three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
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Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War

British-American author Amanda Foreman won the Whitbread Prize for her biography, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire (1999), which was later filmed as The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley. Foreman spent 12 years researching and writing A World on Fire, her second book.

The Topic: The fall of Fort Sumter in 1861 sparked a fierce diplomatic race between the North and the South to gain Great Britain, then the most powerful nation in the world, as an ally. Although the British condemned slavery, Southern cotton fueled their textile industry, and popular opinion viewed Lincoln as a tyrant unjustly persecuting the Confederacy. The South was championed in the British media while the government, led by the shrewdly practical Lord Palmerston, officially declared itself neutral. However, Great Britain's alleged impartiality didn't stop it from supplying the South with munitions and ships. Ultimately, Parliament's fear of losing its Canadian and Caribbean territories in the event of a Northern victory prevented it from recognizing the South as a sovereign nation.
Random House. 1008 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780375504945

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Twelve years in the making, and written at an incredible level of detail, A World on Fire is history as a Cecil B. DeMille epic. Ranging from the drawing rooms of Washington and London to the battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam, to the high seas, and to Confederate and Union home fronts, Foreman has written a diplomatic, military, and social kaleidoscope of the Civil War." Matthew Price

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"At more than 1,000 pages, this book looks terrifying. But the pages dissolve quickly as Foreman summons a range of vivid characters, such as Lord Lyons, the British envoy to Washington, who took up his position in 1859--the worst possible moment. ... Foreman has created a shimmering tapestry, which offers readers a fresh view of this convulsive, devastating war." Jay Parini

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Amanda Foreman's well-researched and highly readable A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War examines why the British government never did recognize the Confederacy. Ms. Foreman, the author of the best-selling biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1999), is such an engaging writer that readers may find this 958-page volume too short." Michael Burlingame

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Although her text offers few surprises about such well-studied topics as the Trent Affair, how the loss of Southern cotton affected British textile manufacturers and workers, and maneuvers relating to diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, it excels at deft biographical portraits and inserts readers into the drawing rooms, governmental buildings and other sites of discussion, debate and policy-making. ... A brief review can only hint at the expansive scope, rich detail and pulsing energy of A World on Fire." Gary W. Gallagher

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The presence of so many Englishmen means that Foreman can too easily slip away from ‘Britain's crucial role' to a general history of the war and its every battle. But there truly is no shortage of such histories, and we have all often enough vicariously supped full of the horrors of Antietam and Fredericksburg. What for American readers will be a more riveting--because unfamiliar--tale comes whenever Foreman turns from the patriotic gore to her true subject of the British and the war." Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Telegraph (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"True, the narrative sometimes moves painfully slowly, while academic scholars of the American Civil War will learn little they did not know already. But there is something undeniably impressive about an author with the courage to attempt something so ambitious, a global history of a seismic conflict, spanning two continents and encompassing a massive cast of characters. This is a very long book, admittedly. But as a feat of sheer storytelling, it is also a very fine one." Dominic Sandbrook

Barnes and Noble Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Using the tools of a biographer, she adeptly marshals letters, journals, documents, and newspaper accounts to bring to life the men and women who populate her tale. But in the end, despite the vast research and lively writing, the book amounts to a series of well-rendered vignettes. Foreman refrains from stepping back to provide a historical overview that would anchor her carefully rendered relationships in a larger context and to draw conclusions from them." Meredith Hindley

Critical Summary

Readers shouldn't be frightened away by the length of A World on Fire; this "sprawling, memorable contribution to the teeming ranks of Civil War scholarship" (Boston Globe) so completely swept most critics away that they hardly noticed the pages turning. Foreman's evocative prose and sharp eye for detail bring the salons and assemblies of London and Washington vibrantly to life, but she doesn't restrict the narrative to political and diplomatic dealings. Instead, she surveys the full scope of the conflict through the eyes of a wide assortment of unforgettable characters. Some critics cited factual inaccuracies and a lack of focus, but, they noted, these concerns faded next to Foreman's impressive storytelling abilities. Riveting and highly readable, A World on Fire should appeal to Civil War aficionados and casual readers alike. n