A Little Bit of a Victorian? Asa Briggs and Victorian Studies

  • Martin Hewitt


‘I suppose I am a bit of a Victorian’, Asa Briggs confessed to Daniel Snowman in a History Today interview in 1999, ‘with an almost schoolboyish grin which instantly offsets any suggestion of stuffiness’.1 It is a natural association for a collector of Victorian narrative paintings, steam engine enthusiast, champion of the Victorian architectural heritage. The product of a smoke-clouded childhood in Keighley, ‘essentially a Victorian community’, as he later recalled, ‘in attitudes as much as appearance’, Briggs grew up five minutes from the station and from the vast textile engineering works of Prince Smith.2 It was ‘an environment which was totally transformed during the reign of Queen Victoria. In the background was the industrial revolution, a continuing revolution. In the foreground were Victorian institutions’.3 At least until his move to Sussex in 1961, he remained entangled in these roots, and in the later 1950s, as Professor of History at Leeds, he was fully immersed in them once more, living in a Victorian house (described by A. J. P. Taylor as ‘like Asa himself — small, squat and full of Victorian bric a brac’4, in a Victorian city where ‘the past was a visible element in the present’ and ‘[t]he very pace of change — social and topographical — [was] giving greater urgency to the work of the […] historian’.5 Although there had been almost no Victorian content in his undergraduate degree, living through the dismantling of the Victorian railways and the demolition of so much of the Victorian cities, Briggs felt himself even in 1962 ‘poised between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’.6


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  1. 1.
    Daniel Snowman, ‘Asa Briggs’, History Today, 49 (October 1999), p. 3.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Briggs, ‘Plus Ça Change: Back to Keighley: The Largely Forgotten Story of Sir Swire Smith’, in The Collected Essays of Asa Briggs, vol. 3: Serious Pursuits: Communications and Education (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), pp. 417, 430–31; Alan Hamilton, ‘Asa Briggs at Full Steam’, Times, 23 January 1982, p. 6.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Briggs, Victorians and Victorianism (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, 1966), p. 6. Elsewhere in the same lecture, he noted that ‘Victorianism was related to the texture [of social life]. What was active in society and what was passive depended not only on the response to immediate twentieth century challenges but to the legacy of the nineteenth century’, ibid., p. 7.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Godfrey Smith, ‘Asa Briggs: A Personal Profile’, in Derek Fraser (ed.), Cities, Class and Communication. Essays in Honour of Asa Briggs (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990), p. 13.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Victorian Cities (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990 edn.), p. 10. His time in Leeds was ‘not an interlude’ but life ‘in a Victorian city while it still was a Victorian city’, Briggs, The Collected Essays of Asa Briggs, vol. II: Images, Problems, Standpoints, Forecasts (Brighton, 1985), p. xviii.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    See, for example, the paper written by Briggs, Education in a Changing Society: The Role of the WEA (London: WEA, 1958).Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Visible, for example, in his belief that the post-1945 welfare state did not obviate the need for self-help, but provided only a floor ‘to liberate men to realize their own full gifts, not to pamper them or make them dependent’: Briggs, ‘“Introduction” to Samuel Smiles’, Self-Help (London: John Murray, 1958), p. 31.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Herman Ausubel, review of Sidney Checkland’s Rise of Industrial Society, American Historical Review, 71 (1965), p. 184;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Maria Lucia Pallares-Burke, The New History: Confessions and Conversations (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), p. 31.Google Scholar
  10. 26.
    Briggs, Serious Pursuits, p. 119. Creighton (1843–1901) was the first editor of the English Historical Review and Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Cambridge: he is quoted in Briggs, Special Relationships (2012), p. 156.Google Scholar
  11. 27.
    For example, see the account of Richard Hoggart lecturing at Rutgers University in 1963 ‘pausing repeatedly to remind us of the Victorian elements still identifiable in the complex pattern of life in the “self-conscious” sixties’: R. Adams and Henry R. Winkler, ‘An Interdepartmental Course on Victorian England’. Victorian Studies, 7 (1963), p. 101.Google Scholar
  12. 29.
    For this sense of his living in the 1950s still with the surviving ‘vocal Victorians’, see Briggs’ review of Algernon Cecil’s ‘Queen Victoria and her Prime Ministers’, History Today, 3 (1955), p. 212.Google Scholar
  13. 38.
    Briggs, ‘History as Communication. Describers and Debaters’, Encounter, 64 (January 1985), 51–2.Google Scholar
  14. 40.
    Boyd Hilton, ‘Colin Matthew (1941–1999)’, in P. Ghosh and L. Goldman (eds.), Politics and Culture in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 14.Google Scholar
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    Eric Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783–1870 (London: Routledge, 1983), p. 433.Google Scholar
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    Eric Hobsbawm in Jim Obelkevich, ‘Witness Seminar: New Developments in History in the 1950s and 1960s’, Contemporary British History, 14 (2000), p. 158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 45.
