Thomas More: A Very Brief History by John Guy

Very brief indeed…

🙂 🙂 😐

According to A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More was a man of principle, willing to sacrifice his life rather than compromise his beliefs. Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of him in Wolf Hall gives an alternative view, of a man who was happy to burn heretics, sarcastic and cruel to those around him, and something of a misogynist. In this truly very brief history, John Guy tries to reveal the real man behind the myths.

My existing knowledge was that More was Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor during Henry’s attempt to ditch Katherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn; that More drew the line when Henry decided to ditch the Catholic Church, too, and declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England; and that for his defiance, More was executed. Oh, and that he wrote a book called Utopia, which I haven’t read. And tortured and burned heretics, although of course he wasn’t alone in enjoying that sport.

Paul Scofield as More in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Sadly, once I had read this, I found that my existing knowledge hadn’t really expanded much at all. The book runs to 144 small pages, including notes, etc. I was reading the e-book, but at a guess I’d say 100-110 pages of text maximum, during which Guy romps through his life, discusses the writing and history of Utopia, talks about the portrayal of him in art following his death and in literature more recently, and finishes up with his route to sainthood. When I tell you that More dies at the 40% mark, you will be able to tell that the book doesn’t go into much depth regarding his life.

Guy always writes well and Thomas More has been a subject of study with him for many years, so there’s no doubt of the scholarship. But truthfully the biography section is so superficial as to be almost pointless, unless one literally knows nothing about More going in. (Which begs the question: why then would you be motivated to read the book in the first place?) And the rest reads like the epilogue to a biography – the kind of thing that historians put in as a last chapter to round the thing off.

Anton Lesser as More in Wolf Hall (2015)

Some of it is quite interesting, like the fact that Marx adopted Utopia as a socialist text and as a result there was a statue to commemorate More along with other great socialists in the USSR. Or that his sainthood only came through in 1935, by which time one would have hoped that the Catholic Church might have stopped sanctifying heretic-burners. (Mind you, Wikipedia tells me the Anglican Church recognised him as a martyr of the Reformation in 1980, so look out anyone who doesn’t conform to Anglicanism – the days of burning may not be as far behind us as we thought!) It is mildly amusing in a surreal kind of way that in 2000, Pope John Paul II made him the patron saint of politicians…

John Guy

Which brings me neatly to my conclusion – it grieves me to say it since I’ve been an admirer of John Guy’s work for years but, frankly, reading the Wikipedia page on More is just about as informative as this book. I guess very brief histories just aren’t my kind of thing. Guy wrote a longer biography of More some years ago (although still only 272 pages, according to Goodreads), so I may read that some day to see if it’s more satisfying.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, SPCK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Henry V: The Conscience of a King by Malcolm Vale

Peaceful pursuits of the warrior-king…

😀 😀 😀 😀

henry VIn his introduction, Malcolm Vale suggests that Henry V’s reputation as a warrior-king shows only one aspect of his character, and not necessarily the most important one in letting us understand the man. To make his case, Vale looks at Henry’s other activities – how he carried out the daily business of government, how he dealt with matters of the Church, his involvement in encouragement of the arts, etc. Since, unusually for the time, Henry often wrote letters in his own hand, Vale suggests that for the first time we get to hear the actual ‘voice’ of a monarch.

This book is neither a history of the period nor a full biography of Henry. It is an extremely detailed look at various aspects of Henry’s reign, but makes no attempt to tell his whole ‘story’. Because of its focus on Henry’s peaceful activities, it only touches on his wars in passing. It’s academic in tone and assumes some familiarity on the part of the reader with the events and main players of the time. It’s therefore not a book for beginners. Since I most definitely am a beginner to this period of history, I would have struggled badly had it not been for the fortunate circumstance that I very recently read a biography of Henry IV, which gave me some background to the political situation in England and Europe. However, this is not in any way a criticism of the book. Vale sets out his agenda clearly in his introduction and fully meets it.

Henry V - artist unknown. Vale speculates that the portrait is in profile because the right side of his face would be disfigured after the wound he received at the battle of Shrewsbury...
Henry V – artist unknown.
Vale speculates that the portrait is in profile because the right side of his face would be disfigured after the wound he received at the battle of Shrewsbury…

Each chapter covers one aspect of Henry’s reign. Vale starts with a look at how the daily business of government was carried out, showing the high level of personal involvement of Henry in decisions large and small. He shows how a bureaucracy grew up to streamline this and take some of the pressure off the King, and also to provide a consistent approach during Henry’s long absences in France. Vale goes into great detail over the uses of the various seals and signets and under what circumstances each was used. Henry is shown as having taken his duty as a monarch seriously, trying to provide justice and working closely with his council. Vale shows that, more than previous Kings, Henry’s own manual signature often appears on documents, suggesting that this was done as an extra indication of his personal will in certain matters.

Vale also discusses Henry’s involvement in Church matters, both at home and abroad. Henry is shown as genuinely religious, with a desire to support and protect religious establishments while expecting them to live up to their part of the bargain by curbing absenteeism, reforming some of the areas of abuse and tending to the cure of souls. Partly because of the weakness of papal authority due to the Schism, Henry had considerable power over appointments, and Vale suggests that he was effectively head of the church within his own territories, two centuries before Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

...but clearly that can't be right as we can tell from this later portrait. (Doesn't he look just like Kenneth Branagh? Yummy...)
…but clearly that can’t be right as we can tell from this later portrait. (Doesn’t he look just like Kenneth Branagh? Yummy…)

Henry’s interest in the peaceful arts comes under scrutiny too, showing his direct involvement in encouraging and even participating in them. It appears he may have composed music himself, as well as playing the harp. He read fairly widely, both religious and imaginative works, and commissioned translations. He also commissioned artistic work that formed part of the trappings of power – tapestries and textiles, ornamental and military metalwork, etc.

The chapter I found most interesting discusses Henry’s increasing use and promotion of the English language as his reign progressed. At the beginning of the reign, Norman French and Latin were still the languages of government, but from about the middle of his reign on, English begins to appear more often and Henry himself begins to write letters in that language. Vale suggests that this is a result of Henry’s desire to show that, should he succeed in gaining the crown of France, the two countries would remain separate, distinct entities with their own laws and identities. At that time, English was seen as an unsophisticated language without the vocabulary or nuance required of a language of government. Vale shows how much of the formal language was adopted wholesale from Norman French, either anglicised or literally translated. He also shows that even now, six centuries later, some of the phrases put into use in Henry’s time are still used in formal Parliamentary documents. This was the time of Chaucer and other early writers in English, and Vale discusses the literary development of the language, suggesting that the King’s influence in promoting English was crucial in its growth.

Hmm... yeah. Could be English. French or Latin, but my money's on Chinese...
Hmm… yeah. Could be English, French or Latin, but my money’s on Chinese…

In conclusion, I feel Vale makes his case that there was much more to Henry V than simply being the warrior of Agincourt fame. The research that has gone into the book is clearly immense and it is well written and presented. Obviously I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the facts or conclusions, but I found it a convincing read. Personally I found parts of it a little dry and repetitive and perhaps too detailed, but I put that down to a mismatch between reader and book. In tone, I would suggest it is aimed more at the academic reader, or at least a knowledgeable and enthusiastic amateur, than at the casual reader. Nonetheless I learned a good deal, not just about Henry, but about governance of the time, the growth of the English language, and the relationships between monarchy, religious institutions and the Papacy. 4 stars for me, but I’m confident this would be a 5-star read for someone with greater pre-knowledge of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Perfect Pass by SC Gwynne

Play the next play…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the perfect passThis is the story of how a college coach, Hal Mumme, developed an “unstoppable” offense that would defeat even the biggest, strongest defenses; and of how that offense gradually spread throughout college football and into the professional leagues, changing the very nature of the game – the Air Raid offense.

Sometimes you just have to take the things life throws at you and run with them. When SC Gwynne won my Book of the Year award in 2014 for Rebel Yell, his brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, I gave him the usual prize – my promise to read his next book. Of course, I was assuming it would be another biography of a historical soldier or politician. Imagine my… delight when it turned out to be a book about a passing offense in American football! In my life I have watched one full game and a bit of another, and frankly thought it was a jolly silly game a game one has to have grown up with to fully appreciate. So the question was not so much whether I’d like this book as whether I’d even understand it!

Gwynne starts with a great description of Texas Tech putting the Air Raid offense into action in 2008. He then whisks us back in time to meet Hal Mumme at the beginning of his coaching career. He shows the uncertainty of life as a college coach in a nation obsessed with the game – a hero when leading his team to victory, but abused and reviled if they lose. Hal had always wanted to coach, despite the low pay and precariousness of the profession. His big idea was that he was going to make throwing the ball the centre of the game.

1929 - when men were men and football was war
1929 – when men were men and football was war

To explain why this idea was so radical, Gwynne gives a potted history of the rise of football. He shows it as arising out of a nostalgia for war – an opportunity for men to hone their manly aggression in peacetime. Therefore it was all about brute force in “the pile” in the middle of the field – meat on meat, as it was charmingly summed up. The more broken bones, busted skulls and fatal injuries the better – a real man’s game! Forward passing was initially prohibited, but when reformers began demanding that the game be made less dangerous, it was eventually legalised. However, it was rarely used, since in this beefy culture it was seen as “feminising” the game. In short, passing was for sissies. Games were all about bulldozing the opposition, and as a result were usually low-scoring and rather dull to watch. This chapter is so well-told and very funny in places, especially over the “manliness” aspects of it all.

Though the passing technology was more than half a century old, there was still something morally thrilling about watching the quarterback toss the ball to the tailback, while the guard or tackle pulled and the fullback crashed down on the defensive end and the whole team seemed to move en masse in that swinging, lovely rightward arc of pure power followed by the popping sounds of all those helmets and pads and the scream of the crowd as the whole thing disintegrated into a mass of bodies on the turf.

Testing football helmets...
Testing football helmets…

Hal was convinced though that passing could be made to work, especially for teams without the brute power to win against bigger opponents using traditional plays. The bulk of the book is taken up with Hal’s long road to development of the Air Raid, learning from other coaches who used passing plays in their games, trying out new things with the various teams he worked with and, with his long-time coaching partner Mike Leach, gradually refining his system so that even fairly mediocre players could be taught it. It wasn’t just on the field that he changed things. Again the culture was to make the players prove their toughness in full contact training, often being injured before they even got to play, or being worked so hard in training sessions they would be on or past the point of collapse. Hal had his players do shorter sessions, focussed on passing rather than tackling, developing precision in throwing and tactics rather than beating each other to a pulp. His idea, which doesn’t sound as though it should have been revolutionary but apparently was, was that football should be fun!

Hal Mumme and Mike Leach
Hal Mumme and Mike Leach

And gradually, the no-hoper teams he initially worked with began to win games, and to win them spectacularly with huge scores. And dismissive traditionalist crowds began to see that the passing game was exciting (especially the fans of the winning teams – the losing fans perhaps weren’t quite so enthused). Slowly other coaches started to use Hal’s techniques until eventually passing became an accepted part of the game. Hal’s own career remained chequered and he never made it into the professional divisions, but his ideas did, and the final version of all his work, the Air Raid offense, has been used and adapted by the top teams.

