Sunday, 21 August 2011

A Brief History of the The English Civil Wars-John Miller

 As part of my recommendations of new books on the English Civil war here is a brief review of John Millers book).

The English Civil War is testimony to the fact that John Miller is very well versed on the history and politics of this subject. The English Civil War is perhaps one of the most “hotly contested areas of English History”. Having said this it is perhaps given the limited space 200 pages a wise move that Miller does not delve into historiography of the Civil War.

I believe this is a weakness of the book but you pay your money and you take your choice. The book is light on military aspects which I think is a good thing. Some new books on the Civil war tend to use descriptions of battles etc. to pad things out.

The book is heavy on politics and this is a good thing. Miler clearly believes that this was a period that changed “the political, social, religious and intellectual landscape of the country for ever and was “an extraordinary turning point in British history”.

The book is not a deeply academic but is aimed at the student or general reader who does not have too deep an understanding of the complex nature of this subject. In the forward Miller says his aim was “to produce something for students and interested general readers that is both brief and clear'. 

As an interested general reader I think he achieves his aim entirely. I say this not to rubbish what after all is a very good book. If it is not already on university book lists then it should.

On John Miller

Professor Miller’s began doing his original area of research looking into English politics in the reigns of Charles II and James II, to his credit his books tend to concentrate heavily on the politics of this time. While certainly no Marxist historian he does take on board and analyses the movement of class forces and how they impact on important individuals

I would not put him in the revisionist collection of historians and again to his credit he does not solely examine the history of “winners” but has a substantial interest of how politics worked at “grass roots level”, His chapter War and the People demonstrates this.


Saturday, 20 August 2011

Some thoughts on Montagu Slater, Gilbert Mabbott and historical fiction.


Montagu Slater was a major literary figure inside and outside the British Communist Party. He was born into a working class family in 1902. At an early age he showed enough promise to win an important scholarship to Oxford.

Like many of his generation he was shaped intellectually by the social, economic and political upheavals caused by the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism. While active in local politics at an early age he joined the CP in 1927.

He joined the British CP at the height of the Stalinist witch hunt by Joseph Stalin against Leon Trotsky. Slater clearly sided with the Stalinist theory that you could build Socialism in One Country as opposed to Trotsky position of extending the Russian revolution on an international stage.

Any assessment of his literary work should bear his politics in mind. His adherence to the theory of building socialism in one country paved the way for him in 1930s to become editor of 'Left Review', which himself helped to create. Left Review became an apologist for Stalinist crimes against the working class and especially became a house organ for attacks on Leon Trotsky

Slater it must be said was a versatile writer who wrote many stage plays, reviews, and articles and edited theatre journals

Perhaps his most famous work was a libretto for Benjamin Britten’s `Peter Grimes’. Anthony Burgess, said in The Listener in 1964, “The excellence of Peter Grimes has a great deal to do with Montagu Slater’s libretto, the only libretto I know that can be read in its own right as a dramatic poem.”

Slater who died at a very early age of 54 it must be said stayed true to his Stalinist ideals. Despite being linked with the `New Reasoner’ wing inside in the Communist Party, Slater agreed with every twist and turn of the British Communist party’s attack on Trotskyism including its “British Road to Socialism”. When the Hungarian revolution took place in 1956 he called it a counter-revolution. On his deathbed in 1956 he still retained his party membership.

`Englishmen with Swords” is a piece of historical fiction which centres on the years 1647-1649. Slater wrote the piece using material from the journal of a minor but important real life participant of the English Civil War Gilbert Mabbot. Having read the book I would say that it is a reasonably faithful portrayal of the events of those years.

As much as I can tell (no doubt others with a greater knowledge will probably disagree with) the story line remains faithful to actual events. You can argue that Mabbot was not really the person who named Buff Coat a rank and file figure who spoke at the Putney Debates but this is being pedantic. The book should not be seen as a historical document but should be used as a complimentary with formal historical research

Slater should be congratulated for bringing Mabbott to the attention of a wider audience. Too many figures such as Mabbott have been lost in the revisionist stampede to replace the “history from below” genre with history from above.

Mabbott (1622—c. 1670) was according Graham Stevenson “the official licenser of the press from 1647 to 1649 and himself a pioneering journalist and publisher of newsbooks during the English Civil War period”.

While a secretary in the Army Mabbot he was to become a substantial writer of newsletters. Significantly he was according to a number of sources a close ally to the Levellers political party. He was responsible for the Newsbook The Moderate (Left)

Describing the move Mabbott said "I have laid down my former title of 'Moderate Intelligencer' and do go by another, viz. 'The Moderate'". The Moderate espoused republican views. It gleefully supported the execution of the King and held views that were similar to the Levellers.

This link to the Levellers has been questioned by Frances Henderson who said “Mabbott's reputation as a Leveller, which rests solely on his alleged editorship of the radical newsbook The Moderate, is open to question. It is possible that he contributed to early issues of this newsbook, but there is no evidence that he was responsible for editing it and nothing in his career or conduct to link him directly to the Levellers”.

