Tombs: Sharing Orwell’s Penchant for Puncturing Shibboleths

This review originally appeared in  George Orwell Studies Volume 3 Number 2.

George Orwell continues to have an extraordinary influence on how the English view England, writes Darcy Moore in his review of an important contemporary work of history.

The English and Their History: The First Thirteen Centuries (2014) by Robert Tombs has deservingly been described as a ‘triumph’, ’magisterial’ and ‘astonishing’ by reviewers. The historian has been praised for being ‘shrewdly detached’ and writing with ‘precision and candour’. There is plenty of support for the view this will be ‘the standard history for years’ (see, for instance, Davenport-Hines 2014; Hitchens 2015, Mullin 2015).

Tombs wants to tell the history of England ‘first as an idea, and then as a kingdom, as a country, a people and a culture, trying to begin at the beginning without assuming any inevitability in what occurred, and trying to explore what is proper to England, and what is shared with its various neighbours’. Although he wanted ‘to reflect the best modern scholarship, much of it hidden from the public gaze in the pages of learned journals and scholarly monographs’, Tombs makes no use of contemporary DNA analysis or population genetics in his chronological narrative (Tombs 2014: 17). It has been pointed out, by one reviewer, that Tombs’s index has no reference to regionalism, class, gender or race (Colley 2015). He argues:

…it is meaningless to attempt any description of a society – that it was rich or poor, equal or unequal, free or oppressed, stable or unstable – except by comparison with other human societies (ibid: 20).

Contextually, this history was published before the Brexit referendum of June 2016 and two months after the Scots voted ’no’ in response to the question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?. Tombs describes himself as ‘an Englishman with Irish connections who has spent most of his life studying France’ and says his ‘approach to England’s history has necessarily been without fixed preconceptions and, explicitly or implicitly, it is constantly concerned with wider historical perspectives’ (ibid: 20).

Tombs is no invisible, disinterested academic silently working with the archives and intellectual theory. He was critical of the National Curriculum for History and was invited to help rewrite it by the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, in 2013 (Tombs 2017a). As co-founder of the Briefings for Brexit website, which aims to provide ‘factual evidence and reasoned arguments’, Tombs believes, ‘whatever the theorists say, ordinary people seem intuitively to feel the opposite: they look for security to the people they know and trust, and to governments over which they have some direct control. That is what Brexit means’ (Tombs 2017b).

Like Orwell, Tombs is critical of ‘smelly little orthodoxies’. Unlike Orwell, he appears to have no fondness for left wing or progressive politics. He presents a persuasive amount of data to argue the period of the 1960s was destructive for English society and one reviewer notices he can rarely ‘mention any Labour politician without sarcasm’ (Colley 2015). 

THE INFLUENCE OF GEORGE ORWELL

A text search for ‘Orwell’, in the Kindle edition of Tombs’s single-volume history, reveals the author is referenced thirty-one times throughout the thousand-page monograph. It is hardly surprising Shakespeare garners seventy-six references and Dickens forty-eight. T. S. Eliot and Jane Austen languish with four and seven references respectively.

Historians such as the Venerable Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth, A. J. P. Taylor, E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill are all referred to far less than Orwell. Edward Gibbon is mentioned just three times and Eric Hobsbawm even less. David Hume and Thomas Babington Macaulay are employed a few more times in the service Tombs’s narrative than Orwell but Winston Churchill, who had the advantage of being historian, journalist, author and twice prime minister, dwarfs all others with nearly two-hundred references.

Orwell’s fiction is not mentioned at all. Not one allusion to Airstrip One, Oceania, Newspeak, Big Brother or Manor Farm is to be found. This makes sense as Tombs says:

Historical novelists, playwrights or film-makers may feel free to tell the story however they wish; but historians are guided and indeed constrained by this research, which dictates much of what can and must be written (ibid: 17).

