Professor Blanning has taken on quite a task, an overview of the Continent from Portugal to Moscow and beyond, during that period between the Peace of Westpahalia to the end of Napoleonic France. It is of course also the period of Britain’s rise to greatness. It is only the second part of the new Penguin history of Europe to be published, and at 677 pages I have a horrible fear that will need to be buying some more bookcases if the others come close to this in terms of sheer quality.
He pulls of this task, half showman, half pathologist; breaking the whole period into themes and setting of on the journey with communications. For a world in which action to notification can be judged in milliseconds, and thence to reaction in minutes it is sobering to be reminded quite how long everything once took. At the start of the period to visit Edinburgh from London was a feat of logistics and stamina and took upwards of a month (256 hrs), by the end of the period it could be completed in under a week (60). The ramifications of this are hard to comprehend. And in Britain we were lucky. On the Continent the roads were normally worse, and given the political situation every few miles were bedevilled by a range of tolls tariffs and bureaucracy.
But far from being dryly statistical Blanning pulls plums from the pudding. The voices of women though muffled were far from silent, almost 100 years before the famous Mary Wollstoncraft wrote her treatise he brings us the only too modern and authentic voice of Sarah Egerton, published in 1703,
Say, tyrant Custom, why must we obey
The impositions of thy haughty sway?
From the first dawn of life unto the grave,
Poor womenkind’s in every state a slave,
The nurse, the mistress, aren’t and the swain,
For love she must, there’s none escape that pain.
Then comes the last, the fatal slavery:
The husband with insulting tyranny
Can have ill manners justified by law,
For men all join to keep the wife in awe.
Moses, who first our freedom did rebuke,
Was married when he writ the Pentateuch.
They’re wise to keep us slaves, for well they know,
If we were loose, we soon should make them so.
He moves through great swathes of life, introducing us to such fancies as the varieties of hunting (apparently the greatest fun possible in Dresden was the Royally sponsored sport of fox tossing). All the while he keeps of the key and dimly (for me) remembered schoolboy history, Emperors, electors, kings, queens, wars and revolutions.
When he does of course it is done with breathtaking clarity and fluency, sweeping through the rise and fall of dynasties; Cossack rebellions, Turkish defeats, peninsular campaigns and slogging, as soldiers must through acres of Flanders mud.
All in a breathtaking vision of a continent ineffably foreign, but deeply familiar.