Henderson’s view has been challenged according to Patrick Ludolph who has a blog called funny enough Gilbert Mabbott which can be found @ http://gilbertmabbott.wordpress.com “Gilbert Mabbott was a licenser of pamphlets and newsbooks from 1645 to 1649. He was also brother-in-law to Sir William Clarke and a client of John Rushworth. From 1647 to 1649, he was in the pay of the New Model Army, acting as their “agent” in London. As well, Mabbott has been accused of being the editor of the radical newsbook The Moderate, an accusation which I have come to believe”.

He was however not overtly gushing over Slater’s book Englishmen with Swords he believes “Slater chose Mabbott because he knew absolutely nothing about him. He saw his name on a bunch of documents and decided to write from his viewpoint because Mabbott was a virtual nobody, a clean slate to write on”.

Slater’s book is the first historical novel I have read in a month of Sundays so at the moment I cannot really form much of an opinion of historical fiction genre. From what I have read the genre has its admirers and it has its detractors amongst historians who have a tendency to look down their noses at it. Some of their criticisms I can sympathise with especially if there are major historical inaccuracies. But having said that there appears to be too much academic snobbery. As I have said I cannot detect any major historical flaws of Slater’s book.

There were and are some very great writers of the genre such as Dickens, Tolstoy who wrote War and Peace. Just to name two. A more modern day example is the famous The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe which is now a major film.

It is important to distinguish between a genuinely good historical novel and the large number of pulp fiction novels which contain sometimes outrageous historical inaccuracies.

According to Chris Hopkinson his essay Historicising the Historical Novel: “Lukacs in his The Historical Novel (1937; 1963) distinguishes between various periods when literary historicism has become merely a mannerism, and periods when historical genres have made authentic engagements with history, as some of his section titles may briefly suggest: 'The Classical Form of the Historical Novel', 'The General Tendencies of Decadence and the Establishment of the Historical Novel as a Special Genre'. Lukacs, of course, as one of the most influential Marxist critics of the twentieth century sees the success of the historical novel at different period as not simply an aesthetic matter, but as one deeply determined by history itself”

Notes

1. Article on Slater’s life can be found @ http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index

2. Montagu Slater’s personal papers, now archived in the Lawrence Collection at the University of Nottingham, are full of poems and songs, prose works - many intended for broadcast or filming - film and television scripts, and reviews.

3. 'Gilbert Mabbott' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

4. For a thought provoking article called From Progress to Catastrophe-Perry Anderson on the Historical Novel. @ http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n15/perry-anderson/from-progress-to-catastrophe

Further Reading

1. 'The Trial of King Charles the first' by J.G. Muddiman (Hodge, London, 1928)

2. Montagu Slater Biography - ( 1902 –56 ), great Stay Down Miner, A New Way to Win, Peter Grimes - Published, Wrote, John, Including, Poems, and Plays http://www.jrank.org/literature/pages/10042/Montagu-Slater.html#ixzz1Ue8OVAE7

3. Historicising the Historical Novel: Introduction Chris Hopkins, Sheffield Hallam University



Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Montagu Slater's Englishmen With Swords


I am currently working on a review of Montagu Slater's Englishmen with Swords. The book has been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly three years so I thought it was about time it came in from the cold.

I know very little about Slater. He was in the Communist Party but was not around its historians group. The book is a work of fiction but contains historical facts and Slater has written the book in the form of a journal of a real life figure from the Civil war period Gilbert Mabbott.

I have read very few historical novels so at the moment cannot form an opinion of the genre. From what Iittle I know of the genre it has its admirers and it has its detractors amongst historians who have a tendency to look down their noses at it. Some of their criticisms I can sympathise with especially if there are major historical inaccuracies. But having said that there appears to be a little too much academic snobbery as well.

After all there were and are some very great writers of the genre such as Dickens, Tolstoy just to name two. For a thought provoking article called From Progress to Catastrophe-Perry Anderson on the Historical Novel. @ http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n15/perry-anderson/from-progress-to-catastrophe

Researching for the review led me to the main figure in Slater’s book Gilbert Mabbott. According to Patrick Ludolph who has a blog called funny enough Gilbert Mabbott which can be found @http://gilbertmabbott.wordpress.com/about/

“Gilbert Mabbott was a licenser of pamphlets and newsbooks from 1645 to 1649. He was also brother-in-law to Sir William Clarke and a client of John Rushworth. From 1647 to 1649, he was in the pay of the New Model Army, acting as their “agent” in London. As well, Mabbott has been accused of being the editor of the radical newsbook The Moderate, an accusation which I have come to believe”.

I contacted Patrick and asked for his opinion on the Book and this is what he said “I have read it, but I couldn’t tell you much more about its background than what’s already on the dust jacket. It’s from the point of view of Gilbert Mabbott (which you obviously know because you commented here, but I thought I would say for others out there) and makes use of a number of original documents from the Civil War. However, Slater chose Mabbott because he knew absolutely nothing about him. He saw his name on a bunch of documents and decided to write from his viewpoint because Mabbott was a virtual nobody, a clean slate to write on. The irony is not lost on me. It’s been a while since I looked at it; I seem to recall that Slater was a little confused about some things, but I don’t remember what.Come to think of it, I probably should have done a post on this, but I read it before I started blogging”.

