Ian Hesketh, The Science of History in Victorian Britain

Ian Hesketh, The Science of History in Victorian Britain: Making the Past Speak (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011) 240pp. £60 hb ISBN 978 1 84893 126 8.

As all students of cultural history are aware, the way we categorise thinkers depends on the criterion by which we look at them. Victorian historiography is no exception. In his classic 1981 study, A Liberal Descent, for example, John Barrow grouped together Thomas Macaulay, William Stubbs, A. E. Freeman and J. A. Froude as contributors, each in his way, to a Liberal or Whiggish tradition in the historical treatment of the English past. But in Ian Hesketh’s reworking of his PhD thesis published this year by Pickering and Chatto as The Science of History in Victorian Britain, some of these same actors are made to occupy antagonistic roles, with Stubbs and Freeman representing an influential mainstream promoting the interests of ‘scientific history’, while Froude becomes a marginalised figure attacked from the mainstream for his weak methodology. This divergence can be explained by the different focalisations of the two works. Where Barrow was interested in a political and historical mode of thought, Hesketh’s work concentrates not so much on historiography itself as on the internal politics that marked the emergence of a professional discipline in the mid to late nineteenth century. By looking behind the scenes, so to speak, at the administration of influential journals or the attribution of university chairs, Hesketh’s focus is structural rather than philosophical: he is interested in the institutional politics that accompanied the deliberate effort to create a specific professional identity for the emergent discipline of ‘scientific history’.

According to Hesketh, the discipline of History took professional shape in England between the 1860s and the 1890s under the impulse of a group of ‘scientific historians’ who were all influenced by the German school of Leopold von Ranke, and who saw it as their mission to save History from the amateurish hands of the antiquarians and the romance-pedlars. The unpoliced and unmethodical productions of novelists like Walter Scott or pseudo-historians like Thomas Carlyle might have had great popular appeal, but they did nothing for the credibility of a discipline that needed a unified methodology and a useful mission if it were to gain a dignified place in the knowledge economy, and, more practically, a permanent place on the Oxbridge curricula. Hesketh shows how the discipline sought to achieve this status by imbuing itself with the appearances of a science. While there is no explicit statement to this effect, the suggestion seems to be that the project was held together more by shared ambitions for the discipline rather than by any meaningful degree of shared conceptual grounding.

Hesketh’s analysis combines chronological and thematic approaches. He starts with the 1860s and the hostile reactions to Henry Buckle’s History of Civilisation in England that prompted the crystallisation of a Rankean or ‘scientific history’ alternative to a method that was perceived as too ‘artistic’, and then follows the fortunes of this movement until its eclipsing after the deaths of its leaders at the end of the century. But in between, the work of the various actors is treated thematically, according to their degrees of sympathy for the movement. Some figures reappear several times in various contexts, notably in the chapters devoted to the establishment of the English Historical Review (chapter 5) or to the writing of children’s and popular history (chapter 6).

The debate around the nature of scientific history is grounded by a first chapter devoted to the work of Henry Buckle, who, in a pattern that becomes familiar as the book progresses, considered himself to be working on the transformation of history into a scientific discipline, but incurred the disapprobation of the movement’s guardians anyway; and was soon being held up as a negative example of everything that scientific history should not be. Buckle’s main failing seems to have been that his thinking was derived from the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, and that his scientific pretensions were based largely on the application of the statistical analysis being elaborated at around the same time by another Frenchman, Adolphe Quetelet. This meant that the ‘laws’ that Buckle sought in his study of historical dynamics were of a predictive kind, similar to Newtonian physics. It also meant that Buckle’s main focus was on the mass, not the individual, since only mass phenomena could be treated by the statistical method. Such a denial of the role of individual choice in the forming of historical destinies was potentially shocking in the British context, especially since it undercut the assumption of a universe ultimately guided by special providence.

Hesketh examines two diametrically opposed sets of reactions to Buckle. One group, led by Lord Acton, William Stubbs and A. E. Freeman, focused on empiricism, believing that the proper work of the scientific historian was limited to the drudge-like task of examining the contents of dusty archives to revive the facts about – as Ranke famously put it – ‘what really happened’. Buckle had also worked with primary documents, but he insisted upon the need for a second stage in which the historian would stand back from the facts and make generalisations that would lead towards the identification of laws of civilisational progress. It was this part that was denounced by the English Rankeans as fanciful and beyond the legitimate remit of scientific history.

