Disclaimer: ARC read via Netgalley.
I can hear you wondering. You’ve been wondering for the past three years. Do we really need another history of England? There are hundreds, thousands, maybe even a million (you can count, if you have the time), why do we need another one? How about a history of one of the –stan countries instead, you may ask.
Well, we are talking about Peter Ackroyd’s multiple volume history of England, so yes, we need this one.
The third volume in the series covers the Stuarts – from James I to James II losing the throne to his son-in-law.
What makes Ackroyd’s work better than average and well worth the reading are two things? The first is his style. While not the prose poem that his London is, the writing is chatty and intimate. In part this is simply style. Ackroyd makes sure the full impact of events is known, but this is a popular, common, every man’s history. The reader doesn’t need a degree in history, and important events are described in enough detail but not too much.
The most important thing is the little humorous and emotional touches. There is a wonderful passage about soap and how it connects to the English Civil War. There Muggletonians. There is debate about hacks in London. It is the story of James I and his feelings towards his eldest son, they died too early Henry.
Then there are the brief interludes dealing with major cultural issues, such as Hobbes’ Leviathan.
But I keep coming back to the little touches, the same events that are often overlooked or under seen or the huge events that are overseen and overanalyzed. Ackroyd keeps balance. When he introduces a little over looked detail – the attacks on brothels - he connects it. It might be included because of whimsy, but it also has a point. When he mentions the departure of the pilgrims, it is with a somewhat nod that the boats pass out the scope of the history he is writing so he lets it go.
An Everyman’s History is what this series is, not so much as in focus on the little guy, but in the way the events play out, on the effects. It is an intimate history, far more than say Simon Schma’s History of Britain. Ackroyd’s history is something to be read over wine while traveling, allowing the words to seep slowly in and stay forever.