Most helpful critical review
65 of 71 people found the following review helpful
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.