Penn starts this history of the three York brothers with the background story of the weak King Henry VI, surrounded by venal lords and constantly threatened by Richard, Duke of York, father of the three brothers, who had a competing claim to the throne through the female line. He then takes us in a linear fashion through the downfall of Henry, and the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, ending with Richard’s downfall and the rise to power of Henry VII, the first of the Tudors.
Penn writes very well, avoiding academic jargon and taking plenty of time to fill in the characters of the people he’s discussing. He assumes no prior knowledge, which as a newcomer to the period I found extremely helpful since it meant I never found myself floundering over unexplained references, as can often happen with history books.
The bulk of the book concentrates on the reign of Edward IV, which makes sense since he ruled for over twenty years whereas the middle brother George, Duke of Clarence, never got to be king and the youngest brother, Richard III, managed a mere two years before he lost his crown, and his life along with it. Unfortunately, Richard is by far the more interesting king (in my opinion), so I’d have been happier to spend more time in his company and rather less on Edward’s interminable taxes and squabbles with France and Burgundy. I have a feeling this says far more about my dilettante approach to history than it does about the book, however! But after an excellent start with all the intrigue and fighting leading up to Edward’s final power grab, I found my interest dipped for quite a long period in the middle of the book as Penn laid out the detail of his long reign.
It picks up again when Edward finally dies, and the nefarious Richard usurps the throne from his nephew. Richard’s reign might have been short but it’s full of incident and Penn tells it excellently. Intriguingly, although of course he relates the story of the Princes in the Tower, Penn doesn’t tell us his own opinion as to whether Richard was guilty of their murder or not. I suppose this makes sense, since (weirdly) there are still strong factions on either side of that question and he’d have been bound to alienate half his readership whichever position he took. He gives enough detail of the event and the contemporaneous rumours around it for the reader to make up her own mind, if she hasn’t already. (Yes, of course Richard was guilty, if you’re wondering… 😉 )
Penn finishes as Richard’s reign comes to its tragic/well-deserved* end, rounding the story off with an uber-quick résumé of Henry VII and the Tudors, explaining how the Yorkist divide gradually diminished over time.
Overall, this is an excellent history, plainly but well told. I’d say it’s aimed more at the general reader than an academic audience, and is particularly good as an introduction to the period – I’m not sure that there’s much new in it for people who already have a solid understanding of the time of the York kings. It’s clearly well researched, with plenty of detail, and it covers all the major personalities of the time, not just the brothers. I came out of it feeling much clearer about how all the various well known names – Warwick, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Anjou, etc. – fitted together, and what parts they played in the Yorkist story. I did struggle with the long middle section of Edward’s rather dull reign, but a historian really can’t be expected to make something exciting if it isn’t. But the first and last sections had more than enough treachery, betrayal and general skulduggery to satisfy even me! Recommended.
*delete according to preference
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane.
For my generation, arriving at political awareness in the 1970s, Enoch Powell had already become the chief bogeyman for those of us on the left. He is best remembered for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968, when he issued dire apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of mass immigration in terms which even in those days were incendiary and which to modern eyes are vilely, shockingly racist. He is still worshipped by the extreme right in Britain, happily a tiny proportion of our society, while some on the left still drag his name out whenever they want to present anti-immigrationism and racism as synonymous. However, he is also considered as one of the leading and most influential thinkers of his generation, and for many years I have wondered why such an intelligent man didn’t realise that this speech would blow his career into smithereens on that day in 1968, making him such a pariah to so many that all other aspects of his contribution to political life are hidden under its dark shadow, and also making rational discussion of immigration policies in the UK almost impossible for decades to come – still today, in fact.
