Obituary: Professor Laurence Stone

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The Independent Culture
LAWRENCE STONE belonged to a remarkable generation of British historians who dominated and defined their subject for nearly half a century, and which included Christopher Hill, G.R. Elton, Asa Briggs, J.H. Plumb, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson. They all wrote widely and well, and reached a large audience in universities and far beyond. But in many ways, Stone was the most creative - and the most controversial - of them all.

In the course of an exceptionally happy, vigorous and distinguished life, he produced a dozen books, scores of academic articles, and a clutch of coruscating essays, in which he ranged with inexhaustible energy and matchless confidence, across a whole millennium of English history - from sculpture in the Middle Ages via the Stuart aristocracy and the Civil War, to marriage and divorce in the present day.

The last thing Stone could ever have been called (and he was called many things) was a cautious or pedantic or inhibited historian, mouldering away obscurely or ineffectually into dry-as-dust. Known to his graduate students at Princeton as "Il Magnifico", he was as unlike Casaubon as it was possible for a scholar to be. Instead of confining himself to one of history's increasingly ring-fenced sub-specialisms, he moved back and forth from political to economic, to social, to cultural, to family, to educational, to architectural history. And, along the way, he ruthlessly ransacked other disciplines for their ideas and insights: sociology, statistics, economics, anthropology and psychology. For Stone was passionately curious about the past, was insatiably open to new ideas and approaches, had an unerring instinct for raising large questions, and took a robustly mischievous delight in controversy which was an example and inspiration to many, and a reproach and a provocation to many more.

His first foray into scholarly combat was as a participant in what became known as the "Storm Over the Gentry". In 1948, encouraged by his mentor, R.H. Tawney, Stone published an article in the Economic History Review entitled "The Anatomy of the Elizabethan Aristocracy", which suggested they were hovering on the verge of financial ruin. This essay was subjected to devastating criticism by Hugh Trevor-Roper, in a reply which is still cherished by connoisseurs of intellectual terrorism.

There were some who feared, and some who hoped, that Stone would not survive this ferocious onslaught; but they underestimated his buoyancy and resilience. In later years, he disagreed with Peter Laslett and Edward Shorter about the structure of the family, with Alan Macfarlane about the origins of English individualism, with David and Eileen Spring about the openness of the English elite, with the so-called "revisionists" about the origins of the Civil War, and with G.R. Elton and Michel Foucault about almost everything.

In all these encounters, Stone was an eager and resourceful polemicist, who was never afraid to modify his own arguments when circumstances warranted (as they quite often did), and who took an almost schoolboyish delight in stirring things up and enraging his opponents. As such, he had remained recognisably the same figure who had once hoped to play cricket for England, and had cultivated what he thought was an appropriately swashbuckling and uninhibited style. But, having been taught by a professional to wield a straight bat, he never played a successful game again, and was obliged to channel his natural combativeness into other pursuits.

As this story suggests, Stone's upbringing was conventionally upper-middle- class, and he remained deeply attached to England all his life. But, as an historian, he came to feel it was too critical and too constraining an environment, and he eventually found greater scope and success in the United States.

Born in 1919, he was educated at Charterhouse, where he came under the bracingly benevolent influence of Sir Robert Birley, who helped Stone win a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, and promptly despatched him to study in Paris. There he acquired a lifelong fascination with the work of French historians of the Annales school, and he also met his future wife, Jeanne Fawtier, whom he married in 1943. They produced two children, Robert and Elizabeth, and Jeanne was her husband's devoted helper, unfailing champion and most consistent critic.

Stone's undergraduate years were interrupted by war service in the Navy, and while on a destroyer in the South Atlantic he wrote his first article, appropriately enough on "The Armada Campaign of 1588". He eventually graduated in 1946, and was elected a Fellow of Wadham College four years later. He threw himself vigorously into the life of the college, and sorted and catalogued its archives; he was also an inspiring and intimidating tutor, with the disconcerting habit of asking "Is that all?", as an undergraduate finished reading his essay.

