Friday, 9 October 2009

A Short History of England by Cyril Ransome

I have to say, I really enjoyed this book. I mentioned it before, and I found it really interesting. I don't know how easy it would be to actually get hold of a copy, because I got this for 20p from the Church Fate up the road (is that the right fate? I can't remember if there's different spelling. Hang on, dictionary.com is called for... Oops. It's Fete, not Fate. But my inbuilt spell checker doesn't like it. Never mind. Moving on.). I was just curious, in part because I like old books and this one's certainly in that category--the edition I have was published in 1907--in part because of the description 'from the earliest times'. I don't know a whole lot about the earliest times. We've never really studied them (with the exception of a brief look at the Battle of Hastings, with a multiple choice test I remember failing miserably only because I got the numbers mixed up about four questions in and from then on put the right answers in the wrong box...).

It starts off with looking at 'the English race', which I found very interesting, because it's no longer PC, particularly with all the connotations of Aryan race. Anyway, this book was apparently to be used as a sort of text book, so I guess it was just fine to say that sort of stuff back in 1907. There was stuff on the Conversion of England to Christianity, about the early kings (did you see pictures of the stuff they've just found down near Stoke-on-Trent? It's incredible! Imagine what it would feel like to just be randomly digging up, expecting nothing more than perhaps a coin or a bent bit of old metal, and finding such incredibly carved gold! Wow!). Then comes the Norman Kings, and it was interesting that this book says that 'though it was a hard thing for the English to be conquered, still their descendants have derived greater benefits from their defeat than they could possibly have done from their victory'. This is pretty much the opposite to what the other book on Harold the Conquorer I read suggested. I wonder how much of it was down to changing appreciations of what it was like back then. Anyway, it continues to follow the course of British History right the way through to the death of Queen Victoria, and then slightly beyond so that it can close with the end of the Boer War. It's fascinating to read, not just in the history that's told but in the way it's told. Some of the reporting is not entirely how we're accustomed to seeing it. For example, what's generally called the Crimean War is referred to as the Russian War. There is a little bit about teh campaign in the bombarding of Russian ports in the Baltic, about Sardinia joining in with the French and Britsh, and the Russians taking Kars from the Turks, none of which was ever mentioned in the history text books we had... There is reference to the 'disgraceful mismanagement of the war by Lord Aberdeen and some of his collegues', but Florence Nightingale doesn't get a look in, and nor does the Charge of the Light Brigade. it's interesting to read about the 'China Question' in 1900, with teh European Powers talking about splitting it all up between them, and 'the real Chinese problem still remains to be settled'. I know I'm focussing a bit on the later stuff, but I find it interesting to see what they perceived as major problems.

The Conclusion does a pretty good job of summing up the general themes of the book. It talks about the growth of the British Empire, and there was a lot of focus throughout on politics, with the gradual opening up of the vote to different classes. The ending reads thus: 'No other country in the world can look back upon such a long career of advancement in liberty, and at the same time of almost unbroken success as a conquering and colonizing people. Let us hope that the British of the future may not be unworthy of their ancestors--a hope which every boy and girl in the country may do something to make good; and let it be truly said of us, as was untruly said of some of the Roman emperors, that we have successfully united two things--Empire and Liberty.' I've just included that because I found it really interesting to look at how they saw their Empire. I wonder what Cyril Ransome would think of the country he obviously has great love and respect for were he to see England today. The Empire is all but gone. The politicians are pretty well despised for their mucking up of expenses, and apparent inability to tell the truth. Nobody cares much for the Monarchy, and I'm pretty sure that anti-social behaviour isn't exactly what he hoped when he said about every boy and girl doing something to help advance Britain. However, it was intended as a textbook, so there's a good chance (I would assume) that things weren't overly rosy back then either.

Just one more little thing I want to pick out before I finish. At the start of the book, there was one bit that really surprised me 'the teaching of literature is happily being made a separate department from the teaching of history'. I never realised they were once the same subject. I mean, I shied away from applying for a combined History and English Lit course because I didn't think that it would do justice to either subject (besides which I do prefer history), but they were once the same thing.

It's a really good book in short. If you happen to see a copy floating around (I suppose there must be some, somewhere, or I wouldn't have got hold of one), I'd recommend grabbing it. It was really interesting to read, flowed nicely as a general narrative, and was conviniently split up into chapters based upon which monarch was ruling (and let's face it, in the earlier periods for sure, and still to a certain extent more recently, that was a major consideration, particularly when the monarchs still had a lot of power). It's detailed enough to use as a general reference to get background on a period, and it does cover certain specific events (mainly constitutional or related to the Empire), in quite good detail considering the fact that it's such a broad sweep of history. It's also short enough to read as a continuous narrative like I did. So yeh, I have no idea how many of these might be around and where you might get hold of one, but I'd recommend it all the same.

1 comment:

Griever said...

I haven't read this, I'm sorry. This will be out of place. I didn't know about Nanowrimo. I might look into it one day. Good luck all the same.
Two things that really helped me was 'Always use your own words when writing' and 'Always remember who you are writing for'. I hope they help you in some way too.