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British History 1815-1906; & Society And Economy In Modern Britain

By P.J. Waller | Published in History Today 1992 
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Two new books on British history from 1700 to the 19th century
  • British History 1815-1906
    Norman McCord - Oxford University Press, 1991 - xx+ 518pp. - £45 (hardback), £12.95 (paperback)
  • Society And Economy In Modern Britain 1700-1850
    Richard Brown – Routledge, 1991 - xvi + 473 pp. - £40 (hardback), £12.99 (paperback)

Modern textbooks are a tricky assignment, akin to academic hand-holding in a time when social chaperonage is quite out of fashion. A combination of ease and discipline is demanded, and a 'modest omniscience which issues opinions without opinionatedness has to be artfully contrived. The novice reader wants security, which means a steady supply of digestible and reliable reference information; but excitement in the possibilities of independent exploration must not be repressed or dulled. And, since by the nature of things these exercises are reviewed by other escorts, the routine must be sufficiently refreshened to stimulate the jaded. Both these books satisfy the minimum desiderata. They are comprehensive in coverage, at least to such an extent as is unreasonable to demand much more; and their organisation of themes and subjects is well considered. They are also alike in their liberal use of subdivisional and sectional headings to label particular issues within chapters. How far this practice is decided by publishers' instructions is unclear, but this reviewer is inclined to protest when it is so excessive. It gives off the sensation of a supermarket, packaging bite-size paragraphs as if micro-waved for limited attention spans. The continuous narrative, which displays the historian's traditional story-telling art, is surely preferable.

Norman McCord's volume is part of the successful series, Short Oxford History of the Modern World, under the general editorship of J.M. Roberts. It is a companion to T.O. Lloyd's, Empire to Welfare State: English History 1906-1985, now in its third edition. The amplification of England into Britain from Lloyd to McCord should be noted and applauded, and Richard Brown's economic and social history essays the same. The excursions in McCord read occasionally as bolted-on extras but the overall effect is not artificial and, as well as isolating differences, illustrations of general points are nicely drawn from the four national corners. Brown is more ambitious but perhaps less successful, since he is rather too fond of Hechter's internal colonialism thesis, He is a somewhat self-conscious multi-cultural fellow, who gives us Caerffili rather than Caerphilly, although his text and maps are not always agreed whether Caernarfon and Dolgellau are more politically correct than Caernarvon and Dolgelley.

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