His first book was Sculpture in Britain: the Middle Ages (1955), a pioneering account which made imaginative use of illustrations, and was commissioned by Nikolaus Pevsner for the Pelican History of Art. This was rapidly followed by An Elizabethan: Sir Horatio Palavacino (1956), a jaunty biography of a rather shady financier which illuminated the seamier side of early international capitalism. But his chief labour of these years grew out of the "Gentry" controversy, and eventually appeared as The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (1965) - a total history of England's ruling elite from the accession of Elizabeth to the outbreak of the Civil War. Immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece, it remains one of the greatest pieces of writing by any British historian since the Second World War.

By then, Stone had become increasingly disenchanted with what he saw as the parochial rigidities of the Oxford History School, and in 1963 he moved to Princeton University as Dodge Professor of History. It was his great liberation and opportunity. He soon established himself as the most powerful force in the History Department, of which he was Chairman from 1967 to 1970. His undergraduate lectures were one of the highlights of the Princeton curriculum, and he was a superb mentor of research students. He helped to found the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, of which he was Director, 1968-90. Its regular Friday seminars were renowned for their uninhibited debate, and Stone's end-of-session summaries were virtuoso performances. And by his energy, cleverness and prestige, he also did much to re-energise the study of British history throughout north America.

Despite these growing demands on his time, he remained a prolific writer, constantly in search of new subjects, new approaches and new controversies. The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642 (1972) was a brief and brilliant synthesis, which clothed a Whig interpretation in sociological garb. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977), opened up a whole new field of historical inquiry, and generated disagreements which continue to this day. And An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 (1984) set out to establish, by a quantitative study of country-house building in three counties, just how difficult it was for the supposedly "rising middle class" to join the gentry.

In addition, Stone became a regular writer for the New York Review of Books, dissecting (and often dismissing) the work of fellow historians with characteristic brio. And since 1958 he had also served as a member of the editorial board of Past and Present, a journal whose consistent liveliness owed much to his example and his many contributions to it.

These Princeton years were a halcyon time. On his retirement in 1990, Stone set about completing his last great historical enterprise, which eventually appeared in three volumes: Road to Divorce (1990), Uncertain Unions (1992) and Broken Lives (1993). Based on the records of the Court of Arches, they provided the first authentically historical account of marital breakdown in England from the early modern period to the present day. The books were extremely well received, and completed a scholarly oeuvre which in its range and vigour and originality will surely never be equalled by any other individual.

He remained a keen controversialist, and took great delight in denouncing the excesses and self-indulgences of post-modern historians in the pages of Past and Present. In these later years, he also garnered his full share of academic recognition in Britain and the United States, including an Honorary Fellowship from Wadham and a Corresponding Fellowship of the British Academy; and he held honorary degrees from Pennsylvania, Glasgow, Chicago, Edinburgh, Princeton and Oxford - the latter being a source of particular pleasure.

Yet, to the end, Stone was disapproved of in certain hidebound quarters: for being cavalier in his use of evidence; for jumping to conclusions and for rushing his fences; for being too combative, too curious, too clever and too creative, and for having left the country only to establish an unrivalled reputation across the transatlantic world.

All of which is simply to say that, in a profession often characterised by envy, parochialism, myopia and small-mindedness, he was a life force and a tonic spirit. "Nothing is worse," he once observed, "than boring history." Lawrence Stone's history was as un-boring as history could ever be. He wrote his books, as he did everything else, with inimitable panache; and his death, which was sudden (and merciful), was all of a piece with his life.

David Cannadine

Lawrence Stone, historian: born Epsom, Surrey 4 December 1919; Lecturer, University College, Oxford 1947-50; Fellow, Wadham College, Oxford 1950- 63, Honorary Fellow 1983; Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton 1960-61; Dodge Professor of History, Princeton University 1963-90 (Emeritus), Chairman, Department of History 1967-70, Director, Shelby Cullom Davis Centre for Historical Studies 1968-90; married 1943 Jeanne Fawtier (one son, one daughter); died Princeton, New Jersey 16 June 1999.