At the Edge of the World, by Simon Schama

November 21, 2010 at 20:55 (Ancient, Book Reviews, Bronze Age, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical) (, , , )


This is certainly one of Simon Schama’s more populist efforts, and it is instantly clear to the reader that he is performing a careful (and not always successful) balancing act, between accessibility and something that he can put his name on while maintaining his professional reputation. It helps to have watched Schama deliver his incredibly melodramatic discourses on television; he writes exactly how he talks, and if he is informal or chatty then it is because the intended conclusion of this project is less a revolutionary approach towards the understanding of British History, and more a friendly afternoon chat about that same history. Informal, yes; but Schama has a firm hand on the reins, and does not wax too lyrical, or fall too much in love with his own prose.

With five millennia covered in 500 pages, this was never going to be a comprehensive history of anything, but it is a very digestible overview, and beautifully presented. Schama does have a marked reluctance to simply brush over interesting historical characters or events that he considers either irrelevant to the flow of history, or else exhaustively covered in standard school textbooks. This over-editorialising is occasionally tiresome, but certainly serves the purpose of directing the deluge of centuries into an orderly course. He does well in presenting a critical view of history rather than just telling a story, and his sudden delvings into individual and historically unimportant case studies are almost always included to illustrate a point he has already documented in macrocosm first. The book (and the series to which it belongs) is a little too unwieldy to be laid out as a coffee-table book, but is an excellent resource for any amateur historian looking for a useful reference, and fills a comfortable spot on even the scholar’s shelf.


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Citizens, by Simon Schama

July 20, 2010 at 01:59 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical) (, , , , , )


Schama is an excellent historian, and even when he wears his bias and his elemental distaste on his sleeve, he still has great insight into his subject matter, with an especial eye towards irony, hypocrisy and the absurd, subjects that are unsurprisingly abundant in this chronicle.

His penchant towards entirely omitting vastly important events simply because he personally disdains them is refreshingly limited in this book, and if his stubborn literality leads him to break off his account where he deems the revolution to have ended, then at least he tells his readers in no uncertain terms when France (in his opinion) went from being a failed experiment in representative anarchy to squaring with itself and honestly admitting to being a dictatorship.

Schama’s obsession with telling historical stories solely from the viewpoint of a few “typical” yet insignificant bystanders survives into this book, but is much less invasive than in his History of Britain, which cannot but be a good thing. Above all, readers will choose Simon Schama for his easy style and adventurous prose, which is fresh and exciting without pretending to be a novel, and describing “every flake of frost on the morning of 9 Thermidor”, or “every vulture in the sky watching the guillotine”. That sort of thing can get tiresome, and Schama avoids it while still managing to be witty and enjoyable.

To accusations of undue revisionism, it seems that Schama’s intention is not to demonise the Jacobins, but rather to draw the Revolution itself out of the black and white starkness in which it has typically been caricatured, pointing out the evidence of reformation in the government of Louis XVI in contrast to the incredible participation of aristocrats and clergy in the Revolution itself, and even in the midst of the Terror.

His central precept then, buried as it might be beneath lurid accounts of Jacobin excess, seems to be to describe the Revolution as primarily an economic affair, with all the veneer of class warfare serving to disguise the fact of legions of subsistence farmers led to the guillotine by their formal feudal lords. An interesting premise well laid out, and perhaps why his account faces so much abuse from today’s so-called social historians.

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