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Response to Review of History of the Royal Navy

It gives me great pleasure, as both the series editor and a contributor, to be able to respond to Professor Harding’s review of The Royal Navy Since 1900: A History, A History of the Royal Navy: The Napoleonic Wars, A History of the Royal Navy: World War 2.  The aim of this series is to present to a wide audience a readable, but rigorous, assessment of the Royal Navy’s history using the most up to date secondary research available and where possible primary research – we wanted to bring the best of research on the Royal Navy to a non-academic audience, although I am sure that the insights the authors make within the volumes and the series over all will be of interest to an expert reader too. 

This of course has presented the authors with many challenges – not least the word count – for example, The Royal Navy Since 1900 (and its forthcoming companion volumes A History of the Royal Navy: The Age of Sail and A History of the Royal Navy: The Victorian Age) have a word limit of 100,000 words; the other volumes in the series have just 70,000 – expanding the size of the books given the target audience profile and impact on the recommended retail price was unfortunately impossible.  Clearly, this means that our authors have had to be ruthless with what makes it into the volumes.  Professor Harding rightly points out that much more could have been said about the inter-war period, but to do so would mean that coverage of other areas would have to be curtailed, which ties in with another significant challenge our authors have had to cope – the expectations of an intelligent and interested, but not necessarily expert reader.

The management of expectations has been especially important when we have been presenting new research or analysis that does not necessarily conform to popular preconceptions.  A good example of this is the myths that grew up around events in 1940 from the little ships of Dunkirk to the Battle of Britain, which cannot be supported in the historical evidence and analysis presented by scholars recently working on these areas, yet can provoke highly charged emotional responses.  There is also the very real issue that not to cover major events in depth, in order to provide more coverage to niche areas would leave our readers confused and dissatisfied.  It is a very difficult balancing act and one that on the whole I feel as the series editor we are getting right for our primary audience.  It is for this reason that as series editor I have encouraged authors to avoid plunging into historiographical debates, but instead to weigh the evidence and present that they think is the best interpretation – as professionals we might consider the debates entertaining, even illuminating, but the nuances of the debates might just come across to the general reader as a baffling obsession with trivialities and, at times, unedifying personal attacks.

Professor Harding also points out this this series is written from the Royal Navy’s perspective.  This is unashamedly the case, we were not aiming to tell the naval history of Britain (after all, that theme has been taken and explored in admirable depth by Professor Nicholas Rodger) – we wanted to tell the Navy’s story.  Many of us have at one stage or another read a serious, scholarly work on aspects of British policy – diplomacy in Pax Britannica for example – where one searches in vain for any consideration of the Royal Navy’s role in ensuring policy success; as the series editor I want our authors to leave the reader in no doubt as the important part played by the Royal Navy, good or bad, in war and peace.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy’s job is to tell the Royal Navy’s story; with this series we will reach new audiences and introduce them to British naval history.