Celebrating Jon Parry’s Work

Guest post written by Paul Readman, co-editor of Culture, Thought and Belief in British Political Life since 1800. 

It was in J staircase in Pembroke College, Cambridge, that I first learned to think like an historian—specifically, in Jonathan Parry’s room in that staircase. There I went, once a week in the first term of my final year as an undergraduate, for supervisions in Jon’s specified subject, ‘The British and Europe, 1815–1906’. My efforts at historical thinking were not always successful, as Jon’s comments on my essays attest. ‘You’re wasted on history; you should be an artist’, was a gentle rebuke offered to an imaginatively misguided reinterpretation of the frescoes commissioned to decorate the new Palace of Westminster. Other interventions, perhaps, were more telling, but Jon never prescribed as a teacher. He preferred to steer, to nudge. And in this way he saved me from serious mistakes, while also pointing not to ready-made answers or off-the-shelf conceptualisations, but to places where insight might be gained if I applied my own intelligence to the subjects and problems that interested me. He did not recreate his students as historians in his own image. For all that Jon has made signal contributions to modern British history—and political history in particular—there is no Jon Parry school of history. 

But there is a Jon Parry approach to doing history, and it this approach to which we pay tribute in Culture, Thought and Belief in British Life since 1800. The Parry approach is one characterised by rigour, precision, masterly powers of synthesis, economy of expression, a certain dry wit, and much else besides. You see these qualities in everything he has written, from his trilogy of monographs on nineteenth-century Liberalism to his glittering essays in the London Review of Books. But central to Parry’s substantive contribution to history is a preoccupation with ideas and their significance in real-world as opposed to abstract political contexts. This is inseparable from his interest in people and personalities, since it is the agency of flesh-and-blood individuals that brings thought, ideology and belief—often, in the nineteenth century, religious belief—to bear on the practical business of politics. In this he is attentive to the ways in which ideas both shape and are constrained by the real-world circumstances in which they are applied. Most people who have thought seriously about British history would agree that ideas matter in modern British politics, but no-one has shown so effectively just why, how and to what extent they mattered. This book is a tribute to that achievement. 

Historians are habituated to working on their own, which is perhaps why so many horror stories circulate in donnish circles about the trials and tribulations of editing collected volumes of essays. Promises to deliver are broken, perfectionists procrastinate, the contents of bottom drawers are ransacked for copy of the ‘will-this-do?’ kind, editorial briefs are disregarded, publishers’ style guidelines are ignored, word limits are not so much overstepped but overrun. Yet few if any such vicissitudes were visited on Geraint and me. This was, of course, because of our contributors, who failed signally to stress-test our cat-herding skills. But since most of us have fumbled in the bottom drawer at one time or another, the journey from conception to symposium to typescript to publication was smooth for a reason more profound than mere professionalism. It was driven by our collective regard for our honorand—as a teacher, as a colleague and as a scholar. This being the case, it seems fitting to close these brief reflections by supplying a few more expressions of that regard, in the words of some of the contributors themselves.  

Tom Crewe 

“In one way or another I was taught by Jonathan Parry for eight years, for five of which he was directly supervising my graduate study. My sense of what British politics was and still is—and of how the art of history should best be practised—has been profoundly shaped by his work and example, as well as by his shrewd questioning and wry humour. Even though I have since been out of academia for another nine years, we are still in regular touch: I am still learning from him, and still striving to meet the standards he has set.”  

Michael Ledger-Lomas 

“When I was an undergraduate and then a graduate student, Jon would carefully praise the essay or draft I had submitted to him, before remarking ‘but I did just wonder whether…’. A critique of my foundational assumptions would then follow, all the more piercing because quietly phrased. This approach sums up for me the fine blend of the constructive and the critical Jon brings to historical scholarship. Jon has always seized on, encouraged and promoted the big things I have tried to argue, but has always pushed me to test and refine my thinking further before it has set. Peterhouse, where Jon and I were trained as historians, used often to be identified with a purely reactive scepticism. One of Jon’s great virtues as a scholar and teacher is that he wielded it much more productively, to discern what was merely accidental and what was truly foundational to political and cultural systems in modern Britain.” 

Joanna Lewis 

“My time at Cambridge was so much the richer for my friendship with the beloved Prof Parry. Our conversations were (and still are I hope) littered with keen observations, obscure facts and hilarious commentary. In other words, we gossiped a lot, regaling at the pretension and folly of our betters. We rarely talked about history as there was never enough time after that. I regret that as he is rather good at it…” 

Alex Middleton 

“Jon Parry is inarguably the most profound historian of nineteenth-century British politics of the last half-century. Somehow, he also managed to be the most committed tutor. He answered all the dispiritingly dull emails I sent as an importunate 17-year-old prospective applicant to Pembroke College, Cambridge with exactly the same patience and kindness he showed towards my attempts at academic work later on. His scholarship is extraordinary, but his humanity is just as remarkable.” 

Susan Pennybacker 

“Jon Parry’s own tolerant and considered character surpasses the liberal spirit that he has studied with such erudition over many years. That study has made him acutely aware of the vulnerability of dogma to corruption and the blinding of the pursuit of freedoms by institutional and doctrinal constraints. Without his understanding of how parliamentary politics worked and with what motives, the critiques of liberalism so necessary to what so many call ‘progressive’ politics, remain shallow. Not like the man.” 

Kathryn Rix 

“Having attended Jon Parry’s excellent lectures as an undergraduate, I felt hugely privileged when he agreed to supervise me for an MPhil and a PhD. It is testament to the high academic standards that Jon sets and inspires that my PhD thesis was awarded Cambridge University’s Prince Consort Prize and Seeley Medal, an achievement which simply would not have been possible without his expert guidance. Jon’s wise counsel continued after my PhD, with his encouragement being crucial in my application for my current position at the History of Parliament, where my well-thumbed copy of The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain demonstrates the influence Jon’s work continues to have on me.” 

Culture, Thought and Belief in British Political Life since 1800 edited by Paul Readman and Geraint Thomas is out in October 2024. Subscriptions to the Tablula Gratulatoria honouring Jon Parry are open until 5 July. 

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