If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

What does it take to get a long-surviving reputation? The answer, rather obviously, is somehow to get access to a means of endurance through time. To hitch a lift with history.

People in sports and the performing arts, before the advent of electronic storage/ replay media, have an intrinsic problem. Their prowess is known at the time but is notoriously difficult to recapture later. The French actor Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), playing Hamlet on stage when she was well into her 70s and sporting an artificial limb after a leg amputation, remains an inspiration for all public performers, whatever their field.1  Yet performance glamour, even in legend, still fades fast.

Bernhardt in the 1880s as a romantic HamletWhat helps to keep a reputation well burnished is an organisation that outlasts an individual. A memorable preacher like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, impressed many different audiences, as he spoke at open-air and private meetings across eighteenth-century Britain. Admirers said that his gaze seemed to pick out each person individually. Having heard Wesley in 1739, one John Nelson, who later became a fellow Methodist preacher, recorded that effect: ‘I thought his whole discourse was aimed at me’.2

Yet there were plenty of celebrated preachers in Georgian Britain. What made Wesley’s reputation survive was not only his assiduous self-chronicling, via his journals and letters, but also the new religious organisation that he founded. Of course, the Methodist church was dedicated to spreading his ideas and methods for saving Christian souls, not to the enshrining of the founder’s own reputation. It did, however, forward Wesley’s legacy into successive generations, albeit with various changes over time. Indeed, for true longevity, a religious movement (or a political cause, come to that) has to have permanent values that outlast its own era but equally a capacity for adaptation.

There are some interesting examples of small, often millenarian, cults which survive clandestinely for centuries. England’s Muggletonians, named after the London tailor Lodovicke Muggleton, were a case in point. Originating during the mid-seventeenth-century civil wars, the small Protestant sect never recruited publicly and never grew to any size.  But the sect lasted in secrecy from 1652 to 1979 – a staggering trajectory. It seems that the clue was a shared excitement of cultish secrecy and a sense of special salvation, in the expectation of the imminent end of the world. Muggleton himself was unimportant. And finally the movement’s secret magic failed to remain transmissible.3

In fact, the longer that causes survive, the greater the scope for the imprint of very many different personalities, different social demands, different institutional roles, and diverse, often conflicting, interpretations of the core theology. Throughout these processes, the original founders tend quickly to become ideal-types of mythic status, rather than actual individuals. It is their beliefs and symbolism, rather than their personalities, that live.

As well as beliefs and organisation, another reputation-preserver is the achievement of impressive deeds, whether for good or ill. Notorious and famous people alike often become national or communal myths, adapted by later generations to fit later circumstances. Picking through controversies about the roles of such outstanding figures is part of the work of historians, seeking to offer not anodyne but judicious verdicts on those ‘world-historical individuals’ (to use Hegel’s phrase) whose actions crystallise great historical moments or forces. They embody elements of history larger than themselves.

Hegel himself had witnessed one such giant personality, in the form of the Emperor Napoleon. It was just after the battle of Jena (1806), when the previously feared Prussian army had been routed by the French. The small figure of Napoleon rode past Hegel, who wrote: ‘It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it’.4

(L) The academic philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) and (R) the man of action, Emperor Napoleon (1769-1821),  both present at Jena in October 1806The means by which Napoleon’s posthumous reputation has survived are interesting in themselves. He did not found a long-lasting dynasty, so neither family piety nor institutionalised authority could help. He was, of course, deposed and exiled, dividing French opinion both then and later. Nonetheless, Napoleon left numerous enduring things, such as codes of law; systems of measurement; structures of government; and many physical monuments. One such was Paris’s Jena Bridge, built to celebrate the victorious battle.

