'While Britain was losing an empire, it was finding itself...' The compelling opening words to The Fate of the Empire, set the tone and agenda for the final stage of Simon Schama's epic voyage around Britain, her people and her past. Spanning two centuries, crossing the breadth of the empire and covering a vast expanse of topics - from the birth of feminism to the fate of freedom - he explores the forces that shaped British culture and character from 1776 to 2000.
The story opens on the eve of a bloody revolution, but not a British one. The French Revolution never quite crossed the Channel, though its spirit of fiery defiance and Romantic idealism did, sparking off a round of radical revolts and reforms that gathered momentum over the coming century - from the Irish Rebellion to the Chartist Petition. The great question of the Victorian century was how the world's first industrial society could come through its growing pains without falling apart in social and political conflict. Would the machine age destroy or strengthen the institutions that held Britain together, from the family to the farm? And if the British Empire helped to make Britain stable and rich, did it live up to its promise to help the ruled as well as the rulers? On the way to answering these questions, The Fate of the Empire makes stops at both celebrations, like the Great Exhibition, and catastrophes, like the Irish potato famine and the Indian Mutiny. Amidst the military and economic shocks and traumas of the 20th century, and through the voices of Churchill, Orwell and H. G. Wells, it asks the question that is still with us - is the immense weight of our history a blessing or a curse, a gift or a millstone around the neck of our future?
It is a vast compelling epic, made more so by the lively storytelling and big bold characters at the heart of the action. But alongside flamboyant heroes, like Nelson and Churchill, Schama recalls unsung heroines and virtually unknown enemies. Alongside the grand ideas, he exposes the grand illusions that cost untold lives. Schama looks head on at the facts and asks, 'What went wrong with the liberal dream?' The answers emerge in The Fate of the Empire, which reveals the living ideals of Britain's long history, 'a history that tied together social justice with bloody-minded liberty'.