A wide angle on the detail

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Sean Lang reviews a selection of the latest study guides for A-level

YEARS OF CHANGE (2nd Edition) By Robert Wolfson and John Laver Hodder Stoughton Pounds 13.99.

QUESTIONS IN HISTORY SERIES The Weimar Republic. By Alan White Stalin's Russia. By Martyn Whittock Collins Pounds 3.99 each

HISTORY AT SOURCE SERIES The Edwardian Age. By Vivyen Brendon. The Reformation in Europe By Andrew Johnston Hodder Stoughton Pounds 6.50 each

PERSONALITIES AND POWERS SERIES Stanley Baldwin and the Search for Consensus. By Duncan Watts. Winston Churchill: Statesman or Opportunist? By Peter Neville Hodder Stoughton Pounds 5.25 each

SEMINAR STUDIES IN HISTORY SERIES The Pre-Reformation Church of England 1400-1530 (Revised Edition). By Christopher Harper-Bill Pounds 7.50. Chartism (Third Edition). By Edward Royle Pounds 6.50

The Origins of the First World War (Second Edition). By Gordon Martel Pounds 6.50. The Weimar Republic (Second Edition). By John Hiden Pounds 6.50. Spain's Civil War (Second Edition). By Harry Browne Pounds 6.99 The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945 (Third Edition). By Paul Adelman Pounds 6.50. The Conservative Governments 1951-1964 By Andrew Boxer Pounds 6.99, Longman

ACCESS TO HISTORY SERIES Britain and the European Powers 1865-1914. By Robert Pearce. The Habsburg Empire 1815-1918. By Nick Pelling. The Changing Role of Women 1815-1914 By Paula Bartley. Reconstruction and the Results of the American Civil War. By Alan Farmer. China: from Empire to People Republic 1900-49. By Michael Lynch. Stagnation and Reform: the USSR 1964-92. By John Laver Hodder Stoughton Pounds 5.99 and Pounds 6.25 each

Robert Wolfson describes in the introduction to the revised edition of his popular textbook Years of Change how when he started teaching A-level history he was astounded to find that he was expected to use the same texts he had just stopped using as an undergraduate. For many years this was the case, and it was always a mixed blessing: on the one hand it gave students the opportunity to engage in debate with the works of leading historians in the field; on the other hand, leading historians do not necessarily write with an audience of 16-year-olds in mind.

Wolfson's own response, for which many students have cause to thank him, was to write his own, authoritative and readable textbook, which here appears in a handsome new edition, including more pictures, maps, and diagrams and more direct study guidance for students. The authors have succeeded in making a very good textbook even better.

Years of Change is a comprehensive textbook on a wide period; most provision, however, is in the form of topic books, which inevitably combine greater depth with greater expense if one is trying to resource a whole A-level syllabus. All the more welcome, therefore, is a new series from Collins, Questions in History, whose volumes come attractively priced at Pounds 3.99.

The idea here is that the text is arranged around significant questions rather than more familiar themes. On inspection this appears rather less radical than it sounds: the text is extremely clearly written and the level of detail and explanation is excellent; however, these are essentially didactic texts in response to the questions in the chapter headings. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and their price and compactness will make them a very attractive option for heads of history strapped for cash.

Where Questions in History concentrates on explanation, the History at Source series has established a reputation for providing invaluable short anthologies of source material. Vivyen Brendon's volume on the Edwardian Age is a delight to read, starting off with the sinking of the Titanic as a model for the age as a whole and involving such a colourful collection of sources, literary and artistic as well as political, that it is worth teaching the period just to use the book. I laughed aloud at the description of Edward VII as "Edward the Caresser".

Andrew Johnston was faced with a more ambitious project to cover the whole European Reformation, from Luther to the Dutch Revolt in one volume and I cannot help feeling the book would have been better had it attempted to cover less ground. The extracts are quite long, and many of them go into a lot of theological detail, rather at the expense of the more human side. I missed Luther's "Here I stand" speech, for example, though there is a lively collection of polemical woodcuts.

Personalities and Powers is a series of short biographies of major figures. These can be extremely useful to students, though, given the price, they could be more attractively produced. The Baldwin book even misspells "Consensus" on the cover and the spine, and the order form which accompanied my copy listed it with a different subtitle altogether. However, the book itself is a very comprehensive and readable guide to a figure who was much more complex than many realised.

The Churchill volume is disappointing. It reads sometimes as if the author is showing off his knowledge of Churchillian quips, while the bibliography, which keeps warning that certain titles are only suitable for the more able, is extraordinary. And in any case, can a statesman not be an opportunist as well?

Longman can fairly claim the credit for having pioneered the move towards topic books, and its Seminar Studies series is celebrating its 30th birthday with a big promotion, a new design and format, and new editions of some old favourites including, appropriately, The Rise of the Labour Party.

Coming so soon after the last re-vamp of the series in smart new covers this may not excite everybody, but the sheer quality of the books is a strong as it ever was. These are authoritative texts, with extremely useful documentary collections attached.

Andrew Boxer's volume on the post-war Conservative governments, the only wholly new title in this collection, is very impressive and includes extracts from all the major speeches and papers that one would expect to find. In the current political climate his examination of "Butskellism" is particularly timely.

Seminar Studies has never forgotten its undergraduate audience, Access to History, by contrast, is much more focused on A-level students, with copious guidance on how to take notes and prepare answers, even where to pause in reading the chapter you are on. The series is now branching out into new fields, with a volume on British foreign policy up to 1914 to add to other titles on 19th-century Britain, a very fine volume on the Habsburg Empire, and studies of post-1945 history, American history, and women's history.

Paula Bartley's The Changing Role of Women ought to have the words "in Britain" added to the title and a lot of entries added to the index, but she has managed to maintain a very successful balance between the wide theories of women's history and the human detail. There is a particularly good section on Victorians' embarrassed attempts to deal with the appalling problem of prostitution.

Alan Farmer seems to be undertaking a one-man campaign to resource American history, and Reconstruction and the Results of the American Civil War, one of a number of books he has written for the series, is clear and comprehensive. This was not an easy period for the American South: one southerner described the Yankees to a journalist: "I git up at half past four in the morning, and sit up till twelve at night, to hate'em"!

I am not sure why this book, and John Laver's excellent book on the Brezhnev and Gorbachev era in Russia, should cost more than the others, but teachers know the quality of this series, and it is being very capably maintained.

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