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on 25 October 2002
I don't like glossy coffee-table books because of their physical nature. If you like to read lying down they are a bind: lie on your back and they make your arms sore in a way no paperback does; lie on your side and their waxy pages catch and reflect the light. *And* you have to swap sides every time you turn the page.
But for Simon Schama I'll make an exception. This is not just a paperback text with glossy pictures stuck on and a tenner added to the price. It is - please forgive the terrible nineties expression - an 'experience'.
This particular period of history is not, perhaps, as interesting as the centuries covered in the earlier volumes. After the excitement of the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath the narrative becomes less incident-packed and more focussed on social history. That I find this less interesting than the battles and religious strife that went before says more about me than it does about Schama. His prose pleasantly complements the photos and illustrations. He might not thank me for saying it, but he gives history a pleasing sense of narrative such as we non-academic dabblers need to keep us entertained.
So, a good purchase, especially if you're buying someone a present, or you're after a handsome volume to sit on your living room bookshelf. If you actually want to learn about the period this is a good introduction. However Schama is generally uncontroversial and readers already familiar with the material won't find much that's new.
Just be prepared to sit at a table to read it. Or maybe you want to beef up those biceps?
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on 26 November 2002
Let me start off this review by saying that I am a great admirer of Mr. Schama. I have read "Citizens", "Landscape And Memory" and "Rembrandt's Eyes" and thought they were all wonderful. I would give all of those books a 5 star rating. So, what happened here? I think what happened was that Mr. Schama was being pulled in 2 different directions. This book is meant to accompany the television programs that the author is hosting for the BBC. Instead of just writing whatever book he might ordinarily have written, I think Mr. Schama was hindered by the restrictions the TV format placed on him. For the TV shows he had to come up with various "hooks", a few well-known personalities that would help him illustrate whatever point or points he was trying to make at that place in the narrative. Additionally, the television format required Mr. Schama to be ruthlessly selective in what he chose to include or exclude. There just isn't the time to put in everything that you'd like to. These requirements distort the writing process. Mr. Schama is aware of the problem and addresses it in the preface to the book. But this "preemptive strike", this acknowledgement by the author that he is aware of the problem, doesn't make the problem go away. The author is such a good historian, and such a good writer, that this book is still well-worth reading. Mr. Schama has pulled out, like rabbits from a hat, some interesting tales of little-known historical figures. Here we have Thomas Day, a great believer in the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "...Day...believed in the inter-connectedness of all created life and was therefore a vegetarian...Would he want to treat all creatures with the same consideration, asked a sardonic lawyer friend, even spiders? Would he not want to kill them? 'No,' answered Day, 'I don't know that I have a right. Suppose that a superior being said to a companion- "Kill that lawyer." How should you like it? And a lawyer is more noxious to most people than a spider.'....(Day's) peculiar life ended abruptly in September 1789 in his 42nd year, during an experiment to test his pet theories about taming horses with gentleness rather than breaking them. An unbroken colt he was riding failed to respond to the tender touch, and threw Day on his head." The book is filled with nice touches like this. There are many entertaining anecdotes about the well-known, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Queen Victoria, George Orwell, Winston Churchill, etc.....and the not-so-well-known, such as Mr. Day. This provides a counterbalance to the heavyweight material....for example, the intricacies of British politics (Pitt vs. Fox; Gladstone vs. Disraeli; Labour vs. Liberal vs. Conservative); the big-issues (home-rule for Ireland, Scotland and Wales; women's suffrage; the Raj; industrialization; the gap between rich and poor, etc.). But, despite the quality of both Mr. Schama's thinking and writing, in the end we feel strangely unsatisfied. There are flashes of brilliance but also many areas of darkness. Too much has been left out. Despite what you might have anticipated by the book starting with 1776, there is nothing here concerning the American Revolution; a handful of pages concerning the 20 year struggle against Napoleonic France; no mention of the War Of 1812; virtually nothing on the Crimean and Boer Wars, or WWI; nothing on the relationship between Britain and South Africa, or Britain and Canada, or Britain and Australia/New Zealand, etc.; and, surprisingly, considering Mr. Schama's wide-ranging interests, except for mentioning some writers, there is very little cultural history contained in these pages- nothing about art, music, dance, architecture, etc.; and almost no mention of scientific and technological achievements. So, if you are a fan of Mr. Schama, read this book for the beautiful prose and for the author's always interesting insights concerning the areas he has chosen to cover. But, if you are looking for a detailed, all-inclusive history of Great Britain- you will need to look elsewhere.
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on 12 October 2003
The final volume of the 3-book series is as beautifully packaged and illustrated as the previous volumes and Schama'a narrative is as splendid as ever. Like the T.V. series, this third volume is a little annoying in the fact that Schama is obsessed with the arts to the detriment of the sciences. This is certainly a unique view on British history, such as the over-emphasis on the French Revolution in the first section, and many great characters such as Brunel have little to play in Schama's view of events. Schama seems intent on celebrating more obscure people at the expense of the more mundane. (I.e. No Nelson, Drake, Dickens is less significant a writer than Gaskilll, etc.)The chapters on the British Empire show Schama willing to trot out old cliches, something he intended not to do in his Preface in Volume 1. Here, the reader would be better directed to Niall Ferguson's excellent book where Schama's weaknesses become more apparent. There is plenty to read on the build-up to WW 2 but the actual conflict is almost mentioned in passing. WW1 gets even less attention.