However, a select number of Orwell’s most important writings  ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (1936), ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ (1939), ‘Charles Dickens’ (1940) and The Lion and the Unicorn (1941) are significant to Tombs’s telling of his story of the English. One of Orwell’s standard published works is referenced too, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). These non-fiction evaluations of aspects of English life and culture are invaluable to Tombs’s vision.

It struck me several times that Tombs has an Orwellian gift for writing, not so much epithets but amusingly acerbic sentences that one would usually associate with bias, or at the least, opinion pieces. However, just when one is tempted to view Tombs’s history as a partisan, rather than balanced work, he delights with a reference, quote or insight that helps one back on the road to believing, if not being completely convinced, he is fair-minded and independent. Tombs eventually convinced this sceptical reader, although my inner critic was poised and ready to doubt, that his historical judgement was sound.

One example where I struggled, albeit relatively briefly, was when Tombs creatively employs Orwell in an apparent defence of imperialism by quoting from Shooting an Elephant, followed by The Lion and the Unicorn – along with Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993):

But they did bring substantial periods of relative peace and order to large tracts of the globe – in the view of the same Orwell, ‘the Empire was peaceful as no area of comparable size has ever been’ (ibid: 781).

Tombs argues that one benefit of this imperial legacy was that the English language ‘made the world one’ (ibid: 782). This very much follows his belief that one can only judge any society by ‘comparison with other human societies’ (ibid: 20).

Tombs shares Orwell’s penchant for puncturing shibboleths. He writes cleverly and coherently to create a surprising amount of order from ‘a confused mass of ideas’ and adheres successfully to Orwell’s dictum about good prose and window panes:

As a subject of academic study memory was first undertaken by French historians, whose term mémoire suggests not individual recollections but what is sometimes called ‘social memory’ – a public culture, recorded in monuments, books, institutions and symbols. This book pursues that idea: the history of England is not simply what happened, or what historians believe they can demonstrate, but what a vast range of people, for a great variety of purposes, have recorded, asserted and believed about the past – a confused mass of ideas, emotions, words and images, often contradictory, argumentative and divisive (Tombs 2014: 17).

A good example of this can be seen in Orwell’s observation that the beloved novelist, Charles Dickens, ‘attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do so without making himself hated and he has become a national institution’ (ibid: 424). It is noteworthy that Tombs is more than happy to write about Dickens through Orwell’s eyes.

It is interesting to consider that the most English of Englishman, George Orwell, greatly valued his French ancestry and was very knowledgeable about French literature, especially poetry. Tombs’s academic specialisation is French History. By the time I had finished his book, it felt that the spectre of Orwell loomed larger than any other figure influencing and confirming Tombs’s perspective on England. It was easy to imagine Orwell reviewing this book approvingly.  It is also possible to imagine Tombs’s disappointment that the planned epic poem, the one that would have explored the history of England in a way Orwell described as ‘Chaucerian’ to a friend, was left unwritten at his death.

THE ENGLISH AND THEIR HISTORY: CONCLUSION

The influence of Orwell on Tombs’s thinking is most evident in the concluding chapter which opens with a quote from The Lion and The Unicorn:

Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward (Tombs 2014: 873).

In many ways it is not surprising that Tombs has chosen Orwell’s most optimistic book, written during ‘The Blitz’, as a seminal text informing and explaining his own historical perspective. His thinking and writing overtly employ Orwell’s language and imagery. Tombs uses the analogy of a house in a similar manner to Orwell’s famous description of England as a family:

Nations resemble each other like a street of houses: of different sizes, with different occupants, and different furnishings, but sharing many basic characteristics. England is a rambling old property with ancient foundations, a large Victorian extension, a 1960s garage, and some annoying leaks and draughts balancing its period charm. Some historians believe England to be the prototype of the nation-state: ‘The birth of the English nation was not the birth of a nation; it was the birth of the nations (Tombs 2014: 873).