Hal Mumme with Tim Couch, then coach and QB of University of Kentucky Photo credit: Ed Reinke/AP
Hal Mumme with Tim Couch, then coach and QB of Kentucky Wildcats
Photo credit: Ed Reinke/AP

One of Hal’s favourite sayings was, Play the next play. The words were a combination pep talk and theory of life, perfectly aligned with his coaching philosophy. The gist was, life, like football, is a headlong dive into the future. There is no past, at least not one you should worry too much about. If you lose, let it go. Don’t panic. If you win, don’t be too satisfied. Play the next play.

SC Gwynne
SC Gwynne

This isn’t a hugely long book, but even so I’ve only given a flavour of it. Gwynne’s writing brings the sport to life and he explains all the various plays clearly enough that even I felt I understood them. There are lots of diagrams to show the various offensive formations and how they’re designed to bamboozle the opposition defenses. Through it all, Gwynne’s respect for and warmth towards the game, its coaches and players, shines through, and the occasional humour and great descriptions of the games make the book entertaining as well as informative. A surprise hit for me, proving that a great writer can make almost any subject fascinating. I may even watch a few more games now…

(Since the game is American, I’ve gone along with the wrong American spellings of offence and defence throughout… 😉 )

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

Eureka! 50 Scientists Who Shaped Human History by John Grant

Giants’ shoulders…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

EurekaThis is a collection of mini biographies of some of the great scientists who have contributed to our current understanding of ourselves, our world and the universe we live in. In his introduction, John Grant points out that any selection is going to be subjective to a degree, but all the major names are here – Galileo, Newton, Einstein, etc. – as well as several who are less well known, certainly to me. The book is aimed at teens and young adults, but frankly it works equally well for older adults like me, who have only a superficial knowledge of the history of science.

Each section follows roughly the same pattern. Grant quickly places the person in the overall timeline of scientific discovery, gives a short personal biography showing how they got involved in their particular area of science, and then explains their major achievements and, in some cases, their failures. The chapters vary in length, from a couple of pages for those people who made one specific contribution to science – like Edward Jenner, the man who discovered that cowpox could be used to create a vaccine for smallpox, leading eventually to its worldwide eradication (why didn’t I know about him?!) – to perhaps ten or so pages for those, like Newton or Einstein, who fundamentally changed the perception of the fields in which they worked. The book is structured chronologically, which allows Grant to show very clearly how each generation of scientists built on the work of those before them – in Newton’s words: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Grant’s writing style is clear and very approachable, never talking down to his audience, and with a good deal of humour laced through the book to prevent the science becoming too dry. He makes the science side clear enough on the whole for even the more scientifically challenged amongst us to understand, at least until we get to relativity and quantum thingummyjigs, at which point my eyes began to roll in my head and my tongue lolled out. However, that’s my normal reaction to these things, so I don’t hold Grant to blame – he almost got me to sorta understand why the whole E = mc2 thing was important, which is more than many science writers have done. And I briefly felt I’d grasped the Schrödinger’s cat thing too… but the moment passed. (I’ve always felt it would have been of more practical benefit if Schrödinger had explained how to get a cat in a box, myself…)

dilbert-quantum-computer

But the science is only part of it. The book is as much about the history of scientific research and gives an unvarnished glimpse at some of the jealousies and backstabbing that happen in that world as much as in any other. Grant shows how sometimes female scientists would be sidelined or have credit for their work taken by their male colleagues, often only being given recognition decades or even centuries after the event. To be fair, this happened to plenty of male scientists too, either because they were outside the snobby scientific community or simply from professional rivalries getting out of hand. Men heavily outnumber women in the book, but this is to be expected since, as Grant points out, until very recently (and still, in some parts of the world) science wasn’t considered a suitable occupation for the “gentler sex”. Hah! Tell that to Marie Curie, or Émilie du Châtelet! Mostly, though, the story is one of co-operation and collaboration, especially when the book brings us towards the present day.

Each chapter ends with a little summary of factlets, such as whether the scientist has had any comets, craters, prizes etc named after her/him, plus suggestions for further reading, and information about films or music that may have been based on or inspired by her/him. These sections, I should warn you, can be fatal to your to-be-read and to-be-watched piles…

John Grant
John Grant

John Grant and I are regular visitors to each others blogs – he blogs about movies over on Noirish under his blog name, realthog – and he kindly provided me with a copy of this book. So obviously you will have to consider whether there may be some bias in my review. But in truth, I think this is an excellent book, informative, well written and well presented, that gives an overview of the science and scientists which is easily digestible without feeling superficial. Science has changed since I was a girl (they’ve discovered the Earth isn’t flat, for a start) and scientific writers have realised they have to make the subject interesting if they want young people to be attracted into it. This book does that – Grant writes with a warm enthusiasm and respect for the work these scientists do, without ever setting them up as unapproachable objects of reverence. He includes not just the great theoreticians whose ideas about the workings of the universe may be quite hard for the layperson to really grasp, but also more practical scientists, making a difference to our day-to-day lives, in medical research, climatology, computing, etc.

I read it straight through and enjoyed getting a feeling for the timeline of science, but this would also work very well as a reference book to look up or remind oneself of what a particular scientist is noted for. Highly recommended for any young person from about 13 up, I’d say, and for any adult who would just like to know a bit more about the subject.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

PS John, I forgive you for the American spelling… but will Aberdeen??

Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman

Duty, Honor, Country…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

douglas macarthurIn his preface, Herman discusses previous biographies of General Douglas MacArthur, some sycophantic in their admiration, others dismissing him as everything from vain to incompetent. His hope is that by the end of the book the reader will be able to decide which description is the true one. Herman has ranged widely in his search for accurate source material, including China, Japan and Russia; and has also had access to newly opened archives within the US.

I start by saying that, prior to reading this book, I knew absolutely nothing about Douglas MacArthur and very little about the events in which he was involved. I am, therefore, in no position to judge the accuracy of either the history or the portrait Herman paints of this clearly divisive American hero. I decided to read it because I have greatly enjoyed several other of Herman’s books, finding him a great storyteller who brings history vividly to life. And from the prologue of this one, where he gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

douglas macarthur pipe

In his conclusion, Herman suggests there are three main aspects that are crucial to understanding Douglas MacArthur – the degree to which he was influenced by his father’s life; the relationships with the various women in his life, his mother and his second wife Jean in particular; and his “brilliance as a grand strategist – perhaps the most incisive the American military has ever produced.” This serves as a fair summary of how Herman approaches his subject throughout the book.

To explain how influential Arthur MacArthur was on his son’s life, Herman gives the reader a mini-biography of the elder man – his early career as a Unionist hero of the Civil War, and his later fascination with the East, becoming convinced that the Pacific rim would be of more importance to the future America than its old attachments to Europe. So interesting does Herman make this story that I was left hoping that perhaps his next task will be to do a full biography of Arthur, a man whose life sounds as eventful and interesting as his son’s.

Arthur MacArthur - commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father's achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.
Arthur MacArthur – commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father’s achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.

Herman goes into Douglas MacArthur’s relationship with his mother in some depth, suggesting that she was something of a driving force behind her son’s career not just in his youth but right through till his late thirties and forties. A late bloomer in the romance stakes, MacArthur’s first marriage failed quite quickly. His second marriage to Jean, however, brought him the kind of support his mother had provided and Herman shows how important this domestic stability was to MacArthur when dealing with the various military crises of his life.

Douglas and Jean MacArthur
Douglas and Jean MacArthur

While talking about MacArthur’s career between the two world wars, Herman praises MacArthur’s achievements both as head of the US Olympic committee and for forcing the Army to face up to the need to modernise the training of its young officers while he was in charge of West Point. He also discusses in depth the apparently infamous breaking up of the Bonus Army camps, when MacArthur used troops to drive out army veterans who were protesting over the government’s refusal to bring forward payment of their promised bonuses. Since this was an episode I had never heard of, I was totally reliant on Herman’s version. It seemed to me that he very much took MacArthur’s side, perhaps too much so, almost absolving him of all responsibility for the matter.

Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.
Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.

However, he also put the opposite case clearly enough for me to consider the question of bias at all, and that’s one of the main reasons I like Herman. In the past, I have always found him to be sympathetic to his subjects, and so he is in this one. But although he can come across as biased in his conclusions, it seems to me he always presents the other side of the argument, leaving the reader to follow his bias or argue against it. Since it is a rare author indeed who can write without bias, my preference is for open bias of the Herman kind, rather than the kind where only one story is told with no indication that there may be another version.

MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines - a picture his detractors claim he staged.
MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines – a picture his detractors claim he staged.

But the real meat of the book is, as it should be, MacArthur’s military career. So involved was MacArthur in most of the important events of the time, so well told are the various episodes, so clearly does Herman lay out the background and consequences of each, that the book is as much history as biography. From MacArthur’s leadership of the Rainbow Division in WW1, through the often horrific story of the Philippines, Japan and the Pacific arena in WW2, and on to MacArthur’s successes and failures in Korea, Herman thoroughly explains the politics, domestic and foreign, that impacted on each campaign, and provides clear and often very moving stories of the military battles, showing how narrow is the dividing line between heroic success and tragic failure. Herman also delves into the period after WW2 when MacArthur spent some years as the ‘American Shogun’ ruling almost monarchically over a defeated Japan, and paints him as someone who chose not to exact revenge, but rather to try to change the culture and structure of the society to prevent future wars. Herman in fact gives MacArthur credit for sowing the seeds of the Japanese economic miracle of the latter part of the century.

General MacArthur, in behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945
General MacArthur, on behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945

Throughout all this, Herman doesn’t shy away from criticising MacArthur’s decisions on occasion, but always puts his mistakes into context. The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable. I shall leave it to the MacArthur buffs on both sides to argue over its bias or otherwise.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy

The woman behind the myth…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Elizabeth The Forgotten YearsIn his preface, John Guy suggests that biographers of Elizabeth I of England tend to have paid less attention to the later years of her life, often relying on the accepted story created by earlier writers. Guy has gone back to the original source documents, stripping back the accumulated layers of mythology surrounding her to reveal the complex and very human character beneath.

During the first part of Elizabeth’s reign, she was under continual pressure to marry, partly to provide an heir but also because of the prevailing feeling that women were not suited to be monarchs. Having seen the unhappy and unsuccessful marriage of her sister Mary to Philip of Spain, not to mention the hardly idyllic marriage of her tyrannical father to her soon-to-be-headless mother, Elizabeth was always reluctant to reach a decision that would make her subordinate to a husband. However, marriage negotiations rumbled on throughout her child-bearing years.

But by the age of 50 when it was finally clear that the Queen would have no direct heir, Guy suggests she was for the first time really accepted, however reluctantly, as a monarch in her own right – a Prince or King as she often referred to herself – and felt herself freer to stamp her royal authority on those around her. These later years – the period covered in this book – were dominated by the interminable wars in Europe, concern over the succession, power struggles and conspiracies at home, and, of course, Essex, her arrogant young favourite.

