Sunday 26 January 2020

Book Review: Richard J. Evans, The Pursuit of Power (London, 2016)

Rachael Caine
BA History
This book review was written by the author as part of the assessment for the first year module, Introduction to Modern History.
"The Pursuit of Power" is an ambitious book. Author, Richard J. Evans, former Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, who was in 2012 knighted for his contribution to scholarship, prefaces his book with some admirable intentions: he wants this history of nineteenth century Europe to go beyond the European, and beyond the so-called "Great Men" of history. There will be Napoleon, certainly, but, alongside him, the story of his foot-soldier, who had no love for Napoleon and just wanted to go home. Like many before him, including Hobsbawm (to whom this book is dedicated) Evans endeavours to write a holistic history, placing the social and cultural side-by-side with the economic, political, and military. Furthermore, Evans rejects Eurocentric, individualistic histories of European states. Like his self-professed role model, the late Lord Acton of Cambridge Modern History, Evans’s mission statement appears to be that the history of Europe ought to be greater than its parts (the individual history of nations). He instead sets out to write a global, transnational history. Perhaps no work of history can claim to represent the past as it was, or indeed to include all of it in any given period, but ambitious works such as this one dare to try.
The book contains only 8 chapters, though at a colossal 848 pages the chapters are not lacking in content. Within this, Evans has attempted to categorise the period into distinct themes. It is refreshing that Evans does not go with the obvious choices, instead framing his chapters under fresh, interesting headlines, such as "The Age of Emotion"(exploring Romanticism across Europe in response to the ideas Enlightenment ), and "The Conquest of Nature" (which covers subjects as diverse as the invention of the steam train and growing-pains of the healthcare profession, all under the guise of man vs. nature).
The book’s unique selling-point, though, is the way in which a chapter begins with the story of one individual. From Jakob Walter, the unknown and unhappy foot-soldier of Napoleon I, to Emmeline Pankhurst, the famous Suffragette, these introductions are always an insightful read. Evans masterfully weaves these stories into the greater narrative of both the chapter, and the book in general, using them to illustrate the plight of the common man, and reminding us to think about the impact monumental events of the nineteenth century had on their contemporaries. This is a highly effective and powerful technique. For example, the story of Russian serf Savva Dmitrievich Purlevsky, retold from the rare and valuable primary source material of his memoirs highlights the universal plight of the serf, while exposing its nuances. Purlevsky was relatively well-off and literate, ergo, serfs were not a monolith. And yet, he too suffered greatly under the practice. Evans successfully makes the reader question pre-conceived notions of the past, gently encouraging the reader to think more deeply.
It is clear that the author seeks, in doing so, to right a perceived wrong in the historiography of the period, in that populations such as peasants, farmers, and women have been marginalised for too long. If only in a small way, Evans is helping to shine a light on those forgotten by posterity. He argues the compelling point that peasants and women were a huge percentage of the European population, and it does a great disservice to them, the literature of the period, and to ourselves, to brush them aside without comment or due attention.
That Evans leaves no stone unturned is hardly an exaggeration. In addition to the attention he gives to the major events of the era (in no small detail), wars and all, the book delves into topics a less-confident historian would leave to specialists: arts, literature, superstition, madness, and slavery to name a few. Evans is not afraid to venture outside Europe in his quest for a truly holistic history of Europe. Nor does he shy away from the dark consequences of Europe's ambition in the century. Evans is quick to point, for example, the horrific impacts of European Colonial ambition, such as the Belgian abuses in the Congo. In short, he is unflinching in discussing the history some may wish to forget. In the somewhat turbulent times we live in, it becomes increasingly important not to whitewash history, literally and otherwise. Evans does a sound job of keeping humanity in history above all else, without coming across as overly emotional or moralistic.
All this makes Evans’s book a valuable companion to the study of nineteenth century Europe, however, it may not be the students' go-to. The structure is perhaps too stylistic to be strictly academic. In fact, despite the author's historical credentials, this book makes no claim to be a textbook, and certainly not one which can be crammed before a test. The breadth and depth of Evans’s work is undeniable, but the unique structure and approach means it may not be appropriate as a core text on a university curriculum. It may be said of all books, but this one is not for everyone. At the aforementioned page count of 848 pages, it is a gargantuan piece of work, almost too comprehensive. Though the author intends it to be read chronologically, the scale and complexity of the book make this a mammoth undertaking, one which is not suitable for an introductory text. So, it is neither a textbook, nor a classic piece of popular history, but falls somewhere in-between. The danger here is that it leaves the potential for both audiences to be left unsatisfied. This is a concern, and it is of course down to personal taste, but Evans is compelling enough as both a writer and a historian to take the risk and be rewarded for it.
Despite its thoroughness, Evans offers no concluding chapter. Throughout the book, he makes no forceful arguments or unreasonably bold claims. He does not allow his personality or opinions to outshine the factual content, he simply encourages the reader to think more deeply and come to their own conclusions. After spanning almost 100 years, Evans’s book finishes on the ominous remark made by Sir Edward Grey, on the brink of the First World War: "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." With this, as Evans neatly frames the nineteenth century between world-shaking wars, the value of his work is clear. History should be colourful, emotional, and not-without its challenges; it would be a discredit to humanity to tell it otherwise, so says Richard J. Evans.

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