Another group, exemplified for Hesketh by Charles Kingsley and J. A. Froude, reacted in just the opposite way. The basic feeling here was that the ways of historical process were far too complex to be pinned down by a scientific formula, and that the best that a historian might hope to achieve is a sympathetic resuscitation of the past world, analogous in impact though not in style to the work of a poet. Froude, for example, held up Shakespeare’s plays as embodying the kind of truth that historians should aim to emulate.

In one of the most interesting chapters of the book, Hesketh shows how the former group used this divergence as a way of building up an identity for the emergent discipline. It focuses on the controversy that pitted Freeman against Froude in the 1870s in response to the latter’s reappraisal of the Tudors and especially his depiction of Henry VIII as an enlightened monarch. Freeman sought to undercut Froude’s credibility, presenting his work as the product of a mind constitutionally incapable of achieving objective distance, and therefore incapable of producing legitimate history. Froude’s effective response was simply to point out that there was just as much reason to suspect the conventional interpretation of the Tudors as the product of prejudice. But he lost out in the professional stakes anyway, his career blighted for decades by Freeman’s identification of ‘Froude’s disease’ as the cardinal sin of the historian. This example of what Hesketh calls ‘boundary work’ is particularly telling, showing as it does how useful Froude was to the Rankean camp as a way of creating a stronger impression of methodological conformity and conceptual coherence than the group actually managed to achieve in reality.

While Hesketh’s treatment of the background of disciplinary construction provides all sorts of illuminating insights of a sort not available in more traditional ‘conceptual history’ analyses, the effective omission from the analytical effort of the conceptual dimension poses its own problems. It is fascinating to learn how Froude or Buckle were misrepresented as part of what was essentially a marketing programme for the benefit of a discipline looking for legitimacy and recognition. However, it is hard to escape from the sense that this reinterpretation, based as it is on an alternative rather than a broadened analytical framework, simply produces its own characteristic set of approximations. Hence Hesketh shows how artificial the Rankean consensus was, but nevertheless persists in presenting the story of Victorian historiography as one of distinct groups fighting specific causes. Kingsley and Froude are the partisans of history practised as art, and they took a beating at the hands of Acton, Stubbs and Freeman until such time as posterity came along to redress the balance.

At times it seems as if Hesketh were somewhat prey to the propaganda of his own subjects, and assumes with them that their categories have a real validity. This is most apparent in the final chapter devoted to the obituaries of the Rankean professors, most of whom died in the 1890s. Fascinatingly, these obituaries were full of praise for these men’s writing styles, which is precisely what they had theoretically tried to suppress. Conversely, a journal that had been resolutely hostile to Froude in his early days changed its tune when he was finally given a professorship in 1892, only two years before his death, praising him not only for his genius but also for his ‘patriotism’. This extraordinary swing elicits little comment from Hesketh, apart from a laconic remark that the ‘art of history’ had somehow managed to hold on all along, despite the assaults of the powerful opposing camp (161). But the passage surely also shows that a significant part of the reputation of historians lay not only in their affiliations to powerful groups, but also in their perceived positions on substantial issues in their histories. Hesketh focuses so strongly on the structures of influence that it is easy to forget that his subjects were all writing about the history of England, an eminently political subject if ever there was one!

It is certainly useful to have a study of an important conceptual debate that goes into the political wings so thoroughly, but the analysis would have been more satisfying if it had not at the same time so completely omitted to take into account the action taking place on the main stage. There is much more to be said on the complex conceptual issues of what might actually be meant by ‘scientific history’ (or ‘inductive method’, or ‘Baconianism’, or any of the many such terms used interchangeably by Hesketh), or the relationship between the theories of the individual writers and their actual narrative practices. The first of these themes should have been essential to Hesketh’s analysis; the second might usefully have been borne in mind, even if only as a background consideration.

Richard Somerset, Université de Nancy 2