Book Review: London: A History (by Francis Sheppard) : BH

8/12/2001 • British Heritage Book Reviews, Reviews

London: A History, by Francis Sheppard, Oxford University Press, New York, to order, please phone 800-451-7556, $30, hardcover, 1998.

Francis Sheppard’s newly published London: A History has come across my desk just in time. After three long months of intermittent reading, I am nearing completion of Edward Rutherfurd’s epic London: The Novel. (This New York Times Bestseller is available in paperback from Fawcett Crest/Ballantine. For those of you who haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.)

Sheppard’s comprehensive history provides the perfect non-fiction companion to Rutherfurd’s fictionalized tale. Sheppard chose to skip over London’s pre-Roman beginnings (perhaps because the mysterious Celtic people are better fodder for fiction than fact) and start with London’s Roman heritage. From here he traces the city’s history through 1,950 years of prosperity, scandal, plague, fire, triumph, tragedy, civil war, political intrigue, and progress.

Perhaps the most striking element of London’s history is how the city has evolved through the generations, shaped by each group of people that has passed through its ancient city walls. Just as the River Thames, London’s lifeblood, continually flows along–ever changing–so, too, has London evolved to meet the needs of those who rely on her.

The book is divided into six chronological sections: ‘Londinium’; ‘From Londinium to the Chartered City of London c.400-c.1530’; ‘The Genesis of Modern London 1350-1700’; ‘Augustinian and Georgian London 1700-1830’; ‘Metropolitan and Imperial London 1830-1917’; and ‘The Uncertain Metropolis 1914-1997’. Sheppard tempers the sometimes dry political details with a fair dose of social history, providing a full picture of the history of the city and its people. Chapters on ‘Political Revolutions’ and ‘Metropolitan Politics’ are interspersed with ‘Death and Life in London’ and ‘Religion, Education, and Leisure’.

Sheppard’s work is refreshingly free from the tedium that plagues some other ‘history of civilization’ studies. This comes, perhaps, as a result of his own passion for the subject. Sheppard has been studying and writing about London all his life. His other works include London 1808-1870: The Infernal Wen and The Treasury of London’s Past. From 1954 to 1982 he served as the General Editor of the multi-volume Survey of London. His contagious enthusiasm was enough to get me through even the discussions of the Bank of England’s 19th-century financial crises–a point on which even Rutherfurd’s charming character Eugene Penny could barely hold my interest.

In their respective works, Sheppard and Rutherfurd prove their worth both as outstanding writers and top-notch historians. Although Sheppard, I must admit, deserves the greater credit for relying solely on the facts to make his story come to life. The best of both worlds is to read the two books in tandem, referring to A History for factual explication of the situations characters encounter in The Novel. I just wish that I could have had it by my side during the past three months.

Leigh Ann Berry


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