History of English society - accurate, detailed but lacking drama; A Social History of England, by Asa Briggs. New York: Viking. 320 pp. Illustrated. $25.
LORD BRIGGS, who among his many accomplishments is president of the English Social History Society, explains his conception of social history in the preface to this book. Although it is closely related to economic and demographic history , social history must also include politics and culture: ''It must seek to read every cultural signpost.'' Briggs, indeed, confesses that he is ''as much drawn to the study of language and literature as to the social sciences,'' and declares a characteristically British preference for dealing with the actual ''experience of individuals and groups . . . rather than concepts.''
Briggs's approach leads away from abstraction and theorizing and concentrates instead on the concrete events of history. We can neither desire nor expect him to employ the models, theories, and formulations of the social scientist. What, then, should we expect of popular social history? Clarity, responsible judgment, freedom from grossly distorting biases, and a style that does not condescend to the reader. These qualities are present and accounted for. But we might also expect what Lord Briggs promises in his preface: ''the poetry of the story.''
First of all, there must be a story. The first task of the historian is to find out what happened. A popular history of the sort Briggs has given us here, however, does not consist of primary research. Briggs's task is to relate what is known, which - as far as this reviewer can tell - he has done in reliable fashion.
But history is not merely facts and dates. Insofar as it is a story, it is ideally suited to narration. The historian, like the novelist or storyteller, knows that the secret of his power is his ability to keep us asking ''What happened next?'' In this widely ranging survey of English society and culture from prehistoric times to the present, there is little narrative drive. The ''story'' is obscured by a welter of details, chiefly statistical (tons of coal produced, number of orders for pig iron, and so forth).
Admittedly, the social historian has a great deal of territory to cover, and he cannot allow intriguing little incidents to distract his attention from massive social shifts. The breadth and complexity of a historian's subject may certainly complicate his narrative drive, but need not frustrate it entirely. John Julius Norwich's ''A History of Venice,'' for example, spans many centuries , covering political, economic, social, cultural, domestic, and foreign developments in copious detail, yet is as page-turning as a well-written novel.
The historian who is not a good storyteller, however, may excel at evolving the texture and atmosphere of a specific time and place. The historian's power of evocation, of description, helps us visualize the events of the ''story.'' A well-chosen vignette can illuminate an era; a series of significant details can delineate the shape of more general conditions. Huizinga's ''The Waning of the Middle Ages'' and Dickens's novelistic rendition of revolutionary France in ''A Tale of Two Cities'' are evocative in this sense, while Paul Johnson's ''Modern Times'' and William Manchester's ''The Glory and the Dream'' provide brilliant thumbnail portraits of pivotal figures who epitomize an era. Briggs, though, is almost studiously unevocative, touching only lightly and unilluminatingly upon such potentially rich subjects as Stonehenge, Queen Elizabeth's court, the Restoration, and Mrs. Beeton's 19th-century guide to household management.
Not all historians may be gifted with the storyteller's power or the artist's flair for evocation. We also look to historians for their ability to interpret: to tell us why events happened; what a given sequence of events might mean; or both. Gibbon, Spengler, Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles and Mary Beard, are remembered for offering fresh perspectives on the past. And in the wake of such originals may be found a host of expositors, who, offering no new interpretations of their own, still provide a valuable service in introducing readers to the debates among historians. There is little sense of such drama in Briggs's book - only the sense of Briggs himself as a solid, reliable man of the middle.
Garlanded with quotations from poets, historians, statesmen, novelists, and anonymous but canny men and women in the street, chock-full of beautiful and fascinating illustrations, many in color, ''A Social History of England'' provides an adequate account of its subject, but does not fulfill the promises made in its preface. Having pored over the wonderful pictures, one looks in vain to the text for anything as suggestive and colorful.