Edward Thompson was a remarkable person and a great historian. That does not mean that he was always right or that later generations will always read his works in the same ways. But he was wonderfully creative and original, full of pioneering insights, with his own distinctive style and interpretation. As a result, he became one of the most influential British historians of modern times. Moreover, he was a polymath—a man of letters, political campaigner, polemicist, and theorist as well as student of the pastfootnote1—a remarkable combination that is unique among contemporary historians. Perhaps the closest comparison is with a figure from an earlier generation—R.H. Tawney, who was like him both a historian and a theoretician of the Left. In both men, there was a strong moral dimension to their history and politics. However, the comparisons are not exact. Edward Thompson was a more passionate and public figure than was Tawney, although both were able to inspire others through their teaching and writing—which is a great gift.

On his best form, Edward Thompson was a spell-binding lecturer and orator. He spoke with great conviction but without glossing over the complexities. His publications had the same quality. He wrote a rich, luxuriant English prose, often laced with fury but simultaneously lightened with humour and satire. By these means, he influenced not only those who knew him and those he taught but also a wider audience that stretched far beyond the academy. He attracted a number of historians to study his own period, or the new problems he posed. Others he provoked to try to prove him wrong, which they sometimes did and sometimes did not. And many more, working on quite different periods and historical problems, were inspired in their own work by his passionate commitment to the study of the past.

Where did Edward Thompson find the inspiration for his lifetime of study, argument, and political activism? Much, of course, came from within; and much from his life partnership with his fellow historian and peace campaigner Dorothy Thompson. But he would be the first to point out that individuals do not operate in isolation from their times and from their own traditions and cumulative experiences.footnote2

Looking at his historical writings as a whole, therefore, three strong influences stand out. For Edward Thompson, they were intertwined; but they can be identified separately as: firstly, a deep absorption in English literature; secondly, a developing relationship with the international body of ideas known as Marxism; and thirdly, a tradition of secularized dissent, that has descended from radical Protestantism.

Manifestly, Edward Thompson was exceptionally well-read, steeped in the literary traditions of Britain; and he relished both poetry—which he often read aloud with great effect in his lectures—and prose. In particular, he admired the creative struggle of dissidents and out-siders. So it was not surprising that his first and last works of history were about English authors who were rebels against the mainstream culture of their day—his studies of the socialist writer and artist William Morris and of the deeply unconventional poet and artist William Blake.

Indeed, Edward Thompson had begun his teaching career as an extramural lecturer for the Workers Educational Association in Leeds, teaching English as well as History. He was therefore quite ready to provide a close reading of literary texts, giving them a detailed attention that is unusual among historians. However, he was not at all involved in the many controversies generated by English studies. He greatly disliked the more abstract versions of literary theory with a capital ‘t’. His interest was very much more that of the contextualist, concerned to understand writers and their writings in the setting of their times. That did not mean, incidentally, that for him literature and art had no wider meanings. On the contrary, they had the greatest of resonance precisely because they were anchored within a living history.

Moreover, that meant that Edward Thompson also took seriously some of the more surprising episodes in English literature. For example, in Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge the anti-hero Henchard, in a drunken moment, sold his wife Susan at a fair and for many years she accepted this as a de facto divorce. Edward Thompson asked himself whether this was a pure artistic invention, or whether Hardy was drawing upon a tradition of actual events in the past. And from that came a scintillating Thompson lecture, later published as an essay, on the real-life ‘Sale of Wives’, which he found to be an unofficial, often highly ritualized, minority form of do-it-yourself divorce, that continued within plebeian culture although it was severely frowned upon by church and state.footnote3 In this way, by studying a topic that was so unknown and so apparently obscure, Thompson illustrated his marked capacity to surprise his readers, as well as to interest them in the general implications of a particular case study. This was simply not the sort of subject that was supposed to interest a stereotypical Marxist, breathing fire and revolution. But for Edward Thompson it made perfect sense. The ‘politics of the personal’ were an important aspect of the past; and literature could open up new dimensions for historical analysis.