BOOK REVIEW / A view over England, seen from above: Godfrey Hodgson on the comfortable historian, fell-walker and connoisseur of sour cider G M Trevelyan. 'G M Trevelyan: A Life in History' - David Cannadine: Harper Collins, 18 pounds

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EVEN those who admire the late James Stirling's Stuttgart Staatsgalerie find little good to say about his history faculty building in Cambridge, and David Cannadine, who has passed through Cambridge to Columbia University in New York, describes it as 'part bunker, part factory, part greenhouse, all folly'. A stone's throw away in West Road is a building about which he is scarcely less critical: 'a suburban dwelling of forbidding drab brick and of best-forgotten unloveliness', redeemed only by a modest plaque commemorating the fact that George Macaulay Trevelyan lived there from 1928 to 1962.

David Cannadine points out that during the first half of the 20th century, Trevelyan was 'the most famous, the most honoured, the most influential and the most widely read historian of his generation'. His great-uncle, Lord Macaulay, aspired to have his history 'for a few days supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies'. Trevelyan's books reached the bookshelves of families which bought few, if any, other works of history except for those of Sir Winston Churchill. His British History in the Nineteenth Century sold 68,000 copies, his History of England sold 200,000 and his English Social History had sold more than half a million copies by 1950.

Today, however, he is unread even by history students, and his reputation has been savaged by those who have succeeded him in his own Cambridge history faculty. David Cannadine almost contemptuously demonstrates how unfair and unfounded many of these current criticism of Trevelyan are. He dismisses the prevalent view that Trevelyan was only the last of the 'Whig historians'. He was, on the contrary, 'at different times an Old Whig, a New Liberal, a John Bright radical, a Baldwinite Tory, a Chamberlainite appease, a sceptical Churchillian, a guarded admirer of the post-war Labour governments and a fierce critic of Sir Anthony Eden'. He convincingly defends his subject against the charge that he did not do archival research.

But he has bigger game in his sights. In this elegantly constructed, eloquently written biography of 'a great historian who was also a great man', he is concerned only in passing to vindicate Trevelyan's reputation against his calumniators. His book is a plea, at once closely argued and passionate, for history to leave the arid deserts into which it has wandered by concerning itself only with an audience of professional historians, and to return to writing, as Trevelyan did, for the intelligent laity. 'If historians neglect to educate the public,' Trevelyan once wrote, 'if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historian learning is useless except in so far as it educates themselves.' Amen, says Professor Cannadine, and this biography is an admirable example of the kind of history he is preaching. He has succeeded in making this life of a professional historian, dead these 30 years, both readable and relevant to those who know little about the craft or history and care less.

Trevelyan was a patrician. Quite apart from the relationship already noted with the great Macaulay, he grew up as a member of two overlapping aristocracies, the aristocracy of landed privilege and the aristocracy of educated talent. His family had owned land first in Cornwall and then in Northumberland since the Middle Ages. The family estate at Wallington, in the latter county, which descended to his older brother, covered 22,000 acres with a rent roll in Victorian times of pounds 15,000 a year. His grandfather, with Sir Stafford Northcote, invented the modern British Civil Service, and his father, Sir George Otto, sat in Gladstone's cabinets. He was related by birth or marriage to the whole extended family of the Victorian liberal intelligentsia, Stephens, Keyneses, Huxleys, Butlers, Hodgkins and Thompsons. Fellowships, jobs, honours, the Mastership of Trinity and the Order of Merit fell into his lap like so many milestones in a long life.

His marriage was happy, he never had the slightest worry about money, and his chief relaxation from his labours as historian and administrator came in walking over his beloved Northumberland hills from his own small estate at Hallington, where he served no wine and only sour cider.

Landed wealth, political connections, Harrow and Cambridge, member of the Cambridge secret society of the Apostles, Trevelyan spent his whole life at the very centre of what came to be called the British Establishment. His work, however, except for the comparatively brief period when he - like his friends Stanley Baldwin and John Buchan - gave way to a somewhat complacent Englishry reminiscent of the bucolic music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, was anything but Establishment history. On the contrary, as Cannadine shows, his interests evolved as he threw himself by turns into being a liberal internationalist, the author of the almost hero-worshipping Garibaldi trilogy; the Whig constitutionalist who wrote his three-volume England under Queen Anne; and the celebrant of rural England, who became one of the chief champions of the conservation of the English landscape.

'Like most historians,' David Cannadine writes, 'Trevelyan's life and work cannot be properly understood without reference to the time in which he lived. But like very few historians, the times in which he lived cannot be properly understood without reference to Trevelyan's life and work.' It is a large claim, but it is one which Cannadine makes good in this bold, generous and subtle book.