George Macaulay Trevelyan

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George Macaulay Trevelyan

The English historian George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1962) is known for his defense and illustration of history as a literary art.

George Macaulay Trevelyan was born at Welcom be near Stratford-on-Avon on Feb. 16, 1876, the son of Sir George Otto Trevelyan. His maternal granduncle was the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. Young Trevelyan went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ralph Vaughan Williams were among his friends. In 1898, his imagination caught by what he saw as the first stirring of national consciousness and individual freedom among the 14th century Lollards, he wrote England in the Age of Wycliffe as a dissertation for a Trinity fellowship. An immediate success, it remains one of the best books on the subject.

Awarded the fellowship, Trevelyan set out upon an academic career. Cambridge, however, was then dominated by a highly critical mode of historical writing, soon to be epitomized by J. B. Bury in the phrase, "History is a science, nothing more, nothing less." The ethos was not congenial for a writer of Trevelyan's literary and humanistic bent. In 1903 he left Cambridge for London, not to return until his appointment as regius professor in 1927.

Trevelyan's next work, England under the Stuarts (1904), showed a deeper historical understanding and more secure craftsmanship, particularly in its portrayal of King Charles I and the Cavaliers. The year of its publication, Trevelyan married Janet Penrose Ward. As a wedding gift, he received a copy of Giuseppe Garibaldi's Memoirs, which awakened memories of stories he had heard from his father (who had tried to join Garibaldi in 1867) and of his own walks in the Umbrian hills. The result was Garibaldi's Defence of the Roman Republic, written in the heat of inspiration in 1906. It was a perfect match of event and author, giving full play to Trevelyan's poetic imagination. Its success was immediate, and he felt impelled to complete the story with Garibaldi and the Thousand (1909) and Garibaldi and the Making of Italy (1911).

Trevelyan's History of England (1926) quickly became one of the best-selling textbooks of its age. From its pages a generation of Englishmen learned the history of their country. In 1928, having succeeded Bury as regius professor, he began work on his three-volume England under Queen Anne (1931-1934), his major contribution to historical scholarship. He had long dreamed of telling the story, he later wrote, attracted by its "dramatic unity"; it was "like a five-act drama, leading up to the climax of the trumpets proclaiming King George." His last major work, English Social History (1944), written just before World War II, was his greatest commercial success.

In 1930 Trevelyan received the Order of Merit. He died at Cambridge on July 21, 1962.

Further Reading

Trevelyan recounted his own life in his modest An Autobiography and Other Essays (1949). His views on historical writing are most clearly presented in Clio: A Muse, and Other Essays (1913). John H. Plumb, G. M. Trevelyan (1951), is a short biography. An essay on Trevelyan is in Samuel William Halperin, ed., Some 20th Century Historians: Essays on Eminent Europeans (1961). Trevelyan's place in his field is assessed in the introduction to John R. Hale, ed., The Evolution of British Historiography from Bacon to Namier (1964).

Additional Sources

Cannadine, David, G.M. Trevelyan: a life in history, New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Moorman, Mary Trevelyan, George Macaulay Trevelyan: a memoir, London; North Pomfret, Vt.: Hamilton, 1980. □

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George Macaulay Trevelyan, 1876–1962, English historian; son of Sir George Otto Trevelyan. Educated at Cambridge, he became professor of modern history there in 1927 and was master of Trinity College from 1940 to 1951. He was a master of the so-called literary school of historical writing, and his reaction against "scientific" history has had tremendous influence. He did not, however, ignore the scientific aspects of historical scholarship; rather he asserted that the historian must elucidate his subject through imaginative speculation, based on all possible evidence, and present it by means of highly developed literary craftsmanship. His most ambitious works are an extended study of Garibaldi (3 vol., 1907–11) and a history of England under Queen Anne (3 vol., 1930–34). He is perhaps better known for his one-volume History of England (1926), his British History in the Nineteenth Century (1922), and England under the Stuarts (1907). Other works include biographies of John Bright (1913), Lord Charles Grey (1920), his father, Sir George Otto Trevelyan (1932), and Lord Grey of Fallodon (1937); The English Revolution, 1688–1689 (1938); English Social History (1942; pub. in an illustrated version in 4 vol., 1949–52); and An Autobiography and Other Essays (1949).

See biography by D. Cannadine (1991); study by J. H. Plumb (1955, repr. 1969).