There's always been an England ... sort of
THE ISLES: A HISTORY By Norman Davies Oxford University Press 1,222 pp., $45
Over recent decades, revisionist historians have altered our views of the past, giving us a fresher, more human sense of previous events and peoples. But generally, these historical pioneers confine themselves to a small patch - a single epoch or leader or a single country in time.
Not so with Norman Davies. An authority on Poland and Central Europe, he widened his revisionist net to write the bestselling "Europe: A History" (Oxford University Press, 1996). Now, with "The Isles: A History," he has turned his attention homeward to trace the historical evolution of not just England, but of the three other component nations - Ireland, Wales, and Scotland - as well.
Unlike the majority of histories about the Isles, Davies begins his work before the arrival of the Romans in circa 55 BC, with the prehistoric settlements of the Isles. Flouting convention still further, he gives substantial space to the early Celts, the ascendancy of their culture, languages, religion, leaders, and the establishment of Celtic Christianity.
Then come the semiobscure bits - the Roman invasions, the arrival of the Germanic tribes, who were followed by the Danes, Vikings, and finally the Norman French, all of whom maintained strong European ties.
Then, the more recognizable events - the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors (including the memorable Elizabeth), the Puritans, the civil wars, and on to the end of this millennium.
Although much of this may be familiar territory, the pro-European Davies rarely follows the beaten track in his interpretation. Indeed, he constantly rejects and disputes the traditional version of events, showing these to be the work of "spin doctors." He claims that throughout the years subservient academics and ministers have worked to promote a myth of cultural and religious unity, interest, and superiority from the power base in southeast England through the suppression of the earlier Celtic culture. Their anxious goal has been to prove the English monarchy's specious claims to rule Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.
For example, he demonstrates how the much-cherished concept of a unified Britain was initially a play by James VI and I (of King James Bible fame) to harmonize relations between the two countries - Scotland and England - which he simultaneously ruled. It didn't catch on, but the notion was expediently resurrected 100 years later at the time of the union between the two countries in 1707. Then Scotland and its history and tradition were branded barbaric, inferior, and irrelevant.
Each chapter opens with a "you are there" kind of preface, highlighting an event that Davies feels epitomizes the epoch. And controversially, each chapter closes with a discussion about how the period has previously been treated, focusing on the blind spots of prejudice, arrogance, and sycophantic invention that have characterized the dominant historical thinking.
But "The Isles" is not without flaws. It does not follow a strictly chronological approach, nor does it convey much about the personalities or decisive events that make up the history of the four nations. Rather, "The Isles" might be designated a contextual history, tracing various themes like the evolution of Parliament, sport, empire, and exploration over a period of centuries. This is all fascinating, but it might prove baffling to the reader encountering this material for the first time.
Then too, the book was sloppily edited. It is full of wrong dates, inaccurate geographical locations, and misspellings. And Davies is soppy rather than objective about the late Princess of Wales, and his strong anti-monarchical bias blinds him to the good the royal family has done, such as the part played by George VI and his family in maintaining British morale during World War II.
Those who felt the author's previous work represented the highest historical achievement, who reveled in the breadth of that work, who valued his ability to convey the facts and essence of a period or event in readily accessible and witty prose may be disappointed by "The Isles." Even so, Davies writes so beautifully and with such affection for his subject that any reader eager to challenge the enduring prejudices and bigotry that have dominated the history of the Isles for so long will find his myth-busting views both engaging and enlightening.
*Melissa Bennetts is a freelance writer living in England.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society