Friday, May 04, 2007

Review: English History Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable

English History made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable by Lacey Baldwin Smith (Academy Chicago Publishers).

Smith is Professor Emeritus of History at Northwestern University and has written a number of books centering around the history of Great Britain. English History not being my bailiwick, I'd never read anything by him before. After reading his recent work, however, that will change.

Smith opens his book by noting that “history is not what happened in the past, but what today is worth remembering about the past.” Setting aside the historiographical discussion that such a comment can engender, he has written a fine work of history. Smith hits the high--and low--points of English History (note, it's "English" and not "British"-- Smith explains the difference) in a conversational and engaging way. It's as if you're your history professor's office hours were held at a kegger. In short, Smith injects a little humor and verve into his narrative, which is complemented by some very funny illustrations from Punch.

As a medievalist--and if historians are considered "dry," medievalists are downright parched--I found his take on the early medieval period in English history refreshing and funny. For instance, while describing how the Angles and Saxons came and conquered Celto-Roman Britain:
The invaders proceeded over the years to divide Britain among themselves. The Saxons in the area of London broke up into the east, south and west Saxons--Essex, Sussex and Wessex. The urge to box the compass generated the splendid, but also apocryphal, story of a north Saxon kingdom called Nosex which naturally died out very rapidly, but doubtless inspired one of Britain's longest running plays: No Sex Please, We're British.
Keeping with a theme, Smith also explains the English resurgence after the Plague by explaining that "somewhere around 1485, the English started having more and better sex...rising from two to four million by 1600." He also takes the opportunity to weave in a zinger or two when he can. For instance, this observation about Elizabethan society:
The family, over which the father was supreme, was seen as the Kingdom writ small. In learning obedience to and respect for their parents, Tudor children learned deference to authority on every level of society. Thus the inferior bowed to all forms of superiority, the freshman stepping aside for the senior, the bachelor of arts for the master of arts, the master of arts for the doctor of divinity or civil law, and all six for the professor, a way of life that high-ranking academics today regret has disappeared.
Indeed! But Smith's work isn't all wit and snark. He gives very concise and readable accounts of historical events and explains how one affected the other (eg; the reign of James I and the Glorious Revolution or the evolution of Parliament). Though there are chronological demarcations in the narrative, a narrative it is, not a patched together pop-encyclopedia of sequential--though disconnected--events. Smith does a fine job of moving the story of English history along in a coherent and entertaining way.

Smith concludes the book with an extended treatment of the British royalty--"The Royal Soap Opera." He covers the breadth of the more personal shenanigans of English royalty, plumbing the depths and climbing the peaks, and shows that royal peccadilloes are a constant. Commenting on the leveling of the contemporary Royal Family, he offers that "what is eating at the soul of Kingship is not moral outrage, but boredom." Like the rest of the entertainment industry, if the progeny of Elizabeth II don't give the press enough scandalous fodder, what is left?

Overall, I found that Smith's English History lived up to the rest of it's title, especially the Pleasurable part. Go out and get it--you'll learn something between chuckles.