Wedgwood, C.V. (1910–1997)

views updated

Wedgwood, C.V. (1910–1997)

British historian, specialist in 17th-century Europe, who was one of the great prose stylists of her profession. Born Cicely Veronica Wedgwood on July 20, 1910, in Stocksfield, Northumberland, England; died on March 9, 1997, in London; daughter of Sir Ralph Wedgwood (chief general manager of a British railroad) and Iris Veronica (Pawson) Wedgwood (an author of books on history and topography); educated privately and at a school in Kensington; studied at Bonn University in Germany and at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, 1927–28; Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, B.A., 1931.

Selected writings:

Strafford, 1593–1641 (1935); The Thirty Years War (1938); Oliver Cromwell (1939); William the Silent (1944); Velvet Studies: Essays on Historical and Other Subjects (1946); Seventeenth-Century English Literature (1950); The Great Rebellion: The King's Peace, 1637–1641 (vol. 1, 1955); The Great Rebellion: The King's War, 1641–1647 (vol. 2, 1958); Truth and Opinion: Historical Essays (1960); Poetry and Politics Under the Stuarts (1960); A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I (1964); The World of Rubens (1967); Milton and His World (1969); Oliver Cromwell and the Elizabethan Inheritance (1970); The Political Career of Peter Paul Rubens (1975); The Spoils of Time: A World History from the Dawn of Civilization through the Early Renaissance (1985).

C.V. Wedgwood, one of England's premier historians, spent her first years in Yorkshire, before her family moved to London. Through her father Sir Ralph Wedgwood, who would serve as chair of British Railways during World War II, she was a descendant of the great 18th-century Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood, while her mother Iris Pawson Wedgwood wrote books about history and topography. Cicely Veronica Wedgwood's first history lesson at the age of six opened up a world of possibilities for the young girl. The early inspirations for her writing career included John Habberton's Helen's Babies, the Odyssey, Pilgrim's Progress, and L.T. Meade's Beyond the Blue Mountains. She also delighted in Prometheus Unbound, Anna Sewall 's Black Beauty, and Ernest Thompson Seton's The Biography of a Grizzly. At the age of nine, she wrote her first play and then three novels which she eventually discarded. She turned to nonfiction when she was 12 (at the suggestion of her father, who thought she was writing too much poetry), and wrote a history of England which she also threw away. Around that time she learned the importance of primary sources: "One day at school our teacher read us letters to illustrate a lesson, and a fragment of a diary. The immense revelation dazzled me."

Wedgwood continued her education in 1927–28, traveling to study at Bonn University in Germany and then at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Returning to England, she received a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, where she earned a "first" in modern history and a bachelor's degree in 1931. She then began working for the Commission on the History of Parliament, assigned to the Civil War and Commonwealth period.

Wedgwood focused most of her attention on the 17th century because she believed it to be the most predominantly significant period in British history. Her first book, Strafford, 1593–1641 (1935), was a biography of Thomas Wentworth, 1st earl of Strafford and advisor to Charles I, who urged the king to protect his own skin by assenting to Wentworth's execution for treason. (Charles did so, and was himself executed eight years later.) Publisher Jonathan Cape thought "Cicely Veronica" too feminine a name for a war historian, so her name instead appeared on this and subsequent books as C.V. Wedgwood. She next wrote The Thirty Years War (1938), which became the definitive work on that complicated subject. Wedgwood researched the book in five languages (learning Dutch to do so) and visited almost all of the places involved in the conflict. She also wrote Oliver Cromwell (1939) for the "Great Lives" series of biographies of prominent historical figures, publishing another work on Cromwell in 1970 as Oliver Cromwell and the Elizabethan Inheritance. All of her works received fine reviews from the British weekly papers. In a critique of her 1946 collection Velvet Studies: Essays on Historical and Other Subjects, the Times Literary Supplement noted: "The fine quality of Miss Wedgwood's own production derives from the fact that, writing for a wide public, she presents to them, in the best sense of an abused word, the results of research. Ranging herself, with some bravado, among the 'popularisers,' she is able to claim attention precisely because she is a scholar."

In an essay for New Writing and Daylight (Autumn 1944), Wedgwood summed up her thoughts on historians and the need for books about history: "Certainly it is important that good history should be read by more people; the solution is not for more books from a few historians but for more good historians." She believed that "historians should always draw morals," understanding the power to shape opinion inherent in the telling of history. Her particular approach to writing historical accounts included reading every contemporary document she could find regarding the period. When writing about a battle, she outlined the tactics for every hour of the engagement and then traveled to the battle site to visualize how it must have felt to experience it firsthand.

Wedgwood received the University of Edinburgh's prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize for William the Silent (1944), which has since been translated into at least six different languages. She recaptured the events of the years preceding the Civil War in England in The Great Rebellion: The King's Peace, 1637–1641 (1955), and those of the war itself in a second volume, The King's War, 1641–1647 (1958). The Saturday Review (September 24, 1955) said of the first volume: "The excitement and color of this narrative are never achieved at the cost of the least violence to scholarly accuracy. Instead, its special fascination results … from long soaking in the documents of an exciting and colorful time." Wedgwood went on from The Great Rebellion to give the conclusion of the story in A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I (1964).

In addition to her historical work, Wedgwood also published several studies of poetry and literature in their historical context, including Seventeenth Century English Literature (1950), Poetry and Politics Under the Stuarts (1960), The World of Rubens (1967), Milton and His World (1969), and The Political Career of Peter Paul Rubens (1975), and translated several volumes from the German. Literary editor of the journal Time and Tide from 1944 to 1950, she also frequently lectured and spoke on the British Broadcasting Corporation, for she was a well-known figure thanks to the popularity of her books. Wedgwood was a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the British Academy, and the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom, as well as a member of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (1952–78) and the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University (1953–68). She also served as president

of the English Association (1955–56) and of the Society of Authors (1972–77). Named a Commander of the British Empire in 1956, she was elevated to the rank of Dame in 1968, and the following year became one of the 24 members of the Order of Merit.

Wedgwood's last book, the culmination of years of research, was a volume of world history, The Spoils of Time: A World History from the Dawn of Civilization through the Early Renaissance (1985), published when she was 75. After her death in 1997, an obituary in The Economist noted, "She had a novelist's talent for entering into the character of the giants of history," echoing a 1965 assessment in Horizon magazine: "Wedgwood is that rare treasure, an impeccably accurate historian who, at the same time, has a novelist's feeling for character and plot, and writes about history as the rousing good story it is."


Current Biography 1957. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1957.

Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.

Horizon. Summer 1964, vol. VI, no. 3.

suggested reading:

"C.V. Wedgwood, 86; Found Vivid Tales in History," in The New York Times. March 11, 1997, p. C24.

"Dame Veronica Wedgwood," in The Times [London]. March 11, 1997, p. 23.

Susan J. Walton , freelance writer, Berea, Ohio