The ageing Queen... Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c.1595
The ageing Queen…
Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger c.1595

As well as being a serious historian, Guy has a gift for storytelling which always makes his books a pleasure to read. It seems to me he has mastered the art of presenting history in a way that makes it fully accessible to the casual, non-academic reader without ever ‘dumbing down’. He does masses of research, from original sources where possible, then, having decided what ‘story’ he is going to tell, he distils all that information down to those people and events that will illustrate his arguments. It’s a simplification in presentation, but not in scholarship. As with all the best historical writers, he knows what information should appear in the main body of the text and what can be left to the notes at the back for people who wish to look into the subject more deeply. As a result, the cast of ‘characters’, which can often become overwhelming in history books, is kept to a small, manageable level, and the reader gets to know not just the principal subject but the people who most closely influence events.

So in this book, as well as a revealing and convincing picture of the ageing Elizabeth, we also get a thorough understanding of those who were most relevant to her at this later period: an equally ageing Burghley, and the younger men, struggling amongst themselves to win her favour and the political power that came with it – Burghley’s son Cecil, Sir Walter Ralegh, and Essex, who almost shares star billing with the Queen herself.

The dashing Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
The dashing Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

The first few chapters romp through the early years of Elizabeth’s accession and reign, really just to give the reader a bit of background, then each subsequent chapter focuses on a particular person or event. As is my usual way, I found the sections relating to the wars least interesting, though Guy does a good job of explaining all the shifting allegiances and showing how the various campaigns led to the rise or fall of those leading them. He also shows the contrast between Elizabeth’s concern for her aristocratic commanders and her casual disregard for the welfare of the ordinary soldiers, sometimes leaving them unpaid and with no way to get home from their campaigns. But throughout the period, as usual in these endless wars, those at the top were constantly changing sides or even religions, and no-one really ever seems to win or lose, and I just don’t care!

Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh attributed to William Segar
Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh attributed to William Segar

Much more interesting to me are the power struggles at home and Guy gives a very clear picture of the personalities involved here. In the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign, Burghley was ageing, while Walsingham’s death left a vacancy Elizabeth found difficult to fill. But worse, she had also lost Leicester, the love of her life. She may have had disagreements with all three of these men at various times, but she also depended on them and trusted them to a degree that she would find difficult with the young men coming up. Guy makes clear that, while Essex was a favourite, he was no replacement for Leicester and Elizabeth was fairly clear-sighted about his weaknesses and unreliability. Burghley was keen that his son, Cecil, should succeed him as the main power in the government, while Ralegh and Essex looked to war and naval exploits to gain favour. (Interesting aside for non-Brits – the Cecils have lasted well. The most recent, a direct descendant of Burghley, was leader of the House of Lords as recently as 1997. We do seem to cling on to our aristocracy!)

John Guy
John Guy

Once it was clear that Elizabeth would never have a child, her advisers wanted to settle the question of the succession. However, Elizabeth would never allow this to be discussed, partly through a dislike of thinking about her death and partly because she feared that a settled succession may lead to conspiracies to force her to abdicate or, worse, to murder her, thus making way for the new king. The obvious successor in terms of bloodlines was James VI of Scotland and he had the further advantage of having been brought up in the Protestant religion. Elizabeth’s refusal to name a successor meant that, as she approached the end of her life, even her nearest courtiers were carrying on secret correspondences with James – Essex primarily for his own advantage and possibly to the point of treason, but also Cecil who, while looking out for his own interests too, seemed genuinely to want to avoid major disruption on Elizabeth’s death.

Guy’s portrait of Elizabeth feels credible and human. She seems to have been vain and capricious, temperamental, cruel when angered and vindictive when she felt betrayed. But as we see her age, with all her early advisors dying one by one, including Leicester, her one true love, and eventually also Kate Carey, her greatest friend, in the end she seems a rather lonely and pitiful figure. Another first-class biography from Guy – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Viking Books.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Gandhi & Churchill by Arthur Herman

gandhi and churchillCometh the hour, cometh the men…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.

The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.

Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill’s father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill’s lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill’s attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.

Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel...
Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel…

Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi’s desire for equality didn’t include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either.

Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.

Churchill with his beloved cigar...
Churchill with his beloved cigar…

Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.

And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.

Arthur Herman Photo credit: Beth Herman
Arthur Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

The book covers so much it’s impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by Santa. Thanks, Santa!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Henry IV by Christopher Given-Wilson

henry ivThe Lancastrian Usurper…

😀 😀 😀 😀

My existing knowledge of Henry IV amounted to the assumption that he probably came somewhere between Henry III and Henry V. So I hoped that this biography, part of the Yale University Press English Monarchs series, would fill a pretty big hole. And, with a large degree of success, it does.

In the introduction, Christopher Given-Wilson makes it clear that the book is a political biography of the man rather than a history of the period, though obviously the two are intertwined. Most of the book is a fairly linear account of Henry’s life, starting with an explanation of the growth of Lancastrian wealth and power under his father, John of Gaunt. While political life in England was more centred on the monarchy than in many other countries, he gives a very clear picture of the factionalism and rivalries between some of the major landowners, and how the major players would build their own ‘affinities’ – paid knightly retainers who would fight for their overlord when required. I gathered from the notes that these affinities are a field of special expertise for Given-Wilson, and I found his detailed insights into this aspect fascinating.

Henry’s forays to the Crusades gave him the opportunity to win a reputation as a knightly hero, while Richard II was making himself increasingly unpopular at home. Even before this, Henry had been heavily involved with others in trying to curtail what some saw as Richard’s misuse of power, so when the opportunity arose, Richard sent him off into exile. But when John of Gaunt died and Richard attempted a land-grab of Lancastrian property, Henry returned and, largely with popular support, usurped the throne.

Henry of Bolingbroke, flanked by the lords spiritual and temporal, claims the throne in 1399. From a contemporary manuscript, British Library, Harleian Collection, via Wikipedia
Henry of Bolingbroke, flanked by the lords spiritual and temporal, claims the throne in 1399. From a contemporary manuscript, British Library, Harleian Collection, via Wikipedia

For me, this section was considerably more interesting than the account of Henry’s time as King. Given-Wilson goes into immense detail on subjects such as finances, tax-raising and the cost of foreign ventures. Necessary in an academic book, but I’m afraid much of it made for rather dry reading, and often used terminology unfamiliar to me without explaining it clearly enough.

I was more interested in learning about the various wars and skirmishes going on around Henry’s borders, with Welsh, Scots and Irish all causing problems, not to mention the ongoing struggle for Henry to maintain his claim to the title of King of France. Given-Wilson explains well the lead up to the Hotspur rebellions and their aftermath, and I also felt that I got some insight into the background to Henry V’s later adventures in France. But again, I found parts of these sections confusing as so many names came and went (and, as is always a problem, people frequently changed their names as they inherited titles or rose through the ranks of the aristocracy) leaving me frankly bewildered on occasion as to who was on whose side.

In the final few chapters of the book, Given-Wilson changes from a linear narrative to concentrating on one aspect of Henry’s life or character at a time – for example, personality and image, wars and tactics, lawlessness among the gentry (which Given-Wilson calls by my favourite new phrase – “fur-collar crime”), etc. For me, these worked better than the earlier chapters in finally making me feel that I was beginning to understand the man behind the history. Given-Wilson concludes that Henry IV was more relevant than history sometimes suggests, and puts the blame firmly on Shakespeare for creating an inaccurate picture of him. Certainly the picture Given-Wilson paints in this book suggests Henry was more or less forced into usurpation by Richard’s desire to smash Lancastrian power.

Chris Given-Wilson is emeritus professor of medieval history, University of St. Andrews, and author of nine books on medieval history.
Chris Given-Wilson is emeritus professor of medieval history, University of St. Andrews, and author of nine books on medieval history.

With any biography or history, the author has to decide what audience he is addressing. Given-Wilson is clearly aiming at people with some pre-existing knowledge of the period – i.e., not me. That’s not to say I didn’t glean a lot from the book. But I also found many times that I was at something of a loss. For example, I’m sure that way back in the Dark Ages when I was at school, some poor history teacher probably explained the Great Schism to me, and possibly even Lollardy. But I fear the brain-cells where I stored that information must have been recycled somewhere along the way. (It’s interesting to speculate what might have over-written them – I’m guessing it’s my in-depth knowledge of the history of the various incarnations of the USS Enterprise…) I am certainly not criticising Given-Wilson’s decision not to explain the background to some of the things that impacted on Henry’s reign, but it does mean that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one for the casual reader or total newcomer to the period.

However, it’s well-written and thoroughly researched and, assuming one has the necessary background knowledge, gives a clear, well laid-out and informatively detailed account of Henry’s life and reign.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Martin Luther by Scott H. Hendrix

The road to ‘true religion’…

😀 😀 😀 😀

martin lutherIt’s nearly 500 years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by criticising the practices of the Roman Catholic church and refusing to accept the Pope as the sole arbiter of the meaning of the Bible. What started as a fairly straightforward dispute over the sale of indulgences grew into a theological war that first split the church and then splintered the Reformers themselves into different factions, arguing over some pretty esoteric points of interpretation of the gospels.

Scott H. Hendrix is Emeritus Professor of Reformation History, Princeton Theological Seminary, and tells us in the preface that he struggled during his teaching years to find a full and well-researched but readable biography of Luther to recommend to his students, so decided to write one. Unusually, the problem for Luther biographers is one of too much, rather than too little, information, making the biographer’s task one of deciding what is true and relevant. Although this isn’t the chunkiest biography in the world, its 290 pages plus notes give a thorough account both of Luther’s personal life, at least as much as is known about it, and of the various steps that led him from monk to leader of the Reformation. He explains the main points of Luther’s theological insights clearly enough for this atheist to understand, including the finer points where differences of interpretation arose amongst the Reformers. Hendrix also gives enough information about the prevailing political situation in Germany and further afield to put the Reformation into its historical context, particularly in explaining the level of protection Luther and his colleagues gained from the need of the Emperor to keep the various reformed Princes onside.

The book is in a fairly straightforward linear style, starting with a quick run through of what little is known about Luther’s early years, and then going into more depth once he became associated with the Reformers. Hendrix makes it clear that, though Luther is the one whose name became best known both at the time and to later generations, he worked closely with colleagues at all stages, and that much of what is attributed to Luther, such as the translation of the Bible into German, was in part a collaborative effort involving various scholars and theologians, a fact that Luther himself emphasised. However, Luther became the figurehead of the movement, and to a large degree the arbiter of the direction the early Reformation would take.

I am in my usual position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of the facts or of Hendrix’s interpretation of them, but the book is clearly well researched and it’s obvious that Hendrix knows his subject inside out. He takes a fairly neutral stance on Luther – at least it feels that way – being willing to give both praise and criticism.

