The History Man: Malcolm Bradbury

“Howard stared at the campus from the sit-in and what he said was: ‘I think this is a place I can work against.’ “

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for books with an academic setting. Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man is a vicious satire about academic life, and if you’ve ever been involved in academia in any way, you will probably recognize the particularly despicable main character, Howard. The author, in a foreword, admits that while he “invented Howard Kirk […] He was an entirely familiar figure on every modern campus–if, like me, you happened to teach in once of those bright concrete-and-glass new universities that sprang up over the Sixties in Britain and right across Europe and the USA.” I agree. I’ve known several ever trendy, ever hypocritical, self-loving Howard Kirks and so this book brought back some memories.

the history manThe book begins very strongly with a description of the times and then introduces Howard and Barbara Kirk who are about, as the  “new academic year begins,” to throw another of their famous parties. Howard is a self-focused “radical sociologist,” and lectures at a new university in the seaside town of Watermouth:

His course on Revolutions is a famous keystone, just as are, in a different way, his interventions in community relations, his part in the life of the town. For Howard is a well-known activist, a thorn in the flesh of the council, a terror to the selfish bourgeoisie, a pressing agent in the Claimants’ Union, a focus of responsibility and concern. As for Barbara, well, she is at this minute just a person, as she puts it, trapped in the role of wife and mother, in the limited role of woman in our society; but of course she, too, is a radical person, and quite as active as Howard in her way. She is, amongst her many competences and qualifications, a cordon bleu cook, an expert in children’s literature, a tireless promoter of new causes (Women for Peace, The Children’s Crusade for Abortion, No More Sex for Repression). And she, too, is a familiar figure, in the streets, as she blocks them with others to show that traffic is not inevitable, and in the supermarkets as she leads her daily deputation to the manager with comparative, up-to-the-minute lists showing how Fine Fare, on lard, is one pence up on Sainsbury’s, or vice versa. She moves through playgroups and schools, surgeries and parks, in a constant indignation

Married for twelve years, and with two children, the Kirks have endured several metamorphoses. Both originally from the “grimmer, tighter north,” they were originally very conventional people who managed to escape from their “respectable upper-working-class cum lower middle-class backgrounds.” Perhaps it was their mutually shared backgrounds that initially drew them together, and while Howard’s career in Sociology soared, Barbara became an unhappy “flatwife,” giving up any hopes of a career to raise two children neither parent particularly wanted. Howard is given to constant analysis of their shifting marital relationship which he sees as “trapping each other in fixed personality roles,” and that their “marriage had become a prison, its function to check growth, not open it.” They almost broke up several times, but have stayed together in an ‘open marriage,’ and are considered by their peers as a successful couple who are now evolved from who they used to be–“people of several protean distillations back.”

The plans for the party (actually an annual event which has to appear to be very carefully ‘unplanned’ and spontaneous) gives the reader insight into the Kirks’ marriage and domestic arrangements. They live in a Georgian townhouse, away from the other academics who’ve chosen more prestigious, country settings. Henry Beamish and his wife, for example, live in “an architect-converted farmhouse, where they were deep into a world of Tolstoyan pastoral, scything grass and raising organic onions.” The Kirks’ home, a hangout for “radical students and faculty, town drop-outs, passionate working communists” is, naturally, in an area of “urban blight” and it’s been very carefully restored in a shabby-chic sort of way. While the Kirks may pretend to be anti-bourgeois, really they’re the epitome of bourgeois values. Their so-called radicalism, very carefully defined to slot into a safe niche, thrives on the fertile setting of the university campus.

A great deal of the novel centres on the Kirks’ party  but then the plot moves away to examine other aspects of the Kirks’ lives: Howard and Barbara’s joint exploitation of students for unpaid childcare and housecleaning, Howard’s affairs with his students, and a carefully nurtured self-serving rumor that a geneticist may be arriving on the lecture circuit. When one male student, Carmody, has the audacity to challenge the poor grades he’s received from Howard, this incident shows just how authoritarian the self-loving Howard really is.  “Intellectual freedom” is something that Howard wags on about and uses to defend his anti-university-establishment stance, and yet he refuses to extend the same right to opinion to anyone who disagrees with him.

For all of his talk about liberation, Howard is the biggest sexist around. He constantly avoids any domestic chores and his female students are potential sex partners. Here’s a great scene with Howard, Barbara, and their two children at breakfast:

Are you going to eat your sodding cornfakes?” asks Howard of the children. “Or do you want me to throw them out of the window?”

“I want you to throw them out of the window,” says Martin.

“Christ,” says Barbara, “here’s a man with professional training in social psychology. And he can’t get a child to eat a cornflake.”

“The human will has a natural resistance to coercion,” says Howard. “It will not be repressed.”

“By cornflake fascism,” says Celia.

Barbara stares at Howard. “Oh, you’re a great operator,” she says. 

“Why don’t you give them wider options? Set them free?” asks Howard, “Weetabix, Rice Krispies?”

“Why don’t you keep out of it?” asks Barbara, “I feed this lot. They’re not asking for different food. They’re asking for my endless sodding attention.”

One of the best characters in the book, is the very refreshing English professor Miss Callendar. When she was introduced, I thought that perhaps Howard had met his match. While I understand, on one level, exactly what author Malcolm Bradbury did with this character, nevertheless, I was disappointed with the story’s direction.