    Peter Furtado, ‘Wise Counsellor’, History Today, 56 (July 2006), p. 2.Google Scholar
  18. 48.
    Kitson Clark, Economic History Review, 8 (1955), p. 108. Briggs retained a strong provincial sensibility. He had a house in London and was very involved in meetings there, but never belonged to any London literary or historical circle and ‘I have never felt myself to be a Londoner […] I have always been a “provincial”’, Briggs, Special Relationships, p. 55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 52.
    See Briggs, review of Walter Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830–1870, English Historical Review, 74 (1959), pp. 135–37.Google Scholar
  20. 53.
    Including ten times in K. T. Hoppen’s The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846–1886 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), (including three for The Age of Improvement and three for Victorian Things). In contrast W. L. Burn is cited nine times.Google Scholar
  21. 55.
    For McWilliam in 1998, Briggs’ chapter on ‘Victorianism’ ‘remains another good starting point’: review of David Newsome, Victorian World Picture, Victorian Review, 24 (1998), p. 96. One 2008 graduate of the Indiana PhD programme, described Victorian Cities as ‘the foil that I defined myself against’, while acknowledging its depth of insight and freshness: Personal communication, March 2011.Google Scholar
  22. 59.
    Briggs, ‘The Human Aggregate’, Victorian City. Images and Reality, vol. 1 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), pp. 83–104, where he noted that the gulf between quantitative and qualitative history, between ‘the literary historians and the architects’ and ‘the historical demographers and the economists’ ‘prevent us from understanding many problems which are key problems in Victorian Studies’ (p. 83). In his ‘The Nature of Victorianism’, in George Perry and Nicholas Mason (eds.), Rule Britannia: The Victorian World (London: Times Books, 1974), p. 15, he does comment on the ‘burgeoning of Victorian studies’ since 1948, and there is a similar reference in the frontispiece to the revised Pelican edition of Victorian Cities.Google Scholar
  23. 60.
    Briggs (ed.), The Nineteenth Century. The Contradictions of Progress (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970).Google Scholar
  24. 61.
    He saw the first half of the 20th century as marked by ‘growth of large number of specialized social studies’: Briggs, ‘The New Learning’, The Highway, 47 (February 1956), pp. 101–5. In the same article he noted that dividing lines were ‘cumbrous and artificial’ and that ‘abstractions seem a little rarefied’.Google Scholar
  25. 62.
    Briggs observed that the real insight of Bagehot’s writings came in ‘the more general speculations on ideas and habits and the revelation of Bagehot’s own writing and communication’: review of St John Stevas (ed.), Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, Economic Journal, 77 (1967), p. 643. Cf. Briggs, review of W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape, Highway, 47 (March 1956), pp. 157–8. Hence Briggs’ lack of enthusiasm for the established mode of labour history which charted the politics of organised labour, rather than seeking to understand the conditions of work and ways of life out of which the unions grew and operatedGoogle Scholar
  26. (see this in review of Pollard’s History of Labour in Sheffield, Economic Journal, 71 (1961), p. 160. For Briggs there was a genealogy of style which flowed from Bagehot through G. M. Young to contemporary historians such as Alastair Buchan (and in part to him as well): see his review of St John Stevas, Walter Bagehot. A Study of his Life and Thought,Google Scholar
  27. and Alastair Buchan, The Spare Chancellor, Victorian Studies, 4 (1960–1961), 76.Google Scholar
  28. 63.
    For one example, see Briggs, ‘Taylor’s Own Times’, review of A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914–1945, Encounter, 26 (February 1966), 65–6.Google Scholar
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  30. 65.
    See Terry Lovell, ‘Knowable Pasts, Imaginable Futures’, History Workshop Journal, 27 (1989), p. 139. Briggs participated in Hertford College WEA tutors’ course on ‘Literature in Relation to History’ in 1950, for which Williams was Director of Studies.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. See: Raymond Williams, ‘Literature in Relation to History’, in John McIlroy and Sallie Westwood (eds.), Border Country: Raymond Williams in Adult Education (London: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, 1998), pp. 166–73. Briggs cited Williams’ ‘Class and Classes’, The Highway (January 1956), in his ‘Middle-Class Consciousness in English Politics, 1780–1846’, Past and Present, 9 (1956), 65–74.Google Scholar
  32. 66.
    Briggs, ‘The “White Paper” in Perspective’, The Highway, 50 (April 1959), pp. 165–9.Google Scholar
  33. 70.
