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Interesting, but dry, overly detailed, poorly structured.
on 14 January 2014
This was my choice for my economics book club, and it almost caused a rebellion. Although very positively reviewed everywhere, the book we read was dry, overly detailed and overlong. A few members accused me of having wasted a week of their lives, and spoilt their christmas holiday. Here are my notes:
Some interesting information, but overlong, over-detailed, poorly structured, and lacks context. In particular if the aim is to compare the performance of Britain with France, then some discussion of French performance is required. To those of us interested in the broad themes of history, rather than the minutiae of which historical character did what, when, this book could form the basis of a useful pamphlet. It really needed a good editor.
1. Very good on logistics. I had not appreciated the difficulties of transporting an army to the continent and keeping it supplied. It is clear that Britain had no chance of confronting Napoleon on the field given its logistical problems. It could never hope to land an army larger than 70,000. Also, I had not appreciated how Britain's dominance of the sea gave it a communications advantage, in that messengers could travel more quickly by sea than overland.
2. Although it is not stated explicitly it is possible to see how the need to fund Britain's war effort led to a widening of the tax base, which in turn led to both demands for a widening of the franchise and reform of govt institutions. Middle class tax payers demanded both that their money were spent wisely and efficiently, rather than on patronage, and that they were represented in parliament.
3. Footnotes. As in many dry academic text most of the entertainment was to be found in the footnotes.
1. Who was this book aimed at? It purports to be popular history but is dry, overly detailed and lacking in colour (for example, he states that Pitt the Younger fought a duel while still Prime Minister, but does not explain why). Yet for an academic text it lacks context and is poorly structured.
2. Lack of context: if Britain is outperforming France in its war financing, as he mentions, then it would be useful to have some information on how the French funded their war effort etc. There was none of this. We thus cannot adequately compare the performance of the French and British states and have no way of evaluating his thesis that Britain eventually won out over Napoleon because of its ultimately superior social, political and economic organisation. An alternative thesis would be that we eventually won simply due to our more balanced form of government: as Emperor, Napoleon, could do as he pleased, eventually leading to the disaster of the Russian campaign of 1812.
3. Poor structure: either choose to structure chronologically or by theme. Don't do both. The result is a bit of a mess. For example, in the later chapter "Blockade, Taxes and the City of London 1806-1812" he refers several times to the "first financial crisis of 1797", which he had covered in a mere half page earlier in the book. Why a whole chapter devoted to finance during the final 3rd of the war, but only brief mentions of it for the first 2/3rds
4. Excessive detail. What I wanted was a broad overview of the performance of the relative performance of the British and French social, political and economic systems. What I got was a vast amount of detail about who did what, when within the British establishment. Amidst all this minutiae it was difficult to keep hold of the bigger picture.