The Story of Britain: A History of the Great Ages: From the Romans to the Present is not exactly a new book, as the author himself points out in the preface. Roy Strong wrote it in the 1990s and it was first published in 1998. Other than adding material on the 2016 Brexit vote, this nicely designed new US edition remains stolidly unchanged. Strong, fortunately, has done nothing to spoil what was, and still is, an extremely readable history of Britain.
Strong, who is a prolific author and former director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, barely acknowledges the books on British history that have appeared in the past 20 years (although he points to Norman Davies’s mammoth “The Isles,” Simon Schama’s “A History of Britain,” and Peter Ackroyd’s “The History of England” series, and he might also have mentioned Robert Tombs’s excellent “The English and Their History”), dismissing them with this: “I have purposely read none of them.”
His assessment is depressingly accurate. The genre of British history has become a cottage industry. Many of these books take the same approach: backgrounding everything with Stonehenge and the mists of history, kicking things off with Julius Caesar’s cross-channel excursions, then proceeding at a steady reign-by-reign pace right up to the state of affairs that the author was able to read that morning in the London Times. The books tend to be doorstops, long on recapitulation and relatively short on any kind of deep contextual analysis. In the place of analysis, the writers tend to use the narrative to make the case for some metahistorical agenda.
Since the majority of this new edition of Strong’s book is unchanged, readers coming to it for the first time will find themselves in luck: Despite factual flubs here and there, the majority remains not only very sound but very readable. Our author has written many books on British history and given many talks; he can take readers smoothly through the Norman Conquest, the Plantagenets, the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, the Stuarts, and all the other usual suspects. The character portraits are sharp and memorably opinionated at every turn. The founder of the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII, “was endowed with qualities that made for successful kingship: industry and application, patience and powers of organisation, and a firm belief in the splendour of the crown.” The profligate “Merry Monarch” Charles II “died on the morning of 6 February 1685 leaving fourteen illegitimate children, the progeny of a roll call of extravagant mistresses, but no heir by his wife.” Strong intersperses his discussion of kings and wars with discourses on writers, composers, scientists, and other ideological trailblazers, drawing these varied threads through the larger tapestry of his story.
Since Strong is a bit enamored of his Whiggish kings and wars, some of his sociological observations can be tone-deaf. When he’s indulging in soaring enthusiasm about Georgian England, for example, he writes, “Mind, heart and body were exercised to the full through a range of activities and artefacts hitherto unknown, or restricted only to the privileged few.” He then follows up: “There were still those, more than half the population, whose life remained one of unremitting toil in poor conditions.” For “more than half” in this case read “over 80 percent.”
But none of that has changed in 21 years, so readers will naturally look to the new section of the book to take the pulse of this new edition of “The Story of Britain”; if the rest of the book is the same, what does Roy Strong have to say about the Brexit referendum? Nothing earthshaking, as it turns out. The 2016 referendum “sent shock waves through the entire political system,” Strong writes, “and reflected the gulf that had opened up between the electorate and the political classes.” It might not be much to hang a book on, which makes it all the more fortunate that the book doesn’t need much justifying. “The Story of Britain” made fine, invigorating reading two decades ago, and it still does.
Will there be future updates? Well, as Strong himself notes, “History never ends but merely unfolds further chapters.”
Steve Donoghue regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.