Great Tales from English History, III : Captain Cook, Samuel Johnson, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Edward the Abdicator, and More
From William and Mary to Watson and Crick, Robert Lacey's final volume of Great Tales from English History offers up the most stirring English stories of the last few centuries. These are the years in which Great Britain came into being and the British Empire reached its zenith. They are also years of great technological advances--from the seed drill to the spinning jenny and the locomotive--and of leaps and bounds in political and moral philosophy.
In his trademark style, Lacey tells the tales that shaped a nation, revisiting some of England's most memorable personages: mad King George III, Samuel Johnson, Captain Cook, Victoria and Albert, Charles Darwin, and Winston Churchill. Alongside them, Lacey introduces some lesser known historical figures: the feminist crusader who was trampled by the king's racehorse, for instance, or the wife-murdering doctor who was tripped up by the new technology of telegraphy. Royal families and renowned scientists, highwaymen and war heroes--through unforgettable characters, the most pivotal moments of modern English history unfurl.
This is history with pace, punch, and personality. Robert Lacey's pinpoint accuracy in research is matched by his unerring instinct to unearth the stories behind the headlines of history--stories that, with this volume, see the culmination of his lively, magisterial, and sometimes mischievous trilogy of England's history.
The third volume in Lacey's series of edifying and entertaining stories from English history abounds in fascinating profiles. Industrial and agricultural pioneers such as Jethro Tull, James Hargreaves and Isambard Kingdom Brunel abide alongside human rights protestors such as Thomas Clarkson, who founded the British antislavery movement; feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft; and journalist Annie Besant, who initiated a successful 1888 match girls' strike. Lacey wittily summarizes the careers of various military giants of the British Empire including the duke of Marlborough and the mutiny-prone Captain Bligh, and treats the royal Hanover line with similar irreverence, beginning with the German import George I before describing, with modern medical hindsight, the "madness" of King George III and chronicling the teenage Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne in 1837. Meanwhile, Lacey draws attention to overlooked historical figures, such as the mixed-race Jamaican-born Crimean Wars nurse Mary Seacole, the Dorset fossil excavator and would-be geologist Mary Anning and Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman, creators of the 1930 satirical history classic 1066 and All That. Lacey's slyly oblique narratives will please history lovers of all ages. 60 b&w illus. (Dec. 11)
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Little, Brown and Company
December 11, 2006
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Excerpt from Great Tales from English History, III by Robert Lacey
LAST WEEK A WHALE SWAM PAST THE BOTTOM of my road. I live about a hundred yards from the Thames, in Pimlico, central London, so when the news came on the radio, I dashed down to the river to take a look.
There were hundreds of people there already, focusing their binoculars and clutching flasks of tea. It was rather a cheery, holiday happening - but also, in some way, an historic moment. Parents had brought their children to witness this event of a lifetime. Peering under the bridges, we could see that gallant volunteers had waded into the water to try to shoo the bewildered creature back downriver. When it became clear she could not do the job herself, they hoisted her on to a rescue barge.
I saw the barge come steaming back downstream, heading for the mouth of the river. It was travelling fast. On the deck we could make out the grey, shiny mass of the whale, surrounded by the volunteers splashing water over her. Could they keep her alive for long enough? we wondered. Could they make it to the open sea?
In the event, our hopes were dashed. The whale died, still on board the barge, in the estuary of the Thames, and the papers next day mourned her passing. One asked its readers for $10,000 to save the animal's bones for the nation, and there were agonised heart-searchings - could more have been done to save 'celebrity big blubber'?
It all made a striking contrast to the year 1240, in the reign of King Henry III, when a whale swam under London Bridge and the citizens pursued it upstream to Mortlake. They harpooned the creature to death - and when, four centuries later, another 'beast of prodigious size' lost its way in the river, it was similarly set upon, to be sliced up and borne away in oil-dripping chunks. The date was 3 June 1658, following 'an extraordinary storm of hail and rain, the season as cold as winter', and this disruption of nature's course was taken to be a significant omen. Oliver Cromwell fell ill that summer, and died three months later.
From old-time slaughter to modern empathy, with some ancient superstition along the way, the history of London's human-whale interaction from 1240 to 2006 would seem to demonstrate that mankind's finer feelings have made progress over the years. What a concentration of human goodwill was beamed towards that whale!
But consider how, in the centuries before people flicked a switch to light their homes, whale oil was a premier source of clean and bright illumination - a precious commodity. Then spare a few minutes, if you can bear it, to survey the superstitious omens on offer in the average modern horoscope column. Add in the tens of thousands of pounds that were spent in January 2006 on helicopters, cameras and whale punditry to turn the lingering death of a tragically disoriented mammal into a round-the-clock source of popular entertainment, and perhaps you will arrive at a different perspective - from level-headed survival to empty-headed sentimentality, perhaps? At least the harpooners of 1240 and 1658 put the poor animal out of its misery with dispatch.
The verdict is yours, dear reader. The job of the historian is to deal objectively with the available facts. But history is in the eye of the beholder and also of the historian who, as a human being, has feelings and prejudices of his own. In the two previous paragraphs you have seen the tale of the whale designed and redesigned to offer you two alternative conclusions.
So let me try to be candid about some of my own prejudices. I believe passionately in the power of good storytelling, not only because it is fun, but because it breathes life into the past. It is also through accurate narrative - establishing what happened first and what happened next - that we start to perceive the cause of things, and what influences human beings to act in the noble and cruel ways that they do.