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Kiernan, (Edward) Victor Gordon (1913–2009), historian, was born on 4 September 1913 at 8 Carlton Road, Ashton upon Mersey, Cheshire, into a Congregationalist household, one of three children of John Edward Kiernan, employed by the Manchester Ship Canal as a ‘foreign correspondence clerk’, and his wife, Ella Frances, née Young. Victor, as he was always known (the ‘Edward’ soon disappeared from his name, and he published as V. G. Kiernan) soon added to the languages available at home, including Spanish and Portuguese, by a full classical education at Manchester grammar school (1924–31). There he won many prizes and scholarships, one of which took him to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1931 to read history. He graduated with a double starred first in 1934, and remained until 1938 as a notably boyish and spectacularly learned undergraduate, a brilliant graduate, and, from 1937, fellow. His dissertation, published as British Diplomacy in China, 1880–1885 (1939), a diplomatic study with interesting Marxist interpolations, announced his consistent concern with the world outside Europe, not that late nineteenth-century China or any other period or subject satisfied his endless curiosity or exhausted his systematic keeping of records.

Kiernan joined the Communist Party in 1934, the contemporary and close friend of its Cambridge student leader John Cornford, about whom he wrote with great perception, and of some of the then future ‘Cambridge spies’, before they chose to drop out of overt political activity. Kiernan's own activities were international in another sense and fitted in with the enthusiastic friendships he developed with students from a still undivided Indian empire. It was an exciting time to be a friend of India's freedom and to welcome Nehru himself into Trinity student rooms. In 1935 he took over an officially non-existent group of communist ‘colonial students’, overwhelmingly from south Asia, on the return to Canada of its former convenor, E. Herbert Norman, a brilliant expert on Japanese history and later victim of McCarthyism. Until the war the group continued under a succession of eminent Marxist or subsequently post-communist historians on non-European themes, notably, following Kiernan, the Canadian Harry Ferns and the remarkable Jack Gallagher.

It was no surprise that in 1938 Kiernan chose to spend a year of his four-year fellowship in India ‘to see the political scene at first hand and with some schemes for historical study’ (The Guardian, 18 Feb 2009), taking with him a volume of the poet Horace, a Comintern document intended for the Indian Communist Party, and a cargo of friendships, including one with the classical dancer and activist Shanta Kalidas Gandhi (1917–2002), childhood friend of Indira, whom he married on 15 September 1939 in the retiring room of Bombay Central Station. The marriage, not formally dissolved until 1951, left no discernible trace on the subsequent life of a man who seemed a quintessential bachelor don until his fortunate second marriage to Heather Massey on 23 August 1984 at the Queen Street register office, Edinburgh.

Kiernan was to stay in India until 1946, writing intensively and broadcasting from Lahore, but mainly teaching there at a new Sikh National College (1939–40) and, more surprisingly, educating the raj's loyal chieftains at Aitchison College (1940–45). There he acquired his admiration for the great and politically progressive poets Muhammad (Allama) Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and the knowledge of Urdu to translate them. Vacations would be spent at the commune of the communist leadership in Bombay, but seeing himself as friend, helper, and ‘onlooker’ (Karat, 227) rather than fully engaged in party work.

Kiernan returned to Britain before partition to complete his fellowship, full of plans for a Marxist interpretation of the works of Shakespeare unlikely to interest history faculties at the time, and plunged happily into the debates of the newly constituted Communist Party Historians' Group. Trinity saw no place for him as a communist, but Richard Pares accepted him in Edinburgh University on the strength of his first book. He was to remain there until retirement in 1977, from 1970 with a personal chair. His work during this time ranged from Wordsworth to Indo-central Asian diplomacy, sixteenth-century European problems, evangelicals, and the poet Faiz, to Paraguay, the War of the Pacific, and the revolution of 1854 in Spanish history. However, a great deal of his energy went into the debates of the Communist Party Historians' Group, in which he was persistently critical of ideologically orthodox arguments inadequately supported by scholarship. As such he was a major element in imbuing the British Marxist school of historians with a flexible, critical, and open approach to their subject. He wrote for the journal Past and Present, initiated by the group in 1952, from the first issue, and joined its board in 1973, probably refereeing more contributions to it with greater assiduity than anyone else. He was also much in demand as a referee for other journals.

Not until the mid-1960s did Kiernan turn to the general critical surveys of the era of Western imperialisms by which he became best known, especially The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to the Outside World in the Imperial Age (1969). He was to be an important influence on post-colonial historiography. He had left the Communist Party in 1959 but continued as a Marxist who in politics recognized no enemies on his left.

Kiernan's second marriage in 1984 took him from a flat in Edinburgh's New Town to Stow in the Scottish borders, and also helped to ‘reinvigorate him intellectually’ (The Times, 14 May 2009) and increase the already impressive rate of his productivity after his official retirement in 1977. His later works included America: the New Imperialism (1978), books on the history of European empires, The Duel in European History (1988), Tobacco: a History (1991), and on Shakespeare (1993, 1996) and Horace (1999). He died in Stow on 17 February 2009, and was survived by his wife, Heather.

E. J. E. Hobsbawm

Sources  

O. D. Edwards, ed., History and humanism: essays in honour of V. G. Kiernan (1977) · V. G. Kiernan, ‘Herbert Norman's Cambridge’, in V. G. Kiernan, Poets, politics and the people, ed. H. J. Kaye (1989), 178–92 · P. Karat, Across time and continents: a tribute to Victor G. Kiernan (2003) · D. Parker, ed., Ideology, absolutism and the English revolution: debates of the British communist historians, 1940–1956 (2008) · The Guardian (18 Feb 2009) · The Scotsman (19 Feb 2009); (25 Feb 2009) · The Independent (20 Feb 2009) · Pakistan Link (9 March 2009) · The Hindu (13 March 2009) · The Nation (16 March 2009) · The Times (14 May 2009) · History Workshop Journal, 69/1 (2010), 297–300 · Past and Present, 208/1 (2010), 3–8 · V. G. Kiernan papers, priv. coll. · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) [Heather Kiernan, widow] · b. cert.

Archives  

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