Luther Before the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner

Luther comes over as a man who genuinely believed that he was doing the work of God and who worked hard all his life to bring people to ‘true religion’. Of course, like all these people who think they are God’s chosen, he appeared to become more arrogant and self-satisfied as time went on, and made it clear that he believed that anyone who took a different approach was being influenced by Satan, a figure that to him was as real and nearly as powerful as God himself. In fact, in his later years, Hendrix gives the impression that Luther felt that Satan was out to get him – either true, or a real sign that he was letting his opinion of his own importance get a little out of control.

Luther also appears to have been what could be described as either pragmatic or hypocritical, depending on one’s viewpoint, changing direction on occasion to fit the prevailing political situation. For example, although against bigamy, he would cheerfully make an exception and find ways to justify it theologically when one of his powerful backers decided two wives were better than one. Apparently he also felt that it would be better if Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn bigamously rather than divorcing Katherine of Aragorn. (One wonders if he would have felt Henry should also marry Jane, Anne, Catherine and Katherine simultaneously – that would have made for some fun dinner parties.) Luther’s views on violence were subject to similar changes over the years depending on who wanted to be violent to whom. (One odd side effect of the book was that my opinion of John Knox improved when I compared the two – miserable old misogynist though he was, Knox seems to have stuck rigidly to his beliefs in the face of all opposition, even when it meant he made dangerous enemies of some powerful people. While rigidity of opinion isn’t always a trait I admire, there’s something to be said for not reinterpreting one’s spiritual beliefs every time the wind changes direction.)

Hendrix also discusses Luther’s anti-semitism, but puts it into the context of the times when anti-semitism was almost universal in Europe. Luther advocated the burning of synagogues, but Hendrix clarifies that he did not call for the killing of Jews. Hence, Hendrix dismisses the Nazis’ later adoption of Luther as some kind of justification for their actions in the Holocaust, but it seems this has left a lasting stain on Luther, possibly even more in modern Germany than elsewhere.

Scott H. Hendrix
Scott H. Hendrix

Hendrix writes clearly and well, making the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. He rarely left me in a position of needing to look elsewhere for explanation of terms or ideas and while there are the usual notes at the back of the book, I was happily able to ignore them – always my desire when reading history and biography. Hendrix made one decision that really grated on me and that I’m baffled to understand – he decided to anglicise all the names. Thus Johann and Johannes become John, he drops the ‘von’ from von Staupitz, etc. I can’t accept that these names are hard for any reader and see no benefit in me now having no idea of the real names of many of the major players. It seems to me a hideous example of ‘dumbing down’ and is the main reason why I can only rate the book as four stars. Otherwise, this is a very good biography that sheds a lot of light on Luther without engulfing the casual reader in unnecessary information overload.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Edmund Burke by Jesse Norman

edmund burke coverThere is such a thing as society….

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

There have been at least three editions of this biography since it was first published in 2013, each with a different subtitle: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics; The First Conservative; and Philosopher, Politician, Prophet. Pretty impressive claims for one man! The message that the book is going to be complimentary to its subject is reaffirmed in the first sentence of the introduction:-

Edmund Burke is both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past 300 years.

I must admit that all of this made me worried that the book was going to be completely hagiographic. While I prefer biographies that are sympathetic, I also look for biographers to take a balanced approach and to criticise where criticism is due. I’m glad to say that the bulk of the book is not quite as fawningly sycophantic as these early impressions had made me fear, though it is clear that the author is coming at his subject from a position of deep admiration.

Jesse Norman is a British politician and a Conservative Member of Parliament. Prior to that, he gained a degree in Classics from Oxford, and went on to study and later lecture in philosophy. In the introduction, he advises that the book does not contain primary research, but instead represents his personal interpretation of Burke’s life, philosophy and legacy.

The book has a rather unusual structure for a biography. The first half is given over to a fairly standard account of Burke’s life and career, while the second part takes a closer look at his thought. I felt this divide worked quite well, although since Burke’s life was considerably less interesting than his thought, equally the second half of the book was a good deal more interesting than the first.

edmund-burke

Born in Dublin in 1730, Burke saw at first hand the repression of the Catholics in Ireland and the negative effect this had on society. Norman suggests this early experience remained an influence throughout his life, feeding along with later experiences into the seemingly contradictory stances he took over the American and French Revolutions at the end of the century. In summing up Burke’s core beliefs, Norman says he held that “the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of individuals living now: it is to preserve an evolving social order which meets the needs of generations past, present and future.” Thus, he agreed with the American colonists that there should be no taxation without representation and felt that it was important that colonies were embedded socially by creation of the kinds of institutions that existed in nation states, rather than being controlled remotely from afar. On the other hand, while he accepted the cruelties of the inequalities that led to the French Revolution, there he felt that the revolutionaries were crushing and destroying those very institutions that are required to maintain social cohesion.

This dichotomy gives the impression of him as a very practical politician and philosopher, willing to examine each event on its own merits, but with his opinions firmly embedded in his core beliefs. However this in turn meant that he didn’t please those in power all the time, being in and out of favour with his electorate, political colleagues and the King depending on what subject was uppermost at the time. This may explain why, despite his obvious intellect and talents, he never reached the upper echelons of parliamentary power. However, Norman shows the influence that Burke’s thinking had on how Parliament developed in Britain (and, Norman claims, in America) – an influence still felt today. It was Burke who argued that government should be representative – that once in Parliament MPs should be governed by their own opinions rather than bowing directly to the wishes of their electorate. This rested on his idea that it is the duty of politicians to study deeply and understand the history behind current events and the institutions that form the basis of stable societies.

Jesse Norman
Jesse Norman

There really is too much in the book to cover in a review without it becoming unwieldy. I found it well written and accessible, and Norman has the ability to compress large historical subjects into easily understood summaries, leaving him plenty of room to make his arguments about Burke’s influence and importance. As usual, I am in the position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of either the facts nor Norman’s interpretation of them, but I found his arguments convincing. Bearing in mind that Norman is a practising Conservative politician, his conclusions read a little like a plea for the Conservative Party, amongst others, to reacquaint themselves with the founding principles of the party – to accept, for instance, that, contrary to Mrs Thatcher’s claim, in fact there is such a thing as society, and that markets and other institutions are cultural artefacts to be mediated through good governance rather than to be left entirely to their own devices. Norman also makes the point that Burke believed that, since man is a social animal, then society’s needs should take precedence over the wishes of the individual – something that seems to have become forgotten in the last few decades of rampant individualism. (Interestingly, he points out that since most social studies research is carried out in American Universities with students as subjects, then this may skew results to increase the apparent appeal of liberal individualism.)

Overall, a thought-provoking read which doesn’t require any pre-knowledge of Burke’s contribution to philosophy or political thinking – interesting both in its historical context and in how Burke’s influence still resonates in politics today.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas

being nixon“Rock ’em, sock ’em”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Evan Thomas tells us in his introduction that he is not attempting to “weigh the success and failure of Nixon as a policy maker” or to solve the “many mysteries” of Watergate. Instead, his aim is to understand Nixon as a person or, as he puts it, “to understand what it was like to actually be Nixon”. The book is very well written in a style that makes it accessible to the general reader. It’s a linear biography that follows its subject from birth to death, and is well balanced in that the bulk of it concentrates on Nixon’s political career, with just enough of the before and after to shed light on Nixon’s character.

Thomas shows the child Nixon as a high achiever at school, despite being naturally shy. His background was one of hardship, though not poverty, which prevented him from attending one of the Ivy League colleges. This meant that after graduation he wasn’t able to get into the top law firms, and Thomas suggests that this left him with a lifelong chip on his shoulder, always declaring he wouldn’t have Ivy League graduates working for him, though in fact he put many of them into top jobs. This small example in itself shows a trait that is repeated again and again throughout his life – a disconnect between what he said and how he acted. Even at this young age, Nixon is shown as pompous and humourless, and something of a loner. Despite his Quaker background, when America entered WW2 he joined the Army, though he was never directly involved in the fighting.

19500122_Nixon_With_Hiss_Newspaper

His introduction to political campaigning came after the war when he was invited to stand for Congress in California. Dirty tricks were rife and accepted as pretty much the norm by all sides. Again this is something Thomas emphasises all the way through, that dirty campaigns were not unusual and that each side expected the other side to be as devious as they were.

In recounting Nixon’s pre-Presidential political career, Thomas highlights most those features that he feels shed some light on Nixon’s personality, character and political beliefs. Politically, even at this early stage Nixon’s interests lay more in foreign than domestic affairs. He made his name by going after Alger Hiss on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee, refusing to give up until he achieved success. Thomas suggests this experience was important in forming Nixon’s approach to politics in general – at times when he faced difficulties he often referred back to the Hiss affair as a way of insisting that his tactics were the way to get results. He also served on the committee that pushed through the Marshall Plan and was genuinely fearful of the communist threat to a destroyed and poverty-ridden Europe. Later, when serving as Vice-President, Eisenhower would use him as a kind of travelling diplomat, in which role he had some significant successes. At home, he was used as Ike’s attack dog against his political opponents. Reviled by the Press and despised by the social and political elite because, Thomas suggests, of his comparatively humble background and lack of social savoir-faire, Nixon nonetheless had the common touch, and when Ike considered dropping him as running mate in ’56, it was popular pressure that kept him on the ticket.

NIXONcampaigns

In the ’60 election, Thomas suggests that the Kennedy camp ran a huge dirty tricks campaign, pretty much buying JFK’s way in to the Presidency with blatant bribes and backhanders. I have no way of knowing how accurate that is, but given that underhand and devious methods seem to have been the norm on both sides, it doesn’t sound unbelievable. However at this point for the first time Thomas gave me the impression that he was being too soft on Nixon, building excuses for his later behaviour. He suggests Nixon vowed after this never to be beaten in the matter of dirty tricks again.

Once the book reaches the stage of Nixon’s Presidency, Thomas provides a believable picture of a rather isolated President, not personally close even to the people who worked most directly with him. The concentration on Nixon’s personality leaves the book a little light on actual policy matters, I felt, assuming a familiarity with events that some non-American readers and even perhaps younger US readers might not have. But I thought Thomas gave a really good picture of the social unrest of the late ’60s and of how Nixon reacted to the ongoing questions of race, social liberalisation and, of course, Vietnam.

1974_Nixon_quits.pdf-1024

Thomas delves into the background and events of Watergate in some detail, and I was left with the impression that it was a combination of paranoia and the belief that as President he was untouchable that led Nixon to become so heavily implicated. He also is shown to have had a kind of mistaken loyalty, or perhaps it was just weakness, that prevented him from getting rid of people as they fell under suspicion. Though he was clearly responsible for setting the tone that led to the prevalence of dirty tricks within his office, he probably wasn’t aware of the actual Watergate affair in advance, so could probably have escaped the worst of the scandal had he been more decisive and brutal about sacking people at an earlier stage.

Thomas finishes with a look at Nixon’s life after the Presidency, when he gradually became a kind of elder statesman, giving advice to a succession of Presidents.

