Brief and lively essays about Winston Churchill, “Mad” King George III, Florence Nightingale and others who helped to define Britain to itself and to the world
Great Tales From English History (Book 3): Captain Cook, Samuel Johnson, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Edward the Abdicator, and More. By Robert Lacey. Little, Brown, 305 pp., $23.99.
By Janice Harayda
Love history but lack the time to read an entire book on John Wilkes Booth or the conquest of polio? Forgotten so much of what you learned in a Western Civ course that you need to review some of it?
Consider picking up Robert Lacey’s engaging “Great Tales From English History” series, which consists of three volumes you can read in any order. Each book has 60 or so lively essays on a person or event that helped to define a year or era in Britain.
Some of the most interesting entries in the latest book deal with people little-known to most Americans, such as Edith Cavell, who ran a World War I nurses’ school in Belgium and used it to shelter British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. (She kept her diary sewn into a footstool so it didn’t fall into the hands of Germans but was accidentally betrayed and executed by a firing squad in her nurse’s uniform.) But Lacey is also adept at showing you how much you don’t know about major figures like Winston Churchill, Horatio Nelson, Florence Nightingale and “Mad” King George III.
Lacey’s essays are short – about 1,000 words in an easy-on-the-eyes font – and take only a few minutes to read. So the “Great Tales” books could be ideal for a nightstand or for anyone who, say, spends a lot of time waiting in a car to pick up a child or spouse. Even better for some of us, Lacey has said that he hopes to expand the series to include colorful episodes from American history.
Best line: This one about Queen Victoria is typical: “Of the many photographs of Britain’s longest reigning monarch, only one shows her smiling.”
Worst line: Lacey lives in London and occasionally omits facts that, though perhaps unnecessary in Britain, would have helped here. In his essay “Voice of the People” he suggests that Churchill’s career-ending defeat in the 1945 election resulted partly from his inflammatory campaign remark that “Some form of Gestapo” would be needed to enforce the policies of the Labour Party. Lacey doesn’t say that Churchill belonged at the time to the Conservative Party. And Churchill was such a notorious party-switcher (from Conservative to Liberal to Conservative and running in one election as a self-described “constitutional anti-socialist”) that this information would have been useful.
Recommended if … you’re looking for light and diverting history, not heavy scholarship, or planning a vacation in England and want to learn about the people and events you’ll find honored on monuments. A “Great Tales” book could also make an excellent gift for a teenager who loves history or may major in it in college.
Furthermore: Other volumes in this series are Great Tales from English History (Book 1): The Truth About King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More (Little, Brown 2004 and 2007 reprint) and Great Tales from English History (Book 2): Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, and More (Little, Brown 2005).
Published (Book 3): December 2006
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.