Books: Marriage of two minds: As his sparkling study of our aristocracy is published, star historians David Cannadine and Linda Colley talk about their parallel careers

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DAVID CANNADINE and Linda Colley are not in Britain as often as they would like. Soon after their marriage in 1982, Colley left to teach history at Yale; after four wearing years of shuttling backwards and forwards across the Atlantic, Cannadine followed her down the brain drain. But if this super-couple are cosmopolitan, they are not metropolitan. When they are in this country they live in a back street of a small Norfolk village, in a converted property called, appropriately enough, 'The Old Shop'.

There is a pleasant irony here. In his new book, Aspects of Aristocracy: Grandeur and Decline in Modern Britain, Cannadine tells the story of the demise of Britain's patrician class with what some have seen as ungentlemanly, irreverential relish - just as he did in his last, Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. And Britons, Linda Colley's glittering study of 18th-century patriotism, was acclaimed for focusing on precisely those commercial classes conventionally neglected by historians. E P Thompson famously wrote The Making of the English Working Class 'to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'Utopian' artisan from the enormous condescension of history'. Colley has written to preserve the shop-owner from much the same fate.

Colley's and Cannadine's lives have run remarkably close. He was brought up in Birmingham, she is from near the Welsh borders in Chester. Neither seems to have inherited much of their interest in history from their families, stressing instead the influence of growing up in areas which were rich in history, and having remarkable history teachers at their grammar schools. Both were the first of their families to go to university, and both seem rather surprised to find themselves in their present career. Now in their early forties, they are both stars in the academic world.

Cannadine is a professor at Columbia; Colley at Yale. She has been described as 'the most famous historian of her generation', he as a modern-day A J P Taylor. But despite their achievements you could never say of them, as Cannadine has said of G M Trevelyan - scion of a family of rulers and historians - that they write British history 'from the inside'. 'We are,' Cannadine explains, 'classic children of the welfare state.'

They met 15 years ago when they were both Fellows at Christ's College, Cambridge. Cambridge was also responsible for introducing them to the master of Christ's, J H Plumb, and the constellation of talented young historians that he gathered around him: Simon Schama, John Brewer, Geoffrey Parker, David Blackburn, Eric Stokes, John Vincent, Norman Stone, Roy Porter. Cannadine and Colley emphasise that Plumb never sought to found a school; he was merely exceptionally adept at spotting and nurturing talent, encouraging those around him 'to write excitingly and accessibly on important historical subjects'. And 'he made no secret of the fact that he liked history that could be read as literature'.

This is an approach with which they both identify. They are careful to stress that they hope that their work is as rigorous and sophisticated as anything their colleagues do, but they are troubled by the narrowness of much academic history, and want to reach out to a wider lay audience: 'The last ten years have seen the return in history of the narrative block- buster,' says Cannadine, speaking of such books as Simon Schama's Citizens, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and Roy Foster's Modern Ireland. 'And they are certainly the company that we would like to think of ourselves as belonging to.' Colley agrees: 'It's the return of big books about big subjects written in a much more colourful, all-embracing way.'

That description fits both Cannadine's Decline and Fall and Colley's Britons. Both books took a decade to research and write, and each attempts to tell a story on a world-historical scale - hers the emergence of an imperial nation, his the descent of an imperial governing class and its way of life. Cannadine's new book could be seen as less ambitious - Aspects of Aristocracy is a collection of essays that expands on the themes of Decline and Fall - but it is an intensely professional piece of history, concerned both to make sense of 'the long revolution' which has turned the British aristocracy from 'lions into unicorns' and to reappraise the reputation of certain patricians and their families. At the same time it is a book that provides, for the general reader, perceptions about half-familiar figures that are as acute, feisty and surprising as they are enjoyable.

In 'Winston Churchill as Aristocratic Adventurer', for instance:

'. . . it was not just that (Churchill) was widely believed to be uncertain in judgement, and unreliable in his political conduct. It was also that there was something about him more generally which was not entirely respectable. . . Although he was an aristocrat by birth, Churchill was widely believed to be not really a gentleman at all. On the contrary, he was often described as a highly gifted, but undeniable, 'cad'.'

And in 'Portrait of More Than a Marriage' (about Vita Sackville- West and Harold Nicolson):

'Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West were two very remarkable people; but that is no reason for regarding them as having been more remarkable than they actually were. Yet since their deaths . . . they have received an excessive amount of deferential attention and ahistorical celebration, especially from the 'bedint' bourgeoisie, the very class of people that they themselves most despised. . . Their garden at Sissinghurst has been incorporated into that cult of snobbish nostalgia and conservationist escapism by which so much of post-war Britain has been blinded and blighted. . .'

