on 11 January 2010
Cambridge has not really done well, at least in recent years, in terms of histories. Oxford has an excellent eight-volume multi-authored series which is indispensible. Cambridge's nearest equivalent, a four volume set under the editorship of Christopher Brooke, was marred by the fact that Brooke had to rescue volume 2 from the hands of its author who had got mired in interesting by-ways but was hardly explaining the history of his period, and by Brooke's own treatment from 1870-1990 being a breathless attempt to say something about everything. Only vol 1 by Damian Riehl Leader is worthy of its topic.
So a new history by someone as eminent as Prof Evans was to be looked forward to. Alas, it is as idiosyncratic as one could imagine. She starts with a slightly jaundiced description of the present and then tells the story of what led up to the present; or rather those bits of the story that interest her. Much of the presentation is sketchy in the extreme, verging on inaccuracy. In a book of this length, what was needed was a fairly straightforward outline of the history, which then had sections focussing on the most important periods - the early centuries, the growth of the colleges, the 19th century reforms etc. Prof Evans is never less than elegant in her writing, but she is far less than comprehensive or systematic.
The writings of D A Winstanley in the 1950's on 18th and 19th century Cambridge remain the best partial history of Cambridge - on the periods his three volumes cover he is excellent.
As to a systematic and thorough history, Cambridge still waits for one.