Lacey Baldwin Smith, English History Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable. Academy Chicago, 2006.
(This review is way overdue, I’m afraid. Its tardiness is due solely to my own slothfulness, not to any lack of readability on the author’s part.)
The title pretty much says it all about this book by Smith, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University who’s written a number of books dealing with English history.
Aimed at an American audience, English History consists of six parts: an introduction (“Words of Encouragement and Commiseration”), “Matters of Geography, Demography, and Terminology,” “History Worth Remembering (to 1485”), “More Memorable History (1485 to 1964”), “Less and Less Memorable History (1964 to the Present)”, and “The Royal Soap Opera.” “Matters of Geography” helpfully reminds American readers that a “quick shag” has entirely different meanings in the UK and in the US (here in the US, and especially in the Southeast, we shag on the dance floor).
The heart of English History, of course, is the three “History” sections and the “Royal” section, profusely illustrated with illustrations and cartoons that are suitably captioned (“Henry VIII inspecting the Princess Elizabeth, another worthless daughter” is one of my favorites, along with “Blackening up the Black Prince. One of the most important and responsible duties at the court of Edward III”).
Smith’s recounting of British history is irreverent, as promised, but fairly straightforward and surprisingly detailed for its short length, which obliges me to grumble that Edward III did not incarcerate Isabella “in a comfortable prison for the rest of her life,” as Smith has it (after a brief period of house arrest, she traveled around quite freely), nor was the unfortunate Piers Gaveston “hanged and his body left to be eaten by starving dogs.” (He was beheaded, and his body was preserved and eventually given a magnificent burial by Edward II. It was poor Hugh le Despenser the elder who was fed to the dogs.) Such mistakes, while they made me grind my teeth, are perhaps inevitable in a 243-page account that covers the period from 33 B.C. to the present, bringing in everything from the Magna Carta to Harry Potter, so one shouldn’t be churlish. They’re more than made up for by Smith’s lively prose, especially his pungent and apt comments about the various monarchs, such as Charles I (“the adaptability of a dinosaur”) and George IV (“not simply a stuffed shirt but a stuffed man”). Smith doesn’t spare the current royals: “[E]xcept for the late Princess Di and (if you discount her hats), the Queen Mother, the Royal Family has been without a spark of charisma.”
All in all, English History is a fun, information-packed book that’s good to take to the beach or, better yet, on a plane going to the UK.