Front cover of the Perfect Diurnall for January 16-23, 1654, with which Mabbot was associated.

Figures like Mabbott have been largely neglected by modern day historians this is mostly down to the opposition of revisionist historians to look into radical figures such as Mabbott who had links to groups such as the Levellers. Another neglected area of research is regarding  the proliferation of secret printings presses before the war which would tend to contradict historians such as Conrad Russell who have put forward that radicalism did not really exist before the outbreak of civil war hostilities. Mabbott after all was involved in the publication of the Moderate newsbook.

For more on this subject see (Secret Printing, The Crisis of 1640 and the Origins of Civil War Radicalism- Past And Present 2007 David R Como.



Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A Brief Review of The Civil Wars 1637-1653 Martyn Bennett

This is the first encounter I have had with a historian who is associated with the school of historiography which portrays the English Civil War as Wars of the Three Kingdoms rather than it being an English revolution. One point Bennet is correct in that terminology used by historians should tell you a lot about how that historian sees the revolution of the mid-seventeenth century reflects and reinforces the interpretations we make or as E H Carr was fond of saying always look Tout for the bees buzzing in historians head.

In the title of this book Bennett uses the dates 1637-1653. I have not come across this date span before and Bennett explains why he uses

“Imposing the dates 1642-1651 on the civil wars renders them relatively meaningless outside the bounds of England and Wales: calling them the 'English' Civil War is similarly problematic. The term English Civil War became common during the last century, adding to the range of titles available - from the contentious 'English Revolution' to the 'Great Rebellion' and the 'Great Civil War'. Yet such a title does obscure the involvement of the other nations as effectively in the book market as it does in popular entertainment”.

Bennett in true revisionist style also questions the use of the term English Civil War “The enduring symbol of the crisis which gripped the British Isles during the middle of the seventeenth century is the name given to it, 'The English Civil War'. Yet this symbol is itself problematic and can even act as a barrier to a clear understanding of what happened in that turbulent century. It may be argued that calling the conflict the English Civil War limits the scope of our perceptions. By labelling it an English event, we can marginalise Scotland and Ireland and perhaps even ignore Wales altogether. Yet all four nations were involved in the rebellions, wars and revolutions that made up the period”. To Bennett credit he does not deny a revolution took place , he challenges the “revolution's Englishness.

This is a short book of 114 pages and should not be seen as an in depth or analytical study of the Civil war. At best it should be seen as a good introduction to the conflict.

While not being very familiar with this type of historiography its origins stem mainly from the rejection of large group of revisionist historians who sought to reject a Marxist and Whig interpretation of the Civil War. While Bennett uses the term revolution in a couple of titles the book does not really have any socio-economic analysis of the revolution.

Most of the book gives a reasonable explanation of what took place during the war. Chapters 1-6 deal largely with this and can be seen as a good introduction. Perhaps the most interesting and informative chapters are 7-8. Chapter 7 called Revolution in England and Wales gives a basic insight into the growing divergence of views between parliament and a growing threat posed by the Levellers. Chapter 8 gives a presentable account of the views and actions of the Levellers.

The book is quite striking in its very liberal use of historiography. I think he mentions only one other historian but this is probably compensated by very good notes at the back of the book.

Bennett backs his Three Kingdoms argument by saying “in a November 1998 article in History Today, J.S.A. Adamson argued that here England truly demonstrated its distinctiveness and any four nations context comes about when only England imposed its revolution on the other nations. But even here we could add that Welsh politicians and soldiers were involved in this revolution too. Moreover Ronald Hutton reminds us in The British Republic (1989) that the revolutionaries of 1648-9 were themselves products of the civil wars, who were changed so much by the experience of the war that they eschewed many of their long-held traditional political beliefs when they led the nation into the republican experiment. So even that most English of phenomena - the revolution - was a product of the crisis of the four nations”.

Bennett is enough of a good historian to not be too caught up with the “wars of three kingdoms” historiography and he warns against “against thinking that this current interpretation of the war is the last word: historical fashions come and go. It may be as well to paraphrase Mark Twain: reports of the death of the English Civil War may yet be greatly exaggerated”.

Notes

Dr Martyn Bennett is the Director of the Faculty of Humanities School of Graduate Studies and Research at Nottingham Trent University. He is the author of several books on the civil wars, including The Civil Wars of Britain and Ireland (Blackwell, 1997) and The Civil Wars Experienced (Routledge, 2000). His biography of Oliver Cromwell for Routledge appeared in 2006.

See Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia the wars of the Three Kingdoms


Further Reading

The Personal Rule of Charles 1st K Sharpe

Civil War –The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-1660 Trevor Royle.

Britain in Revolution A Woolrych

The English Revolution and the Wars in the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1652 (Modern Wars In Perspective) Ian Gentles

Politics and War in the Three Stuart Kingdoms, 1637-49 (British History in Perspective) David Scott