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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

§ 49. A History of England in the Eighteenth Century

Lecky, who, at the time of the publication of his second important work, had barely passed his thirtieth year, now turned to political, in lieu of philosophical, history. He was always averse from fragmentary composition, and the nursing of a great design seems to have been almost a necessity to his years of maturity, at all events so long as he remained out of parliament. He felt that he had a good opportunity “of airing his Irish politics in a parallel or, rather, a contrast, between the Scotch and Irish business”; and the appearance of Froude’s English in Ireland lent a special force to the full treatment of Irish history which, at the risk of disproportionateness, he intended to offer in his forthcoming work. But A History of England in the Eighteenth Century (1878–90) was designed on the broadest of bases, and on lines well according with the most comprehensive demands of political philosophy: being intended, as the preface states, “to disengage from the great mass of facts those which relate to the permanent forces of the nation, or which indicate some of the most enduring features of the national life.” Foremost stood the history of political ideas and of their embodiment in political institutions; but economical and social history received a measure of attention far exceeding that usually bestowed upon it in previous histories of the eighteenth century; while religious history (the rise of methodism, for instance, and the progress of religious tolerance) were allowed full consideration. On the other hand, much that possessed “a biographical, party or military interest” was, for lack of space, suppressed, although Lecky was always interested in individual character or genius, and never wearied in pursuing the successive phases of the history of a mind like Burke’s, with whom, indeed, he had, undeniably, some intellectual affinity. The Irish chapters, alike in the second and in the sixth to eighth volumes, are, on the whole, the most successful in the work, as most completely covering their subject. Historical writing such as this can afford to dispense with minor attractions, and to make no pretence of creating interest either by accumulation of details or by devices of style.

The last volumes of Lecky’s History, published in 1890, contained an account of the rebellion and the union, perhaps the most striking and the most stirring portion of the entire narrative. When he had finished his great work, he had, although not yet much more than fifty years of age, become “a little tired of history”; a happy marriage, and consequent new sphere of life, together with a sense of unbroken success, may have helped to make him unwilling to resume the historian’s pen, although he was assiduous in the revision of the works he had already produced. His Democracy and Liberty (1896) took him back into the sphere of political philosophy; its tone is studiously moderate, although the applications of the principles enunciated to actual politics are undisguised. The Map of Life (1899) is more distinctly aphoristic and was, perhaps in consequence, more widely popular. His latest publication was, as has been seen, a revised edition of his earliest contribution to history—a study and a science of which he may fairly be said, about the turn of the century, to have been the foremost British representative.