If Thomas’ portrayal is accurate, then it all seems like a rather sad waste of a man who clearly had great talent and intellect, but whose personality weaknesses took him along a path that led to his own downfall. If there was really as much corruption in politics as Thomas suggests, then one can’t help feeling that Nixon was merely the one who got caught. Though it seemed that just occasionally Thomas went a little easy on him, I felt overall that this was a fairly balanced account and certainly provided a credible portrait of Nixon’s complex character. An interesting biography.

The apology…

 

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone

Romping royals…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the rival queensIt’s little wonder that Nancy Goldstone has chosen to use quotes from Machiavelli to head each chapter in her romping history of her rival Queens, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. It was a great time for Queens, though maybe not quite so great for their subjects. Over in England, Elizabeth was working up to the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But the shenanigans of Catherine and Marguerite frankly make the British Royals look tame.

Goldstone sets the scene well by beginning with Marguerite’s wedding to Henry of Navarre, a marriage she didn’t want since she was a devout Catholic and Henry was one of the leaders of the Protestant Huguenots. But Catherine didn’t much care for what her children wanted, on the whole – especially her daughters. From her perspective, they were simply pawns to be pushed around on the dynastic chessboard of Europe. To be fair, that was how she had been treated herself, so hardly surprising that she dealt with her own children’s wishes as cavalierly. But to then massacre the bridegroom’s friends and relatives during the wedding celebrations might have been a little over the top even for Renaissance royalty!

Catherine de Medici by Francois Clouet
Catherine de Medici by Francois Clouet

Goldstone then takes us back to Catherine’s early life as Queen to Henri II of France. Throughout, the tone of this hugely readable history is light. This early section in particular is full of some fairly ribald humour, as we learn of Catherine’s difficulties in becoming pregnant, and the helpful bedroom tips she is offered by Henri’s long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers. In truth, by page 25 I had tears of laughter streaming down my face and my only regret is that if I were to quote the passages that made me howl so much I’d have to re-rate my blog as ‘explicit content’! Suffice to say, this book has the honour of containing the funniest footnote of all time and my Google search recommendations may never recover…

After this rocky start, Catherine managed to produce ten children (Diane’s advice must have been spectacular!) before Henri’s death left her poised to become regent for her young son Charles IX. After years of playing second fiddle to Diane and being sidelined as Queen, there might be some slight justification for Catherine’s desire to grab power when the chance arose. And she soon proved there was nothing that she wouldn’t consider, including murder and war, to hold onto it. Unfortunate for her that this was the time of the Reformation, meaning that the country was almost constantly either in civil war or in danger of it. The Huguenots were numerically hugely outnumbered in the general population, but had some influential people at their head, while the Catholic Guises were constantly on the prowl, looking for opportunities to gain control over the throne for themselves.

Diane de Poitiers - mistress of Catherine's husband Henri II and provider of spectacular bedroom tips!
Diane de Poitiers – mistress of Catherine’s husband Henri II and provider of spectacular bedroom tips!

Catherine started out willing to conciliate the Huguenots, hence the betrothal of her young daughter to Henry of Navarre. But by the time of the marriage, Catherine’s attitude had changed, not for reasons of religious conviction (of which she had none, it would seem), but mainly to try to get in the good books of Philip of Spain. Having gone through with the marriage and then been horrified by the massacre which followed, Marguerite found herself in an uneasy alignment with the Huguenot husband she didn’t love and the brother, Francis, whom she did, and at odds with her mother and the King. From there on, the story is one of plot and counter-plot, shifting allegiances, betrayals and lots and lots of romping! Unloved by her husband, Marguerite took comfort in a succession of affairs throughout her life, seeming to be fairly indiscriminate on whom she bestowed her favours. In and out of her mother’s favour at different times, always for reasons of politics rather than any kind of familial love, the rivalry was finally resolved only by Catherine’s eventual unlamented death. Marguerite’s husband later ascended to the throne of France, at which point he promptly divorced the childless Marguerite (if only Diane had still been around to advise, eh?). But they got on better after that, and Marguerite ended her days as a sort of favoured aunt to Henry’s children with his second wife, and loved by the populace for her charitable works.

Chenonceau - my favourite castle. So I can see why Catherine was a bit peeved when her husband gave it to his mistress...
Chenonceau – my favourite castle. So I can see why Catherine was a bit peeved when her husband gave it to his mistress…

Despite the light tone, the book feels well-researched, although I give my usual disclaimer that I’m not qualified to judge its historical accuracy. Goldstone handles all the personalities well, making it easy for the reader to keep up, despite the fact that almost everyone is called either Henri or Henry. I felt that she was very biased in Marguerite’s favour and against Catherine. As often as not, the source material that she quotes is Marguerite’s own memoirs – again, I can’t judge, but I’d have assumed these would not be an unbiased account of the period. My own view was that Catherine was indeed not a shining example of motherhood, or Queenhood for that matter, but that Marguerite wasn’t exactly blameless either. Both women seemed willing to use their subjects as dispensable pawns in their own struggle for power and wealth and both seemed to have a pretty superficial view of what was important in life – money, sex, money, power and money. Goldstone remarks on Marguerite’s devotion to Catholicism frequently, but her moral behaviour suggests she was pretty relaxed about following the Church’s teachings only when it suited her.

Goldstone just stops short of claiming that Marguerite’s sexual adventures showed her to be an early feminist, demanding the same sexual freedom as the men. This seemed like a fairly ridiculous leap to me – historical characters must surely be judged by the standards of the society in which they lived rather than by those of today, and there seems little doubt that Marguerite was more promiscuous, or at least less discreet, than was considered acceptable at the time. And Goldstone is fairly harsh on Catherine for remaining in control (emotionally and politically) each time one of her children died – again I felt this was projecting today’s sensibilities backwards. Early death was much commoner then and therefore something that had to be coped with. I wondered if Goldstone would have expected a King to fall apart in similar circumstances. It seemed a bit unbalanced that Marguerite’s behaviour was a sign of feminism while Catherine’s was a sign of unwomanliness.

Marguerite de Valois
Marguerite de Valois

A biased history then, I think, but a highly readable one. At points it reads like a great thriller, complete with cliffhanger endings to chapters, and then at others it becomes like an episode of Dallas, with Catherine in the role of JR and Marguerite as sweet little Pamela. It concentrates entirely on the machinations of those in power, so there is no feeling for the social history of the time beyond mentions of the disruption caused by the religious wars. For me, this was a limitation although clearly an intentional one, and it undoubtedly made the book easier to read and more enjoyable. However sometimes I felt the subject matter perhaps deserved a rather more serious treatment – one feels somehow that the French people probably didn’t have as much fun living under these awful monarchs as I had reading about them. A great starter book though for someone who, like me, knows very little of that period of French and European history – a very palatable way to learn some history.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfield & Nicolson.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Khlevniuk jkt ks.inddGood ol’ Uncle Joe…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Josef Stalin’s 24-year reign as the supreme power in the USSR resulted in the deaths of millions of its citizens, either directly, as a result of repression, or indirectly, as a result of the famines created in large part by the policies his government pursued. In this new biography, Oleg V Khlevniuk sets out to sift through the massive quantity of documentation available to historians, including material newly released from the archives, with a view to understanding the dictator – his personality and motivations. Khlevniuk claims that many previous biographies have given inaccurate portrayals of Stalin, either because of lack of information or because the biographers were apologists for the regime, or sometimes because they repeated inaccuracies from earlier sources that have passed into the historical mythology. Despite the huge amount of material, Khlevniuk makes the point that there is still much more not yet released by the Russian government. One bonus for historians is that, because Russia was somewhat backwards technologically, Stalin continued to communicate by letter rather than phone until well into the 1930s.

I give my usual disclaimer that I am not qualified to judge the historical accuracy of the book. It certainly appears well researched and gives a coherent and convincing picture of the period. Khlevniuk has used an unconventional structure that I think works quite well. The main chapters provide a linear history of the period, while between these are short interludes where Khlevniuk tells the story of the Stalin’s last hours as he lay dying, using this as a jumping off point to discuss various aspects of his life, such as his relationships with his family and the other men at the top of the regime, his reading habits, his health issues, how he organised and controlled the security services, etc. These are not just interesting in themselves – they provide much-needed breaks from what might otherwise be a rather dry account of the facts and figures of his time in power.

The young Stalin Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX (3827290a)  Joseph stalin sitting at a table in 1918.  VARIOUS
The young Stalin 1918
Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX

Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Georgia in 1879, Stalin was the son of a cobbler, but had a relatively privileged upbringing and education for someone of his class. As a student, he began to associate with the Bolsheviks, gradually rising to a position of prominence. Although he was initially a moderate, believing in a gradual evolution towards socialism, he was clearly a pragmatist, willing to change his views when politically expedient. So when the Revolution kicked off in 1917, he threw his lot in behind Lenin. During the war he had his first experiences as a military commander, at which he failed badly, and it was at this early period that he first developed his technique of ‘purging’ opponents that he would use with such brutality throughout his life.

After Lenin’s death, Stalin became even more ruthless in pursuit of power, eventually emerging as the de facto head of government, though the Socialist committee structures remained in place. He seems to have been bull-headed, forcing ahead with policies regardless of advice to the contrary, and completely uncaring about the consequences of them to the people. He appeared to hate the rural poor, considering them a ‘dying breed’, and they suffered worst throughout his dictatorship. But he would occasionally do an about-turn if circumstances required, using what we now think of as Orwellian techniques for distorting the past so that his inconsistencies would be hidden. These distortions of course make the later historian’s job more difficult in getting at the real truth, hence the ongoing debates around just how many people were imprisoned or died under the Stalinist regime – debates which may never be fully resolved.

Stalin poster

Khlevniuk looks in some depth at the Great Terror of 1937-8 when Stalin’s purges reached their peak. He tells us that it has been suggested that Stalin must have been going through a period of madness (it’s hard to imagine a completely sane brutal murdering dictator somehow, setting targets for the numbers of people each district must purge). But Khlevniuk suggests that the root of his paranoia lay in fear of the approaching war. Stalin remembered that the upheavals of the previous world war had created the conditions for civil war within Russia and wanted at all costs to avoid a repetition of that in the next. This, he suggests, was also the reason that Stalin tried hard to keep the peace with Nazi Germany. However this led to him being unprepared for the German invasion, and as a result the country suffered massive losses of both men and territory in the first few years of the war, while famine, never far away during Stalin’s experiment in collectivisation, again reared its ugly and devastating head as the war ended.

Khlevniuk gives an overview of Stalin’s relationship with his unlikely war-time allies, Churchill and Roosevelt, and describes his frustration at their delay in opening a second front to relieve some of the pressure on the hard-pressed USSR forces. It was at this time that Stalin was portrayed in the west as Uncle Joe, good ol’ friend and staunch ally, suggesting perhaps that the American and British governments were pretty good at Orwellian propagandising too. Of course, when the war ended, so did this uneasy relationship as the ‘Great’ Powers haggled over spheres of influence and political ideology.

