Sooner or later, nations get the histories they need – different ones, of course, at different times. The early Victorians needed Macaulay’s brash, materialistic Whiggery; their less confident descendants a century later needed the more nuanced version offered by G M Trevelyan. By the same token, the bemused, post-imperial, post-modern citizens of the unravelling British state of our day need a post-Whig interpretation of their collective past. The Whig historians were instinctively Protestant and, irrespective of nationality, quintessentially English. They equated England with Britain and the English with the British. They took it for granted that the British were the pre-eminent champions of civil and religious liberty as well as the inventors of parliamentary government. They saw success in the race for empire as a reward for virtue, and the ties of empire as fundamental to the national identity they also took for granted. Above all, they saw mainland Europe as the Other against which the British defined themselves.
Follow Literary Review on Twitter
This 'jaunty narrative raises fundamental questions about the role of popular history. Should this just be a matter of telling tales, as the general public often seems to think?'
@DrLRoach weighs up Charles Spencer's account of the White Ship Disaster.
'Amis clearly belongs to the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do school of pedagogy. More or less everything he says is demonstrably contradicted by elements of his own work, be they here or elsewhere.'
'The bar is set high at the outset, and readers are primed to wonder if Mikhail can make his case.'
Does Alan Mikhail's new life of the Sultan Selim I really overturn 'shibboleths that have held sway for a millennium'? Caroline Finkel investigates.