    For the critique of Thompson’s notion, see, for example: W. H. Sewell, ‘How Classes are Made: Critical Reflections on E. P. Thompson’s Theory of Working-Class Formation’, in Harvey J. Kaye and Keith McClelland (eds.), E. P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), pp. 50–77. Briggs was convinced of the importance of imaginative reaction for an understanding of the significance of economic and social change.Google Scholar
  34. See, for example, his criticism of David Landes, Unbound Prometheus: ‘Second Beginning’, Encounter, 33 (1969), pp. 70–2.Google Scholar
  35. 71.
    Characteristically, in his contribution on ‘Modern Britain’ to Norman F. Cantor, Perspectives on the European Past. Conversations with Historians (New York: Macmillan, 1971), pp. 165–84, he opts to start with society, rather than culture, and when he turns to culture he offers something close to the Arnoldian notion of culture as criticism.Google Scholar
  36. 73.
    Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, ‘Working Class Attitudes’, New Left Review, 11 (January–February, 1960), p. 26.Google Scholar
  37. 76.
    For a summary of the evolution of Victorian Studies which offers little or no space to Briggs or to the traditions of social history he represents, see: G. Levine, ‘Victorian Studies’, in Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn (eds.), Redrawing the Boundaries. The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (New York: Modern Language Association, 1982) pp. 130–53. Others have written him out of historical scholarship more generally: Richard Altick, ‘Victorians on the Move; Or, ‘Tis Forty Years Since’, in his Writers, Readers, Occasions. Selected Essays on Victorian Literature and Life (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989) pp. 309–28;Google Scholar
  38. Lyn Pyket, ‘Victorian Beginnings’, Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, 12 (2007), pp. 1–9.Google Scholar
  39. 79.
    Philip Collins to Briggs, 16 August 1965, ibid., Collins (1923–2007) was another Victorianist who had begun as an adult education tutor, only joining the English Department in 1962; see Simon Hoggart, obituary, Guardian, 15 May 2007, p. 31. The Leicester Centre for Victorian Studies was established in 1966–1967 with a grant of £30,450 from the Leverhulme Trust, Victorian Studies, 9 (1965–1966), p. 488.Google Scholar
  40. 85.
    Briggs, ‘David Daiches and the Idea of a New University’, in William Baker and Michael Lister (eds.), David Daiches. A Celebration of His Life and Works (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2007), pp. 24–5. In this Briggs was greatly influenced by his visits to the USA (including Chicago) in the early 1950s. See: Obelkevich ‘Witness Seminar’, p. 152.Google Scholar
  41. 86.
    Briggs, ‘History and its Neighbours’, Occidente, 11 (1956), pp. 314–15.Google Scholar
  42. 89.
    See Levine to Briggs, [n.d. c. 1966?], Victorian Studies File, Briggs Papers, University of Sussex: ‘The focus of the book’ Levine wrote, ‘will be on Victorian non-fiction, and it promises to develop critical approaches to non-fiction prose which ordinarily is treated, in literature courses, as background material rather than as the intrinsically interesting work it often is’. Levine chased Briggs by telephone. It is not clear whether he ultimately elicited a verbal decline, or some prospect was offered that Briggs might contribute. The ‘Introduction’ of the subsequent book merely notes that the commissioned essay on social criticism was ‘not forthcoming’: George Levine and William Madden (eds.), The Art of Victorian Prose (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. viii.Google Scholar
  43. 94.
    Briggs, ‘Victorian Values’, in Eric M. Sigsworth (ed.), In Search of Victorian Values (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), pp. 10–26.Google Scholar
  44. 95.
    Including Asa and Susan Briggs (eds.), Cap and Bell. Punch’s Chronicle of History in the Making, 1841–1861 (London: Macdonald and Co., 1972);Google Scholar
  45. Briggs and A. Miles, A Victorian Portrait. Victorian Life and Values as Seen through the Work of Studio Photographers (London: Cassell, 1989). For a few examples of the articles, see: ‘1874: The Social and Political Scene’, Connoisseur, 185 (1974), pp. 2–16, and ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ (on the 1851 Exhibition), New Scientist, 7 May 1981, pp. 367–68.Google Scholar
  46. 101.
    E. P. Thompson, ‘Responses to Reality’, New Society, 4 October 1973; Williams, review, New York Times, 5 November 1973, p. 442; Cf. Valentine Cunningham, Essays in Criticism, 24 (1974), p. 301.Google Scholar
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    F. M. Leventhal, review, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 6 (1976), p. 486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. 103.
    Anne Humpherys, ‘Knowing the Victorian City: Writing and Representation’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 30 (2002), p. 603.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 104.
    Williams, review, New York Times, 5 November 1973, p. 442. Earlier, Williams was equally critical of Briggs’ ‘The Political Scene’, in S. Nowell-Smith (ed.), Edwardian England, 1901–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), regretting the ‘curious modern style of the absentee memoir, sometimes called a political diary, in which the writer knows he was not present when the great men were making up their minds, but feels that he might have been and meanwhile can talk very well from the corridor’: Guardian, 9 October 1964, p. 9.Google Scholar
  50. 105.