'The Big Three': Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945. NAM 236 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION
‘The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION

Stalin was to live another eight years after the war ended, during which time he continued his firm grasp on power by periodically purging anyone who looked as if they might be getting too powerful. Khlevniuk paints a picture of Stalin’s somewhat lonely death that would be rather sad if one didn’t feel he deserved it so much. The most powerful men in his government had secret plans already in place for after Stalin’s death, and quickly reversed some of his cruellest policies along with some of his extravagant vanity building projects. A rather pointless life in the end – so much suffering caused for very little permanent legacy. Such is the way of dictatorship, I suppose, and Khlevniuk ends with a timely warning against allowing history to repeat itself in modern Russia.

Oleg Khlevniuk Research Fellow, Senior Research Fellow, State Archive of the Russian Federation (1994-present)
Oleg Khlevniuk
Senior Research Fellow, State Archive of the Russian Federation

Overall, this is more a history of the Stalin era than a biography of the man. Despite its considerable length, the scope of the subject matter means that it is necessarily an overview of the period, rarely going into any specific area in great depth. And I found the same about the personalities – while Stalin himself is brought to life to a degree, I didn’t get much of a feeling for the people who surrounded him, while often the suffering of the people seemed reduced to a recital of facts and figures. It’s clearly very well researched and well written, but it veers towards a rather dry, academic telling of the story. I learned a good deal about the time, but in truth rather struggled to maintain my attention. One that I would recommend more perhaps for people with an existing interest in and knowledge of the period rather than for the casual reader like myself.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

If you’re interested in how the arts were dealt with in this era, you might enjoy Lady Fancifull’s fabulous post on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, composed at the height of the Terror in 1937. She compares different performances to show how it can be interpreted as either a piece of patriotic triumphalism or as an edgy, almost manic, commentary on the time. Brilliant!

John Knox by Jane Dawson

john knoxGod’s Watchman…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching, old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Well, that’s how I think of him anyway! Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this. She tells us that new material has recently been uncovered amongst the papers of Christopher Goodman, a fellow Reformed preacher and long-term friend of Knox. This material, she suggests, throws a different light on his personality, while changing some of the facts known about his life.

Dawson writes very well, with no unnecessary academic jargon, making the book an enjoyable read. In structure, it’s a straightforward biography following a linear timeline. Not having read any previous biographies of Knox, I’m not in a position to comment on whether the new material makes a significant difference to what was already known about him, but I certainly found that I learned a good deal, not just about Knox, but about the history of the Reformation in Scotland, England and Europe.

Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House by Thomas Hutchison Peddie
Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House
by Thomas Hutchison Peddie

Starting with his childhood, Dawson takes us through Knox’s early career as a priest within the Catholic Church and, as she does at all points, sets his story well within the context of the period. She discusses the importance of the Church in medieval society and gives the reader an overview of the political situation in Scotland and England at the time of the ‘Rough Wooing’, when Henry VIII was using military might to try to force a marriage between his son and the infant queen of Scotland. The legend, of course, is that the Scots and English were sworn enemies, but Dawson shows how those Scots who were moving towards Protestantism, including Knox, were in fact keen for an alliance with England, perhaps even a union. Therefore when France pitched in to keep Scotland Catholic, Knox found himself on the wrong side, and began an exile that would take him first to England and later to Geneva, becoming heavily involved in the development of Reformed religion in both locations.

Dawson suggests that these experiences influenced Knox deeply. He had been a disciple of George Wishart, martyred for his beliefs under Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, and on more than one occasion came close to achieving martyrdom himself. His hatred of Mary Tudor’s bloody persecution of English Protestants led him to expect the same in Scotland when the young Mary Stuart came to her throne. (I have to admit that if I’d had to deal with the three Marys, I might have become a misogynist myself.) It was around this time that Knox blew his First Blast, basing his case on the authority of the Old Testament, to declare that women were not fit to be rulers and should be opposed, even deposed if necessary. He had been warned by Calvin not to do this but, as always, Knox’s belief in his own unarguable rightness led him to disregard this advice.

Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman
Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman

Big mistake as it turned out, since Mary Tudor’s death brought Protestant Elizabeth to the throne. Thinking that he could now return to England to continue developing the Reformed Church there, Knox discovered to his surprise that for some odd reason Elizabeth had taken offence over the First Blast. It would have been a bit hard at that point for Knox to explain that it was only Catholic women who weren’t suited to rule, but anyway Dawson didn’t convince me that Knox’s First Blast was more political than misogynistic. Dawson suggests that the fact that he had many staunch female friends and supporters throughout his life, and loved both his wives, in some way refutes the accusation of misogyny. I tend to disagree – many people like cats but they don’t necessarily consider them equals. Perhaps it’s a semantic debate – perhaps he should be described as a sexist old killjoy instead.

Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva Photo credit: Histoire
Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva
Photo credit: Histoire

Having blown his chances in England, Knox answered the call to return to Scotland, where he became embroiled in the Wars of the Congregation. For a brief period after this, he was able to set the Scottish Church up to run along the Reformed lines he had been planning for years, and he believed that by accepting this the Scottish people had made a covenant with God. But he soon became disillusioned when many prominent Protestants upheld Mary’s right to rule and even to attend Catholic Mass. During the long years of ups and downs that followed, he never ceased to preach and prophesy, and never changed his core beliefs regardless of pressure and threats, which I suppose makes him admirable if not particularly likeable. In his later years, he suffered from repeated bouts of depression, believing that the covenant had been broken and that retribution would surely follow. Not against him, obviously – just his (and therefore God’s) enemies. He saw himself as God’s Watchman, constantly striving to prevent deviation from the forms of worship he believed the Bible specified, thumping his pulpit and prophesying doom on all who strayed.

Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.
Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.

My superficial overview doesn’t do full justice to Dawson’s book. She sheds a great deal of light on this complex and important figure, showing in depth how his interpretation of the Bible influenced every aspect of his life. She also widens the subject out to put the Scottish Reformation into context with the Protestant movement throughout Europe, showing how, despite some internal differences, there was an attempt to unify the theology and forms of worship of the fledgling religion. And she goes on to show how local circumstances led to variations in the practices of Reformed churches in different nations. Though I knew most of the historical ‘facts’ already, I certainly have a better understanding of the man, and of the Church he was so instrumental in creating. And while I can’t say I like him much better than I did, I at least accept that he acted always in conformance with his beliefs. An excellent biography and history combined – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford

fortune's foolPlaying the villain…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

As a Brit, the total extent of my knowledge of the Lincoln assassination was that some guy called John Wilkes Booth shot him in a theatre. This biography sets out to examine the whole life of Booth with a view to seeing what brought him to that point.

Booth was one of a family of ten, son of the famous actor Junius Booth, and destined for the stage from an early age. His father was a drunk who had spells of drink-related violence. Often away from home because of his career, much of the children’s upbringing fell to their mother, who seems to have been a loving but rather ineffectual soul. When John was thirteen, it came to light that his parents’ marriage was bigamous, his father having been married before to a wife still living. The book tells us about young John’s education and early attempt at running the family farm after his father’s death, before finally accepting that he couldn’t make a financial go of it and going into the family tradition of acting. While it’s interesting to speculate how much these early experiences may have affected John, speculation it must remain. The accounts of his character at this time, and later, come mainly from people speaking or writing after Lincoln’s assassination, so it’s hard to know how much their views are coloured by hindsight. While some people seem to have seen him as a nice, polite young boy and a good friend, there are conflicting stories of him being a bully and torturing cats. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.
Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.

The section on his early acting career is better documented as far as the facts go – where he performed, what roles he played, etc – but the confusion surrounding his character remains. Being handsome and athletic, he became a heartthrob, with legions of admiring female fans, but he clearly felt overshadowed by his father’s reputation, and perhaps his elder brothers’, choosing at first to drop Booth from his name and to be billed as John Wilkes. Alford looks at contemporaneous reviews and later reports to try to determine how good he was as an actor, concluding that though he showed a great deal of promise, his career wasn’t long enough for this to fully develop. At this young age, his general fitness enabled him to be a very physical performer, specialising in realistic swordfights, in which he sometimes took it so far that he injured his opponents. His signature role was Shakespeare’s Richard III, and his opponents in the fight scene would sometimes have to remind him to ‘die’ before he wore them down completely.

John with his actin brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar
John with his acting brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar

The real interest, of course, is in trying to get at the roots of why Booth developed such a hatred of Lincoln. Although not really a Southerner, Booth came to love the South, especially Virginia, and was violently anti-abolitionist. He was present at the execution of John Brown, having begged to be allowed to join the Virginia militia who were sent to Charlestown to ensure peace during Brown’s incarceration. But when war broke out, his mother made him promise not to join the Confederate army, and Alford suggests that this may have been part of the reason for his later actions – guilt at having played no active part in the fighting. His family lived in the North, and his brother Edwin was pro-Union and a Lincoln supporter. At first, John also was pro-Union, but held Lincoln and the abolitionists guilty for causing the secession of the Southern states. As the war dragged on, reports suggest that Booth became more extreme in the expression of his views, putting himself at risk of unpopularity, if not worse, in the Northern states where during this period he was spending most of his time. At this stage, some people were beginning to describe him as ‘crazy’ (though again, how much of that is hindsight isn’t totally clear).

lincoln-assassinated-newspaper

Alford goes into great detail over the plot, which was originally to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for the freedom of Confederate soldiers held prisoner in the North. Delay after delay, however, meant that the war ended before the plan was carried out. While it’s clear from the plotting that Booth wasn’t quite the ‘lone gunman’ I’d wrongly supposed, he certainly seems to have been the main mover and in the end it appears he alone decided to change the plan to assassination. The description of the assassination and Booth’s flight and eventual capture is detailed and well-told and, whatever people felt about his actions, it appears that in the end Booth died bravely, winning the admiration, sometimes grudging, of those who witnessed his death. Alford interestingly looks at the heroic roles Booth had been steeped in from an early age and speculates on the influence they had on Booth’s actions – in particular the role of Brutus and his assassination of Julius Caesar. It seems clear that Booth expected to be the darling of the South for his actions, and he died disappointed that the general feeling in the South was that he had made the post-war situation even tougher for them.

lincoln memorial

Alford concludes by debunking some of the mythology that grew up of Booth having escaped and made a new life for himself elsewhere. He follows the body, so to speak, from the barn to its final resting place, showing how Booth’s corpse was identified by family members and people who knew him well.

