Great dynasties

A People's History of Britain

Rebecca Fraser <em>Chatto & Windus, 829pp, £25</em>

ISBN 070116937

Rebecca Fraser began writing A People's History of Britain with the idea of creating "some kind of easy framework . . . to guide the average person through the confusing shoals of disputed facts, to give a broad-brush picture of the past". It is a deliberately catholic, old-fashioned approach, presented with a modern consciousness but not a whiff of political correctness or revisionism.

All our national heroes - predominantly rebellious anti-heroes, as Fraser tells it - are here, from Caractacus, the tribal chieftain who dared resist the Roman encroachment into Britain in the first century AD, and whose proud defiance, when he was captured, impressed the Emperor Claudius so much that he was set free; to the Saxon Hereward the Wake, a thousand years later, who was smoked out of his hideaway on the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire only by William the Conqueror himself; to Captain Oates, another millennium on, whose sacrifice of himself to save his companions (as he hoped) at the South Pole has become a byword for British courage and modesty.

Cultural events are given as much emphasis as wars and politics. The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 is placed alongside the Indian Mutiny as one of the defining events of the mid-19th century. The penetration of Africa's uncharted interior is seen as evidence of Britain's determination to impose its will on the world, and is viewed through the eyes of the missionary-explorer David Livingstone, the first white man to survive years on the disease-riven continent by making groundbreaking use of quinine.

Fraser is not afraid to retell myths. There is no contemporary evidence for Edward II having been killed with a poker "stuck up him" - in fact, the legend at Berkeley Castle is that he was starved to death in a deep dungeon, possibly sped on his way by putrid animal carcasses being thrown into the pit with him - though the story is unquestioningly presented here as fact. But myths do have their place in history: the red-hot poker episode is as much a part of our national consciousness as Edward II's weak-minded rule and his passion for Piers Gaveston.

Knowledge of the Pakenham/Fraser dynasty to which Rebecca Fraser belongs (she is the daughter of Antonia Fraser; a granddaughter of Elizabeth Longford; a niece of Thomas Pakenham and sister of Flora Fraser) lends A People's History of Britain another dimension. An astonishing proportion of the Britons she celebrates, including our entire monarchy, have been written about by members of her family. If ever there was someone fitted by their upbringing to write a book with this kind of scope, it is Fraser. The family passion for narrative history is translated here into an extremely readable biography of an entire nation.

Her thesis is that the British are "inextinguishably individualistic" lovers of liberty, rebels and pioneers. "Ironic, kindly, democratic, humorous, energetic, tolerant and brave, surely these are the best qualities of the British people," Fraser writes. Just as H E Marshall's Our Island Story, the tale of empire on which our parents and grandparents were brought up, unwittingly revealed how the Britons of 1905 saw themselves and their role in the world, A People's History of Britain will show future generations that in 2003 Britons saw themselves as being reformers and libertarians as much as patriotic traditionalists. Where Our Island Story was concerned with imperial reach and global domination, A People's History of Britain honours the legacies of "parliamentary democracy, the anti-slavery movement, penal reform, anti-militarism and municipal socialism".

As the narrative nears the present day, Fraser's own views become increasingly apparent. Although she is an egalitarian where ethnic minorities and gender issues are concerned, her "who, when, what, how" historical approach leads her to present an elitist view of the past populated mostly by men. She is also a committed monarchist and opposed to Britain's further political integration into Europe.

But none of this is heavy-handed. Part of the charm of A People's History of Britain is its deliberately conversational tone, enhanced by a wide range of simple black-and-white illustrations. Fraser is the history teacher you wish you'd had when you were at primary school, vividly explaining motivation, simplifying complex issues, retelling legends, dramatically recounting broad social change with as much gusto as she does battles. Robert of Normandy, the duke who raised a rebellion against Henry I, is described as a "thoughtless sort of fellow"; Queen Victoria was delighted when William Gladstone was replaced as prime minister by Benjamin Disraeli, who "treated her as if she was a character from an old romance . . . Being with Disraeli was as intoxicating as drinking champagne, and he enjoyed a good deal of that, too."

It is a book to read straight through for its dramatic narrative, a reference book that will see every history student through school and university, and a book to pick up and put down at random. As Fraser intended, A People's History of Britain should make us all proud to be British.

Lucy Moore is the author of Amphibious Thing: the life of Lord Hervey (Penguin)