Girouard, Mark. The English Town: A History of Urban Life.

New Haven: Yales University Press, 1990.

I’ve been an historian since I was quite young, even before I ever thought about what “history” meant. I’ve always lived more in the past and I’ve always perceived the world from the perspective of what came before, of how things got to be the way they are. My interests are very broad, from 11th century Norman military society, the role of the Germanic tribes in the decay of Rome, and pre-Columbian exploration, to the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, town-building on the American frontier, and the role of cavalry in the American Civil War. I have a special interest, though in what’s called “social history” — the story of ordinary people, acting on the world in the aggregate and upon each other, day by day, one at a time.

This “anonymous history” interests me far more than Grand Politics and Great Men. Dr. Girouard came to the subject through architectural history, being interested as an English schoolboy in particular schools of design, then in their historical evolution, and then in the English country house in particular (in which he became the expert). But along the way, he also acquired a fascination with the English townscape, “which is, after all, a form of landscape.”

The design and construction of a house is the work of one man, or of several specific men over a period of time, each one extending and altering the work of those who came before. A town, though, grows and changes anonymously, as a result of social and commercial pressure, and from the effects of the landscape in which it sits. “The individuality and interest of towns comes from their being the result of thousands of decisions taken by thousands of people over, in most cases, several hundred years.” The sources of information available about towns are extremely diverse and complex and practically endless, from 17th century tourist guides to modern academic journals — not to forget art and archaeology.

This beautifully presented book is the result of the author’s realization that he couldn’t apply the same research plan to all towns, everywhere in the world, that he had originally conceived in the study of country houses. So he ended up with two books: Cities and People (1985), which considered cities in the Western world, and this one. The dozen and a half chapters are mostly topical, covering the market town and the municipal corporation, the harbor town, the castle-based town, the public assembly rooms of polite society, the introduction of terraces and crescents (brownstones to you New Yorkers), the “high street” and the “new street,” the warehouse district and the municipal “works,” back streets, city parks, and the coming of the suburb, among other subjects. And he elucidates the general with specific examples, from the first commercial dock in Liverpool to the 15th-century almshouses of Abingdon (still in use), from the 18th-century naval dockyard at Plymouth (a town in itself) to the seaside vistas at Brighton and Eastbourne. And London hardly comes into the discussion at all, nor any other obvious tourist center. Girouard is a very fluent writer and a first-rate teacher from whom one cannot help but learn something new at every turn. In fact, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to any thoughtful undergraduate history major for its method and style alone. Nearly every oversized page is graced by gorgeous photos, most of them in color, and there’s an extensive bibliography for further research. If I were living in Britain, this book would account for much of my vacation time for years to come.

Published in: on 15 October 2011 at 1:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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