John Bossy

  • The New Oxford History of England. Vol. II: The Later Tudors by Penry Williams
    Oxford, 628 pp, £25.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 19 822820 1

Do we need narrative history? Yes, because otherwise we shall live on clichés about it, like the French. Do we need a narrative history of England? Yes, for the same reason, and because otherwise we shall think that the past is an allegory of the present and be suckers for propaganda for good or bad causes, environmental, constitutional, criminological, Euromushy, feminist. Do we need multi-volume histories of England? Yes, probably, because there is a limit of compression below which narrative history cannot do its duty. Do we need them to be produced by one firm of publishers? Doubtful: volumes will be better or worse, and are most unlikely to amount collectively to the seamless web Lord Acton dreamed about for the Cambridge Modern History. So, do we need a New Oxford History of England? The old one, got off the ground with great promptitude by G.N. Clark in the Thirties, held up by the war, and finished with A.J.P. Taylor’s extra volume on 1914-45, does not much ring in the mind, except for its first two volumes (Collingwood and Myres, and Stenton) and Taylor’s. I doubt if the new one will fare any better. John Roberts, the general editor, does not show his hand in detail, and we must keep our fingers crossed about the whole being greater than the parts by giving ‘an account of the development of our country in time’ – ‘our country’ meaning something different for King Alfred and Queen Victoria, but ‘the state structure built round the English monarchy’ being the core of it.

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