Daniel Snowman meets the historian of Britons and Captives.
‘Great historians tend to be called great not because their writings come as a total revelation, but rather because they address and confirm in some way preoccupations that already exist.’
Linda Colley was writing about Sir Lewis Namier, a Polish-Jewish immigrant who, while Britain was undergoing Depression, war and loss of Empire, documented the lives of eighteenth-century English landowners in apparently terminal decline. Reading Namier, wrote Colley in 1989, ‘is one of the best introductions to this century’s insecurity, alienation and angst’. Colley, herself an eighteenth-century specialist, published a book on the Tory party under the early Hanoverians and another on Namier. Then, in Britons (1992) and Captives (2002), Colley took careful aim and bagged a brace of prize topics each packed with contemporary resonance. She has not only ‘addressed and confirmed’ contemporary preoccupations. She has seen them coming.