Quite aside from his seriousness of purpose, Cannadine obviously relishes the chance to tell some colourful stories, and to cock a snook at the self-appointed guardians of our national heritage.

For his next book, Cannadine has a still larger project in mind. He is embarking on a treatise on the modern British monarchy, and an all-encompassing study of social class from 1700 to the present day. Meanwhile, Linda Colley is planning two books, one on the impact of Empire on Victorian society and another on the female aristocratic elite in the 18th and 19th centuries. 'I want to flesh out these women who are all too often ignored both by political historians, who tend to be male, and by women's historians, who tend not to like writing about the elite.' She is also writing the 18th-century volume of the new Penguin History of Britain. He is doing the 19th century continuation and editing the whole series.

These new projects mean that Cannadine and Colley will often find themselves writing about the same people and the same periods, and to some extent they have already begun drawing on each other's work. The fourth chapter of Britons and the first chapter of Cannadine's new book both describe the paradoxical way in which the British ruling class was strengthened by an 18th-century demographic crisis. When I point this out they seem needlessly uncomfortable, as if I were accusing them of plagiarism or indiscreet pillow talk. Colley explains: 'I got that from David but used it differently.' All their books contain glowing tributes to one another; still, they insist that they do not collaborate: 'This might sound pretentious, but it is not a Webb or a Sitwell arrangement.'

The mixture of seriousness, irreverence and brio that characterises Canndine's work seems to be echoed in his personality. He talks seriously about serious issues - the future of the monarchy and the House of Lords - but the student-written Columbia Course Guide also raves about his 'British humour': 'Stunning - he's amazing to listen to, better than John Cleese. If you like Monty Python, this is perfection.' And you can see what the Americans find so appealing. Cannadine has described himself as 'bespectacled, balding and rather academic in appearance', which is true - there is a Cleesey quality to him.

I ask whether he is, perhaps, a bit of an inverted snob? 'No, no. I find the aristocracy extremely interesting . . . but it's true that I don't believe that speaking to a Duchess is the closest I will ever get to an emotional experience.'

There is nothing purely academic about Colley's and Cannadine's work. It touches on major questions of national identity and constitutional reform. Yet it is not easy to figure out from their books where they stand politically. Britons has been heralded by the Left (Tom Nairn), the centre (Hugo Young) and by such arch-Tories as Enoch Powell and Niall Ferguson. Cannadine has been identified as a Leveller and a Thatcherite. Are they surprised by the variety of these interpretations and endorsements?

Colley says that she does not want to write history from a partisan perspective and anyway rather likes her politics to remain 'fairly elusive.' Cannadine shares that view himself: 'Vaughan Williams once said you must keep them guessing and I think that's quite right.' Fair enough, but where do they stand? Colley explains that if you read her book closely she thinks you can work it out for yourself. Again Cannadine agrees - 'anyone who reads Decline and Fall with care and attention will discover one particular section which ought to make plain exactly where my sympathies lie,' he says. He does not tell me which that section is, and I get the distinct impression that I am expected to do the research myself. It was not so much an explanation as a challenge.

So they are not crusaders or even partisans. What then do they hope to achieve by writing history? Cannadine explains: 'One of the things that strikes me is the total lack of historical perspective informing the major issues discussed in the society in which we live. And it's true of both of us that one of our aims in writing for a broad audience is to inject some sense of historical perspective into what is being talked about.'

This sounds rather like the mandate on which the BBC was founded, but Colley offers a little more: 'It is important to raise a warning finger at those who want to try and use history in the wrong way. I was reading only this morning that the Tory party hopes to use the celebrations on D- day to boost their chances in the European elections; that to me is a gross misuse of history because most of the people who fought for Britain on D-day came home and voted Labour in the 1945 election so that they could create a welfare state from which ordinary people could benefit.' Here was a clue, at least, to Colley's politics.

Yet these two voices - so distinctive in print - proved hard to draw out in person. My abiding impression is one of formidable professionalism and unflagging industry. With at least seven books behind them, and another just off the press, neither shows any signs of slowing up. Driving me back to the station, they complain again of the way in which academic history has become too specialised. 'More and more historians know more and more about less and less,' as Cannadine put it in his book on G M Trevelyan. He grows enthusiastic about the idea of writing a social history of the car: 'It's an invention which has transformed the world . . . Anyway,' he goes on, 'there are so many other stories that need to be told.'

'Aspects of Aristocracy: Grandeur and Decline in Modern Britain' is published by Yale at pounds 19.95

(Photograph omitted)

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