Tombs understands that collective memory, as a pillar of national identity, values the ‘shared possession of a rich heritage of memories’ at its heart’ (ibid: 17). One senses that Orwell is very much part of this house and it amusing to think that The Lion and the Unicorn, sub-titled ’Socialism and the English Genius’, would sit comfortably on the mantelpiece alongside Tombs’s work. One senses that his description of this book as Orwell’s ‘exasperated love letter to England’ could easily be a reference to Tombs’s own monograph (ibid: 697). Orwell’s image, of the photograph on the mantelpiece, is a particularly powerful one for Tombs:

George Orwell’s view was typically trenchant: ‘What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.’ The connection, he said, was that ‘it is your civilisation, it is you… (Tombs 2014: 880).

Tombs mentions that George Orwell was ‘not being controversial’ in commenting in 1940 on the ‘gentleness of English civilisation … You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil’ (ibid: 790). It is clear that Tombs, like Orwell, knows the high value of trust and believes that the English people still possess this quality so essential to the national identity of what Daniel Defoe called, a ‘mongrel race’:

… opinion polls suggest that English feelings of national identity today are strong, and very similar to those of their close European neighbours. According to one critical observer, ‘It is necessary for peoples to trust each other, and somehow the English still do.’ They show it in public outrage when trust is betrayed by politicians. This, however little boasted about, is a quality beyond price (ibid: 884-885).

Tombs acknowledges the obvious truth that ‘every work of history reflects the experiences, beliefs and personality of its writer’ and has demonstrated, throughout his lengthy narrative, that good historians, like himself, are guided and constrained by their research ‘which dictates much of what can and must be written’ (Tombs 2014: 17).

In many ways Orwell is like that house Tombs employs as an analogy for England; complex, paradoxical, ramshackle, more than a little leaky and certainly not built to plan. Orwell was an imperial police officer, democratic socialist, Tory anarchist and radical. He was also a man who liked flowers, especially roses, tea and English pubs. An intellectual, he liked working with his hands. He hated imperialism, censorship and propaganda but was prepared to serve during World War II at the BBC as a broadcaster ‘talking to India’, influencing people he believed should be free of the imperial yolk to be committed to the British empire. Orwell flirted with pacifism but was badly wounded in the fight against fascism. An atheist all his adult life, he was buried after a traditional Anglican service. He was English (but more than a little French and Scottish).

Tombs believes in England. One can easily imagine Orwell evaluating this as history written by a patriot, seeing things as they truly are, rather than an intellectual ‘ashamed of their own nationality’. Tombs, one also imagines, would enjoy such a judgement a great deal.

REFERENCES

Briefings for Brexit (2019) Available online at https://briefingsforbrexit.com/, accessed on 22 February 2019

Colley, Linda (2015) A shared island, Times Literary Supplement, 7 January. Available online at https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/a-shared-island/, accessed on 22 February 2019

Davenport-Hines, Richard (2014) The English and Their History review – ‘a book of resounding importance to contemporary debates’, Guardian, 17 November. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/17/the-english-and-their-history-review-robert-tombs-resounding-importance, accessed on 15 February 2019

Hitchens, Peter (2015) The English and Their History, by Robert Tombs, New York Times, 31 December. Available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/books/review/the-english-and-their-history-by-robert-tombs.html, accessed on 15 February 2019

Mullin, Chris (2015) The English and Their History, by Robert Tombs, Irish Times, 1 February. Available online at https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-english-and-their-history-by-robert-tombs-1.2084518, accessed on 22 February 2019

Tombs, Robert (2014) The English and Their History: The First Thirteen Centuries, Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition

Tombs, Robert (2017a) Why Teach Your Own Country’s History? parentsandteachers.org.uk, 9 March. Available online at http://www.parentsandteachers.org.uk/latest/blog/why-teach-your-own-countrys-history-speech-professor-robert-tombs, accessed on 23 February 2019

Tombs, Robert (2017b) Brexit suggests we’re on the right side of history, Spectator, 16 December. Available online at https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/12/brexit-suggests-were-on-the-right-side-of-history/, accessed on 22 February 2019

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