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Review of Trevelyan, Clio, a Muse (1913)*

By Bertrand Russell

Clio, a Muse: And Other Essays, Literary and Pedestrian. By George Macaulay Trevelyan. London, New York and Bombay: Longmans, 1913. Pp.200

THIS VOLUME CONSISTS of a collection of essays, some new, some reprinted. The first, which gives its title to the volume, is an eloquent and ably-written plea for “literary” history as against the “scientific” school. The facts of history, as Mr. Trevelyan points out, are too complex and too much subject to individual accidents to be capable of a truly scientific treatment, at any rate for many ages to come. Moreover, since they are not of direct practical utility, knowledge of them by a few experts has not that importance that belongs to a technical knowledge of the sciences. “The value of history,” he decides, “is not scientific. Its true value is educational. It can educate the minds of men by causing them to reflect on the past.” And in order to perform this function, it must be so written as to interest those who are not historians; it must have the amplitude of treatment and the splendour of style that belong to the older historians, and these the “scientific” school would reject as things of little worth. In a passage of rare beauty, Mr. Trevelyan illustrates his own doctrine by a description of the gardens of St. John’s at Oxford in the last days of King Charles’s Cavaliers, before their world was destroyed for ever by the transitory might of Cromwell’s Ironsides.

In spite of agreement with the main thesis of this truly admirable essay, it is possible, however, to entertain respectful doubts on certain minor points. Perhaps hardly enough justice is done to the patient discoveries of those who, following the “scientific” impulse, have made it possible to know the truth about the past as it could not be known through the historians of a less laborious school. To ascertain the truth is not enough for a historian: he must also make it living, and fill it with some breath of passion and imagination out of the surplus of his own vital force. But history which is not true, however splendidly written, has an essential lack: Carlyle’s French Revolution would have had value of a wholly different order if he had made some approach to accuracy in such central questions as the character of Mirabeau.

Perhaps also Mr. Trevelyan does not quite realize that the difficulty of writing good history is not a difficulty in the learning of history for a Tripos or School, and that his arguments in favour of literary history might be used as arguments against the specialized study of history by the young. For in such study, if it is serious, the “dry-as-dust” aspects of history will inevitably, perhaps rightly, be brought to the fore.

The essay on history is followed by one on walking. As a historian, Mr. Trevelyan gains immensely from his practice of walking over the regions he describes; if Carlyle had had the same habit, his description of Naseby would have been more satisfactory to FitzGerald, and his digestion more satisfactory to himself. But the profane may question whether walking quite deserves the tone of almost religious solemnity in which it is spoken of in this essay, and whether it is an example of the Providential ordering of the world that Oxford and Cambridge were placed at exactly the right distance from London for a comfortable day’s walk.

The following essays – on George Meredith, on Poetry and Rebellion, on John Woolman, and on the Middle Marches – all contain interesting matter, but do not quite attain the level of the first essay. The last, called “If Napoleon Had Won the Battle of Waterloo,” was a prize essay for the Westminster. It is highly ingenious and very amusing, but it would be a pity to spoil its points by an attempt at summarizing.


*  Bertrand Russell, Review of G.M. Trevelyan, Clio, a Muse, The Cambridge Review 35 (Dec 4 1913), 189-90