Monuments, if sufficiently durable, can certainly long outlast individuals. They effortlessly bear diachronic witness to fame. Yet, at the same time, monuments can crumble or be destroyed. Or, even if surviving, they can outlast the entire culture that built them. Today a visitor to Egypt may admire the pyramids, without knowing the names of the pharaohs they commemorated, let alone anything specific about them. Shelley caught that aspect of vanished grandeur well, in his poem to the ruined statue of Ozymandias: the quondam ‘king of kings’, lost and unknown in the desert sands.6

So lastly what about words? They can outlast individuals and even cultures, provided that they are kept in a transmissible format. Even lost languages can be later deciphered, although experts have not yet cracked the ancient codes from Harappa in the Punjab.7  Words, especially in printed or nowadays digital format, have immense potential for endurance. Not only are they open to reinterpretation over time; but, via their messages, later generations can commune mentally with earlier ones.

In Jena, the passing Napoleon (then aged 37) was unaware of the watching academic (then aged 36), who was formulating his ideas about revolutionary historical changes through conflict. Yet, through the endurance of his later publications, Hegel, who was unknown in 1806, has now become the second notable personage who was present at the scene. Indeed, via his influence upon Karl Marx, it could even be argued that the German philosopher has become the historically more important figure of those two individuals in Jena on 13 October 1806. On the other hand, Marx’s impact, having been immensely significant in the twentieth century, is also fast fading.

Who from the nineteenth century will be the most famous in another century’s time? Napoleon? Hegel? Marx? (Shelley’s Ozymandias?) Time not only ravages but provides the supreme test.

1  R. Gottlieb, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt (New Haven, 2010).

R.P. Heitzenrater, ‘John Wesley’s Principles and Practice of Preaching’, Methodist History, 37 (1999), p. 106. See also R. Hattersley, A Brand from the Burning: The Life of John Wesley (London, 2002).

3  W. Lamont, Last Witnesses: The Muggletonian History, 1652-1979 (Aldershot, 2006); C. Hill, B. Reay and W. Lamont, The World of the Muggletonians (London, 1983); E.P. Thompson, Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993).

G.W.F. Hegel to F.I. Neithammer, 13 Oct. 1806, in C. Butler (ed.), The Letters: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831 (Bloomington, 1984); also transcribed in, 2005.


6  P.B. Shelley (1792-1822), Ozymandias (1818).

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A growing number of historians, myself included, want students to study long-term narratives as well in-depth courses.1 More on (say) the peopling of Britain since Celtic times alongside (say) life in Roman Britain or (say) medicine in Victorian times or (say) the ordinary soldier’s experiences in the trenches of World War I. We do in-depth courses very well. But long-term studies are also vital to provide frameworks.2

Put into more abstract terms, we need more diachronic (long-term) analysis, alongside synchronic (short-term) immersion. These approaches, furthermore, do not have to be diametrically opposed. Courses, like books, can do both.

That was my aim in an undergraduate programme, devised at Royal Holloway, London University.3  It studied the long and the short of one specific period. The choice fell upon early nineteenth-century British history, because it’s well documented and relatively near in time. In that way, the diachronic aftermath is not too lengthy for students to assess within a finite course of study.

Integral to the course requirements were two long essays, both on the same topic X. There were no restrictions, other than analytical feasiblity. X could be a real person; a fictional or semi-fictionalised person (like Dick Turpin);4  an event; a place; or anything that lends itself to both synchronic and diachronic analysis. Students chose their own, with advice as required. One essay of the pair then focused upon X’s reputation in his/her/its own day; the other upon X’s long-term impact/reputation in subsequent years.

There was also an examination attached to the course. One section of the paper contained traditional exam questions; the second just one compulsory question on the chosen topic X. Setting that proved a good challenge for the tutor, thinking of ways to compare and contrast short- and long-term reputations. And of course, the compulsory question could not allow a simple regurgitation of the coursework essays; and it had to be equally answerable by all candidates.

Most students decided to examine famous individuals, both worthies and unworthies: Beau Brummell; Mad Jack Mytton; Queen Caroline; Charles Dickens; Sir Robert Peel; Earl Grey; the Duke of Wellington; Harriette Wilson; Lord Byron; Mary Shelley; Ada Lovelace; Charles Darwin; Harriet Martineau; Robert Stephenson; Michael Faraday; Augustus Pugin; Elizabeth Gaskell; Thomas Arnold; Mary Seacole; to name only a few. Leading politicians and literary figures tended to be the first choices. A recent book shows what can be done in the case of the risen (and rising still further) star of Jane Austen.5 In addition, a minority preferred big events, such as the Battle of Waterloo; or the Great Exhibition. None in fact chose a place or building; but it could be done, provided the focus is kept sharp (the Palace of Westminster, not ‘London’.)

