Sir Arthur Bryant
|Born||18 February 1899|
|Died||22 January 1985 (aged 85)|
Sir Arthur Wynne Morgan Bryant, (18 February 1899 - 22 January 1985) was an English historian, columnist for The Illustrated London News and man of affairs. His books included studies of Samuel Pepys, accounts of English eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history, and a life of George V. Whilst his scholarly reputation has declined somewhat since his death, he continues to be read and to be the subject of detailed historical studies. He moved in high government circles, where his works were influential, being the favourite historian of three prime ministers: Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, and Harold Wilson.
Bryant's historiography was often based on an English romantic exceptionalism drawn from his nostalgia for an idealised agrarian past. He hated modern commercial and financial capitalism, he emphasised duty over rights, and he equated democracy with the consent of "fools" and "knaves".
Arthur Bryant was the son of Sir Francis Morgan Bryant, who was the chief clerk to the Prince of Wales, and wife Margaret (May) née Edmunds. His father would later hold a number of offices in the royal secretariat, eventually becoming registrar of the Royal Victorian Order. Arthur grew up in a house bordering the Buckingham Palace gardens near the Royal Mews. There he developed a feel for the trappings of traditional British protocol and a strong attachment to the history of England.
He attended school at Pelham House, Sandgate, and Harrow School where his younger brother the Rev. Philip Henry Bryant later became an assistant Master. Though he expected to join the British Army, he won in 1916 a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge. Despite that, he joined the Royal Flying Corps the following year, as a pilot officer. While there, he served in the first squadron to bomb the towns of the Rhineland during World War 1. He was also for a time the only British subject formally attached to the United States' Expeditionary Force's Air Service, to one of its detachments that had arrived in England for training for frontline service.
Bryant started work at a school operated by the London County Council, where he developed a strong sense of social justice and became convinced that education would be an effective way of uniting the people. That conviction led him to become a historian. Tall, dark, and attractive, he was popular at the debutante balls he regularly attended, where he often persuaded his dancing partners to help him teach some of the less fortunate children at a children's library he had established in Charles Dickens's old house in Somers Town, London.
He became a barrister at the Inner Temple in 1923, but left later that year to take the headmaster position of the Cambridge School of Arts, Crafts, and Technology, becoming the youngest headmaster in England. He organised the Cambridge Pageant in 1924 and the Oxford Pageant in 1926. Altogether, he proved remarkably successful in enrolling students, the school growing from three hundred to two thousand students in his three years there. During 1926 he married Sylvia Mary Shakerley, daughter of Walter Geoffrey Shakerley, the third Baronet Shakerley, and the following year became a lecturer in history for the Oxford University delegacy for extramural studies, a position he retained until 1936. His marriage was dissolved in 1930. He also served as an advisor at the Bonar Law College at Ashridge. His first book, The Spirit of Conservatism, appeared in 1929 and was written with his former students in mind.
In 1929, after cataloguing the Shakerley family library, he was asked by a friend in publishing to produce a new biography of Charles II of England. Yale Professor Frank W. Notestein suggested that he begin the work with Charles's escape following the Battle of Worcester, incorporating details of his earlier life into the narrative thereafter. This dramatic opening led the Book Society to choose it as their October 1931 selection, and it became a best-seller. Bryant's success with this volume encouraged him, and he remained in that field. The book has been described as being both readable and informed by solid scholarship. He also regularly continued to produce pageants. These included the Wisbech and Hyde Park pageants, and the Naval Night Pageant in Greenwich, which was attended by the King, Queen, Prince of Wales, British Cabinet, and members of the World Economic Conference. For the quality of his work in this field, he was acclaimed "the English Reinhardt".
He helped found the National Book Association, and its subsidiary, the Right Book Club, as an alternative to the Left Book Club. The new organisation was not outstandingly successful, however, although it did publish several of his own writings. In January 1939 the National Book Club published a new English edition of Mein Kampf, for which Bryant wrote a foreword praising Hitler (with reservations: he denounced Nazi persecution of Jews) and comparing him to Benjamin Disraeli.
His next book was a three-volume biography of Samuel Pepys, completed in 1938 and regarded as "one of the great historical biographies in the language" by John Kenyon. Almost three-quarters of a century after its publication it remains an important guide to Pepys's career.
Bryant also was a frequent contributor to London papers and magazines, and scripted radio broadcasts relating to his historical interests, as well as radio plays for the BBC. He published a collection of scripts in his book The National Character. He was editor of the Ashridge Journal and president of the Ashridge Dining Club.
Unfinished Victory was a book which Bryant had published in January 1940; it dealt with recent German history, and explained sympathetically how Germany had rebuilt herself after World War I. Bryant asserted that certain German Jews had benefited from the economic crises and controlled the national wealth, and although he criticised the destruction of Jewish shops and synagogues, he declared that the Third Reich might produce "a newer and happier Germany in the future". Initially most reviewers received the book positively, but after the 'phoney war' ended, public and elite opinion turned sharply against appeasement of any sort. Bryant realised his mistake in proposing a compromise and tried to buy up unsold copies.
