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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 17. A Short History of the English People

Still only gradually, he made up his mind to devote the span of life which might be his to the writing of history; and it was to English history that he felt he had a clear calling. Other schemes and occupations were laid or left aside; he resigned his London incumbency; and, while spending successive winter seasons in Italy, gave himself up altogether to his task. In 1874, A Short History of the English People appeared, and met with a success unprecedented since the days of Macaulay. The extraordinary popularity of this book is not due altogether to Green’s narrative and descriptive power—which always addresses itself to the relations of the scene to the human actors in it—and to the wonderful brightness of the work. It is, also, due to his recognition of all the elements in the national life which contributed to the progress of the national history, and, especially, of the intimate connection between the political, economical and social and the literary and artistic life of the people. And, above all, it is due to the sympathetic pulse which beats in every page, and which is more than anywhere else noticeable where he gives expression to his immense and indignant interest, almost recalling that of the psalmist, in the poor.

The treatment of the several sections of Green’s Short History shows inequalities, and the narrative is not free from blemishes of taste as well as errors of fact, to which the author was prepared to plead guilty; for, notwithstanding the buoyancy of his spirits and the vivacity of his conversation, the genuine modesty of Green revealed itself to all who knew him otherwise than superficially. The book was not really well-suited for the purposes of a school-book, to which it was largely applied; but, though the student of English history who remains a stranger to the work is not to be congratulated, it has satisfied higher ends than those of mere imparting of knowledge. That it assisted greatly in spreading and sustaining a living interest in our national past, and in making it intelligible as an organic whole of which the working continues, cannot be doubted; and rarely has a single-minded ambition been more swiftly or more amply fulfilled.

Aided by the devotion of his wife, Green lived to produce two distinct elaborations of parts of the theme of his Short History, entitled respectively The Making, and The Conquest, of England. It was in these branches of his studies that he was specially able to apply his power of tracing and delineating the geographical aspects of national historical growth, with which no other historian had dealt so fully and so ably before him. He died, in his forty-sixth year, at Mentone, after a heroic struggle against the disease to which he succumbed.