GM Trevelyan: a historian in tune with his time, and ours

Historians in the News

Sir David Cannadine is Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University. His most recent book, with Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, is 'The Right Kind of History’

A few days ago, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, spoke strongly in support of the importance of history in our national life. His comments were prompted by the relocation of the Foreign Office’s historians (it is the only government department to employ such in-house scholars) from a windowless basement in a distant building to more comfortable and appropriate accommodation close to the Foreign Secretary himself.

“You can’t understand,” Hague observed, “the culture of any country without knowing its history. You can’t explain the politics without knowing the history.” Such words are welcome at any time from anyone in government; but they were particularly appropriate last week, for it is exactly 50 years since the death of George Macaulay Trevelyan on July 20 1962, at the age of 86. It is an anniversary that has passed virtually unnoticed; yet in his time – and it was a long time – Trevelyan was the most honoured, admired and widely read historian since his great uncle, Lord Macaulay, whose name he proudly bore.

As this connection suggests, Trevelyan began life with enormous advantages. His grandfather, Sir Charles Trevelyan, was not only Macaulay’s brother-in-law, but also an Indian proconsul and a reforming civil servant. His father, Sir George Otto Trevelyan, held office in two of Gladstone’s administrations, was himself a widely read historian of Britain and America, and counted Theodore Roosevelt among his friends. And his elder brother, Sir Charles Trevelyan, was president of the board of education in the Labour governments of 1924 and 1929....

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