Scientific histories: debates among Victorian historians

In my last post, which mused on different kinds of veracity in history, I mentioned the book that I am reviewing today: Ian Hesketh’s The Science of History in Victorian Britain: Making the Past Speak, published by Pickering Chatto last year in the same series as my own book. It focuses on British historiography of the second half of the 19th century, in particular the claims made about possible scientific approaches to history, contrasted with more literary forms, in the process of its professionalisation.

The debates were about the form that historical research and writing should take, who it should be written for, where credibility might be found, how a profession could be built, how professional standards might be met and recognised, and how approaches that did not meet the newly-defined standards should be dealt with. It is about status, boundary work, the claim that history can be written objectively, and, fascinatingly, the suggestion that good – and, indeed, morally commendable – history can never satisfy the untrained reader.

Claiming application of a scientific method to history is, naturally, far from straightforward. There were, for a start, two competing models for what scientific history might look like. One was inspired by the idea that generally applicable laws might be found to explain apparently disparate phenomena; the other was nearer to Baconian induction, where historians would focus on the methodical collection and (as far as possible) unmediated presentation of data. While it might be hoped that the latter would lead to the former, in Victorian history these ideas led to two widely divergent approaches, both in competition with a more traditional narrative approach.

Under Hesketh’s guidance, and after a very clear and useful introductory chapter, we are first introduced to the ambitious ‘natural law’ approach to history, embodied by Henry Thomas Buckle. In 1858 “everybody in London” was, according to William Whewell, “talking about Mr Buckle’s lecture” at the Royal Institution (p. 13). His was ‘big picture’ history, a History of Civilisation in England no less, which Buckle hoped would be “equivalent” or “analogous” to science in revealing natural laws in which providence and morality played no part (p. 17). Demonstrating the influence of Comte among others, Buckle saw history as a series of progressive stages of civilisation, using geography and statistics as well as written sources to tell a story of mankind rather than great men.

Buckle aimed to “rescue history from the hands of annalists, chroniclers, and antiquaries” and he, briefly at least, captured the popular imagination – to the extent that ladies were, Leslie Stephen recalled, “panting for wider generalizations” and the ‘thrill’ of an account where lives were governed not by free will or God’s providence, but implacable natural laws (p. 21). Hesketh explains Buckle’s appeal, and the idiosyncracies of his background, as well as placing him in the context of contemporaries reaching for similar generalisations: Comte, John Stuart Mill and Whewell being obvious, though strikingly different examples.[1]

For a number of other historical writers, Buckle’s work was emphatically not what scientific history should look like: he was too ready to generalise, too little grounded in archival detail, and too sensationalist. He had failed to understand that science was based on dogged, careful examination of ‘facts’, and that it was the duty of the historian to reveal these without drama. Thus, on the other side, we meet Edward Freeman, J.R. SeeleyJ.R. Green, Lord Acton and others, who could, broadly, be put in a set of professionalising historians, admirers of Leopold von Ranke and linked together through personal ties, university positions and publications such as the new English Historical Review and the Saturday Review.

Hesketh explores the backgrounds, and the political and religious allegiances, of these individuals. Their identification as a group would appear to come more from attempts to decide who should not be considered a exemplary historical practitioner than from much commonality in context or approach. In other words, as Hesketh nicely shows, an identity was built through the process of criticising the work of others, whether generalisers like Buckle, or literary historians, taking inspiration from Scott, Carlyle and Macaulay. In particular, we are shown how Charles Kingsley and James Anthony Froude were attacked by Freeman and Seeley.

Froude, likewise reacting against Buckle, found the idea of history as science “an abuse of language”, as nonsensical “as if we were to talk of the colour of sound, or the longitude of the rule-of-three” (p. 70). There was no shortage of archival research in Froude’s work, but he embraced the notion that historical facts are subject to interpretation, both mediated by past actors and modern historians. The ‘facts’ of history could not speak for themselves, and nor could ‘scientific’ historical hypotheses be subject to repetition and experiment. Embracing the role of the historian as interpreter of the past, or advocate for a particular interpretation, Froude produced histories that had drive and readability.

Seeley, however, was adamant that “….history only becomes interesting to the general public by being corrupted” (p. 73), and that  Macaulay’s “making history interesting has done a mischief” with “sweet unwholesome stuff”. It was to be a badge of recognisably virtuous and professional history that it “cannot be understood without an effort” (p. 80). Likewise, Freeman felt the historian should “dare to be accurate” and unpopular, eschewing all interest and excitement as, inevitably, the creation of fable (p. 81).

Much of the book focuses on statements of good historiography (for example, in public lectures, introductions and obituaries) and criticisms of bad (generally in reviews), supplemented by similar commentary derived from private correspondence. It has been Hesketh’s aim, despite his acknowledgement of the lack of objectivity of historical knowledge, to let his characters speak for themselves as much as possible. It may be this, therefore, that has led him to quote such commentary rather than presenting the reader with a real analysis of the main body of work that these writers produced. The book is, therefore, missing a sense of the extent to which, or how, 19th-century histories embodied the virtues their authors claimed for them.

Partly as a result of this, it is difficult to grasp what ‘science’ really meant in the practice of these historians. Both they and/or Hesketh, have a tendency to elide ‘scientific’ with, variously, ‘professional’ or ‘trained’ or ‘disciplinary’ or ‘specialist’. It was not clear to what extent science was genuinely and regularly invoked by these writers and, if it was, what this really meant to them and, beyond, to their peers, audiences, the wider public and – indeed – practicing men of science. If, as it appears was the case, a journal like the Saturday Review could become a mouthpiece for the professionalising historians, what did this mean to general readers?

The writings and debates discussed in Hesketh’s book are fascinating ones, both for understanding the context in which some major histories of England were produced in the 19th century and in raising perennial questions about the nature of historical writing. As Hesketh writes in his final paragraph we would now tend to “agree with Froude in saying that history is not a science and that historical knowledge is not objective. And yet we professional historians still clearly fear that history written for the general reader by a non-specialist and continue to find new and disturbing ways to police our professional boundaries” (p. 164).[2] Interpretation of the record is essential if historians are to say anything meaningful about the past, but there are still endless debates to be had about where we draw the line – although I would disagree that these are still couched in terms of whether history is “a science or a form of art”.

There are some fascinating episodes in this book and its careful studies of individual historians are rewarding. Particularly successful was Chapter 4, on discipline-developing boundary work contra Froude, and it was also fascinating to trace the trajectory of individual careers, considering early – and sometimes radically different – works, and attempts to reach broader or juvenile markets (revealing the desire to spread the gospel of good history, despite claims of its inaccessibility to the uninitiated), alongside their more ambitious and programmatic publications. I am fascinated too by the opposing claims of where real merit and morality might lie, whether in the presence of an authoritative voice and learned judgement or in the careful removal of self from the text. But, certainly, there remains more to be said about just what place the words ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ had in these debates.


[1] I would have liked to see some mention of where Marx and Engles might fit into this mix, even if only to dismiss their relevance to the particular debates under discussion.

[2] I found this sentence rather awkwardly formed, like a number of others in the book, which leads to a minor quibble about the lack of editorial and proof-reading work that is too common in (high-priced) academic books. There is some rather informal phrasing, and repetition, including a lot of ‘quites’ (two appearing in one sentence) as well as some errors. In the first two sentences we find Maria Grey referred to as Grey and Gray, while on p. 48 we have “Green” and “Greene”, again in neighbouring sentences.

Another review available online and worth reading is on the website of the British Society for Literature and Science.

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