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Trevelyan’s poetic prose — I

Connections between history and literature

Trevelyan’s poetic prose — I
G.M. Trevelyan

Meeting Sir Richard Evans after almost three years was indeed a pleasure. I feel intellectually richer every time I meet him, for he whets my quest for learning. The question I usually put to scholars of such extraordinary caliber is about their source(s) of inspiration, the books that have influenced them the most and the authors they would suggest for the young historians to read. I ask this because, throughout my own career, I have struggled with the challenge of effective writing. For a historian, clear and cogent writing is the key. That is what I keep emphasising while talking to my students and young colleagues.

Sir Evans underlined AJP Taylor as a historian whose books every history student must read. Somehow, British historians have forged a sort of consensus about AJP Tayler who should be emulated for his writing style and lucid and well-woven prose. Ian Talbot and Chris Bayly came up with the same response. The students of Modern History must read with extreme care the texts produced by AJP Taylor. Sir Evans named Eric Hobsbawm as someone who influenced him the most, obviously along with other countless factors, making him what he eventually became — a historian par excellence.

Currently, he is writing Eric Hobsbawm’s biography. When I asked him about G.M. Trevelyan, one of the last Whig historians, Sir Richard Evans eulogised his contribution for the discipline of history and particularly mentioned English Social History as a remarkable piece of writing. But then he picked a couple of holes in his works, like Trevelyan’s engagement with literature and his nostalgia with the past which mars his analysis, and objectivity, to a certain extent, stands compromised. All this criticism from a historian of phenomenal standing notwithstanding, my fascination with Trevelyan remained unscathed. I have always considered his love for literature a strength that lends his prose a beauty that is usually reserved for poetry.

In his autobiographical essay, he states which I found interesting, “Love of poetry has affected the character, and in places the style of my historiographical writings, and in parts dictated my choice of subjects: for instance Garibaldi attracted me because his life seemed to me the most poetical of all the stories, and I tried to preserve a little of this quality in telling the tale in prose.” For the last several years, I have been asking history students to entertain some passion for literature. It would help them bring into their analysis the socio-cultural dimension which is starkly lacking so far. Therefore, Trevelyan is the prime focus in the remaining part of today’s column.

George Macaulay Trevelyan was a tall, slightly stooping figure, with steel-or silver-rimmed spectacles beneath heavy overhanging eyebrows, silvered hair and a descending silvery moustache. He looked recognisably English wherever he appeared. He obviously was a distinguished member of one of those eminent families who “have done so much for English literature and scholarship — the Trevelyans, the Macaulays, the Arnolds, the Stracheys, the Stephens and the Wedgwoods”. He was the grand-nephew of Thomas Babington Macaulay; and his wife, Caroline Philips, the daughter of Mrs. Humphrey Ward, was the niece of Matthew Arnold. She was the daughter of Robert Needham Philips who was a merchant and politician of the old Manchester school, a strenuous supporter of Free Trade and the further extension of the Franchise, a Unitarian but not at all a precisian.

All these details of both sides of his family demonstrate G. M. Trevelyan’s aristocratic background.  His family held two landed estates, in Northumberland and near Stratford-on-Avon, where G.M. Trevelyan was born on February 16, 1876 to Sir George Otto Trevelyan, the nephew and biographer of Macaulay. With such privileged family background and bearing destined Trevelyan to be a one of the prominent historians of the first half of the twentieth century.

He was sent to a private school at Wixenford when he was eight and in 1889, he went to Harrow. There, he had a good grounding in Latin and Greek but from the outset, Trevelyan had developed a penchant for history, a subject that he relished. From the childhood he was voracious reader and liked to spend time in libraries. At Harrow, he had a rare privilege to be tutored by two history masters of rare quality — Robert Somervell and George Townsend Warner. At Harrow he read Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle and also Stubbs’ constitutional history. He devoted quite a bit of time reading poetry ‘with passionate delight’. Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Keats and Tennyson were the poets he loved reading all the time as a school boy. His passion for poetry had a rub on his approach to history as well.

Also read: Trevelyan as a historian — II

He records in his autobiography, “I take delight in history, even its most prosaic details, because they become poetical as they recede into the past. The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are to-day, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghost at cock-crow.”

In October 1893, Trevelyan went up to the University of Cambridge at age seventeen. Trinity College was like a family college for him where his father, grandfather and older brothers too had gone. He remained at Trinity up until 1903. He later wrote, “Cambridge proved all, and a great deal more than all, that I had ever imagined. Much as I had learnt at Harrow, I learnt more at Trinity, and in more completely congenial surroundings. Here was friendship, here was freedom, in fullest abundance.”

To be continued


Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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