Terry Alford
Terry Alford

There are two fundamental things that are required to make a great biography – a well-researched, well-written narrative and an interesting subject. This one certainly meets the first criterion; Alford has researched his subject thoroughly and has a flowing, accessible writing style. Unfortunately though, apart from shooting Lincoln, Booth’s story is only moderately interesting and, despite Alford’s best endeavours, many things about his character and actions remain clouded, relying on hindsight rather than contemporaneous reports. For what it’s worth (not much), my own conclusion is that Booth was an attention-seeking nutcase, determined to go down in history at whatever cost to himself or those around him. And since we’re still interested in him 150 years on, perhaps he achieved part of his aim – though in the end playing the villain rather than the hero.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson read by Simon Shepherd

the churchill factorBlood, toil, tears and sweat…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Winston Churchill needs no introduction and, in the UK, nor does Boris Johnson, but perhaps he does elsewhere. Boris is one of those few people who are known to all by their first names – if you mention Boris over here, everyone will assume that it’s this Boris you mean unless you specify otherwise. A leading light in the Conservative Party, he has been the Mayor of London for the last six years and is strongly tipped in many quarters to be a future leader of the Party and possibly a future Prime Minister. This is pretty spectacular for a man who is best known for being exceptionally funny on panel games, having a silly hairstyle and being an upper-class buffoon who would fit in well in the Drones Club. But that public persona doesn’t quite hide the other facts about Boris, that he is a highly intelligent, extremely knowledgeable and articulate man, whose political ambitions reach to the very top. Prior to going into active politics he was a political journalist and editor so he knows how to write entertainingly and engagingly. You may already have guessed that I have a huge soft spot for Boris – it’s just unfortunate he’s as right-wing as Mrs Thatcher. But it’s that ability to camouflage his views under his larger-than-life personality that enables him to attract voters who wouldn’t normally vote for his party.

As for his amazing achievement in winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is conventional to treat this as a joke, an embarrassing attempt by the Swedes to make up for their neutrality in the war. Even relatively sympathetic historians such as Peter Clarke have dismissed the possibility that there was any merit involved. “Rarely can an author’s writings have received less attention than the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953,” he says. This is not just a little bit snooty, but surely untrue. Look at the list of Nobel winners in the last century – avant-garde Japanese playwrights, Marxist-Feminist Latin Americans, Polish exponents of the Concrete Poem. All of them are no doubt meritorious in their way but many of them are much less read than Churchill.

In this book, Boris sets out to try to discover what made Churchill into the man who is considered to have been crucial in the British war effort. He does this with his usual panache, making the book hugely enjoyable and filled with humour, which doesn’t disguise the massive amount of research and knowledge that has clearly gone into it. He makes it crystal clear that he admires Churchill intensely and, because he’s so open about it, his bias in the great man’s favour comes over as wholly endearing. In fact, this reader couldn’t help feeling that Boris sees Churchill as something of a role model, and that his desire to understand how Churchill achieved all that he did is partly so that Boris can emulate him – hopefully not by becoming a great leader in another World War though! (Though I suspect Boris might be a little sorry he missed the last one…)

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

In each chapter, Boris looks at one aspect of Churchill’s life – his childhood, his writing, his early army career in the Boer War etc – and analyses it to see what we can draw from it in terms of what made Churchill tick. Over the years, Churchill has had as many detractors as admirers, and Boris takes their criticisms of him head on, dismissing them with his usual mix of bluster and brilliance. That’s not to say he brushes over the big mistakes in Churchill’s career, but he puts them into context and finds that he consistently acted in accordance with his own convictions. (If only we could say that about many of today’s politicians.) This didn’t always make him popular but, had popularity been his main aim, he probably wouldn’t have stood out so strongly against coming to some accommodation with Nazi Germany at the point where Britain stood isolated and close to defeat. Boris makes it clear that he believes that it was Churchill, and Churchill alone, who carried the argument in the Government for Britain to fight on, and who was crucial in persuading the US to finally become involved.

…if he was exhausting to work for, his colleagues nonetheless gave him loyalty and unstinting devotion. When he came back from New York in 1932 after nearly dying under the wheels of an on-coming car, he was presented with a Daimler. The Daimler had been organised by Brendan Bracken and financed by a whip-round of 140 friends and admirers. Can you think of any modern British politician with enough friends and admirers to get them a new Nissan Micra, let alone a Daimler?

Although there is a considerable amount in the book about WW2, as you would expect, there is just as much about Churchill’s achievements and failures both before and after. In a political career that stretched for over 60 years, he was involved to one degree or another in all of the major events in the UK, and indeed the world, from the 1900s to the 1960s – the Boer War, WW1, the establishment of Israel, the abdication of Edward VIII, the decline of the British Empire, the rise of the Soviet Union, the formation of the Common Market (now European Union). Boris shows how he was often at first a lone voice, perceptive through his deep understanding of history and politics, with other people dismissing him until he was proved right (or occasionally wrong). He also shows how Churchill was capable of changing his mind over time and admitting to it – for example, over women, where their contribution to the war effort persuaded him they should be entitled to rights he had previously argued against. A conviction politician certainly, but not hog-tied by it.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

There’s so much in the book that I’ve missed out far more than I’ve included – Churchill’s writing, art, speech-making, personal bravery, etc., etc. It is however a surprisingly compact read considering the ground it covers. It’s not a full biography – it doesn’t set out to be. Boris has selected those events and episodes that he feels cast most light on the character of the man and what formed it – the Churchill Factor, as he calls it. It’s brilliantly written, as entertaining as it is informative and insightful, and I feel it casts nearly as much light on the character of the author as the subject. For anyone who still thinks Boris is the buffoon he plays so well, this might come as a real eye-opener. And for those of us who already know that, like the iceberg, the important bit of Boris is the bit you rarely see, this reminds us that we better decide soon if we really want to buy tickets for the Titanic.

There are Churchill nightclubs and bars and pubs – about twenty pubs in Britain bear his name and puglike visage, far more than bear the name of any other contemporary figure. Sometimes it is easy to understand the semiotic function of the name – you can see why a pub-owner might want to go for Churchill. He is the world’s greatest advertisement for the benefits of alcohol. But why is there a Churchill Escort Agency? And what do they offer, apart from blood, toil, tears and sweat?

Simon Shepherd
Simon Shepherd

As if two huge personalities aren’t enough for one book, I listened to the Audible audiobook version, which is beautifully narrated by another of the great loves of my life (yes, I know there’s a lot of them…), Simon Shepherd, who has one of the loveliest voices known to man (or woman) and the perfect rather plummy accent for this kind of book. It’s a great narration that does full justice to the book – held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. In fact, I found myself frequently doing that ‘just one more chapter’ thing which normally only happens with the written word. Going to bed each night with Winston, Boris and Simon has been a lot more fun than you might imagine…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Factual

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories have changed slightly since last year to better reflect what I’ve been reading this year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual

Genre Fiction

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

 

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

FACTUAL

 

Last year, I split my factual reads into two categories – Science/Nature/Environment and History/Biography/Politics. This year I’ve read lots of history and politics, but very little popular science, so I’ve gone for a single category of Factual. This category contains many of the books I’ve enjoyed most throughout the year. It’s a Golden Age for factual writing at the moment – both quantity and quality. Which means that the choice has been a very difficult one indeed…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the cave and the lightThe Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilisation by Arthur Herman

In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy, politics, religion and science are all discussed,, showing how they linked and overlapped to influence the major periods and events of Western history – the fall of Greek civilisation, the Roman Empire, the birth and rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution and on past the rise of totalitarianism to the end of the Cold War. Phew! And yet, Herman’s writing style makes the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. Not the lightest read in the world, but great for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

When Chicago won the right to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was much sneering from the snobbish elite of New York and elsewhere at the idea of this brash, dirty city, best known as the home of slaughterhouses and pork-packing factories, being able to put on a show that would impress the world. However, brash though Chicago may have been, it was also filled with go-getters and entrepreneurs, tough businessmen with determination, drive and, most of all, massive amounts of civic pride. This is the story of how those men turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes. A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read, written so well that it read like a novel complete with drama and tension.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

roy jenkins2Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

An affectionate and well-researched biography of one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages thus also giving us a look at the wider political context. Jenkins did indeed live a well-rounded life – he was not just a highly successful politician but a very well-regarded biographer in his own right, of political figures such as Asquith and Churchill. But he also enjoyed the social side of life, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature. This huge book is well written and structured so that, despite its size, it is a flowing and accessible read. An excellent biography that does its subject full justice.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

the scottish enlightenmentThe Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

Yes, two books from Arthur Herman made the runners-up list. I don’t think I’ve read a factual book about Scotland in the last year that hasn’t referenced this one. And not surprisingly – not only is it an excellently written history, it’s also extremely flattering about the Scots. Even our First Minister, Alex Salmond, was plugging it during the Independence debate. Although there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread via the Scottish diaspora, and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As accessible as The Cave and the Light (but considerably shorter), this book is certainly not just for Scots – in fact, there’s as much in it about the founding of America as about Scotland. A fascinating and enjoyable read.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST FACTUAL

 

rebel yell

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne

I can’t remember ever enjoying a biography more than this one. Well researched and clearly structured, the book balances the history and the personal perfectly, but what really made it stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for anyone to interest me in the minutiae of military campaigns, but I became absorbed by the descriptions of artillery and troop movements, supply chains and battle plans. Gwynne’s brilliance at contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the horrors of the battlefield is matched by his ability to show the contrast between Jackson’s public and private personas. If only all history were written like this – a superb book, and a worthy winner.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Genre Fiction Award

Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

joan of arcMore history than biography…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Helen Castor begins this retelling of the life of Joan the Maid by explaining that, although her story is better documented than most from this period, it isn’t always possible to take the sources at face value. Since her legend was being created while she was still alive, and since so much hung on the idea of which side in the war had the support of God, then an inevitable bias has to be expected in the various accounts of her actions and words. So Castor has set out to put Joan’s story into the context of the times, and to do that she starts fourteen years before Joan appears, taking us back to Agincourt, and then working forward.

This is a fairly short book, actually more history than biography. It’s well-written and therefore easy to read, and Castor explains the various alliances and enmities clearly – having very little previous knowledge of the period, I was able to follow the various shifting loyalties without too much difficulty, and undoubtedly feel better informed about the events and personalities of the time. She describes the background to the feud between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs which split the French resistance to the English claim to the throne. And she shows how the English policy towards any final peace was circumscribed by the infancy of the King (after Henry V’s death), with his regent in France, the Duke of Bedford, feeling unable to reach decisions to which young Henry VI might object when he came to power. (Unfortunately, from my perspective, she also thoroughly explained the Scottish involvement in the war – on the side of the Armagnac French and against the English, of course – which could briefly be summed up as ‘We came, we saw, we got slaughtered’. Oh well, at least we tried…)

Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orleans by William Etty
Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orleans by William Etty

By taking this approach, by the time of Joan’s arrival on the scene, Castor had built up enough of a picture of the near desperation of the Armagnac faction that it made it slightly less inexplicable why they would have been willing to give credence to this young girl, claiming to have been sent by God to lead an army and ensure the coronation of Charles VII. But only slightly. Though Castor does make clear the importance of religious symbolism and signs at the period, I felt that the crucial point of how exactly Joan got access to the French King remained a little vague. Castor tells us the events – when it happened, who accompanied her, etc., – but left me with no real feeling of why initially any of the important men around the King took her seriously. However, once having rather shimmied past that bit, Castor’s descriptions of Joan’s involvement in the war and subsequent capture and trial are very well told, with the various political pressures on all sides being clearly explained.

