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The Last and the Best,
This review is from: A History of Britain III: The Fate of Empire 1776-2000: Fate of Empire; 1776-2001 Vol 3 (Hardcover)
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.