Sunday, April 24, 2011

Book Reviews - Stuart England

Mark Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714

Last month I resolved that I should consume less news and read more books. About this time I also got an android phone with Kindle software. So now that I'm reading more books, I thought I'd jot down some reviews, for myself and the 2 or 3 other people who might read this blog. Lately I've been reading mostly history.

Stuart England is a time and place that should be pretty interesting. You've got one King losing his head and another being driven out by his own daughter and son in law! Roundheads vs. Cavaliers! Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army! Austere, moralizing puritans and other religious dissenters! Dissolute libertinism in the Restoration period! Pepys' London, the fire, and the plague! The beginnings of the enlightenment, with Newton, Bacon, Hooke, Hobbes, and Locke! Colonization of North America! The first Whigs and Tories, and the main foundations of constitutional monarchy!

Unfortunately, Kishlansky's book focuses almost exclusively on political history, so it just skips over a lot of the stuff I listed in the last paragraph. In hindsight, I would have liked more liked more social, cultural, and economic history (like I found in the much-more-enjoyable volume of European history I read last fall, The Pursuit of Glory.) I suppose it is difficult to cover such a long time period without making the reading sort of dry. Still, I found it dry even by these standards. It didn't even include the word "Roundhead!" Plus, the Kindle version didn't have the maps! Can't recommend.

Not satisfied that I'd gotten all I could get from this period of English history, I started reading Macaulay's famous history, downloaded for free from project Gutenberg. I read volume I and much of volume II (there are five volumes altogether). This is also mostly political history (except the justly famous Vol I chapter 3 which gives an overview of the state of technology in 1685), but the prose is much more lively, and everything and everyone seems much more interesting. Macaulay is criticized today for his "whiggish" approach to history, but his biases are easy to detect, and anyway probably aren't too different from my own. I liked it a lot. (I stopped after volume II, because I don't think I want to read three entire volumes about the exploits of William III.)

The most exciting parts were probably the account of the "Glorious Revolution" in the last two chapters of volume II. Even though it wasn't really a revolution, and the main principle at stake was the King James' refusal to sufficiently persecute Roman Catholics.

Favorite newly-learned historical fact: The secret treaty of Dover, in which Charles the second agrees to put himself and his armies at the service of Louis XIV, and even convert to catholicism (!!), all for a couple hundred thousand £'s.

Historical character I'd like to learn more about: Cromwell, Marlborough (tie)

Favorite obscure historical character: Praise-God Barebone (pictured)

Favorite historical hijinks: James II trying to flee England in disguise, getting captured by fisherman and treated rudely, but eventually recognized and returned to London. Nobody knew what to do with him, so they kind of let him escape again.

Favorite passage: taken from Macaulay's description of the character of Charles II, from Vol I, Chapter 2:
According to him [Charles], every person was to be bought: but some people haggled more about their price than others; and when this haggling was very obstinate and very skilful it was called by some fine name. The chief trick by which clever men kept up the price of their abilities was called integrity. The chief trick by which handsome women kept up the price of their beauty was called modesty. The love of God, the love of country, the love of family, the love of friends, were phrases of the same sort, delicate and convenient synonymes for the love of self. Thinking thus of mankind, Charles naturally cared very little what they thought of him. Honour and shame were scarcely more to him than light and darkness to the blind.

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