So as history the book works well, especially for someone like myself coming new to the period, though I did wonder if it was in depth enough to add much for people with a reasonable existing understanding of the people and events. I didn’t feel it worked quite so well as biography however. Perhaps there isn’t enough information available to make it possible, but I didn’t come away from it feeling that I really understood Joan as a person. There is little about her background prior to her arriving at Charles’ court, and after that, although the events are well described, somehow her personality didn’t seem to come through.

Coronation of Charles VII by Lionel Royer
Coronation of Charles VII by Lionel Royer

There only seem to be two possibilities about Joan – either she actually was God’s emissary on earth or she was mentally ill. Castor rather oddly doesn’t seem to take a view on that. On the one hand, I felt strongly that she was implicitly ruling out the possibility of Joan being visited by angels telling her that God was on France’s side, or more specifically on the side of the Armagnacs. But, on the other hand, she really gave no other interpretation. Not that I’m a great fan of retrospective diagnosis of mental illnesses, but I felt the possibility at least needed to be discussed. The result was that she remained a rather nebulous figure, to me at least.

Helen Castor
Helen Castor

Happily Castor doesn’t end the story with Joan’s death. She continues with the history of the war up to the point where the English were finally driven out of France – she doesn’t delve into it in depth but covers it well enough so that it provides a satisfactory overview. And she also continues Joan’s story after death, with the various reviews of her trial that eventually led to her being declared innocent of heresy. The epilogue tells the final chapter in her story – her canonisation as a saint in 1920.

Overall, I found this an interesting and informative read which, while it perhaps didn’t wholly satisfy me as a biography, worked very well as an introduction to the history of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber and Faber Ltd.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Sailing Close to the Wind by Dennis Skinner

sailing close to the windLet’s do the Time Warp again…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Now in his eighties and still an active Labour Member of (the UK) Parliament, it seems to me as if Dennis Skinner has been around forever. Certainly he’s been there since Parliament was televised, sitting in his usual seat beside the passage and making his famous quips at the opposition speakers…and sometimes those from his own party too. He claims that he didn’t want to write this book of memoirs, but has finally given in to the requests of many people who have enjoyed his public speaking. Certainly the book’s progress to publication seems to have been a difficult one – it has been delayed and delayed till it reached the stage that I wondered whether it would ever actually appear. At first, Skinner was shown as the sole author, then for a while the pre-order details said that it was to be co-written by Kevin Maguire, a left-wing journalist – but this finished version has reverted back to being credited to Skinner alone.

A youngish Dennis Skinner in the House of Commons. Plus ça change...
A youngish Dennis Skinner in the House of Commons. Plus ça change…

All of which might help to explain why the book is, quite frankly, a bit messy. It’s a cross between a rather patchy memoir and a statement of Skinner’s political convictions, with occasional musings on other subjects, such as his love for London parks. That’s not to say it’s not interesting – it is. Well, I’ll narrow that down a little – it’s interesting if you happen to be a left-wing UK political nerd who remembers the miners’ strike and gets nostalgic over the thought of those halcyon days when we marched through the streets of wherever we happened to be at the time, shouting ‘Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!’ Skinner is an unreconstructed socialist and proud of it. Following his father into the mines, he is of ‘good working-class stock’ (which was in fact the title the book was listed as at one stage of its production), and still sees himself very much as a class warrior. His hatred for the Conservatives is visceral and often expressed in terms not unlike a small boy calling nasty names. On the other hand, he is strangely unforthcoming about the changes in the Labour party over the decades – he surely must have hated and despised the New Labour ‘project’, but he keeps that pretty much under wraps, while making it clear he thinks it’s well past time for Labour to get back to its roots.

...plus c'est la même chose
…plus c’est la même chose

The thing is that politics has moved on so far from the seventies and eighties (whether for better or worse is for each person to decide for him/herself) and Skinner’s views now come over as so out-dated, as does his manner of expressing them. (It may – or may not – have been acceptable to call a woman politician ‘darling’ in the seventies, but not so much today.) I would have agreed with him politically about 80% of the time in the Thatcher era, but those days, and the society that existed then, are gone, and won’t be coming back. I felt at points as if I had accidentally stepped into a time-machine. Too much of the book is spent on him recounting his best insults – many of them were quite funny at the time (and many others were just childish), but I did start wondering if the tax-payers were paying for an MP or a comedian. However I felt that was more to do with the uneven structure of the book, than a real reflection on Skinner’s career. He doesn’t really say much about any of the committees he served on (I assume there were some) and the details he gives of the political highpoints of his career are too few and far between. He does go quite deeply into the miners’ strike, obviously with a very strong bias towards the miners, and that was interesting. But the book is too heavily weighted to the Thatcher era – he glosses over the last Labour administration and then gets into his stride again with a series of childish personal insults about the current batch of Tories. (It always amuses me how both sides think the other side behaves badly – and it amused me how hoity-toity Skinner, the arch-insulter, got when Cameron hurled a couple in his direction. Wouldn’t it be great to have a few adults in politics for a change?)

Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and Dennis Skinner in the Miners' Strike
Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and Dennis Skinner in the Miners’ Strike

Overall, I found this in parts interesting, in parts annoying, and as a whole, too unstructured to be completely satisfying. I can’t imagine it appealing to many people outwith the Old Labour tradition, but for them I’m sure it will be an essential read, as it was for me. If for no other reason than that it gives us the chance to do the Time Warp again…

 

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Rebel Yell by S. C. Gwynne

The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

“Draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.”

 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

rebel yellI’ll start with my usual disclaimer that I can’t speak to the accuracy of the history in this book. In fact, my prior knowledge of Stonewall Jackson, and indeed the whole Civil War, could fairly be described as non-existent. But Gwynne has clearly done a huge amount of research and, assuming the accuracy, the only word that I can find to describe the book is superb. In terms of the quality of the descriptive writing, the structure and skilful use of language, and the depth Gwynne brings to the characters of Jackson and his comrades and friends, the book stands not just as an outstanding biography but as a very fine piece of literary writing.

As Jackson and his force of cadets set out to war, Gwynne tells us of his pre-war life as a rather strange and awkward man, deeply religious, suffering from poor health and perhaps a degree of hypochondria. Having overcome his early lack of education to scrape into West Point, he took full advantage of the opportunities on offer there, dragging himself up from the bottom of the class to graduate in a fairly high position. The first signs of his heroism were seen in the Mexican war when his courageous – some might say reckless – actions against a much greater enemy force were crucial to the success of the assault on Mexico City. But after this war, Jackson had taken a position as professor at the Virginia Military Institute, a job for which he seemed remarkably unsuited. Unable to control his unruly classes and an uninspiring teacher, he was seen as something of an oddity by his pupils. Gwynne shows how that all changed as he became one of the Confederacy’s finest leaders, with many of these same pupils ending up willing to follow him anywhere and die for him if necessary.

Jackson's Foot Cavalry
Jackson’s Foot Cavalry

To them, Jackson’s movement east with his vaunted Army of the Valley meant that he was coming to save Richmond, which meant that he was coming to save the Confederacy. And the soldiers of the beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia believed to the bottom of their ragged, malnourished rebel souls that he was going to do precisely that.

This is very much a biography of Jackson and a history of his military campaigns, rather than a history of the Civil War itself. Therefore Gwynne doesn’t go too deeply into the politics of why the war came about, nor does he make any overt judgements about the rights or wrongs of it. Although in the course of the campaigns, we find out a lot about some of the commanders and politicians on the Unionist side, the book is rooted within the Confederacy and the reader sees the war very much from their side. As we follow Jackson through his campaigns, Gwynne, with the assistance of clear and well-placed maps, brings the terrain to life, vividly contrasting the beauty of the country with the brutality and horrors of the battlefields. He gives such clear detail of the strategies and battle-plans, of troop numbers and movements, of weaponry and equipment, that each battle is brought dramatically to life. In fact, my lack of knowledge was something of an unexpected benefit since I genuinely didn’t know the outcome of the battles and so was in a constant state of suspense. And found that I very soon had given myself over completely to willing Jackson onto victory. The image of this heroic man mounted on his favourite horse in the midst of mayhem, the light of battle in his eyes, one hand held high as he prayed for God’s help while the bullets and artillery thudded all around him, is not one I shall soon forget.

Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Wiinchester, Virginia  by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume
Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Wiinchester, Virginia
by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume

On the way back to headquarters Jackson, riding now with McGuire and Smith, said nothing until they neared their camp, when he suddenly said, “How horrible is war.”

“Horrible, yes,” McGuire replied. “But we have been invaded. What can we do?”

“Kill them, sir,” Jackson said. “Kill every man.”

From the beginnings of the creation of the Jackson legend in the Shenandoah Valley campaign, then on through the series of battles where he snatched victory from what should have been certain defeat, till his final stunning achievements as the right-hand man of General Robert E Lee, Gwynne shows the growing admiration and even love of his troops for this man whose total belief in the rightness of his cause and God’s protection led him to take extraordinary risks. He drove his men brutally hard, marching them at unheard-of speeds, on half rations or worse, and he threw them into battle even when they were exhausted and weak and hugely outnumbered. But his personal courage and strategic brilliance turned him into a figurehead – a symbol for the South, whose very name could make the Unionist commanders tremble. Cheered and adulated by soldiers and citizenry everywhere he went, he consistently insisted that all praise for his victories was God’s due, not his, and remained awkward in the face of his growing celebrity to the end.

Men were fixing dinner and taking naps or relaxing, listening to the distant music of a regimental band, or perhaps discussing the Confederate retreat, when suddenly all nature seemed to rise up in revolt around them. Through their camps rushed frantic rabbits, deer, quail, and wild turkeys, then there was an odd silence, and then Jackson’s massive, screaming, onrushing wall of grey was upon them.

But amidst all the warfare, Gwynne doesn’t forget to tell us about the man. We see the other side of Jackson – the family man, grieving for the death of his first young wife and then finding happiness with his second, Anna. Through extracts from his letters, we see the softer, loving side of Jackson and also learn more about his deeply held conviction of God’s presence in every aspect of his life. We learn how the war divided him from his much loved sister who took the Unionist side. And we’re told of the efforts he made to nurture religion amongst his troops. A silent and somewhat socially awkward man to outward appearance, we see how he opened up to the people closest to him, taking special pleasure in the company of young children. A man of contradictions, truly, who could hurl his men to their almost certain deaths one day and weep for the death of a friend’s child the next.

Last meeting of Generals Robert E Lee and Thomas J "Stonewall" Jackson
Last meeting of Generals Robert E Lee and Thomas J “Stonewall” Jackson

A biography that balances the history and the personal perfectly, what really made this book stand out for me so much is the sheer quality of the writing and storytelling. Gwynne’s great use of language and truly elegant grammar bring both clarity and richness to the complexities of the campaigns, while the extensive quotes from contemporaneous sources, particularly Jackson’s own men, help to give the reader a real understanding of the trust and loyalty that he inspired. As Gwynne recounted the final scenes of Jackson’s death and funereal journey, I freely admit I wept along with the crowds of people who lined the streets in wait for a last chance to see their great hero. And I wondered with them whether the outcome might have been different had Jackson lived. If only all history were written like this…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link