Book Review: The English and Their History
by Robert Tombs
University of Cambridge history professor Robert Tombs, in his latest book, The English and Their History, has brought forth a strangely prodigious thing: a thousand-page history of the English people that stretches from the ice ages of prehistory to the “Cool Britannia” of the 1990s that never flags, never place-holds, and never simply trots in its traces. For a thousand pages, he is a lively, thorough guide.
A thousand pages, yes, but the endeavor is largely salvaged by there being no pretense of steady pacing. Tombs has a minimum of three thousand years of complicated human doings to relate, and it will give you some idea of his priorities that he’s already writing about the Seven Years’ War by page 300-something, effortlessly shifting from broad-scale social and political overview to tight little knots of action and character, as in the heroic and tight-run assault on Quebec:
After four years of largely fruitless effort, 1759 was to be the Year of Victories, all snatched from the jaws of disaster. At Minden (Hanover) in August the small force of British battalions helped to rout the French, apparently after advancing by mistake. At Quebec in September, the young and neurotic General James Wolfe (“Mad, is he?” said George II. “Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals”) captured the town by a death-or-glory night attack up steep cliffs, and was killed at them moment of victory.
In such a tome as this, the reader (and the student) wants plenty to argue with, plenty to illuminate, plenty to challenge, and Tombs constantly provides. There are times, in fact, when he’s even willing to invoke the spirit of Whiggish tomes past, as when he’s describing the raucous world of 18th-century politics and permits himself a line worth of Macaulay:
Politics was an oligarchy, as in different ways it still is, with politics intermingled with social life. One January evening in 1765, for instance, Horace Walpole (son of Robert, MP and man of letters) attended the Duke of Cumberland’s levee, visited a princess, went briefly to the House of Commons, then dropped in at the opera. It was not at all democratic, but it was in many ways representative. Members of Parliament were mostly drawn from the landed gentry, with a significant element of lawyers, businessmen, and navy or army officers. Landed gentlemen were preferred as being independent and disinterested – unlike nouveau-riche “nabobs” from India, as unpopular as City bankers today.
The comparison of nabobs with City bankers is neat, and the anecdote about Walpole is entertaining and … representative? Princesses and the opera, “rotten” boroughs and “pocket” boroughs in an age of widespread poverty and famine? We want such madcap optimism in our marathon histories, but there’s a price to be paid for virtuosity on the level at which Tomes displays it in such dicey instances. And there’s plenty of virtuosity in these pages, most of it brought forward by the interplay of larger-than-life personalities, which always seem to heighten both the author’s rhetoric and his pith. The latter portion of his big book necessarily summons the specter of Britain’s decline among the world powers in modern times, but always in the midst of such sobering larger discussions he remembers to include little character set-pieces to brighten the way, including a superb one of Britain-in-decline’s most polarizing figure:
Margaret Thatcher was the most admired and most hated – indeed, the only deeply admired and genuinely hated – Prime Minister since 1940. She was the most important peacetime hold of the office since Gladstone, the only one to leave an individual stamp on the country – something which, for all his virtues, could not be said of Attlee, the leader of a team running with the political tide. Her progress from Grantham corner shop to Downing Street became literally a legend in her own lifetime, with Hollywood gloss. The conflicting versions – the dauntless Boadicea who conquered national decline versus the malignant harpy who shattered the working class – magnify her personal importance. They have remolded modern political identities into Thatcherite and anti-Thatcherite – a personalization of political ideas not seen since Sir Robert Peel.
There are pages and pages of scrupulous end notes; there are gimlet-eyed footnotes everywhere, and there is over all this massive, flowing narrative that’s sure of itself without being pompous and knowing without being cynical. It’s a masterful performance, unlikely to be equaled in its way in a generation. And like earlier such popular catechisms, it repays frequent follow-up consultations – always a mark that the author is good company.