A fan’s notes on the “ironic, kindly, democratic, humorous, energetic, tolerant, and brave” peoples of Britain.
Daughter of popular historian Antonia Fraser, the first-time author declares a well-intended but surely old-fashioned mission: with her three young daughters in mind, she set out to write a controversy-free, anecdotal and colorful survey of England from Roman times to the present, a modern rejoinder to Henrietta Marshall’s Our Island Story, published a century ago. Fraser has done this work admirably, giving us an account that’s a treat to read, if a little musty at points. Surely she is one of the last writers of our time to refer to Britain (for which read the United Kingdom) as “she,” as in, “Britain’s ancient democratic institutions mean she cannot view a European superstate without protest.” Though the book is in good company with Charles Dickens’s Child’s History of England, there’s plenty of adult-friendly deceit, treachery, adultery, and murder, the currency of royals, nobles, and commoners from the dawn of history. Even there, though, Fraser works hard to put a positive spin on things, so that by her account Henry II really didn’t mean to have poor old Thomas à Becket murdered in the cathedral, and Chamberlain gave in to Hitler only because the English are so naturally peace-loving and unmilitaristic. Among the narrative’s high points is a very short account of the American Revolution, which the author suggests had ultimately positive effects by sowing doubt back home about the “efficacy of the prevailing political system” and moving along the process of democracy. Few do wrong in these pages, expect perhaps John Major, who stole up on brave, stouthearted Margaret Thatcher, “stabbed in the back by a challenge to her leadership.” It ends with a rousing cheer for “a curious and contradictory people”—a people made up, of course, of many peoples with widely ranging views on such events.
Pleasant and even instructive, but requires sustained suspension of the critical faculty.