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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

“A History of Britain, Volume II: The Wars of the British, 1603 – 1776”, by Simon Schama


544 pages, Hyperion, ISBN-13: 978-0786867523

This is the second of Simon Schama’s A History of Britain trilogy. This volume begins promisingly by borrowing from Conrad Russell’s important argument concerning the causes of the English Civil War. Russell placed considerable importance on the existence of “multiple kingdoms”, each of which exhibited its own set of interests during the early to mid-17th Century; ultimately, these interests combined with Scottish and Irish rebellions to push the British Isles into bloody civil war. Although the multiple kingdom argument might have been used as a starting point for a history explaining interactions between these kingdoms, Schama spends the remainder of his book retelling tried and true stories of English high politics. It is true that readers learn about Stuart efforts to create a British identity in the early 17th Century, the Darien scheme, the Glencoe Massacre, the Battle of the Boyne, and the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions, but Scotland and Ireland are otherwise missing from this book (apparently, as far as Schama is concerned, Wales was entirely integrated into England by this point, an argument that many Welsh historians would disagree with). Although these events are exceptionally important, they remain but a few chapters in a long relationship.

Just as a truly “British” dynamic is missing from the book, so, too, is any substantial recognition that British history constitutes more than high politics. Social and cultural developments are also extremely important; unfortunately, the social history covered here is limited to interesting accounts of prostitution in 18th Century London, alcohol consumption, and the growing popularity of tea and sugar. The infamous Black Acts are also mentioned, but Schama’s treatment is limited to elite motives for the growing number of capital offenses on the statute books and the growing importance of landed wealth under Walpole. There is nothing incorrect in Schama’s treatment, but in some ways it misses the point by failing to acknowledge that 18th Century Britain was at least as divided by class as it was by national identity (if national identity is even the right term). Class was an important factor standing in the way of the development of a British identity, a factor that should not be limited to a few pages (indeed, if “modernization” theorists are correct in linking the industrial revolution to the development of nationalism, then class should be an essential topic of discussion).

All this having been said, it is important to note that Schama has not attempted to write a scholarly history of the British Isles. His book was written as a companion to a multi-part television history of Britain (as stated in my review of Volume I) and so limits itself to well-known stories that make for good television. Most readers/viewers probably do not care very much about British versus English history, or even the role of social and cultural history in its development; I imagine that most want to be entertained and to learn something along the way. Schama’s book certainly meets such criteria. Perhaps as a result of its intended popular audience, Schama does not include footnotes; this provides a considerable headache for those interested in the sources from which he has drawn his stories. At various points Schama tells tales of poisoned enemas, hemorrhoids suffering generals, and other behind the scenes dramas (this reader, for one, was interested in learning more about where the author had found these stories). More troubling, Schama borrows arguments from scholars like Linda Colley and Conrad Russell yet, while both are listed in the bibliography, they are never listed in the text as the originators of the ideas being presented. Footnotes would assure these scholars the credit they richly deserve. To his credit, Schama’s book is entertaining, readable, and fun, to say nothing of the numerous beautiful color illustrations; amateur history buffs will find much to enjoy when reading it and glancing through the pictures, the facts presented are generally accurate and the stories told often fascinating – but scholars interested in learning more about the development of British identity, or even the evolution of British history should look elsewhere.


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