Sunday, May 17, 2009


I'm plowing through Simon Schama's 3-volume A History of Britain and finding it a highly readable, entertaining and informative work punctuated with flashes of dark, dry humor. It does everything a popular history might be expected to do with such an enormous subject, and it's a pleasure to read.

Schama writes without any delusions of encyclopedicity (if that's not a word, it is now). His is a highly selective history, a personal view, very good on the late Anglo-Saxons, Edward I, Richard II, Henry VIII, Elizabeth and the two Marys, while slighting such standard BritHist fare as the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years War. Surprisingly, given Schama's fine eye and mind for art as displayed in Citizens and especially Rembrandt's Eyes, this work also virtually ignores British art and literature. Ultimately, Schama's books are really rather traditional 'history from above' illuminated with a few brief glimpses of/from the lower depths. The contemporaneity of the work--at least in the first volume--is more a matter of style than substance. Schama's prose frequently and flashily descends into the contemporary colloquial, but his historical understanding is, as even he admits, rather Whiggish. It's still, however, a very good and interesting read.

Volume two of Schama's history is markedly superior to the first volume. It's a more thoughtful and thought-provoking work in which the author re-examines the traditional history of Britain from the Stuart ascendency to the colonization of India and reads events against that traditional grain. Mining recent academic literature to fill the lacunae of the received historical text, Schama gives us an eighteenth century in which Enlightenment and 'New Augustanism' is shadowed by genocidal repression in Scotland and the various hells of West Indian slavery, and in which economic takeoff and industrialization are shadowed by the Atlantic slave trade. He also shows us a Cromwell who's as much Parliament's destroyer as its defender and a Robert Walpole who sounds like Boss Daley in a periwig. This is marvelous stuff...

The third volume of Schama's history is on a level with the first, but fails to achieve the greatness of volume two, which may be Schama's masterpiece (along with Rembrandt's Eyes). This final volume seems less original overall, more of an obligatory concluding act than an exercise in sustained argument and illumination. After volume two's magisterial recreation of the 17th and 18th centuries, volume three reads more like an extended coda than the continuation the reader has been led to expect.

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