The spry second installment of Schama’s projected three-volume history of the Sceptred Isle (the first volume not reviewed).
Though published as a big-ticket trade item by a resolutely hip press, Schama’s is an old-fashioned history, learned and literate, uninfluenced by prevailing notions of political correctness or historiographic theory; this is all about great men who dared to make a name for themselves and their nation, not about social tendencies or voiceless oppressed classes. Schama’s characters are thus well-known to readers even casually familiar with British history—oddballs such as Samuel Pepys, rebels such as William Blake and Daniel Defoe, philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, and above all, sword-wielding reformers and warriors such as Oliver Cromwell and Lord Cornwallis. Collectively, though each in his own way, these men advanced their nation from a relative backwater of northwestern Europe to the status of world power, though not without cost over a tumultuous brace of centuries; as Schama (Rembrandt’s Eyes, 1999, etc.) notes, “Britain killed England. And it left Scotland and Ireland hemorrhaging in the field.” In the process, Britain remade whole nations—by, for instance, transplanting more than 100,000 Scots, Welsh, and English immigrants into Northern Ireland, which would be the source of centuries of trouble that “utterly dwarfed the related ‘planting’ on the Atlantic seaboard of North America.” It enacted a program of religious as well as ethnic cleansing, destroying the Catholic Church and other dissident sects. And it entrusted with sovereign power feckless kings such as Charles II and George III, who, despite severe limitations, oversaw Great Britain's imperial growth—a growth fueled by Europe’s “craze for hot, powerfully caffeinated beverages” as much as any formal plan.
This is familiar ground all the way, and Schama brings little new scholarship to it. Still, he is a lucid and trustworthy guide to the British past, and readers new to the subject will find this an attractive introduction and overview.