A History of Britain 2: 1603-1776 - Simon Schama

Embarassingly, my review of Volume 1 is 5 years old. I'm not taking this series with much pace.

As you might expect, I don't remember much of Volume 1. However, I don't think this is so much because it's a while ago, as because it just wasn't sticky for me. There was a big run of kings either inheriting from or killing each other, blah, blah, blah. History as one thing after another. I remember it being very entertaining as I read it, but it didn't hook.

Having just read this volume, I don't know if it'll last. On the other hand, it is covering a much more interesting period. A lot of the book concentrates on the mid-seventeenth century, which I can understand. It's the civil war and restoration, creating huge political upheaval that just went on and on. It's plague and the Great Fire, and it's the world of Newton and the Royal Society, and the start of modern Western philosophy. It's what Stephenson can write several thousand pages on, and Schama's few hundred are pretty good too, with a bonus of not being fiction. In short, it's the inflection point in history which kick-started everything we have now.

Note that the book concentrates on Britain. While it was a time of upheaval for England, the events in Scotland and Ireland... well, I see more historical basis for antipathy now.

The latter part of this volume then moves on to the construction of the empire, with the slave trade, America and India, during the Georgian era. It's not glorious reading. The slave part is horrible, and our adventures in India most depressing. I knew very little about American independence, especially from the British point of view. Schama's thesis seems to be that American independence wasn't actually inevitable, but the mother country just kept screwing things up.

One of the things that I never realised was that Benjamin Franklin was a Brit. The more I read about him, the more utterly amazing I find him (*). He's clearly famous as an American, but before getting pushed to independence, he was a loyal Briton trying to work within the system. Somehow I'd missed that he'd visited Britain. So, I'm adding him to the list of British People I'm Really Proud Of, along with all those Enlightenment Scots and stuff.

(*) I tend to take the view that there are plenty of mediocre people who are famous in history because they were in the right place at the right time. Then there are those who will just turn up in history because they're absolutely amazing. Franklin's clearly in the latter category.

So, er, recommended.

Posted 2014-10-03.