Here is a stupendous achievement: a narrative history of England which is both thorough and arresting. Very few writers could pull it off. Either they’d have an axe to grind, or they’d lose perspective, or they’d present a series of anecdotes, or they’d end up in a Casaubonish pursuit of other historians’ errors. In fact, to get it right, you’d ideally be a mature and accomplished author, steeped in the facts, who was nonetheless tackling English history for the first time.
Which is more or less what Robert Tombs, a professor of French history at Cambridge, is. ‘A writer of history ought, in his writings, to be a foreigner, without country, living under his own law only,’ claimed Thomas Hobbes, adapting Lucian.