A Brief History of Wales by Gerald Morgan (160 pages, 2011)
In this trim volume, Gerald Morgan sets out to give readers, as the back cover puts it, “A superb introduction to the background to contemporary Wales, this book is also for anyone wishing to brush up on their history.” Morgan sets out to accomplish this two-fold goal of both introducing and reviewing the history of Wales by offering brief chapters on Welsh history beginning with the writings of Caesar in 55 B.C. and ending with contemporary issues in Welsh political life well into the early 2000’s. After a brief forward there are eight chapters (around 10-20 pages) followed by a fairly extensive list for further reading. The chapters cover a range of topics but largely move forward chronologically with each chapter covering various figures and events in a given period of Welsh life.
I have to admit, I was disappointed in this book. I picked it up on my last trip to Wales in the gift shop at Conwy Castle expecting to find a quick and fun intro to, and overview of, Welsh history. I’ve studied quite a bit about England, Scotland, and Ireland, but knew substantially less about the history of Wales. I’m sad to say that that’s largely still the case. The biggest problem with this book is that it’s honestly a bit boring. As a student of history I wasn’t naive enough to expect an action-adventure novel, but this book falls far short of its potential. Rather than stepping back from the story to give us the big picture and the grand events, Morgan seems to get lost among the details. I found myself skimming this volume as it seemed that the chapters became endless lists of names and dates. Events which sounded like they were probably fascinating stories were duly mentioned but rarely expounded. Characters that were undoubtedly memorable were quickly passed over in the rush to include the next name or date. This is exactly what history shouldn’t be. The odd exception to this rule was in chapter 7, “Riot and Respectability” which focused on the history of Wales during the Industrial Revolution. It was as if Morgan came to life and suddenly found a remarkable knack for capturing and communicating the big picture. We actually got a glimpse of the Welsh people as people, and it made all the difference. It made me wonder if this period of history isn’t perhaps his true area of interest and the other chapters were simply symptomatic of his lack of familiarity with the material. If someone already had a good grasp of Welsh history this little book might serve as a decent review, but for someone looking to learn for the first time, I suggest they keep looking.