The conclusion of an entertaining three-volume hopscotch through English history, this one taking us from John Locke to Francis Crick.
Veteran historian and biographer Lacey (Grace, 1994, etc.) maintains the appealing conversational style of his two earlier installments. He juxtaposes the sublime (Waterloo, the Battle of Britain) with the criminal (highwayman Dick Turpin, murderer Dr. Crippen), the culturally or socially significant (Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, the rise of trade unionism) with the alarming and/or disgusting. He writes about nasty stuff floating in the Thames, and the squeamish should avoid his graphic paragraphs about the brutal breast-cancer surgery, sans anesthesia, endured by novelist Fanny Burney in 1811. Many of the selections offer no surprise: the Charge of the Light Brigade, the reign of Queen Victoria, the abdication of Edward VIII. But there are quiet and unexpected entries, too: the origin of the word “Luddite,” the publication of 1066 and All That (a book he greatly admires), the inventive 18th-century farmer Jethro Tull. It’s odd that Lacey doesn’t mention the rock group that adopted the farmer’s name, perhaps slightly less so that he neglects to tell us about Belle, or the Ballad of Dr. Crippen, which unsuccessfully attempted to turn an Edwardian murder into a 1960s West End musical. And the text contains occasional errors. Mary Godwin did run off with Percy Bysshe Shelley, but not, as the author says, to marry him; they were joined in a London church two years later in the presence of her father. Lacey includes some witty surprises—e.g., John Locke once attended the autopsy of a lion—and he offers a sly allusion to Wellington’s pulling on his boots.
Humorous and literate, if incomplete.