Friday, 11 May 2018

Review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain, by Ian Mortimer

This is the third Time Traveller’s Guide that Ian Mortimer has written, the previous two being of Medieval and then Elizabethan England. They’re completely self-contained, but I thought it worth mentioning in case anyone reading this preferred to get them in chronological order.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain is a sort of everyday history, relating the habits of people high and low through the latter half the 17th century, when the monarchy was restored after the censorious puritanism of Cromwell’s reign. Innovations and advancement are everywhere, as Newton, Purcell, and Wren set to work furthering the boundaries of science, music, and architecture (the latter ‘aided’ by the Great Fire of London in 1666).

It is in this period that superstition really buckles beneath the weight of science, or starts to, at least. Speech becomes freer as newspapers spring up and a short-lived attempt at regulation ends, enabling a free press (which has continued to this day). Literacy rises, transport is improved with flying coaches and the impressively swift postal service. The plague sees its last occurrence on British shores, doctors soar in number, and women begin to break into art, acting, and other fields.

But it also sees terrible fires, the coldest winter ever, political turmoil when James II is deposed, the ongoing battle between puritans and those who preferred a freer society and many attitudes we would consider horrendous today (a love of cockfighting, religious segregation, kidnapping people for enforced servitude on ships/in colonies etc).

Ian Mortimer tells of life from the very richest to the very poorest, what people ate, how they lived, what work they did, and how the country changed so dramatically from the austere reign of Cromwell to the flamboyant Charles II (and his successors). It’s engaging and places you in the boots of the 17th people he describes.

This did throw up an interesting question. Until quite recently I didn’t give books specific ratings (on a personal level, I dislike them because a small problem for one reader is a deal-breaker for another, but do appreciate that others find such things useful). How to define a five star book? Something nigh on perfect? Something that’s 81% or better?

Regardless, I believe this excellent book, full of interesting snippets of information and insightful commentary, to be a five star book.


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