This is not gentle satire. While some parts of the novel are funny, overall the main characters of Howard and Barbara remain superficial; they are the very ‘types’ that we recognize, but beyond that, there’s no depth. There are some great moments, but the novel, determined to draw vicious satirical scenes from the life of a very particular type, bludgeons the reader with wearying heavy-handedness. While we know people who act like Howard and think like Howard, they don’t speak like Howard, so the result is that some of the dialogue feels stiff and forced, and there’s the sensation that these characters are caught in a set piece delivering their stock lines.

Published in 1975

review copy


Filed under Bradbury Malcolm, Fiction

32 responses to “The History Man: Malcolm Bradbury

  1. I’ve always felt a bit mean being disappointed with Malcolm Bradbury because he’s supposed to be so funny, but I usually have the reaction you had – superficiality and laying it on just a bit too thick. And while I enjoy conversations like the sodding cornflakes one, you can only imagine them happening in a film working off British academic stereotypes, not in real life. Like many of us comic writers sometimes he just can’t resist his own cleverness.

    • Well good to know I’m not the only one. This is my first Bradbury novel and I can imagine it was quite controversial in its day. And you’re right, I saw those scenes in some sort of comedy film more than anything else.

  2. This reminds me of other similar sounding novels. There’s a German novel called Campus that has the same ingredients. In theory I would love a good satire of academia.

  3. Great review. I recall reading this novel as a student (I still have my battered copy somewhere). There was a TV adaptation in the early eighties so that must have been the trigger for me to pick it up. I liked the book but didn’t love it. Not sure how I’d feel about it now…very much of its time I suspect?

  4. Jeff

    I’m looking forward to finding a secondhand copy of this, which I’m sure I will. The TV series was repeated a few years ago. I didn’t have a TV, alas for the series, though hooray in general. If Bradbury hadn’t laid it on thick, the case against Howard might have been stronger, because I would imagine he would have been a slippery customer.

    • When I read this I thought it would make a good series so it’s nice to know that there’s one out there. Yes it was laid on a bit thick but that’s satire for you.

  5. Annabel (gaskella)

    Your review brings back memories. I read this many many moons ago, but I better remember the TV adaptation from the early 80s which was the UK’s introduction to Anthony Sher as Howard.

  6. I’ve not read this one but I recognise the types very well – not so sure how well a whole book would work for me though… great review!

  7. mikeripley

    I was at the University of East Anglia and knew Malcolm Bradbury (though I was not one of his students) then, and later, when he was writing scripts for television. “History Man” did cause a stir when it came out and the TV adaption was a break-through role for Anthony Sher. The big guessing game was ‘Who was Howard Kirk based on?’ – one of the hot favourites being a young, uber-trendy sociology lecturer who was nick-named The Clockwork Ferret by his students. I can remember little about the book now and have a vague memory that “Stepping Westward” (about a creative writing class on a mid-western campus) was much funnier. For most fun in an academic setting, try Michael Innes’ “Old Hall, New Hall” – in particular the hero’s attempt to secure the Alderman Shufflebotham Award… hysterical!

    • The Clockwork Ferret is a great name. Students have a knack for nailing the traits of their most loathed lecturers/professors. I looked up Steeping Westward and I might try that as the culture clash combined with the creative writing class is promising. And I’d never heard of Old Hall, New Hall either, so thanks for the tips.

  8. This sounds really good. The type of person described in this narrative is sadly all too real.

  9. It sounds like a fun read but not as good as Lucky Jim or Straight Man.
    I’ve heard there are some French “campus novels” too.

  10. Jonathan

    I don’t know, for me I have a great resistance to any novel about academia or, even worse, a novel about a writer with writer’s block. For some reason they’re even worse if written by an English writer…..even the thought of….reading……such a book………makes…………sleeepyyyyyyyy………zzzzzzz………

  11. I love a good campus novel as it’s an environment I’m familiar with, and I always seem to recognize people I know.

  12. Tredynas Days

    Enjoyed the review – brought back memories. I agree with comments above: I think I’d find it a bit dated now. I’ve just posted on Diderot’s ‘The Nun’, which i came to via possibly Bradbury’s best and most ambitious novel – his last, published just before his premature death at 68 – ‘To the Hermitage’, which is about Diderot’s experience at the court of Catherine the Great. Some of your quotations indicate how mordantly funny he could be; I love ‘cornflake fascism’!

  13. And let’s not forget Kingsley’s classic from the early Fifties, Lucky Jim.

  14. If this were a contemporary novel I’d have tagged that reference to “organic onions” as an anachronism, a modern conceit accidentally imposed on the past. Interesting to see it hear.

    This sounded great until the last fifth of your review, when you talk to the late direction of the book and the ultimate flatness of the satire. Shame. The quotes are good and it sounds fun,but I’ve not read Kingsley Amis and it sounds like I should put him a fair way ahead of this.

    The quotes are great though. Such a shame there isn’t the depth to match the lightness of the prose.

  15. I was at uni somewhat later than the sixties but the type was still in evidence, walking around campus in their shabby chic sweaters with holes in selves as a badge of honour. I couldn’t get into Bradbury either, he never went beyond have a bit of fun at these types as of they were specimens in a jar destined always to be observed but never taken out and played with,

    • That’s a good way of putting it: specimens in a jar. I knew one who walked around in a velvet cloak and would lean against trees while reciting his own poetry to groupies.

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