December 24, 2008


2009 Calendar: Desk—Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783. By Brendan Simms. Basic Books. $39.95.

     Although it was the Roman god Januarius, from whom we get the month called January, who used his two faces to look both backward and forward, it has become traditional to do that at the end of a year rather than the beginning of a new one. Anglophiles have some particularly interesting ways to contemplate the times ahead and behind this season. The new desk calendar with scenes from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – the sixth movie in the spectacularly popular series, based on the sixth of the even more spectacularly popular J.K. Rowling novels – has the distinction of offering an advance look at the film. Half a year of advance looks, in fact: the movie is not due out until July 2009. This makes the unexplained full-color movie stills that adorn the calendar’s left-hand pages all the more intriguing. Perhaps Severus Snape, standing and scowling at Hogwarts, would fit into any Potter film; so would Albus Dumbledore, his eyes glancing behind him and his left hand outstretched toward…hmm, what exactly? Well, the pictures of Harry, Ron and Hermione are clear enough, but just who are some of those other characters portrayed in fairly mystifying poses? And what exactly is going on to cause those expressions – of fear, wonder, anticipation, uncertainty and so on – on the characters’ faces? Readers of the Potter books will have a great deal of fun figuring out just what is happening – and then confirming their suspicions, or finding them out to be wrong, when the movie finally appears. Oh – and calendar buyers will also have a well-made, spiral-bound, open-flat desk calendar whose right-hand pages can be used to jot down just about anything of interest or significance as the year goes on. Such as, say, the number of days until the new movie comes out.

     Brendan Simms’ monumental Three Victories and a Defeat is just as British as anything by Rowling – Simms is a Cambridge University professor – and is far more firmly grounded in the real world. It looks in a rear-view mirror rather than one of fantastic distortions, although Simms actually argues that there have been distortions aplenty in previous histories relating to what he calls the “First British Empire.” The most important of these, Simms asserts, is the notion that Britain built its empire through naval power. Indeed, this has become a truism: the British Navy protected the island nation as effectively as a moat protects a castle. But Simms argues strongly and convincingly that this was not the case: Britain’s dominance at sea gave it a bridge to other countries, he says, not a means of keeping them at bay. To protect Britain and further its imperial ambitions, more important than the sea was the land – and the old-fashioned politicking that went on there. In particular, Britain’s strategies in mainland Europe, which involved alliances with Germany (to which Britain’s monarchs had blood ties) and opposition to France, became the linchpin of its successful building and maintenance of empire. Simms’ very extensive research backs up this controversial assertion convincingly. Indeed, his well-chosen quotations for the beginnings of his chapters are themselves arguments in support of his thesis – in the words of the statesmen of the time themselves. The Wars of the Polish and Austrian Successions, the Seven Years War and the War of Grand Alliance against Louis XIV of France all figure in Simms’ sweeping analysis of 18th-century geopolitical struggle. The United States – or rather the colonies of Britain in America – will come to play a crucial role in Britain’s imperialism: the year 1783 marked Britain’s defeat and the emergence of a newly independent nation across the Atlantic. But the American Revolution was scarcely a simple matter of colonists rebelling against distant government and onerous taxes, as books on the American side of “the pond” so often have it. Simms shows that there was tremendous imperial ambition in America, and that Britain’s policies were considered a danger to it. Consider John Adams’ comment in 1755, more than two decades before the colonies declared their independence: “Soon after the Reformation, a few people came over into this new world, for conscience sake. Perhaps this apparently trivial incident may transfer the great seat of empire into America. It looks likely to me. For if we remove the turbulent Gallicks…it will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas, and then the united force of Europe will not be able to subdue us.” This is an extraordinarily revelatory quotation – one of many in Simms’ book – that will give Americans (who are largely unfamiliar with the struggles within Europe at the time their own nation came into being) a new and surprising view of their own Founding Fathers. At 802 pages and filled with very dense footnotes, Simms’ book may be difficult reading for many despite its accessible style and very careful arguments. Those arguments themselves will not convince everyone – for example, in his ambition to minimize others’ focus on the role of Britain’s sea power as a mainstay of empire, Simms goes rather too far the other way, downplaying it unnecessarily. But Three Victories and a Defeat is an enormously thoughtful and thought-provoking book that should be of considerable interest on both sides of the ocean that now serves more to unite England and America than to keep them apart. It looks back, but it has lessons that are well worth learning as we move inexorably forward into a new year and its new challenges.

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