The Oxford Companion to British History joins several other similar volumes on my shelves, including, most recently, the hardback edition of The Companion to British History (1995), edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn, and Charles Arnold-Baker's The Companion to British History (1996). All such works claim to be up-to-date, comprehensive and authoritative. Thus, the Gardiner/Wenborn Companion, "unique in its expert coverage ... written by six of Britain's leading historians who have been at the forefront of shaping historical studies in Britain today", is "comprehensive", "factual" and "authoritative". The Oxford Companion is "the essential reference book for anyone with an interest in British history", as well as being "factual", "authoritative, comprehensive...".
Both are in truth first-rate works, free of the somewhat idiosyncratic and very wide-ranging scope of Arnold-Baker's volume. Both are interpretative as well as factual. Comparisons between the two do, however, offer an instructive guide to the problems of determining what should be included in such works.
Consideration of the two companions also reveals much about shifts in the profession. More particularly, there is now a determination to concentrate on an agenda that is far from political. Thus in the Gardiner and Wenborn volume T. S. Eliot receives as much attention as Margaret Thatcher. This tendency is especially apparent in the Oxford Companion, which is the larger and more ambitious work and one that draws on the expertise of more than 100 well-selected contributors. The other work, being largely written by only six scholars, in places very much reflects their priorities. Furthermore, the Oxford Companion opens with a sage, reflective prefatory essay by John Cannon in which he makes a number of worthwhile points. It is important that a work of this type open with a paragraph that accepts the contingent nature of historical judgements and applies them directly by noting that, far from there being any infallible or purely objective test for inclusion, certain entries have been included, excised and reinstated.
More specifically, the Oxford Companion essays a broad coverage. Alongside traditional political and military history, there are also social, cultural, scientific and economic topics. This leads to an inclusion of aspects of private and domestic life, with valuable articles on childbirth, housing, health, food and drink, retailing, holidays and funerals. However, as Cannon points out, this creates problems. The editorial dilemma is all too present in comments such as "Should one exclude the Proms (even if they represent only a part of a part of English life) in favour of longer articles on the Bedchamber crisis of 1839, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, or the battle of Blore Heath?" Another extension is the coverage of the local dimension, with a general article on local history, and shorter entries on all the English and Welsh counties, the Scottish provinces, ancient kingdoms, modern regions, and on most important towns. This reflects a welcome sense of place that characterises much of the volume.
Much of the joy of this book is that it has so much to offer different readers. I was particularly impressed by many of the overarching entries, such as Cannon's on foreign policy (although his views on European convergence seem somewhat contradictory), and by the range, conciseness and interest of the shorter entries. The information provided is vast but varied. Whether it be the 300 MPs who attended the funeral of the murdered Lord Frederick Cavendish, or John Chartres explaining the importance of the Special Roads Act of 1949 or the reservation for specific users in the entry on motorways, each entry contains unfamiliar material.
There are also many pithy judgements: Sir Basil Brooke, "outdated and all-to-easily ridiculed"; George Brown, "an outstanding failure" whose resignation "confirmed his political irrelevance"; Mrs Thatcher - "in the end she contributed to her own undoing by retaining the services of key ministers whose policies, priorities, and philosophies were fundamentally different from her own. In this sense, the Iron Lady proved an unexpectedly weak prime minister."
Historiography, by contrast, plays a major role in the Gardiner and Wenborn volume with entries on topics such as historical materialism and History Workshop.
In his preface, Cannon anticipates criticism. Doubtless, he will receive much. That would be unfortunate. There is a welcome freshness to this collection and it is full of arresting entries. Between Sea power and Sebastopol, Siege of, there is Seaside holidays: "The British seaside holiday, threatened by pollution and new holiday fashion, is currently an endangered species." The Act of Supremacy is followed by Surrey: "In the 1990s the pivotal point of the county may be said to be at Merstham, where the M25 crosses the Gatwick to Victoria line, reminding us that, because of its geographical position, Surrey has historically been a country of people on the move."
The Oxford Companion closes with maps, genealogical tables and a useful subject index of headwords. It is the best of its type and will be of value to many readers. Clearly, however, it is selective. Why, for example, is there no reference to the battle of New Orleans in the entry on the war of 1812? This selectivity, and comparisons with other comparable collections, open the way to instructive consideration of how best to approach such editorial tasks.
Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.
The Oxford Companion to British History
Editor - John Cannon
ISBN - 0 19 866176 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 1044