A World By Itself: A History of the British Isles by Jonathan Clark

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A World By Itself: A History of the British Isles by Jonathan Clark

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A history of the British Isles from Roman times to the present day, written by a team of six historians and specialists in their particular era, all focusing to some extent on what it has meant throughout the ages to be 'British'.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 768 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 978-0712664967

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As this book reminds us in the Afterword, all histories are overtaken by events, and inevitably out of date even while going through the press. Nonetheless that is no reason for the reader to ignore them.

As one who has always felt most at ease with the standard chronological approach to history, driven by events and major personalities, I found the close-on 700 pages of this volume fairly demanding reading in places. It is divided into six parts, each by a different contributor with the editor himself writing the fourth. Each part is divided into Material Cultures, followed by essays on topics (not for all sections) on Religious Cultures; Religion, Nationalism and Identity; and Political and National Cultures. What we have, therefore, is an overview of events from each period, more thorough in some instances than others, and a certain amount of theorizing on the general social, political and even artistic background. A straightforward history through the ages – it is not.

It can be a baffling book at times in that its coverage of certain major events in the past is very inconsistent. There is one brief sentence referring to the two civil wars that King Charles I lost, in 1645 and 1648, but without any reference to Prince Rupert, the New Model Army, or even any of the battles. All this is despite a comment elsewhere that of the many changes which affected people's lives between the late 15th and mid 17th centuries, the three most dramatic were the Reformations, the union of England and Scotland in 1603, and the civil wars. We also have a brief reference, really only in passing, to the battle of Bosworth, which is described as arguably the last conflict of the Hundred Years' War, but nothing for the rest of the Wars of the Roses. The remainder of the Hundred Years' War just gets a paragraph, while later on there are two pages about the Bloomsbury and Fabian Groups – interesting but surely not so important in the grand scheme of things.

Nevertheless, even with these little quibbles, this is a very rewarding historical overview. Unlike in a number of similar works, Wales, Scotland and Ireland all receive plenty of attention. And whereas some writers have sought to downplay the influence of the monarchy, these authors do not. It is pointed out that every crowned head from Henry VIII to James II had some bearing on the Reformation, with continuous changes in policy according to the preferred religion of each monarch until the predominantly Protestant kingdom stabilized under William and Mary. Moreover, in medieval times, emphasis is placed on the fact that there were five dethronements of Kings in the 14th and 15th centuries, leading the French ambassador to comment publicly in 1484 on the English habit of murdering them.

Sometimes, as we are reminded, history can be a case of not just what happened, but also what did not happen – and why. For instance, why Britain did not experience major revolution in the late 18th century? According to this book, the answer is that there was a British revolution, but not in Britain, only among fellow Britons in the North American colonies, and at home there was only a limited constitutional transformation, hardly amounting to a major upheaval, between 1828 and 1835. The point is made that despite the great changes of the Victorian era, Britain changed less markedly between 1800 and 1914 than virtually any European nation.

From more recent times, the political history of the last forty years or so is handled with commendable objectivity, which is not always the case, even though the statement that Blair's tenure as Prime Minister will always carry the taint of the invasion of Iraq - something which may be seen by some as a little one-sided. The analysis of such recent factors as the collapse of communism, the advance of multiculturalism and Britain's increasing involvement with Europe have brought more and more people to realise how much their corner of the world has changed in the last fifty years or so. One of the last chapters allows speculation as to what might have happened if Britain had lost the 'battle of Britain' or the 'battle of the Atlantic' in 1940-41 and Britain had become a Vichy state with the elderly Lloyd George as a possible leader for a compromise peace, or what if Britain and France had succeeded at Suez in 1956, signed a wide-ranging agreement to coordinate their foreign and defence policies, built a joint nuclear deterrent, and aborted Arab nationalism.

The perfect history of Britain does not exist. All of them have their flaws, and taking an approach which will appeal to everyone is well nigh impossible. For all of its omissions and occasional lack of balance, this is a very challenging, informative, occasionally argumentative book which will appeal to anyone who likes a thorough examination of the subject. Having said that, it is not a light read, and perhaps mainly for the more dedicated.

Our thanks to Pimlico for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, may we also recommend London: The Illustrated History by Cathy Ross and John Clark; The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer, or The Making of Modern Britain: From Queen Victoria to V.E. Day by Andrew Marr.

Buy A World By Itself: A History of the British Isles by Jonathan Clark at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A World By Itself: A History of the British Isles by Jonathan Clark at Amazon.co.uk


Buy A World By Itself: A History of the British Isles by Jonathan Clark at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A World By Itself: A History of the British Isles by Jonathan Clark at Amazon.com.

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