Embarrassment of Riches, Patriots and Liberators
[Simon Schama, History of Britain]
biography, history, historian

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Simon Schama
A History of Britain

 " Historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their documentation. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot."
Simon Schama
"Afterword," Dead Certainties (1991).

  Simon Schama was born in London in February 1945 into a Jewish family - both sets of grandparents had fled persecution, one from the remnants of the Ottoman empire, the other from Lithuania. Immigration, movement, cultural collision are part of his experience and are central themes in his work.

  His father was a textile merchant who did well enough after the war for the family to move out to Essex, where they lived near Leigh-on-Sea. The young Schama enjoyed the non-kosher delights of Southend - he calls it "gloriously lurid" and salivates over the "flaccid, vinegar-saturated chips" and "cylinders of Day-Glo-pink rock candy" - and he eulogised the visual pleasures of the Thames estuary in Landscape and Memory. One of his father's periodic financial disasters necessitated a move back to London, to a more modest house in Golders Green, but Schama's intellectual progress was secure. He won a scholarship to Haberdashers' Aske's school, was captivated by a series of inspirational teachers, and shone at English and History, opting to study the latter at Christ's College, Cambridge, but never quite forgetting the former. His writing career and the way he commutes between art history and history reflect his fertile marriage of the two disciplines.

  At Cambridge he fell under the spell of Plumb, whose 60's students - Linda Colley, Roy Porter, John Brewer - now dominate British historical thinking. Plumb instilled in his students the importance of style and a commitment to narrative; he "taught us that writing was not just an auxiliary to research, wanted people outside the academy to read history, wanted it to be entertaining," Schama has said.

  Schama, with his starred first, immediately became a fellow at Christ's, but without tenure. He stayed for 10 years, his contract perpetually renewed, teaching, delivering a famously vivid set of lectures on the French revolution - complete with funny voices, waving arms and impersonations of Marat - and working on the book that became Patriots and Liberators, a fairly conventional treatment of the impact of the French revolution on Holland for which he was awarded the Wolfson Prize for History.

  The expected tenured job at Cambridge never came, so in 1976 he took a fellowship at Brasenose, Oxford. He stayed for only four years before, tired of the teaching, the syllabus and the lottery that was the exam system ("I felt like a gerbil on a treadmill"), he headed for a professorship at Harvard, where a year earlier he had delivered a set of lectures on the Civilization of the Netherlands exploring themes that would later resurface in The Embarrassment of Riches, the 1987 history of the Dutch golden age that cemented his reputation and, some believe, is his most perfect fusion of historical narrative and cultural critique.

  After The Embarrassment of Riches, Schama wrote Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Commissioned by Penguin and written at breakneck speed, it was a triumph, admired everywhere except France where, in the revolution's bicentenary year, they found it hard to stomach his argument that from the beginning it had been the harbinger of terror, a "sacrament of blood". He was accused of Fukuyama-style revisionism, but denied the charge: he was, he insisted, no conservative, no apologist for the ancien regime; he told one interviewer he was on the right in the old Labour party, on the left in the new.

  In 1991, his confidence and the urge to experiment growing, he produced Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), a curious hybrid of fact and fiction linking the death of General Wolfe in 1759 with the trial for murder of a Boston professor in 1849. It was bold, imaginative, daring - and almost universally disliked.

  From 1995-98, Schama was art critic and cultural essayist for The New Yorker magazine. In 1996 he produced a television series called Landscape and Memory - fact, certainly, but fact presented in a uniquely imaginative, coruscating way. Reviewers entered their caveats and readers struggled with its sheer munificence - it posed as many questions as it answered - but the book sold well and won plaudits and prizes. Schama had become a phenomenon.

  He is a populariser of history, but never dumbs down. His books are by no means easy reading. As his friend Antonia Fraser says: "If he wanted to achieve great popular success, he has a funny way of going about it." But his books do strike a chord and appeal to a large general audience; his wonderful titles, the breadth and humanity of his vision, the scale of his enterprise, the willingness to fail set him apart from other historians. He has become part of the cultural conversation in the US and the UK, and the plugged-in classes want to read him, or will at least buy his books with that intention.

  The first batch of the 'A History of Britain' series of documentaries that were produced for the BBC to mark the Millenium were broadcast in autumn 2000. A second batch, screened spring 2001, took the story up to the end of the eighteenth century, and the series subsequently concluded with a look back at the last 200 years. The series was, in part, the odyssey of Schama as a returning exile, and in part a portrait of a society built on layers of immigration, exploring the tensions between sometimes competing cultural groups and the way identity is forged on the anvil of difference.

  Everyone says that Schama is "brilliant", but the word is nuanced depending on who is saying it. His friends, of course, mean it. Take the historian Peter Hennessy, who has known him since they were at Cambridge together in the 60s. "He gets arcane matters to walk, in fact to dance, off the page," says Hennessy. "He was always like that, and to sustain that degree of verve over three decades is amazing. He was very precocious - I always knew he would be a star; he had brilliance and bubble, and nobody does narrative better than him."

  A leading British historian who prefers not to be named also calls Schama "brilliant" and "engaging", but the meaning he gives those words is rather less flattering. "Academics tend to be quite sniffy about his work," he says. "He isn't engaged in quite the same project as the academic historian. He is concerned to present the past in a vivid fashion - which is not what academics are supposed to do. Their approach tends to be more analytical. He is in the tradition of Macaulay and principally concerned to evoke atmospheres. But the danger of that is that the imagination takes over; we just don't know enough about the past to be able to do it." Sometimes, perhaps, one can be a little too brilliant.

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay "History"
Italian Unification - Cavour, Garibaldi and
the Unification of Risorgimento Italy
Otto von Bismarck &
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Italian unification map
Risorgimento Italy
Map of German unification
1 The European Revolution of 1848 begins
A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.

2 The French Revolution of 1848
A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".

3 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
"Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.

4 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.

5 The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.
Emerson's "Transcendental" approach to History
The Vienna Declaration
Framework Convention on National minorities



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Simon Schama - biography
A History of Britain