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A majestic synthesis,
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This review is from: The Age of Revolution : Europe 1789-1848 (Paperback)
Firstly, let there be no confusion. This is not history writing of a factual nuts and bolts kind. Hobsbawm expects his audience to have a more or less `A-level' handle on the broad chronological sweep of events in the period of interest. His purpose is rather to draw on the uncannily vast reservoir of erudition at his disposal and, weave from it an interpretative synthesis of the historical currents and forces in operation, in an era where the certainties of centuries were shaken, and their time-honoured structures began to crumble. The focus of his analysis is on the emergence, evolution and shifting alignments of social classes, in response to emerging economic and ideological pressures. A huge variety of data is marshalled in support of his arguments, but summarised with a grace and skill that makes it an effortless pleasure for the reader to assimilate. Hobsbawm was writing at a time when Marxist historical analysis had yet to be so thoroughly discredited, so readers of a more rigorously conservative persuasion might find fragments of his arguments contentious, but to my mind such reservations are peripheral for the period in question. Throughout, one is provoked by a keen sense of the great miseries unleashed across the globe by the flowering of unrestrained capitalism, and the hopes and bitter disappointments that were engendered by the intensifying strains of radical thought and action across Europe in the Age of Revolution. One also finds one's own times, and the open-ended economic turmoil that characterises our current era, illuminated in surprising ways. While reading this I came to see the present challenges confronting global capitalism as continuous with a single story that will span centuries yet to come, and whose ending is still entirely obscure to us. It is so books like this can be written that we study history at all; so that we can penetrate beneath the surface of events, and perhaps discover the meanings concealed within them and even a signpost or two to better possible futures.
For what it's worth, books I have read that equipped me with the background to approach this book have included Norman Davies' Europe: A History and Frank McLynn's Napoleon, for the factual background to the French Revolution and Napoleon. Then Anthony Wood's Europe, 1815-1960, for the tortuous intricacies of post-Napoleonic Europe, and Lowe's Mastering Modern British History for the fascinating story, that we all should have been taught at school, of Britain's socio-political development through the 19th Century.