After the fall of France in 1940, Bryant's writing celebrated British patriotism. His English Saga, published at the end of that year, described England as "an island fortress ... fighting a war of redemption, not only for Europe but for her own soul". Roberts says of his popular essays and books, "Bryant did a superb job in helping to stiffen the people's resolve by putting their sacrifices in historical context."
He married again, in 1941, to Anne Elaine Brooke, daughter of Bertram Willes Dayrell Brooke, one of the White Rajahs of Sarawak. His books during this decade dealt less prominently with the 17th century, and included a collection of Neville Chamberlain's speeches.
His works during this period were well-received for their style and readability, although they also tended to be less well researched, which has caused them to be questioned by younger historians. Several of these works, including English Saga (1940), The Years of Endurance 1793-1802 (1942), and Years of Victory, 1802-1812, drew notable criticism, particularly for his preoccupation with comparing Napoleon and Hitler. The shortcomings of these works, possibly combined with their unusual popularity, helped ensure that he never received the highest academic honours.
His single major work in the decade was a two-volume collection of Alan Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke's diaries with additional commentary, The Turn of the Tide (1957) and The Triumph in the West (1959). These books created substantial controversy, given their criticism of Churchill, who was then at the height of his popularity. They are still considered essential reading for understanding the British military during the war.
The books he wrote during his later years included several volumes of broad English histories. They include Set in a Silver Sea (1984), Freedom's Own Island (1986, edited posthumously by John Kenyon, and a third volume. He retained a large readership and was guest-of-honour at the Conservative Monday Club's 1966 annual dinner. He spoke on "The Preservation of our National Character". The dinner, at the Savoy Hotel, was sold out. During the 1960s Bryant was knighted and made a Companion of Honour. J. H. Plumb wrote, "both of his public honours, his Knighthood and his C.H., were given to him by Harold Wilson, whose favourite historian he had long been." His second marriage dissolved in 1976. In his final years he lived in Myles Place, Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Bryant's total output was remarkable. He wrote over forty books overall, which collectively sold over two million copies. Most were published by William Collins, Sons and Co. Ltd. Also, in collaboration with W. P. Lipscomb, he wrote a play dramatising Pepys' life which ran for one hundred and fifty performances in London. He was a frequent lecturer, speaking at many of the leading cities and schools in Great Britain, as well as in the United States and fourteen European countries. His public speeches included the 1935 Watson Chair lectures sponsored by the Sulgrave Manor Trust. These lectures, on American history, literature, and biography, were later collected into the book The American Ideal.
In 1936, Bryant took over G. K. Chesterton's "Our Note Book" column for the Illustrated London News. (Bryant paid tribute to Chesterton in his introduction to Chesterton's posthumously-published essay collection The Glass Walking-Stick.) He continued writing this column until his death, which occurred almost half a century after Chesterton's. Overall, Bryant produced about 2.7 million words for that magazine.
Andrew Roberts claims that Bryant's work on Samuel Pepys gave insufficient credit to the scholarly work of Joseph Robson Tanner (1860-1931).J. H. Plumb gives this account of how G. M. Trevelyan passed Tanner's notes to Bryant:
he found Bryant's book [on Charles II] convincing and, equally exciting for Trevelyan, beautifully written. [...] Trevelyan thought Arthur Bryant ideal for the job (he quickly accepted the task) and the notes were handed over. The notes reached 1689 and so did Bryant's biography; the last decade of Pepys's life went unrecorded.
Roberts also claimed that Bryant remained in indirect contact with the Nazis in early 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, and that these ties had been requested by the Foreign Secretary.
Had British history taken a different turn in 1940, it is all too easy to imagine Bryant playing the same hagiographical role towards whoever might have become the British Pétain as he did towards Churchill. In different circumstances he would probably have become a British equivalent of René Benjamin, the writer notorious for his works of obsequious flattery of Pétain after 1940.
Although professional historians were frequently negative about his best-sellers, Bryant's histories were explicitly praised by prime ministers Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Churchill, Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher.
J. H. Plumb, one of Bryant's detractors, wrote:
What Bryant longed for, his one abiding disappointment of life, was professional recognition. He would have given anything for an Hon. D. Litt at Cambridge, perhaps more for a Fellowship of the British Academy. He never had the slightest chance of either. [...] Bryant of course had gifts. He wrote far better than nearly all professional historians. [...] He over-wrote certainly, and there was often a note of falsity, even of vulgarity, but largely his failure was of intellect.
Plumb's verdict is that Bryant killed off 'patrician history':
Like Churchill, but unlike Trevelyan, Bryant inflated patrician history so much that he destroyed it. Indeed he vulgarised it to a degree that made it incredible.
Plumb cites Trevelyan's possible heirs as Wedgwood and A. L. Rowse.
Another detractor is the British historian Andrew Roberts, who has said
Bryant was in fact a Nazi sympathiser and fascist fellow-traveller, who only narrowly escaped internment as a potential traitor in 1940. He was also, incidentally, a supreme toady, fraudulent scholar and humbug.
Roberts's polemical essay, prompted by the opening of archive material on Bryant, has been followed (and rebutted) by Julia Stapleton's full academic study. Bryant's first biographer was Pamela Street, a neighbour of his in Salisbury, who on occasion had collaborated with Bryant in his historical works, and who was a daughter of farmer-author A. G. Street. Her book appeared during Bryant's lifetime.