Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by G. Gregory Smith
John Richard Green (18371883)
[John Richard Green, born on 12th December 1837, spent his earlier years in his native city of Oxford. He took his degree in 1859, after an uneventful career at Jesus College, during which he showed the first signs of his historical taste in a series of contributions to the Oxford Chronicle on Oxford in the Eighteenth Century. He was ordained in 1860 and was appointed incumbent of St. Philips, Stepney, in 1866, but, on account of ill-health, he surrendered his charge in 1869 and became librarian at Lambeth. From 1862 he was a frequent contributor to the Saturday Review, but in his enforced leisure he turned his attention to serious historical work, and he produced in 1874 his first and most memorable book, A Short History of the English People. This he recast and expanded into four volumes (187780) as the History of the English People. He supplemented it in 1881 by The Making of England: and a further continuation, The Conquest of England, was published posthumously, in 1883, under the editorship of his widow. In 1876 he collected some of his occasional writings under the title of Stray Studies from England and Italy. He suggested the foundation of the Oxford Historical Society and the English Historical Review, and he acted as general editor of several successful series of Primers on literature and history. He died on 7th March 1833.]
GREENS characteristics are best discovered in his Short History of the English People. It was a new departure both in historical conception and in literary treatment. He had felt the discipline of the newer methods of accuracy in historical work and he had strong sympathies with Freemans doctrine of the use of architecture and geography in the interpretation of the past, but his subtler historical sense perceived the forces behind the facts and his superior literary art saved him from pedantry and antiquarianism. He had the power of catching the salient features of an episode or a movement and of presenting them in a vivid and impressive way, not in the classical manner of older writers, but with a rapid sketchiness peculiarly his own. His writing remains, despite Dean Stanleys warning, a notable example of what we call the picturesque, strong alike in the merits and faults of that style. It was once an Oxford saying that if the young student who sought further culture was too poor to travel he should turn to the pages of the Short History. And it is true that he may there feel much of the atmosphere, life, and miscellaneous interest of a wanderjahr.
Green had an undoubted power of the imaginative sense of fact. The problem of his style was not how to present the facts in the least wearisome manner, but how to transform exposition into a higher literature, and to excite in the reader the writers own artistic fervour. This imaginative treatment disturbed, and still disturbs, the scientific historians, who see in it the undoing of that very virtue of exactness on which Green prided himself. He may not be infallible in facts, nor altogether convincing in argument, but he expounds the continuity of national life and retells its greater events in a manner impossible to the experts in accuracy. He popularised history, not merely in the sense of tempting the masses to their own profit, but of showing to more capable minds the interest and possibilities of the historians work. We may incline to think his effects overstrained, because we are unused to metaphor in historical exposition, and because they often show the frowardness of studied innovation; but there is too much unity in his work, too subtle an interpretation of fact ever to justify the criticism that his art is the mere glamour of the ready writer.
It is not difficult to point out the defects of his picturesque method. The interest of his style lies to a great extent in his power of illustration, but at times he uses it in excess. The elaboration of analogy and the extravagant quotation of the memorable sayings of his characters interrupt the flow of his paragraphs; and by his favourite device of a succession of short jerky sentences he often signally fails in his endeavour to be vivid. There is a suggestion that the writer has not assimilated his material, and is only feeling his way to a complete description through a multitude of notes. The well-known passage on the character of Elizabeth (of which only a part is here given) illustrates this: it is too long and too miscellaneous in style. The result is little else than a bare summation of the details, not that artistic whole which should be something more than the total of the contributing facts. This flaw in individual passages is the more striking as in the general conception of his subject, especially in the Short History, he shows the sublimating power of a writer of high order. Greens habit of work, moreover, was too hurried for a perfect style. His constitutional keenness, increased rather than diminished by ill-health, made his style at times immature, as at others it made it vivacious. It was not from lack of revisionfor he recast his more important booksthat a certain restlessness remains in his more finished work. In his papers for the Saturday Reviewthe stray studies of the serious historianthe tendency towards a journalistic picturesqueness is not fully explained when we take into account the amazing speed at which they were written. His style is not majestic. In his best passages his art is impressionist, fresh, and suggestive; when he seems to fail it is by excess of colour and crudeness of composition. The shortcomings of his technique, however, can never make us forget that he is essentially an artist in prose.