This, the third volume in Ackroyd’s planned six-book history of England, is the first of the series that I have read. Why read an amateur historian’s version of the already well-documented events of the English 17th century? The main reason was that I had enjoyed Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2000) so much.
London was a rare work — almost 800 pages, and each one of them engrossing. Ackroyd told the story of England’s great city through the writings and historical records of the times, accomplishing a portrait both vast and intimate. It remains one of my favourite works of history.
I wish that I could praise the present book so unequivocally.
Rebellion features the same thorough grounding in the source materials of its period, but it lacks some of the best qualities of London.
Even at almost 600 pages, Rebellion is too breathlessly paced to generate a real sense of time and place. Too much of the book has an “and then, and then” quality, rushing from one event to the next, for the reader ever to feel comfortably “inside” the story.
One major reason for the difference may be that London was the story of a place, not of people. There was room to explore the city’s architecture, its commerce, its arts and social classes. Rebellion is a story of people caught up in a swirl of events. There’s little space in which to emphasize individuals or the ways that they coped with their challenging times. With the exception of the great leaders, kings and Lord Protectors, the people who struggled with the many controversies and contradictions of the 17th century are drawn only briefly and only broadly, represened not as individuals but as large groups: levellers, covenenters, Catholics, and all of the others.
This rush through the century is ultimately unsatisfying, and it’s whyI can’t really recommend Rebellion.
But if you haven’t read Ackroyd’s London, now, that is a good book.