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Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Book review: Revolution, Peter Ackroyd (2016)

The big problem with this book is that Ackroyd is a fierce and dedicated patriot. When I look at his Wikipedia page I see something else that troubles me: he publishes a book every year, will-he-nil-he, like a large piece of brass clockwork, ready to oblige the consumer, but which turns out in the end to give little satisfaction to the truly discerning reader. Everything to everybody and an expert on nothing.

You can see which way this is going. I bought this book because I wanted to read more about the 17th century – the “revolution” of the title is the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 – because I wanted to know more about the confluence of religion, politics and identity. I thought that England could teach me something about the modern world that I was struggling to understand. But this was not really the place to go to find help.

Starting in 1688 with the installation of the Protestant William of Orange on the throne in London was a way to learn about the way that identity switched from the flavour of your church to that of your political party. And there are indications in this book, in the early chapters, that show that passion for party within the broader community ran just as high in the 1710s as passions for church had in the 1640s. The change seems to have been almost seamless. But Ackroyd is not a deep enough thinker to provide the guidance I was looking for. He is more interested in congratulating the “middling classes” for winning out in the political battle that ensued over the next 100 years or so. It’s short-term and teleological.

The Whig version of history has enough supporters, and I don’t need to participate in that particular fight for it to feel confident of its continued success. The American middle class has an interest in this fight as well. I’m much more interested in the nuances and contradictions that appeared as a result of the progress of history. What, for example, about the Tory satirists of Martinus Scriblerus (Pope and Swift among them) who denigrated the budding discipline of science, a field of endeavour that would later be characterised specifically by the participation of religious dissenters? But Ackroyd ignores the border districts of the territory he covers, and sticks stubbornly to the main drag, like a bus with a handful of passengers that hogs the carriageway and fills the air with its noise and noisesomness as it ploughs relentlessly onward to its predetermined goal.

I don’t mind learning about the rise of the middle classes but it’s something that likely involved a lot more subtlety than someone as obtuse as Ackroyd might ever guess. In later years, for instance, Jane Austen would come to represent the middle ground. But Austen was a notable Tory, not a Whig like Edmund Bourke, friend of conservatives through the ages. The delineations of identity, when it comes to the middle classes, are not as clear-cut as someone as doltish as Ackroyd insists in books such as this. More shopping malls, Peter? Sure! Let’s open a dozen of ‘em!

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