BOOK REVIEW / The intellectual aristocrat under the Whig: G M Trevelyan: A Life in History - David Cannadine: HarperCollins, pounds 18

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THIS IS no everyday biography, but an impressive exercise in intellectual revisionism. The received image of G M Trevelyan is as Grand Old Man of a passe kind of history - the legendary Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, middlebrow, sentimental, bucolic, self-congratulatory. Books like England under the Stuarts (1904) celebrated English exceptionalism: sinister Catholic Grand Designs thwarted by 'prolonged, heroic and unselfish action by the representatives of English country gentlemen'. Exactly 40 years later, the best-selling English Social History covered the same kind of thing over six centuries. Awkward dissonances arising after the Industrial Revolution were muffled, steam-power was ignored in favour of the romance of sea-power, in pinchbeck rhetoric that anticipated the tinny ring of Arthur Bryant. We are dealing, after all, with an intellectual who died in 1962 apparently innocent of having read Marx, Freud, Weber, Durkheim or Pareto, and undisturbed (it is fair to bet) by Joyce, Picasso or Einstein.

So at least it seemed to the young and middle-aged Turks of the post-war historiographical establishment. What is Trevelyan's appeal for a gleeful iconoclast like David Cannadine, whose previous books have fired many darts into the complacent rump of what his subject liked to call 'Englishry'? Part of the answer lies, perhaps, in an old Cambridge war - between those historians who believe in narrative, accessibility and style, and those who prefer disjunction, disaggregation and esoterica. Cannadine's allegiances are firmly in the first camp. The most interesting part of his elegantly polemical study lies in his argument that popularity need not mean populism, and that Trevelyan's stature begins to be appreciated when we recognise not only the depth of research behind his felicitous conclusions, but also the ambiguity, scepticism and second thoughts built into his revisions and his later work. He remained in many ways a time-warped mid-Victorian, saturated in Carlyle and Meredith; but the subtlety, force and seamlessness of his achievement put him, for Cannadine, among the modern masters.

This does not make him fashionable, and modern readers tend to be alienated by the aura of privilege that always surrounded him. The epitome of the historian as gentleman, he was born not only with an aristocratic silver spoon in his mouth, but with an intellectual's pen in his hand. He was great-nephew to Macaulay, son and grandson of leading Liberal public figures: the family bred a long line of radical Whigs from large estates in Northumberland. But this was not all. It was appropriate that his 1955 Festschrift contained Noel Annan's seminal essay on 'The Intellectual Aristocracy', because Trevelyan had it in spades; by marriage to Mrs Humphrey Ward's daughter, thus entering the Arnold-Huxley connection, he carried off a sort of eugenic grand slam.

Surrounded by the great and good as cousins and friends, he did not have to agree with them. Trevelyan was extremely priggish when young. There is not much 'private life' about a man who, setting off on his honeymoon to Cornwall, leapt alone from the train at Truro 'saying that he could not face the whole day without a little walk', and covered on foot the 30 or so miles to the Lizard, where the newlyweds were to spend the night. He seems to have walked away from a good deal else, looking resolutely backwards to fathers and grandfathers. This led to a sort of offhand intimacy with long-dead great men, which now sounds wincingly affected (A L Rowse heard him refer to 'Billy Pitt, damn his eyes'). In his own day, he approached Churchill as an equal, and for the Silver Jubilee in 1935 he not only wrote the Times's leading article but the King's speech as well.

On the other hand, there was a radical strain too; his father, after all, had written a prescient pamphlet attack on Queen Victoria's fortune, entitled What Does She Do With It?, which probably deserves a reprint. Trevelyan's first great public success was his trilogy about Garibaldi, a genuinely inspirational work and a monument to a certain kind of English intellect. Where Tennyson had seen 'the divine stupidity of the hero', Trevelyan envisioned a Carlylean world-figure who seized and embodied a poetic moment in the history of liberty, but never lost his modesty nor his grip on reality. Italy remained his great love (mid-Victorian man, again), but Mussolini betrayed him. Biographically, Garibaldi was succeeded by subjects who invoked an apostolic succession of English Liberalism, while Trevelyan's early surveys of eras climaxed in his phenomenally popular general histories.

Finally, like Macaulay, he defined an idea of social history which might surprise some of his quick-draw critics: it emphasised family and class relations, leisure, changing attitudes to nature, religion, architecture and mentality. Ironically, this might be the agenda of the 'new social history' of the 1960s, many of whose practitioners robustly dismissed him. The achievement - and the cleverness - of Cannadine's thematic study is to show that most of Trevelyan's critics rely upon generalisations about his youthful Whiggery, underrate his research and ignore his objectives. Whether he always lived up to the latter is another matter, but there is convincingly more to him than blimpishness. Cannadine not only documents changes of heart on everything from Italian libertarianism to the execution of Charles I, but also demonstrates that Trevelyan's books were preternaturally well timed: in turn his volumes reflected Edwardian complacency, Liberal ascendancy, wartime realignments, patriotic coalition, and finally the survival and continuities of 'Englishry' in a postwar world.

It is a considerable record, but even Cannadine's skill in advocacy does not conceal the fact that it relied upon a discourse of reassurance, and of conscious superiority - national as well as personal. Trevelyan has certainly outlasted many Dryasdust critics, and will loom more impressively in the long-term historiographical landscape than (for instance) such Ozymandias-figures as Herbert Butterfield. Cannadine has helped this process by un-Whigging him with subtlety and verve. But, curiously, he comes near to reconstructing his subject into the most unlikely alter ego. Aficionado of the Peasants' Revolt, hater of Pitt, liberal internationalist, idiosyncratic socialist, countryman, guardian of his generation's conscience, polemicist, lover of poetry, literary stylist, scourge of the Industrial Revolution and the disruption of the rural integument: at the end of this book, are we reading about G M Trevelyan, or E P Thompson?