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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Richard Green (1837–1883)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
DEAN STANLEY, on reading one of Green’s first literary productions, said: “I see you are in danger of becoming picturesque. Beware of it. I have suffered from it.” Though Green was then at an age when advice from such a source might well have had some influence, his natural bent was even then too strong to be affected by the warning. Born in Oxford in 1837, he entered Jesus College, where he showed the same remarkable power of reconstructing the life of the past that marked his historical writings in after years, and where his preference for historical chronicles over the classics, and his lack of verbal memory, puzzled his tutor and prevented his winning especial distinction in the studies of his college course. On graduating in 1859 he entered the Church, and in 1866 became vicar of Stepney in East London. Here, besides preaching and visiting, he was a leader in the movement for improving the condition of the East Side, and in the organization of an effective system of charitable relief. Nearly the whole of his meager income being expended on his parish, he was obliged to make up the deficit by writing articles for the Saturday Review. These were mainly brief historical reviews and essays, but some were of a light character dealing with social topics. Hastily written, but incisive and original, many of them have permanent value, and they were emended and published in a separate volume under the title of ‘Stray Studies in England and Italy,’ after his ‘Short History of the English People’ had made him famous.  1
  His health was fast breaking under the strain of his parish work; and this, combined with the growing spirit of skepticism, induced him to withdraw from active clerical work and accept an appointment as librarian at Lambeth, where he was able to give much of his time to historical study. He had at first planned a treatise on the Angevin kings, but was urged by his friends to undertake something of wider scope and more general interest. Accordingly he set to work on his ‘Short History of the English People.’ The task before him was difficult. He wished to make a book that would entertain the general reader and at the same time be suggestive and instructive to the scholar, and to compress it all within the limits of an “outline,”—a term usually associated with those bare, crabbed summaries which are sometimes inflicted by teachers upon the young and defenseless, but are avoided by general reader and scholar alike. How far he succeeded appears from the fact that with the exception of Macaulay’s work, no treatise on English history has ever met with such prompt and complete success among all classes of readers. The vivid, picturesque style made it exceedingly popular, while the originality of method and of interpretation won for it the praise of men like Freeman and Stubbs. As to its accuracy, there is some difference of opinion. When the book first came out (1874), sharp reviewers caught the historian in many slips, usually of a kind not to affect his general conclusions, but serious enough to injure his reputation for accuracy. Most of these errors were corrected in later editions, and are not to be found in the longer ‘History of the English People’ (4 vols.), which contains the material of the earlier work in an expanded, but as some think, in a less interesting form.  2
  His next work was in a field in which none could refuse him credit for original research. The ‘Making of England,’ dealing with the early part of the Anglo-Saxon period, and the ‘Conquest of England,’ which carried the narrative down to 1052, show extraordinary skill in handling the scanty historical materials of those times. He was at work on the ‘Conquest’ at the time of his death, which occurred in 1883. During the last years of his life his illness had frequently interrupted his work; and but for the aid of his wife in historical research as well as in the mechanical labor of amanuensis, he would not have accomplished what he did. As it is, his friends regard his actual achievements as slight compared to what his talents promised had he lived. Still, these achievements entitle him to a high place among modern historians. In accuracy he has many superiors; but in brilliancy of style, in human sympathy, and above all in the power to make the past present and real, he has few equals. “Fiction,” he once said, “is history that didn’t happen.” His own books have the interest of novels without departing in essentials from the truth.  3
  Besides writing the works above mentioned, he issued a selection of ‘Readings from English History’ (1879), and wrote with his wife a ‘Short Geography of the British Isles’ (1881).  4
 
 
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