Studying contemporary reputations encouraged a focus upon newspaper reports, pamphlets, letters, public commemorations, and so forth. In general, students assumed that synchronic reputation would be comparatively easy to research. Yet they were often surprised to find that initial responses to X were confused. It takes time for reputations to become fixed. In particular, where the personage X had a long life, there might well be significant fluctuations during his or her lifetime. The radical John Thelwall, for example, was notorious in 1794, when on trial for high treason, yet largely forgotten at his death in 1834. 6

By contrast, students often began by feeling fussed and unhappy about studying X’s diachronic reputation. There were no immediate textbooks to offer guidance. Nonetheless, they often found that studying long-term changes was good fun, because more off-the-wall. The web is particularly helpful, as wikipedia often lists references to X in film(s), TV, literature, song(s) and popular culture. Of course, all wiki-leads need to be double-checked. There are plenty of errors and omissions out there.

Nonetheless, for someone wishing to study the long-term reputation of (say) Beau Brummell (1778-1840), wikipedia offers extensive leads, providing many references to Brummell in art, literature, song, film, and sundry stylistic products making use of his name, as well as a bibliography. 7

Beau Brummell (1778-1840) from L to R: as seen in his own day; as subject of enquiry for Virginia Woolf (1882-1941); and as portrayed by Stewart Granger in Curtis Bernhardt’s film (1954).Plus it is crucial to go beyond wikipedia. For example, a search for relevant publications would reveal an unlisted offering. In 1925, Virginia Woolf, no less, published a short tract on Beau Brummell.8 The student is thus challenged to explore what the Bloomsbury intellectual found of interest in the Regency Dandy. Of course, the tutor/ examiner also has to do some basic checks, to ensure that candidates don’t miss the obvious. On the other hand, surprise finds, unanticipated by all parties, proved part of the intellectual fun.

Lastly, the exercise encourages reflections upon posthumous reputations. People in the performing arts and sports, politicians, journalists, celebrities, military men, and notorious criminals are strong candidates for contemporary fame followed by subsequent oblivion, unless rescued by some special factor. In the case of the minor horse-thief Dick Turpin, he was catapulted from conflicted memory in the eighteenth century into dashing highwayman by the novel Rookwood (1834). That fictional boost gave his romantic myth another 100 years before starting to fade again.

Conversely, a tiny minority can go from obscurity in their lifetime to later global renown. But it depends crucially upon their achievements being transmissable to successive generations. The artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827) is a rare and cherished example. Students working on the long-and-the-short of the early nineteenth century were challenged to find another contemporary with such a dramatic posthumous trajectory. They couldn’t.

But they and I enjoyed the quest and discovery of unlikely reactions, like Virginia Woolf dallying with Beau Brummell. It provided a new way of thinking about the long-term – not just in terms of grand trends (‘progress’; ‘economic stages’) but by way of cultural borrowings and transmutations between generations. When and why? There are trends but no infallible rules.

1 ‘Teaching History’s Big Pictures: Including Continuity as well as Change’, Teaching History: Journal of the Historical Association, 136 (Sept. 2009), pp. 53-9; and PJC website Pdf/3.

2 My own answers in P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007).

3 RH History Course HS2246: From Rakes to Respectability? Conflict and Consensus in Britain 1815-51 (content now modified).

4 Well shown by J. Sharpe, Dick Turpin: The Myth of the Highwayman (London, 2004).

5 C. Harman, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (Edinburgh, 2009).

6 Two PJC essays on John Thelwall (1764-1834) are available in PJC website, Pdf/14 and Pdf/22.

7 See

8 See V. Woolf, Beau Brummell (1925; reissued by Folcroft Library, 1972); and

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