Saturday, January 24, 2009

Review: A History of Britain

When I returned from the holidays, I began watching a documentary series written and starring Simon Schama called A History of Britain. The 15-episode series originally aired in 3 parts from 2000 to 2002. The series recounts aspects of British history, attempting to make what could be a boring subject very enlightening and thought provoking. Schama's take on much of the historical events is revisionist in nature, as he attempts to have us rethink some of the lessons the British (and everyone else) may think about its history. I've mentioned Schama on this blog before (Schama on Turner), and I admit that I'm a bit of a fan. He has a way of capturing your attention and engaging with you, the viewer/listener, drawing you into a world that isn't all just a bunch of names and dates, but events that still impact our lives today. His revisionism offers objective perspectives on the so-called "good guys" and "bad guys" in history. For instance, his take on Thomas Becket, who I had always thought of as a "good guy" against the power-hunger King Henry II, suddenly comes off as an opinionated, power-hungry person himself, turning the tables on everything we assume to be true then about Becket's assassination in the Cathedral of Canterbury in 1170.

One of Schama's strengths is the way he makes each episode tell a story, and this works successfully at times through the use of counterpoint, whereby one person or event is positioned against another. One of the best parts of the series, for example, is the episode entitled "The Body of the Queen." While primarily about Elizabeth I of England, it's also about her arch-rival and cousin Mary, Queen of Scotland. The idea of the queen's "body" refers to her physical body, her ability to reproduce, the fact that doctors believed at the time that if a woman didn't reproduce, her internal organs would spill out of her body. Mary gave birth to a son. Elizabeth had no children. But the idea of "body" also becomes a metaphor that connects these queens to their countries, and the people become their children. The ironic twist in this story is that although Elizabeth was forced to execute her cousin for treason, it was Mary's son James VI of Scotland who became Elizabeth's successor, James I of England and Scotland. Schama plays this same counterpoint in other ways. In the fantastic episode "The Wrong Empire," Schama demonstrates how British colonies in America and India grew concurrently, but how each evolved in differently, America eventually fighting for its independence, India absorbing British totalitarianism because of its fractured political state. This changes drastically, of course, in a later episode called "Empire of Good Intentions" where we see the later history of India, in particular after the Sepoy Massacre in 1858 that led to Britain officially annexing India into its empire. Schama does an amazing job showing how the rebellion in India compared to the plight of Ireland at almost the same time, with the great potato famine of the 1840s and the subsequent fight for Ireland's independence taking place along with the incorporation of India.

Of course, Schama's two episodes on Victorian England pleased me. The second is the aforementioned "Empire of Good Intentions," but the first is "Victoria and Her Sisters," which discusses how Queen Victoria represented an idealized form of womanhood in England, while simultaneously non-aristocratic women were fighting for social reforms as writers, suffragettes, nurses, artists, and so on. It is a fascinating contrast of two modes in the development of women's studies. In the last episode, instead of presenting a straight survey of 20th-century Britain, Schama instead focuses on "The Two Winstons": Winston Churchill, born to the aristocracy and eventual Prime Minister, and Eric Blair, the working-class socialist writer who is better known by his pseudonym George Orwell. Schama uses these two men to demonstrate the two very different ways in which British men were raised in the early 20th-century, and how politics and social events were both impacted by and on these men.

Ultimately, it is Schama's desire for us to consider history itself, to recognize that it isn't all about names and dates, but lessons we need to learn from the past, and carry forth into the future. Near the end of the final episode, he says that history is "written not to revere the dead, but to inspire the living." If ever there was a succinct way of describing how we must learn from our mistakes and move forward, that was it (something we need to learn from today in our own country). I was so moved by Schama's complete closing remarks to that final episode and series that I've transcribed them below for your reading pleasure. Below that is a 10-minute clip from the opening of the episode on Elizabeth I and Mary. It's worth checking out because it gives you a sense of Schama's style and how the documentary plays out.

But then, when it counted, neither Churchill nor Orwell did the predictable thing, towed the party line. More important was their common belief that if Britain was to have a distinctive future in the age of super states it had better keep faith with the best traditions in its long history, the history that tied together social justice with blood-minded liberty. But history ought never to be confused with nostalgia. It's written not to revere the dead, but to inspire the living. It's our cultural blood stream, the secret of who we are, and it tells us to let go of the past even as we honor it, to lament what ought to be lamented, to celebrate what should be celebrated. And if in the end that history turns out to reveal itself as a patriot, well I think that neither Churchill nor Orwell would have minded that very much. And as a matter of fact, neither do I.

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