Most helpful positive review
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Brilliant, readable and exciting history
on 9 December 2002
The second of Schama's beautiful volumes technically covers 1603-1776, but (naturally) spends most of the time discussing the era around the Civil War: it was here, after all, that Britons actually spent considerable energy deciding what sort of country they were: blank canvas after blank canvas was begun only to be torn up, until the monarchy cum Parliamentary democracy compromise was reached.
Schama writes on two levels: the first is just to tell you what happened and to cover off the classic stories along the way, hence longish excursus on e.g. the Great Fire of London, the building of St Pauls, Wolfe in Quebec etc. The second is to offer his own vision for the forces behind what was going on.
Since Schama's vision is invariably fresh and insightful, this is a constantly illuminating read: he can shed light on topics you think you know well, as well as just lucidly explaining the things you knew nothing about.
Occasionally, though, this makes it a strange work. His explanation for the bringing to trial of Warren Hastings, for example, is that the Governor of India was a vicarious scapegoat for Britain's failure in America: though fascinating, that has to be a very idiosyncratic view, and yet he doesn't flag this up. All this means, I suppose, is that you shouldn't read Schama to get the standard account of things, there may be other books that do that job better.
Rather, read Schama's history for his unceasingly fresh vision.
Moreover, he expounds his themes magnificently, for example, the way Britain gravitated away from the "right" (mercantile) to the "wrong" (governing) sort of empire, or in how responsible Charles I actually was for the onset of the Civil War.
Unafraid to back the out of favour Whig view of history (that it was all inevitable progression) with relatively few qualifications, Schama's confidence is invigorating.
One minor quibble is a fallout from his TV narration, where things, instead of being "probably true", are "not altogether unfounded" or instead of being "reasonable" are "not without reason". After a while, this grates.
But this is a trivial thing.
All in all, this is simply magnificent.
I started with Volume 2 and am now beavering through Volume 1 in an effort to get myself on track.
Much, much more than a book of the series.