Dates with destiny

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Vyvyen Brendon catches up with some of history's movers and shakers

SPAIN 1474-1700. By Colin Pendrill. FRANCE IN REVOLUTION 1776-1830. By Sally Waller. Heinemann Advanced History pound;10.25 each

These are welcome additions to Heinemann's Advanced History list. For much of their subject matter - the Spanish monarchs' fear and intolerance of their Moorish subjects and the terror generated by the French Revolution - has a powerful contemporary resonance.

This series has not, however, adopted the ideal recipe for presenting such exciting topics. The omission of vintage ingredients means the books lack flavour. It is all very well for Colin Pendrill to advise AS pupils that original quotations "are very much appreciated by examiners", but there are few to be found in his text (except in the A2 chapter on cultural aspects of Spain's Golden Age).

Sally Waller's volume is at least enriched by carefully selected examples of French art from the period, poorly reproduced though most of them are.

Heinemann's division between plain AS nursery fare and a more sophisticated A2 diet does not cater well for sixth-formers' needs.

In his first section Pendrill dishes up the idea that "Spanish power was on the wane" during the 17th century, only to reject later the "unhelpful supposition" of the Decline of Spain. Similarly, Waller gives AS readers a useful summary, ... Lefebvre, of the stages of revolution, showing the successive participation of social classes. She reserves for the A2 course the statement that "Marxist views have been almost totally discredited".

A-level students do not need to be spoon-fed in this selective fashion.

Despite the drawbacks of the series, both authors provide a clear and serviceable treatment of these thought-provoking topics. And teachers will not find it difficult to supply the missing ingredients - primary sources, spirited discussion and spicy details.

COMMUNIST RUSSIA UNDER LENIN AND STALIN. By Chris Corlin and Terry Fiehn. John Murray SHP Advanced History Core Texts pound;13.50

This is "a large book on a massive topic", as its preface states; it is also weighty and costly. But students will find their mental and physical efforts rewarded and teachers will not regret the expense.

Like other volumes in John Murray's SHP series, this one initially appears intellectually lightweight, with its illustrated diagrams, activity boxes and cartoons. But this is a misleading impression.

The authors provide an analytical narrative as well as a wide selection of historians' views. Especially welcome is their inclusion of stories from Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy, a book which illustrates the point made in one of their "learning trouble spots" - that historians can't always be "pigeon-holed into particular camps". (The mixed metaphor is an unusual slip.) This textbook has further strengths: a wealth of original sources, including rare items from the Smolensk Archive; an abundance of personal stories such as those of Stalin's wife and Osip Mandestam; and some striking graphics showing, for example, a factory manager sweating over his myriad problems.

One of the cartoons has Trotsky and Stalin slugging it out in a boxing ring - and yet the authors never lose sight of the human tragedy that was 20th-century Russia. Even so, they shouldn't tell pupils that this book "contains everything you need for examination success". It contains nothing, for example, on Russia's traumatic experiences during and after the Second World War. In any case, the wealth of history can never be encompassed in one volume, however hefty.

VICTORIAN SOCIAL LIFE: British Social History 1815-1914. By Jane Jenkins with Eric Evans. John Murray Advanced History Sourcebook pound;13.50

The title of this book is misleading in two respects. As the dates reveal, it covers both the final Hanoverian years (though not the neglected early industrialisation period) and the Edwardian era.

The wide chronological span should make this a useful volume, but the narrow scope of its subject matter detracts from its value. After claiming early on that "religion was a major preoccupation" and that "tackling crime was a high priority", the authors say nothing more about Victorian churches and prisons. The new railway system is also given short shrift. Yet there are two long chapters on the Poor Law, followed by another on welfare reforms.

This dense compilation of statistical, pictorial and written sources will certainly have its academic uses. But some students will find it hard to struggle through so much faint italic print and the detailed charts of information. Their attention is too seldom directed to the voice behind the page.

Teachers on the other hand might find many of the sources familiar since they are quoted in other anthologies. Some at least are notably well chosen, if not always correctly acknowledged. Three consecutive extracts on the Poor Law, all wrongly attributed, come from my own The Age of Reform 1820-50 (Hodder amp; Stoughton).

Vyvyen Brendon is retired head of history at St Mary's School, Cambridge and a history author

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