Julia Stapleton. Sir Arthur Bryant and National History in Twentienth-Century Britain. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006. 307 S. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7391-0969-4.
Reviewed by Stefan K. Berger
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (August, 2007)
J. Stapleton: Sir Arthur Bryant
Ever since Andrew Roberts’s book on ‘Eminent Churchillians’, Robert, Andrew, Eminent Churchillians, London 1995. Arthur Bryant has got a reputation as a National Socialist fellow traveller in Britain. Julia Stapleton’s new book-length biography of Bryant sets out to correct this view and paint a more complex picture of one of the most successful of popular British historians in the twentieth century. Making excellent use of the Bryant papers at King’s College London and a whole host of other archives and libraries, she presents Bryant as a man obsessed with an Anglocentric national history, which for him became the surest means of strengthening national identity in Britain.
Dealing with Bryant’s early life and the impact of the First World War, Stapleton stresses that, as the son of a senior courtier, Bryant was steeped in the world of pageants and processions. Training as a Royal Flying Corps officer, Bryant saw active service during the final months of the First World War. Educated at Harrow and Queen’s College Oxford, he chose a career as a school teacher, first working with children in the Notting Dale slums and later teaching at a London County Council secondary school for boys in Holloway. He married into the English gentry in 1924 and although the marriage did not last, it gave him a life-long passion for the historical English countryside, which became the counter-image to modernity loathed by Bryant in all of its variations.
From the mid-1920s onwards Bryant threw himself into pageant directing and broadcasting for the BBC. He also was active in Conservative Party attempts to set up an educational institute that could rival the various Labour colleges. His first book, ‘The Spirit of Conservatism’ (1936) grew directly out of this experience. Bryant’s conservatism was complex, which is why he always refused to commit himself unequivocally to the Conservative Party line. In the 1930s he attempted to bring about a rapprochement between Baldwinite Conservatives and centrist Liberals, something which found literary expression in his biography of Samuel Pepys. His friendship with Liberals, such as Ernest Barker and G.M. Trevelyan also testify to Bryant’s desire not to restrict his world to that of Conservatism.
In his politics as in his history writing Bryant was looking for unity and he was keen to overcome division. However, such a desire found its limits in a deeply felt antipathy towards the left. In the interwar period Bryant played an important role in the setting up of the National Book Association (NBA), a right-wing rival to Viktor Gollancz’s Left Book Club. By the late 1930s, the NBA had clear fascist sympathies. Stapleton does not diminish Bryant’s weaknesses for right-wing dictatorships, in particular for National Socialism. But contrary to Roberts, she does not see Bryant primarily as Nazi fellow traveller. His staunch monarchism and his English nationalism protected him against fellow-travelling as did his distaste for the crude anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Although prone to his own bouts of anti-Semitism (in particular vis-à-vis Eastern European Jewry), his pro-Nazi sentiments were rooted in appeasement, the belief that Germany had been wronged at Versailles and that the Nazis represented a return of Germany to healthy national values. The Nazis’ anti-Communism also endeared them to Bryant. In 1940 Bryant did not only publish his pro-German book ‘Unfinished Victory’, which earned him few positive reviews and in some respects was to put an indelible stain on his reputation, he also was involved in efforts to sign a peace treaty with Nazi Germany. And yet, according to Stapleton, he remained ambivalent about Nazism and wholeheartedly supported the British war effort.
After 1940 his publications returned to the theme of boosting national morale: ‘English saga’, which was particularly celebratory of the empire, and a three-volume history of British relations with France during the Napoleonic wars underlined Bryant’s credentials as English national historian par excellence. During the war Bryant also became an ardent supporter of social reform and welcomed the Beveridge report, which he felt was in line with the kind of Disraelian Toryism that he espoused. Refusing to stand as a parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party in 1945, Bryant chose to continue with his self-set task of providing the nation with a sense of their national identity and calling. A new generation, he argued, had to be won over to national history, especially as this new post-war generation was in danger of losing all contact with the past. Many volumes on English history were to follow, in which he celebrated the virtues of the Saxons, the coming of Christianity and, above all, the institution of the monarchy.
As a national historian, Bryant wrote epic history. In this he belonged firmly to the Whig tradition, even if he strove to provide a popular Conservative variant to the dominance of the Liberal Whig history of England. Generally speaking his writing went down better with reviewers for newspapers than with reviewers for academic journals. Academics often showed a certain condescension for his work and accused it of amateurism and of lacking in originality. As Stapleton shows, many of his books were painstaking researched and made ample use of primary source material. She is particularly keen to dismiss Roberts’s thesis that he plagiarised much of his books on Pepys. As for his national history, it depicts the English, above all, as dynamic and free, homely and familiar, rural and hearty, hardy and gentle. The national character was unchanging through the centuries and showed a moral superiority of the English over everyone else.
As Stapleton shows by tracing the reviews of his volumes, Bryant seemed increasingly out on a limb in the post-war period, as the reviewers tended to get more hostile to his brand of popular history. Post-war Marxists and Conservatives alike did not believe in Bryant’s notion of a unified and self-conscious English nation. During the 1980s his politics were more favourably received in the Conservative Party than his history. A staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher and a critic of Britain’s membership in the European Union, Bryant enjoyed a reputation as a political publicist close to the heart of the Conservative Party. Joining forces with the Beaverbrook press, Bryant again reached mass audiences with his pleas to save the national character from Brussels.
Perhaps one of the most consistent and determining factors in Bryant’s life was his anti-pluralism. Politics for Bryant was not about different interests in society trying to gain an advantage. It was instead about unifying the nation around common goals and objectives. It was arguably this anti-pluralism which, among other factors, brought Bryant dangerously close to the Nazis in the 1930s. After all, the National Socialists presented themselves as ending all sectional interests by working for the national interest. That would have earned them Bryant’s applause. If anti-pluralism was indeed a defining feature of Bryant’s historical and political thought, then Andrew Roberts might have a point in presenting Bryant as someone who grew increasingly hostile to democracy in the 1930s.
Overall, though, Stapleton does an excellent job in presenting a highly complex individual. Bryant emerges as a very English Tory, who did not really fit into the Conservative Party any more after 1945. What shines through strongly throughout the book is his ability to forge friendships and alliances with people on both sides of the political divide (e.g. Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot; Lord Beaverbrook and Jack Lawson, G.M. Trevelyan, A.L. Rowse and Robert Blake), his dislike for the establishment and his championing of middlebrow England and the ordinary men and women representing it, and, above all, his success in bringing the national past to life on the many pages of his many history books, almost all of them on English history. Bryant, born in 1899, was a romantic national historian of a distinctly nineteenth-century mould, believing to the end in the enduring, timeless and superior character of the English. Let us hope that the numbers of those in England, who share such beliefs, is diminishing at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
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Stefan K. Berger. Review of Stapleton, Julia, Sir Arthur Bryant and National History in Twentienth-Century Britain.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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