Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Simon Schama. A History of Britain: On the Edge of the World (2000)

    Simon Schama. A History of Britain: On the Edge of the World (2000) This is not “companion volume” to the TV series that Schama did, although it was written at the same time as the scripts. I saw th series, and much of the language is the same, but much of what was shown on screen is here described. Schama, wisely I think, focusses on the story, not the pictures. All the same, page references to the illustrations and placement of the pictures next to the text they illustrate would be welcome.
     And that’s about the only cavil I have.
     Schama here takes us from the earliest times when “Britain” makes some kind of sense as a label, through Roman occupation, to Elizabeth’s reign, a time when the effects of the civil and religious wars played themselves out into a kind of resolution. During that time, family feuds caused crises of loyalty and nearly destroyed civil order, then Henry VIII’s need for a male heir created a bloody compound of religion and politics. Elizabeth’s reign brought a resolution of the religious conflict, and the focus began to shift to the relationship between Crown and People, a focus that caused another round of conflicts, which have taken several centuries to resolve. That resolution we are pleased to call “democracy”, and for the time being at least, that’s a cluster of values and institutions that doesn’t so much guarantee stability as a somewhat less bloody means of mending quarrels. But the path to that state is the subject of the next book in Schama’s series.
     Schama is one of the great synthesisers, he can consolidate a vast mass of detail into a coherent narrative. History’s narratives are necessarily tendentious, the trick is to use a theme or collection of motifs to organise the material without turning it into propaganda. Schama does this better than most, I think, because he reminds us that he’s constructed his story from extant documents, whose preservation is partly a matter of policy, and partly pure accident. By telling the story in terms of individuals, he shows both that individual decisions do affect the flow of history, and also that those decisions are contingent on and constrained by circumstances.
     For example, Elizabeth would not have had to face the decision to kill a fellow Prince if Mary, Queen of Scots, hadn’t been such a flibbertigibbet, less concerned with her duties than her “liberty”, which she seems to have thought of as licence to do as she pleased. It was this flaw in her character that led her to marry Darnley and to flaunting her Catholicism, both of which annoyed the Scots Lords, and gave Bothwell the excuse he wanted to aim at the crown. A sorry mess of crimes and failed hard choices followed. Mary was imprisoned in all but name, and became the focus of Catholic anti-Elizabethan plots. Elizabeth really did have to neutralise the threat, but she was unwilling to make hard choices herself, and so left the removal of Mary up to Walsingham, who had no compunction about arranging entrapment and a show trial. Elizabeth dithered about signing the warrant for Mary’s execution, but did so in the end, and regretted bitterly having to do it.
     Throughout the book, Schama shows us how people did or not do what they had to do, how they usually did the best they could according to their values and philosophies, and how character inevitably shifts the choices one way rather than another.
    History, someone said, is just one damn thing after another. Yes, but we can at least in principle if not in practice trace the causes of what’s happened, however difficult prediction would have been. We rarely have sufficient data to allow more than a more or less likely explication. But whenever they can, people choose the path that seems to give them most control by seeming to lead them where they want to go. Nobody likes to be faced with  choices none of which allow at least the illusion of control. Understanding how the choices looked to the people who made them helps us understand why things were done, and so helps us make sense of the past. Schama does this very well. I’m looking forward to reading the next volume. Recommended as one of the best popular histories available. ****

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