Like department stores, empires and encyclopaedias, the multi-volume narrative national history is an invention of the later 18th century. It reaches its apogee, promising to bring everything important within a single enclosure, in the 19th and early 20th century. After that, ambitious examples appear to be fighting against a general lack of enthusiasm.
Most of these works are little read now, from David Hume’s 1750s The History of England all the way through to Winston Churchill’s idiosyncratic A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s. The grand sweep has a tendency to define the significant in advance. Many of these histories can explain a sequence of legislation, such as the Factory Acts, but are incapable of really evoking the texture of the times or the tenor of minds. At best, they are a useful framework — I mean, who doesn’t mentally place events of the past against the dates of rulers, thinking of Victorian and Edwardian architects as subtly different in some way?
But there’s no denying that we are becoming increasingly sceptical about these grandly inclusive tours d’horizon. They seem to leave a lot out: the experience of women and the working classes and other outsiders often enter only when the ruling elite decides to offer them education, the vote or previously withheld opportunities. Perhaps these massive narratives will disappear like Debenhams, or go into a long, old-fashioned decline like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Or perhaps they will change into something new. David Kynaston’s wonderful sequence of books about postwar Britain, the latest volume of which is just out, is rooted not in Acts of Parliament but in individual voices, often quite unknown. Dominic Sandbrook’s highly enjoyable books of the same period are unusually responsive to the fast-changing texture of popular culture and are much more evocative than many narrative histories.
Innovation is the final volume of Peter Ackroyd’s The History of England, which this most industrious of writers has been bringing out since 2011.