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Uneven, flawed, incomplete, ultimately a mediocre piece
on 14 January 2012
After the smashing success of the television series, someone at the BBC must have thought it wise to follow through with a written accompaniment. The author mentions in the preface that the History of Britain book series is supposed to stand on its own. I'll be explaining precisely why this isn't the case, at least concerning this first instalment.
Assuming one manages to read though the abstruse, extremely convoluted preface (typical of an academic, one would have thought), a rather dubious beginning is waiting: the author praises the British weather, especially the mildness. Schama himself mentions in the preface that he hadn't been in Britain in 20 years. Presumably, he has forgotten a lot about the weather here - its dominant feature is not its mildness, but the almost ridiculous unpredictability.
One reads on about prehistoric Britain which is explored in an interesting section regarding Orkney islands. However, in the relatively modest amount of time it takes to read about seventy pages into the book, one sees huge swaths of history covered in just a few paragraphs, which is to say that by page 70 we have already reached 1066. There is very little concerning British tribes in Celtic Britain, perhaps the peoples closest to what one could term "native" Britons. Roman Britain leaves a lot to be desired too. Almost all of this early chapter is focused on the Norman invasion. And while one cannot help but admire the vivid writing, especially concerning battle scenes, or the exploration of the socio-economic changes that were brought about Anglo-Saxon and Norman conquests, one also cannot help but notice that the Viking/Danish conquests are largely glossed over.
By this time it becomes apparent that the book focuses on England, rather than Britain- Scotland and Wales are conspicuously absent in these early chapters. We only have a chance to glance at Wales before it's conquered and colonised by Edward Longshanks. Scotland is only seen through the efforts of the English to conquer her as well, never mind that she has a rich list of monarchs of her own.
These omissions are curious in a book heavily marketed as "A History of Britain" and detract a bit from its value, in my opinion. One the one hand, Schama goes into a lot of trouble arguing that Britain is a happy conglomeration of different ethnicities (he does this throughout the series)- on the other what he wrote in this first volume here is definitely an Anglo-centric view of British History. I find this to be an immense contradiction. You could argue that Britain is Anglo-centric- but does that justify not even paying rudimentary attention to the histories of the other cultures?
What I found to be a slightly redeeming point was the author's expansion on the effects of the Black Death and how it shaped the society and economics of the time.
As one continues reading, however, it is striking how some events and people are overemphasised at the expense of others. The most famous of monarchs are predictably enough, greatly elaborated upon- it is convenient for the author to use the dramatics of their reigns in his attempt to tell a story- others, however, are almost completely glossed over, such as Henry I. Henry V and Elizabeth I occupy dozens of pages whereas events like the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years' War barely get a paragraph's mention, with the former denounced as the "bloody bickering of overgrown schoolboys". Focusing on Elizabeth's hysterics and Ann Boleyn's turbulent life at the expense of even touching upon the nature of a war that shaped Britain's attitude towards France for the following centuries gives the book an unfortunate, sensational tinge.
Focusing on the writing style and the structure does not help, either. The shoddy, convoluted chronology jumps back and forth between events. Chapter 3 ends with the death of King John and the ascension of the nine year old Henry III. Yet, Chapter 4 "Aliens and Natives" starts the first few paragraphs by examining events a full 70 years after the ascension of Henry III, namely Irish and Scottish rebellions, only to digress by referencing Edward I "Longshanks on the very next paragraph (on account of his being called the "Hammer of the Scots") and then mentions 1776 anecdote of a some people opening his grave to see what his looks like. Thusly go the first few pages of Chapter 4. After that, Schama jumps straight back to what he was writing about in the end of Chapter 3: Henry III. This inconsistent chronology repeats itself in numerous places, makes for some confusing reading and doesn't help the reader retain significant amounts of what they read. The same happens with Chapter Elizabeth which starts with describing events and situations of her middle age (working backwards from there), whereas the previous chapter ended with her ascension.
When coming close the end of the book, it becomes startlingly apparent that Schama tried to write an "accessible" history, which sounds like an amusing paradox. "Accessibility" dictates that a book be mainstream and that means it needs to be short- no one today has the patience to read through the unabridged History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, a short book can at best try to be comprehensive and this one has failed at that, since Schama tried to do in writing what the BBC series did through visuals: that is, tell a story and in doing so sacrificed tremendous detail and thoroughness.
Of course, this isn't the first time that an author approaches an immense historical record by using a storytelling narrative- John Julius Norwich did it with his splendid three-volume history of Byzantium, which covered over 12 centuries of history in an accessible style. But where Norwich restricted his prose and for the most part let the events do the story telling, Schama seems more intent in maintaining the friendly and jocular style which I'm told he uses in the TV-series while also mixing it with the verbosity that marks the academic.
Unfortunately, I am forced to comment on some objectivity issues: why does Schama make references to himself in the book? Why are places and schools qualified with the remark that Schama studied there (yes, I'm referring to Oxford), why is Schama paying due attention to his own kin (the Jews) throughout the book and why does the 1290 expulsion of the Jews from England take a page-and-half where events far more important to the history of Britain are only referenced by name?
A few final remarks on the writing style: the text is not free from typos (which is surprising coming from a book that carries the BBC stamp on it), it also includes a few Americanisms and some sentences are finished with exclamation marks!
To be honest, I wouldn't know to whom to recommend this book. You would expect that an add-on to the TV series would include considerably more detail. Native Brits would know all this already from their school education anyway (well, hopefully). So, they wouldn't find it very edifying either. Foreigners would probably go for something more condensed. I suppose this leaves immigrants to the UK, who would want an introduction of sorts? I can't recommend another one since I haven't read any yet, but I will say instead that this is a mediocre one, for all the reasons listed above.