Many hands make a light work

A History of Britain
January 10, 2003

A splendid TV history loses its lustre in print, says Dorothy Thompson.

An interesting recent development in television has been the emergence of historical programmes as peak-time favourites. It is perhaps surprising that this has taken so long to happen and that until now serious history has usually been tucked away in late shows, schools programmes or in early evening shows about local history and archaeology. It has taken too long for the television industry to recognise the entertainment potential of historical narrative and to realise the medium's capacity to bring the artefacts and locations connected with major historical events and personalities, actually or theatrically reproduced, into our homes. The popularity of recent series by well-known historians would seem to show that a viewing public that was beginning to tire of costume drama has developed a strong appetite for something more like the real thing.

The flagship programme in the revival has been Simon Schama's A History of Britain . The presenter's confident, relaxed personality and the inspired use of contemporary illustrations have attracted a large following and set VCRs humming and queues forming at the video stores. These programmes and some of the other historical series, notably David Starkey on the Tudors and some of the inspired reincarnations of the archives of the second world war, have proved that well-presentedacademically respectable history can be splendid entertainment. If there were moments when the selection or interpretation of material sent a few eyebrows up, Schama's narrative moved along smoothly and the audience went with it. No one watches television with a notebook in hand, and though a few keen viewers may follow up aspects of the series on the BBC website, for most only a general memory will remain. It is reassuring to teachers and specialists that a popular series of this kind is being made by a professional historian of some standing rather than by a showbiz personality or an enthusiastic amateur.

Schama is an academic who has taught in some of the English-speaking world's most prestigious universities. He has at least one major work in the world's libraries and is a respected modern historian, although his specialist work has not been in British history or in European history of the period covered by the present volume. His television series was excellent entertainment and has been for the most part greeted with enthusiasm.

Schama's method of telling the story on screen was to eschew from the beginning the idea of a comprehensive account but instead to offer a roughly chronological narrative, stopping along the way to expand pictures and texts he considered of interest. One of the positive features of this presentation was the emergence of the voice and the image of historical figures rather than the historian's description of them. It was history that returned to a kind of traditionally chronological narrative that had gone out of fashion, but enriched the narrative with some of the insights of social history and art history that had displaced chronological narrative from the foreground of historical studies. On the screen this system works well, but in the formal medium of the printed page, it raises problems.

Although this book (with its two preceding volumes) is on display in the front of the bookshop with the cookery books and the latest celebrity autobiography, its title claims for it a more serious role than that of these popular ephemera. In a modest preface, the author insists that he is writing "a" history of Britain and is not offering a textbook. Nevertheless, with this degree of publicity and at this price, a textbook is what it is likely to become. Perhaps Notes Towards a History of Britain might have been a title that would have explained the very subjective, indeed idiosyncratic, choice of people and issues of which the story is constructed.

This is a book without footnotes or endnotes and with only a brief index, mainly of names. There is a "select bibliography" for which the basis of selection is not explained. It could be that it constitutes a list of suggested further reading, or of books the author considers authoritative and academically trustworthy, or of those the author and his assistants have used as sources rather than simply consulting. On any of these bases of selection the list is an odd one. It includes two modern biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, though not one of Elizabeth Gaskell, who is singled out in the text as an important figure. Some books are listed twice while others that would seem to be necessary for a reasonably comprehensive reading list to go with the text do not appear. Of course the whittling down of the hundreds of good modern works available into the space of a mere eight pages is bound to be a difficult task, but teachers and even the ordinary reader who wants to go further into the subject are entitled to ask the basis of selection.

The text itself presents a further problem. It is attributed to a single author, but the style as well as the acknowledgements indicate that it is the work of many hands. The writing is patchy in the extreme, falling in some places to the level of the complaints column in the Sunday papers. I cannot believe that Schama himself wrote the sentence on page 220 that runs: "...Mary's application to go to the Crimea to treat the cholera and typhoid victims (which accounted for the vast majority of fatalities) would be dismissed out of hand...". There are, alas, many other examples of loose and sloppy writing, but the main problems with the book are more serious. There are far too many slips in accuracy and detail. Some are of minor importance, but others, though apparently slight, can skew the record in important ways.

Two examples from the section on Chartism illustrate this. In a thumbnail sketch of the Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor, we are told that he "inherited Cobbett's parliamentary seat in Oldham". In fact, O'Connor left Parliament the year that Cobbett died and had been elected to his seat there for the Irish constituency of Cork in the exciting first election after the Reform Bill of 1832. He therefore came into British mainland politics not from a Lancashire seat but from the heart of Irish Anti-union and O'Connellite politics, elected by the mainly Catholic freeholders of the county in their first exercise of their vote. This is important not only for his own history but for that of the movement he led.

In a different way the book is misleading about the Chartist Land Company. Though it may be commended for bringing the land company into the history of Chartism in a more positive way than is usually done, it nevertheless makes a considerable error in stating that "a single cottage at Great Dodford in Worcestershire is all that survives of one of those peaceful schemes of working-class self-improvement, the Chartist Land Company". The Dodford cottage, which figured in the television version as well as in the book, is very far from being the sole remnant of the plan's settlements: many properties remain throughout the Midlands and home counties. In an age in which Cobbett noted that some labourers could enter their houses as easily through the walls as the doors, the Chartists built sturdy cottages for their smallholders of which many remain in modernised forms and are now highly priced pieces of real estate. The Dodford cottage is unique because it was bought and restored as nearly as possible to the form it would have had in the 1840s by the National Trust.

There is no space here to mention all such slips or to argue with all the subjective judgements. Again to take only Mrs Gaskell, it is surely a little odd to put her above, say, the Brontë sisters or even Fanny Trollope as "the bravest woman writer of the early Victorian age", or to include her sincere but patronising "Chartist" novel Mary Barton , in which the Chartists are seen to employ terrorist methods that they in fact never used or advocated, as the most impressive fictional account of working people and their movement. Gaskell is also included "of course" among the women agitating later in the century for women's rights over their property, but her adhesion to that cause should not go without saying, given that her most influential novel, Ruth , was a paean to the idea of motherhood. Gaskell was an admirable figure and I have no wish to disparage her. But in the context in which she appears here she seems to be praised for some of the wrong reasons.

The place of other major artists and intellectuals in the story can also be questioned. John Ruskin appears as the author of Sesame and Lilies and a man with a messy sex life, but not as the author of the extremely influential Nature of Gothic or the pioneer of working men's education.

Perhaps the best way of putting the essentials of the programmes onto the printed page would have been in the form of a coffee-table book with extended explanatory subtitles. The book's pictures are superb, beautifully reproduced and a mixture of the well and little known, which works very well. Some familiar pictures, such as the photograph of the striking match girls in 1888, have the power to catch the heart every time they are printed; other less-familiar portraits, such as that of the young Gandhi, put new life into some of the clichéd images we carry around with us. The pictures alone are worth the price of the book, and since my prejudices and subjective judgements tend to be rather similar in many cases to those of the author, much of the book is a good relaxing read. But for a serious history of Britain and its empire (of which the author is now a "companion"), much more space and much more time would be needed.

Dorothy Thompson is a fellow of the Institute of Advanced Research in the Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham.

A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire 1776-2001

Author - Simon Schama
ISBN - 0 563 53457 5
Publisher - BBC Consumer Publishing
Price - £25.00
Pages - 416

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