on 15 October 2003
Far more than "the book of the TV series", Schama's History of Britain is a delight to read and a masterpiece of narrative history. Simon Schama's erudite but accessible style works as well in print as it does on screen.
His History of Britain takes very different approaches in each of its three volumes. Volume 1 has the broadest sweep, from the Iron Age to the death of Queen Elizabeth. This is history on a grand scale, charting the birth of the nations of England, Scotland and Wales and the clashes between them, the invasions that made the British people what they are today, and the birth of the idea of statehood. There is time for vivid and detailed description of the Romand and Romano-Celtic eras, the Dark Ages, the endless dynastic wars and intrigue that followed the Norman Conquest.
Volume 2 works on a much shorter timescale, moving from the death of Eilzabeth via the Civil War and Restoration, Union with Scotland, and on through the eighteenth Century to the American Revolution. The tale is rather more linear, England's establishment of dominance over the rest of the British Isles, the beginning of Britain's rise to empire, wealth and world power. This is a dense and thrilling volume, full of the energy of a vibrant new nation exploring its place in the world, crackling with possibilities. It's clear that the 17/18th centuries are where Schama feels most at home (consider his other works like Rembrandt's Eyes, Citizens and Dead Certainties) and he certainly brings this period to vigorous life.
Volume 3 shifts focus again, to the close of the Millennium, looking at the origins, impact and decline of the Empire, the heights of the Victorian age and the despair of two world wars. Instead of a straight linear narrative Schama explores aspects of Britain and Empire through a number of parallel strands - including advances in the arts and sciences, changes in domestic life, the experience of colonialism, the changing roles and opportunities of women, and so on.
Only three works really bear comparison with Schama's efforts. The multi-volume Oxford History of England is authoritative, rather dry and specialist for the general reader; Norman Davies' The Isles concentrates rather more on economic and social history than Schama and while highly readable lacks the touch of flair that Schama brings to his work; finally Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples has the literary grandeur but is perhaps too subjective and literary.
That Schama's work can be considered alongside these works is a credit to it. It's difficult to imagine how these volumes could be significantly improved upon.
on 11 January 2004
I've been reading this book and it has been excellent so far. The other reviews say pretty much what I want to say. Although I've given it 5 stars, I do have one qualm - that I find myself consulting my dictionary every paragraph or so because the author, at times, overuses very rich English and words that I have never seen before. Of course, if you have an extensive vocabulary of English or simply skim over new words that you come across without feeling the need to learn what they mean, then it is no problem. However, I find it a heavy read at times, especially when it is difficult to figure out the meaning of a new word from its context, because the context itself contains other new and strange words. I fear this may put off younger readers, or people like myself who have an average vocabulary. One the other hand, I suppose my English vocabulary is improving by the day ;)
on 6 February 2001
Simon Schama really writes in a style you like to read. It feals as he would have been there! I can recommand this book highly, the only minus point I found was that 65 pages covered the time between 3000 BC and 1066 AD but 125 pages covered only Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I. But overall, it's worth reading and you feal afterwards so much more inteligent!!