A World by Itself: A History of the British Isles

April 15, 2010

In his 1942 essay "The Rediscovery of Europe", George Orwell gave a tongue-in-cheek assessment of historical periodisation in schoolboy history: "Think of history as a sort of long scroll with thick black lines across it at intervals. Each of these lines marked the end of what was called a 'period', and you were given to understand that what came afterwards was completely different from what had gone before."

A World by Itself is a serious project. Although it examines people and events, it does not lend the usual weight to narratives of battles, monarchs and political caesurae. And it certainly does not have the heavy, black, periodic lines that Orwell noticed. Equally, it is not a primer for the general reader, a fact partly explained by Clark's indication that "its subversive moral might be the apparently innocent truth that 'the understanding of the past is not so easy as it is sometimes made to appear'". For some readers, this will make the book a challenge. However, A World by Itself merits attention from serious-minded people who, like Clark and his fellow authors, believe that history is important.

Clark marshals a fine line-up: James Campbell on the 1500 years to 1066; John Gillingham, 1066-1485; Jenny Wormald, 1485-1660; Clark himself, 1660-1832; W.D. Rubinstein, 1832-1914; and Robert Skidelsky on the 20th century. In effect, this is a large book containing six smaller ones. Clark's vision for the project is clearly in evidence: each essay begins with a section on material cultures before considering themes such as culture and politics. Throughout, religion is given greater credence than in many comparable general volumes.

A World by Itself attempts to cover the fullest extent of the British canvas by attempting a "four nations" approach. The integrity of the political units of the isles is a recurring theme, as is the English aggrandisement that habitually threatened the Celts who share the islands. Campbell sets the scene brilliantly by showing us how the early existence of Scotland, Wales and Ireland is vital to our history. Because the Roman invasion of the British Isles was not complete, stretching no further than Hadrian's Wall and never integrating all of the islands of the archipelago, the distinctiveness of Wales, Scotland and Ireland as separate political entities was guaranteed long before most modern European nations took shape. Equally, the unification of most of England under the Romans also had long-standing consequences. When William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he inherited Europe's oldest unitary state.

According to Gillingham, one of the principal human developments of the medieval period was the transformation of personal liberty, with the eradication of slavery and serfdom. He also examines what was arguably the largest demographic disaster to befall these islands: the Black Death. Meanwhile, by the end of his period, parliamentary power was taking its modern shape, towns and cities were sprouting up and England's turbulent relations with Ireland had become ingrained through a series of invasions.

For Wormald, the 16th and 17th centuries witnessed unprecedented conflict. This was an age whose achievements in learning were dwarfed by upheaval, first through the rise of Protestantism and then in the civil wars that traumatised Britain and Ireland in the 1640s and 1650s.

Clark then weaves together the events following this turmoil: the Restoration in 1660, the revolution of 1688 that cast out another Stuart king, the emergence of modern political parties, rapid imperial expansion in the 18th century, and, crucially for Clark, the political and religious effects of the American Revolution, whose shockwaves reverberated outwards from America's eastern seaboard and were still being felt in the 20th century. Rubinstein's analysis of the century that "belonged to Britain" stresses the structures accommodating unprecedented developments: population growth, economic change, imperialism and political evolution. It falls to Skidelsky to describe and judge relative and absolute decline in the 20th century, once Anglo-German rivalry had wrecked Britain's primacy in the world.

While it is not a conventional narrative history, this is an intelligent and detailed work with a clear message about British history. Clark and his fellow scholars recognise and reflect on Britain's disproportionate influence in the making of the modern world: whether in science, medicine and technology; or by planting and protecting modern America, the Anglo-Saxon superpower that received the baton from Britain after 1918.

The book deals with all these things. But it also contains interesting messages about the nature of history itself. Among these messages, the most important one is that the contributors to this book eschew the certainties of modernism and look beyond its ministrations of progress. This is interestingly demonstrated by the fact that each author concludes with a short essay on counterfactual, alternative histories. This is, then, a book for a less confident age.

A World by Itself: A History of the British Isles

By Jonathan Clark. William Heinemann, 752pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780434009015. Published 7 January 2010

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