic sensitivities. The Canadian is available in English and French, and the New Zealand can be read in English and Māori; the American, Australian, ‘British’ and Irish, have no Spanish, Welsh, or Gaelic functionality, only English (though culturally-sensitive research threads exist: the American offers ‘Black history’, ‘Native American heritage’ and ‘Hispanic American heritage’ as research ideas). The American and ‘British’, however, offer much more in every other sense. One cannot easily avoid the conclusion that elsewhere breadth may have been sacrificed to depth; the least ‘politically correct’ dictionaries are also the most academically useful in form. Contemporaneity is affected by format as much as funding. For some, the online publication of biographies appears still to be dictated by the paper version: the ‘British’ includes those who died as recently as 2008; those wishing to read in the Australian about Sir Donald Bradman are still waiting over eleven years after his death.

The American and the Irish have helpful mini-historiographical essays in addition to biographical bibliographies, and the latter has the valuable option of opening and saving a biography as a PDF. The ‘British’ allows not only the ability to search by author, but also to see all the author’s (linked) contributions. Some dictionaries are very well-connected. The Australian links to Obituaries Australia, a digital repository of obituaries published in newspapers, journals, magazines, and bulletins, as a ‘sample of the Australian experience’ (again no Bradman) and People Australia, a quick reference service (still no Bradman), and Women Australia, which does the same (where Bradman’s absence is less problematic). The ‘British’ links entries, where possible, to their presence in the old DNB, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Register of Archives, Who Was Who, and the Bibliography of British and Irish History. Only the ‘British’ offers extensive and specific reference lists, reference groups, and feature essays; the American has 12 ‘research ideas’, supported by the Oxford Companion to United States History, which offers many cross-references. All, in fact, provide more than mere cross-referencing: duplicated – or substantially similar – lives include those of James Madison (1751–1836) by Lance Banning in the American and the ‘British’, Sir Robert Menzies (1894–1978) by A. W. Martin in the Australian and the ‘British’, Sir Robert Borden (1854–1937) by Robert Craig Brown in the Canadian and the ‘British’, Constance Markievicz (1868–1927) by Senia Pašeta in the Irish and the ‘British’, and Sir Keith Park (1892–1975) by Vincent Orange in the New Zealand and the ‘British’. The common thread is clear; whether this is through historical or through publishing ties is more a matter for debate, and perhaps another review.

This review has been worthwhile if for no other reason than that no such assessment appears to have been conducted before. Some conclusions are possible: first, that national biography is a minor, but not inconsiderable, appurtenance of nationhood, and national heritage, as variegated as both terms have become since the cultural turn; second, the internet has made the transmission of those values, and the reviewed content, almost limitless; third, the evolving nature of the internet makes innovation possible, but these dictionaries differ in their embrace of it; fourth, they are spirits of their age in consciously seeking a more representative portrait of their national histories than would have been obtained from the old Dead White European Male dictionaries; and fifth, finally, and frankly, these resources are as useful as the funding they have received. Two caveats should be made: first, whilst it is possible to compare content, usability, presentation, and ‘added value’, the works reviewed are inherently unbalanced, given that the resourcing and scale of each publication varies so, and while some are effectively peer-reviewed, others are more ‘democratic’, and akin to wikis; second, this is – in one sense – somewhat of an otiose review, in that the reader has no option but to refer to the dictionary of the nation of which their subject was a national.

It has also to be admitted that some of the biographies on Wikipedia are as good, or better, and often longer, more transparent, and better-referenced, than the equivalent in their national dictionary, and should assuredly be read alongside them. The American, ‘British’, and Irish generally feature works of compressed scholarship for a serious readership; the Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand feel closer to the general reader and browser, something free access encourages. It is likely– and it should be put no more strongly than that – that the researcher, undergraduate, or postgraduate student, will find the first three more satisfactory than the second, and that the general reader find the second three more approachable than the first. Only the New Zealand is truly a product of the internet – the others originated in print, and have made varying efforts to adapt – but for the serious student or researcher that is not a recommendation: the worth of these dictionaries is as sources of reference, and for that reason resides in the written word. There is a limit to what new technologies can do to enhance the written word beyond facilitating access, such as through indexing, grouping, ordering, linking, and cross-referencing. Portals for the general reader need primarily to be accessible; for the specialist they need principally to be reliable: of those reviewed, the ‘British’ is pre-eminent because it is both. Certainly, the ‘added value’ – the extraordinary opportunities to locate and process information online – suggests that (for research) the days of possessing these great dictionaries in their printed forms for anything other than decoration have passed.

This review was first published in Reviews in History.

[1] The pioneer, the Nouvelle Biographie Générale (1853–66) has been uploaded, although only as PDF page images.  So too, in very varying modes of digitisation, the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (1875–1912), the Neue Deutsche Biographie (1953-), and the Deutsche Biographische Enzyklopädie (1995–2003, which contains 75,000 entries, although only 1,300 are full lives written by experts, and so is actually on a much smaller scale than those reviewed here).  The Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (1960– ) has recently been (very impressively) digitised (under the auspices of Istituto Della Enciclopedia Italiana), as has the 46-volume Polski Słownik Biograficzny (1935– ).  The Diccionario Biográfico Español (1999–) has not, which is perhaps just as well given its multiple, and on-going, editorial controversies.

[2] The Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1926) has not been digitised, nor has the Dictionary of South African Biography (1968–72); the New Dictionary of South African Biography (1999) has, but only as PDF page images of the printed volume.  The one-volume Dictionary of Indian Biography (1906) is another PDF mutation, and The Indian Biographical Dictionary (1915) is of the (then) living.