    See M. Vicinus, ‘The Study of Victorian Popular Culture’, Victorian Studies, 18 (1975), pp. 473–83, idem, ‘Retrospectives’, ibid., 20, supplement, (1977), pp. 9–12.Google Scholar
  51. 106.
    Along with, of course, Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977);Google Scholar
  52. S. Gilbert and S. Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979). At the 1984 Victorian Studies Alumni conference at Bloomington, Vicinus noted that up to 1970 Victorian Studies had published only two articles on women: Victorian Studies, 28 (1985), p. 306.Google Scholar
  53. 107.
    John Kucich, ‘Narrative Theory as History: A Review of Problems in Victorian Fiction Studies’, Victorian Studies, 28 (Summer 1985), p. 658. ‘Before Miller’, George Levine has remarked, ‘even the best of Victorian criticism went untheorised’: Levine, ‘Victorian Studies’, p. 139.Google Scholar
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    J. Shattock and M. Wolff (eds.), The Victorian Periodical Press. Samplings and Soundings (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1982), p. xiv.Google Scholar
  55. 113.
    For example, compare R. K. Webb’s review of Briggs’ Social History of England, New York Times, 1 April 1984, p. 9, with Bryan Palmer, Descent into Discourse. The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990), ch. 2.Google Scholar
  56. 114.
    See his somewhat plaintive review of Knoepflmacher and Tennyson, Nature and the Victorian Imagination, Nineteenth Century Fiction, 34 (1979), 104–7, and his rather insipid assessment of Patrick Brantlinger (ed.), Energy and Entropy, Economic History Review, 43 (1990), pp. 497–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. 116.
    Victorian Things appeared as the material turn was gathering pace, that is to say two years after Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), but before much of the scholarship associated with the turn.Google Scholar
  58. See: Erika Rappaport, ‘Imperial Possessions, Cultural Histories, and the Material Turn: Response’, Victorian Studies, 50 (2008), pp. 289–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Webb, Albion, 22 (1990), p. 327. Roy Porter, ‘Victoriana — a Passion to Consume’, Sunday Times, 27 November 1988, noting that it was ‘the history of things with the people left in’. For Perkin it was ‘the best introduction one could find’ to the Victorian age, Economic History Review, 42 (1989), p. 606.Google Scholar
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  61. 122.
    For example, Briggs, ‘The 1890s: Past, Present and Future in Headlines’, in Briggs and Snowman (eds.), Fins de Siècle. How Centuries End (London: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 157–96, and his ‘The Imaginative Response of the Victorians to New Technology: The Case of the Railway’, in Christopher Wrigley and John Shepherd (eds.), On the Move. Essays in Labour and Transport History Presented to Philip Bagwell (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), pp. 58–75. See also ‘Victorian Images of Gladstone’, in Jagger (ed.), Gladstone; ‘Politics and Reform: The British Universities’, in Franz Bosbach, William Filmer-Sankey and Hermann Hiery (eds.), Prince Albert and the Development of Education in England and Germany in the 19th Century (Munich: K. G. Saur, 2000), pp. 119–28.Google Scholar
  62. 125.
    Briggs, criticism of Vincent, New Society, 13 April 1967, p. 546; Briggs, review of Maurice Bruce’s The Shaping of the Modern World, The Highway, 49 (April 1958), p. 186.Google Scholar
  63. 127.
    Briggs, quoted in Economist, 1 December 1979, p. 111. For this style, see also Briggs, ‘Open Questions of Labour History’, Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, 1 (1960), pp. 2–3.Google Scholar
  64. 130.
    Alexander Welsh, ‘The Victorian City’, Victorian Studies, 17 (1974), p. 420.Google Scholar
  65. 134.
    Briggs, ‘International cultural network exists but is not fully effective’, Times, 2 January 1973, p. 8. A characteristic tribute to Briggs’ time as Provost of Worcester College, Oxford was that he fostered conviviality and argument. See: Jose Harris (ed.), Civil Society in British History. Ideas Identities and Institutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) p. i.Google Scholar
  66. 136.
    M. Kenny, The First New Left. British Intellectuals after Stalin (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1995).Google Scholar
  67. 147.
    Briggs, review of H. P. R. Finberg, Approaches to History (1962), New Society, 20 May 1965, pp. 29–30, commenting in particular on Harold Perkin’s chapter.Google Scholar
  68. 154.
    Briggs, ‘Samuel Smiles: the Gospel of Self-Help’, History Today, 37 (1987), pp. 37–43.Google Scholar

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© Martin Hewitt 2015

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  • Martin Hewitt

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