The author is careful to avoid calling this a biography of W. G. Collingwood, but it is nonetheless the closest that we have to a biography. It is a work of historiography about the subject of Norse studies in the Lake District in the period ca. 1850–1930. It focuses on this subject via the lives of those involved, Collingwood being the principal protagonist.
It is a great work of scholarship, and it seems entirely fitting that it is published by the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society – the society that, after Ruskin's death, Collingwood so unselfishly devoted himself.
The extent of Collingwood's achievement in establishing the extent of Norse influence upon the Lake District is established, with thoroughness, in relation to both his predecessors and successors. The author makes it clear that it was Collingwood more than any other who established the extent of Scandinavian influence upon Lake District dialect and place names.
Along the way, some light is shed upon certain episodes of literary history. It has been noted that although Collingwood was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde at Oxford he does not mention Wilde in his biography of Ruskin. Townend reveals his attitude, in a letter written to Arthur Ransome on 18 February 1912: 'one was tempted to love him in spite of seeing that he wouldn't do: he brought the art movement of Ruskin and Morris into contempt, & did more to kill artistic progress than any other man. Tribute, of course, to his power'. (The following year Ransome published a book on Wilde.) Ransome scholars will also be interested by the revelation that Arthur Ransome's father knew Collingwood from December 1895. In Ransome's autobiography he 'never alluded to the friendship that had existed between Collingwood and his father, perhaps preferring to be regarded in his own right'.
Another interest is the detail that is added to R. G. Collingwood's description of the 'gradually thickening archaeological atmosphere' in which he grew up. R. G. Collingwood was keen to stress the intellectual debt that he owed his father. It was his father to whom he dedicated his philosophical Speculum Mentis in 1924: 'TO MY FIRST AND BEST TEACHER OF ART, RELIGION, SCIENCE, HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY'.
He was here returning a compliment, for his father had dedicated his first historical novel Thorstein of the Mere to Robin. In Townend's book there is a charming sketch by W. G. Collingwood of the six-year-old Robin reading 'in proprietorial manner' the first review his father's novel in 1895. Townend reveals that as an adult R. G. Collingwood looked back upon this novel as providing him with his 'first lesson in history'.
A number of themes are carried on from W. G. Collingwood's work into his son's. There is the view of the Viking Lake District as a multi-lingual and multi-cultural society – a view that, as Townend points out, is unsurprising given Collingwood's own upbringing in a bilingual household. This was something that R. G. Collingwood believed might also be learned from the Roman Empire. In a 1925 work written for children he resoundingly concluded:
It can hardly be in our own time, it may not be for centuries, but a time will come when people again realize that Hampshire and Normandy, Picardy and Kent, are each to the other flesh of its flesh and bone of its bone; when the Channel is no longer, as in time of distrust and danger it must be, a barrier rather than a bond; when the pendulum of history points once more to that unity between England and France which existed in the days of the Caesars.
There is the idea that it is not biological descent that influences culture so much as environment. This theme too can be seen carried into R. G. Collingwood's work. In the two editions of Roman Britain (1923 and 1932) and in Roman Britain and the English Settlements (1936) he can be seen as increasingly distancing himself from racial explanations of historical events.
In the latter work R. G. Collingwood pondered the revival of Celtic art at the end of the Roman period. W. G. Collingwood had pondered a similar problem as early as 1901 when he wrote in The Victoria History of the County of Cumberland, of the tendency of seventeenth century domestic decoration to revert to Scandinavian patterns that had prevalence four hundred years earlier.
In his controversial suggestion that Arthur should be considered a historical figure we may see R. G. Collingwood taking up the wish expressed by his father that one day 'archaeology and philology may give us back a real Arthur'.
And finally, we may see R. G. Collingwood having benefited from his father's experience of recording stone sculpture. Townend describes the transition made by W. G. Collingwood from recording stones in watercolour to recording with pen and ink. Both Collingwoods expressed a preference for pen and ink over photography, although R. G. Collingwood was not averse to including within his articles an occasional photograph that had been sent to him. According to Ian Richmond, it was Haverfield's high regard for R. G. Collingwood's abilities as a draughtsman that inspired the conception of a comprehensively illustrated corpus of Roman inscriptions.
I have concentrated upon W. G. Collingwood's influence upon his son in this review partly because R. G. Collingwood was so keen to stress this influence and it has yet to be fully explored. But this of course is not Townend's main concern. However, it is part of the pleasure of this book that it suggests further themes that might in the future be investigated: for example, W. G. Collingwood's relationship with Francis Haverfield; and the development of his abilities as archaeologist.
Townend concentrates upon philology and Norse studies, and he does this admirably. But, as he makes clear, his aim was not to write a biography: perhaps this might be his next project?