Professor Linda Jane Colley
Doctor of Letters
21 July 2006 - Orator: Professor William Doyle
On a day when the Bristol historians of 2006 graduate, it is appropriate that the University should be honouring the most distinguished professional historian to have taken a first degree in its History Department. In analysing the achievement
of another great historian of her chosen period, Linda Colley once wrote that honorary degrees are ‘among the more secular and honorific bouquets with which Britain traditionally acknowledges the acceptable face of achievement.’ In this case, the University also makes amends for a distant occasion when, before she could demonstrate how misguided it was, it missed the chance of offering her a position on its staff.
Linda Colley came to Bristol in 1969 from Cardiff High School for Girls. She has always been proud of her Anglo-Welsh name and ancestry, and although not all of those who come here from across the Severn find the experience agreeable, she flourished from the start. Departmental records speak of a first-year student who was industrious, clear, efficient, and ‘potentially very good’. There were first class marks and departmental scholarships from an early stage. They continued throughout the three years, and in 1972 she graduated with the best first class degree that the department had ever awarded.
In her final year she excelled in all forms of work involving original sources: good credentials for a professional historical career. Her choice of topics had shown a clear preference for that most unfashionable of centuries, the eighteenth. It was therefore entirely natural that she should go on to doctoral work on this period, and to do it at Cambridge under the supervision of the most eminent of then living authorities on eighteenth century Britain, Professor JH (later Sir John) Plumb. But she chose to work on a topic which had first come to her at Bristol, and one which at the time must have seemed like a historical black hole: the Tory Party in the mid-eighteenth century. Many would have doubted whether the subject was worthwhile at all. But she brought a dissertation on it to triumphant completion within the relatively short time (for those days) of four years, and its qualities carried her in 1979 to a Fellowship at Christ’s. Probably no college in Cambridge saw a more varied and brilliant range of historians pass through its gates in the later twentieth century. One of them Linda even married: David Cannadine, who is also with us here today. Over the years their collaboration has been so close that they have sometimes been irreverently referred to in Cambridge as ‘Colleydine’; but their fields are different, and their historical voices emphatically their own.
Her revised dissertation, published in 1982 as In Defiance of Oligarchy, was a milestone in the historiography of eighteenth century politics, one of the most important single works in the field since the early studies of Sir Lewis Namier in the nineteen-twenties. Her second book in 1989 was an incisive retrospective on Namier’s life and work, and in it she reminds us of his definition of a great historian as one after whose work ‘others should not be able to practise within its sphere in terms of the preceding era.’ That was certainly the impact of In Defiance, bringing us Georgian Tories who were dogged, consistent, open, in many ways far more radical and progressive in their outlook than the Whigs, and above all fundamentally loyal: the very reverse of stereotypes which had dominated historical perceptions for over two centuries. It was written with great lucidity and power, but inevitably it was a book for experts. So, really, was Namier, although it demonstrated mastery of fields beyond eighteenth century England, as well as impressive powers of psychological insight. But what established Linda’s ability to reach a wider audience came three years later, with a sensational best-seller: Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837.
It was, she says, above all a Yale book. She had left Cambridge for Yale in 1982, continuing a well-established tradition of leading British historians joining that distinguished History faculty. She remained there for sixteen years, acquiring the irreplaceable perspective on her own country deriving from distance and the viewpoint of foreigners. There were also opportunities unique to Yale, including the amazing visual resources of the Yale Center for British Art, which transformed her approach to history. Her first two books had no pictures: later ones are full of them, with stimulating analyses of the evidence they represent. Britons traced how, between the Union with Scotland and the accession of Queen Victoria, a British national identity emerged in the crucible of free institutions, commercial expansion, Protestantism, and above all almost constant warfare against the French. It was not always a benign story, and often a fragile one. Like the Tories of her first research, British patriotism was a subject relatively neglected by twentieth century historians. They had been too embarrassed by, or contemptuous of, the vainglorious effusions that it produced. The book succeeded at several levels. It was a prime example of the so-called ‘cultural turn’ taken by historians in the last decades of the twentieth century, yet written far more accessibly than many examples in that genre. It discussed identity, which has been another central preoccupation among this generation of historians. But the identity it analysed was also one which had been dissolving over the twentieth century, as the British lost their empire, their military power shrank, their commercial dominance ebbed away, they abandoned their religious convictions, and agonised over whether or not they were Europeans. The traumas produced by all this gave the book’s theme a far wider resonance than the community of historians and their students. It received massive coverage in the press at a time when European integration and devolution within the United Kingdom were both under agonised discussion, yet won wide praise across the political and intellectual spectrum. Its success carried its author to a new range of honours and distinctions. It won her the Wolfson Prize for History. In 1997 she came back across the Atlantic (although she has always made that journey every summer to a house in Norfolk) to take up a Leverhulme Research Professorship, one of the most coveted competitive awards available in the humanities, at the London School of Economics. Two years later she was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. And during this time she was working on a fourth book, which made its appearance in 2002.
Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850 is about Britain as a world power, but echoes of previous work are confined to the aggressive self-confidence whose sources Britons had explored. The subject here was how often that self-confidence was misplaced, with momentous consequences for those involved. Through what are known as ‘captivity narratives’ or as Linda calls them ‘small stories of small people’, she shows how the under-populated island state was frequently overstretched during its early expansion, and how the price of this was paid at the imperial periphery by those of its people who fell into the hands of their enemies. Accounts of captivity by Barbary pirates, Native American tribes, and warlords of the Indian subcontinent are quarried to explore the ambiguities and limitations of British imperial expansion.
Few of those who escaped to write these narratives went back to risk recapture, but most were marked forever by their experiences. The author herself, however, in taking the intellectual risk of writing pioneering history, has found herself recaptured by the North Americans. She moved to Princeton in 2003, succumbing, perhaps, to the powerful cultural impact of those years at Yale. But in going to Princeton, she prolongs a tradition there of eminent British predecessors who have contributed to the vitality of historical writing on both sides of the Atlantic. I hope we can claim, and I hope she would acknowledge, that those years in Bristol long ago played some part in taking her there: and for these reasons, Madam Chancellor, I present to you Linda Jane Colley as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.