I really enjoyed Volume 1 and felt that the author dealt with Medieval History in a clear, concise and witty manner. Volume 2 is the least interesting as Schama spent too much time dealing with constitutional issues. However, Volume 3 is too eccentric to be considered authoritive and is content to reduce the last 50 years to a few pages.
As a whole, the series is ambitious but Schama is too controversial in the emphasis he gives his different subjects. Norman Davies' book is also an interesting read, but ,equally not authorative, although more detailed. Readers interested in Pre-history will be disappointed by both books.
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on 11 February 2003
In many respects, Volume 3 of Schama's History of Britain was doomed - then again, so's the country. This volume takes the story from the American Revolution to the new Millennium, chronicling the loss of the American colonies, the building of an empire centred around India, Africa and Australasia, high Victoriana, and the magnificent yet slow decline through two world wars that have left Britain a minor European power with delusions of grandeur.
Unlike the generally straightforward chronological approach of the first two volumes, though, Schama has taken a rather more thematic approach to history in Volume 3 - the clear sense of ongoing narrative has been subsumed into rather more background and rather more focus on individual details. This makes Vol 3 feel rather different to its predecessors and I for one preferred the more narrative approach Schama initially adopted.
Schama's writing is as crisp and powerful as ever - just the right blend of colloquialism, precision and description. This History of Britain has been far more than a "book of the TV series"; it is a compelling literary work that stands proudly alone too.
The only book on British history to come close to Schama's efforts in terms of readability and scope is Norman Davies' "The Isles: A History".
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on 6 November 2002
Schama breathes life into British History, with vivid accounts of the key events from 1776-Present Day, through the eyes of the famous, but more importantly, through the eyes and lives of the ordinary people of Britain and it's Empire. His text and the accompanying photographs will hold you spellbound. His account of Churchill's speech to his Cabinet on 28 May 1940 is masterful. A book that every British person should read. A book that makes you proud of our heritage. Highly recommended.
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on 30 December 2002
Volume 3 of Schama's History of Britain is outstanding in its lucidity, honesty and insight. Schama's ability to convey the feel and texture of the past is nowhere better brought out than in his final instalment of his History of Britain.
Schama has also been alive and aware of the inevitability of giving us his History, as the title says, it is 'A History'. This is not a definitive, detailed all-inclusive history because Professor Schama no doubt knows that this is not possible and probably asethetically not desirable anyway. No, Schama instead continues to tell this History as a story, with a sense of truth that is not "always and forever" but that is sensitive toward what can reasonably told.
Schama's interests tend towards the cultural and the social and this is complimented not just by the astonishing weight of such material that is to be found in the modern and post modern eras, but also recent trends in writing cultural history. So the Great Exhibition becomes a symbol of Victorian Britain, the Romantic poets a key to unlocking post Revolutionary Britain whilst his weaving of the fate of Empire through the lives of Churchill and Orwell is a rich and demanding example of a historian in command of his work.
His skill is his ability to waltz from the parochial to the national and international, from the voiceless to the powerful and from the image to the text whilst all the while preserving clarity of thought and direction. His startling trait of providing insight through comparison and difference and his ability to play with imagination, memory and text all add toward a book remarkable in its breadth of knowledge.
On top of that, Schama's Britain, his idea of what to be Britain and British is, of what Britain's past means to it and how it forms Britain, is joyously subtle whilst essential giving meaning to the past without sentimentalising it to the point of parody. Perhaps his greatest attribute is his ability to convey the sense of someone who knows that he is telling you a truly fascinating story, full of complexities, emotion and humanity. This book is one of style, fascination and erudition- history as it ought to be.
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on 26 December 2003
As with the previous 2 volumes, Simon Schama gives his own view on British History. In this volume, he covers from 1776-2000. He freely admits in his introduction that he cannot cover in detail every event of these years. Instead, he focuses on 2 main areas for consideration - India and Ireland and compares and contrasts the British political strategy for each country. he also concentrates on lives of key individuals : Disreali, Queen Victoria, Churchill, George Orwell and uses them to demonstrate changing social and political views and mores.
The book is excellent - easy to read, interesting and detailed enough without getting bogged down in the minutiae. This is not a book for someone who wants a detailed description of World Wars I and II for instance. Instead, it provides an overall picture of the growth and development of todays Britain over the last 2oo years.
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on 12 March 2016
I bought this book for my dad who loves anything about history and he said it was a fantastic book. I believe this was the third in a series and he has all the other books which go before this one and he said they are a fantastic series of books and would highly recommend them.
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on 8 January 2016
What can I say about this series of books - well-researched and well-written. The perfect companion to the classic BBC series, or a standalone history of the British islands and people.

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VINE VOICEon 6 May 2010
I'll keep it concise:
This volume of the trilogy is a bit of a curate's egg.

Lots about India, lots about Churchill, confusing bits in between. Victorian Britain is well covered, but the twentieth century is a lot patchier. Information about the second world war is just more interesting than that given about the first. The latter half of the century is rushed through.

I enjoyed the first two volumes much more; it is as if in this book we get Schama's favourite bits of history interspersed with the bits he had to put in. This sounds a bit ungenerous - it is a good read, just not as good as the other two
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