These well-worn lines of Kipling's encapsulate an enduring feature of the popular English concept of national history - its cosiness. Because of the remarkable quantity and quality of local documentary sources covering more than nine centuries, the historian of England is able to identify with them, and to throw the mantle of Victorian law-abiding domesticity over the past. There is an unspoken agreement, not so much among professional historians as among their public, to minimise serious disagreement, whether arising from political, religious or economic differences, to fail to recognise the fragility of much of the consensus, or the pressures of the state bureaucracy, when these were enabling the country to remain at peace, and to play down the seriousness of the issues when there was internal war. The only civil war to be popularly recognised as important is that between 1642 and 1646, a relatively unbloody outbreak, and much of the general interest in it is absorbed in re-staging its battles in fancy dress: much less attention is paid to the second Civil War, perhaps because the Cavalier share was less marked and the issues nastier. The Medieval periods of internal war are not re-staged, perhaps because of the sheer discomfort of full armour. Yet one of these may well have been caused by reaction to the effective and extractive bureaucracy which created Domesday Book. These unpleasant episodes do not disturb the clack of the little mills of English historiography. Only when we turn to late 19th-century labour issues is there a large enough body of committed opinion among people who know well that their great-grandfathers were workers, and who wish to see the issues of power, class and status through ancestral eyes, and also a popular desire to stress conflict. Even then, the area of conflict is usually narrow: the struggle between the male labour force and employer. The struggles of the lower middle class for financial security, or of working women for expression, are ignored. English history as received is nostalgic, harmonious and extraordinarily insular.
LRB 20 November 1986 | PDF Download