Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain

Review by Joyce Salisbury, Central Michigan University

Morgan, Kenneth O., Editor. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Oxford University Press, 2009. 670 pp, $23.07 in paperback.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, edited by Kenneth O. Morgan, is an updating of the book first published in 1984. Morgan is a respected historian and life peer of the British Academy. The book is comprised of ten chapters, each written by a different historian. The final chapter, covering most of the 20th century, and the epilogue, covering 2000 to 2008, are both written by Morgan, who has written numerous works on 20th century British history, including such works as Britain since 1945: The People’s Peace, Age of Lloyd George: The Liberal Party and British Policies, and Twentieth-Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction. The book, as its name implies, is indeed copiously illustrated with color plates, maps, and black and white photos. The illustrations are not meant as mere “physical embellishments,” but as “vital explanatory tools in demonstrating the key points in the narrative.” The photos and illustrations are crisp and clear and since the book is printed on acid-free paper, they should stay that way for many years to come.

The publisher’s description of the book reads:

When readers open The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, they will find themselves immersed in an experience that can’t be found anywhere else. As ten leading historians take turns narrating the dramatic history of Britain over the past 2,000 years, carefully chosen pictures and maps illuminate their words, making this story all the more vivid and difficult to forget.

Notably, this new edition – the first in 20 years – brings this history into the twenty-first century, covering the changes to British society and culture during the Blair years and examining the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. As readers move from Roman Times to the present day, a vivid, sometimes surprising picture emerges of a country that constantly dealt with the turmoil of change. Despite many political and economic tensions, the authors show that consensus is just as important to this country’s narrative, and in turn bring out that special awareness of identity which has been such a distinctive feature of British society.

The editor’s purpose is to “disentangle the main political, social, economic, religious, intellectual, and cultural features of these islands.” By concentrating on the “main” points of British history, Morgan is able to cover more than 2,000 years of British history in one very readable volume. Although each chapter is written by a different historian, the result reads like one cohesive narrative. It is a book that can be read through like any other book or the reader can select the chapters of particular interest and then move on to the books suggested in the “Further Reading” section. The book contains no footnotes which makes for smooth reading. Direct quotes are generally prefaced with the title of the work from which they are taken, but no page numbers, etc., are provided.

Comparing the book to the 1984 edition, most of the chapters remain the same. Only the chapters on The Tudor Age and the Twentieth Century have more than minor editorial changes. And, of course, the Epilogue, which brings the history of Britain up to the year 2008, is completely new. The Tudor Age chapter was extensively rewritten, but the substance of the chapter remains the same. The writing is now easier to read and most of the Latin phrases are now rendered in English.

Back material includes: Further reading suggestions for each chapter, broken down by subjects such as politics and government; religion, ideas and culture; society and economy; imperialism; biographies; among others; a chronology of British history from 55 BC to 2008; genealogies of the various ruling families, beginning with the House of Wessex in 802; a list of prime ministers from 1721 to present and a detailed index.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Well done Joyce!!