Paul Corthorn is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen’s University Belfast. In his introduction, he acknowledges that much previous biography of Powell has been strongly pro or anti. In this book, Corthorn is striving to present Powell’s views on a variety of topics and how he came to form them, without judgement. Corthorn shapes his work around the political themes that engaged Powell throughout his political life rather than working to a timeline, and makes clear that this is an examination of Powell’s political thought and contribution rather than a personal biography of his life. Having previously ploughed through a rather nauseating and ultimately unrevealing hagiography of the man, I found this approach refreshing. Corthorn takes much of his argument from a close analysis of Powell’s speeches, to which Powell gave great thought. Corthorn suggests that the idea of ‘decline’ underpins much of Powell’s thinking, as his generation grappled with the end of the British Empire and sought to redefine nationhood and Britain’s role in the world, facing up to the new reality of American dominance.
The five themes Corthorn uses are international relations, economics, immigration, Europe and Northern Ireland. He does an excellent job of showing that each forms part of a coherent whole in terms of Powell’s thinking – that the ideas of decline and of nationhood run through all of his arguments and remain consistent, though his opinions on policy changed over time and sometimes could seem contradictory.
(The thing about Powell, as I learned when I reviewed a previous biography on Amazon, is that whatever you say about him he is so divisive that people will call you a fascist racist if you show any admiration for him at all, or a Trotskyite commie if you refuse to genuflect when mentioning his name. But hey! I reckon if people are calling you both, then you’re probably somewhere in the middle which is where I like to be, so if you’re going to be upset by me praising/criticising him you probably should look away now.)
There can be little doubt that Powell was one of the great political thinkers of the mid-twentieth century. He was tackling Britain’s future while most others were still clinging desperately to its past. He foresaw many of the issues we are dealing with today while others were burying their heads in the sand. He saw that American hegemony and the West’s interference in the Middle East would lead to a series of unwinnable wars. He was against devolution for the constituent nations of the UK because he believed that it would weaken identification with the UK as a nation state while never satisfying those who desired full independence. He believed that supranational organisations like the UN and NATO would weaken the ability of nation states to act in their own interests (which he saw as a bad thing). He believed that the then Common Market (now European Union) would progress inexorably towards political union – in his view, an undesirable outcome. And he believed that if governments refused to control immigration, then populism, with all its inherent dangers, would be the eventual outcome (the actual point he was making in 1968, lost entirely because of his use of degrading racist language). He was totally against allowing the Republic of Ireland to have a say in the administration of Northern Ireland, believing it would leave Northern Ireland always as a sort of semi-detached part of the UK – instead he wanted it be fully integrated into the non-devolved political system he favoured for all four UK nations. He was propounding the main ideas behind the economic theories that would eventually come to be called Thatcherism long before Thatcher.
Corthorn finishes with a brief but excellent critical round-up of the preceding chapters and an analysis of why Powell’s reputation and legacy are still matters of dispute. Love or hate him, it is fascinating to read of a politician who gave so much thought to the long-term and who rarely allowed partisanship to sway him into short-term compromise. He changed party affiliation frequently and expected a level of loyalty from others that he rarely was willing to give. This, of course, made him an arrogant maverick with more than a hint of narcissism, and meant that he never gained the power he felt was his due, where a more emollient compromiser may have achieved more. And ultimately it was that arrogance – that failure to accept that those he saw as his intellectual inferiors (i.e., everyone) would not be wowed into agreement by his brilliance – that led him to think that it would be acceptable to speak of immigration in the racist terminology he used in the 1968 speech.
An excellent book that gives real and balanced insight into the thinking of this undoubtedly brilliant, undoubtedly deeply flawed man, and along the way casts a lot of thought-provoking light on many of the questions we are still grappling with today. I can’t say I like Powell any better than I did, but I rather wish I believed our present generation of politicians were as deep-thinking and forward-looking. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.
Two hundred years ago, on 16th August, 1819, a huge rally of some 50,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, to demand greater representation in Parliament. Although the demonstrators were peaceful and unarmed, they were charged by the cavalry and local Yeomanry, riding through the crowd with sabres drawn. Many hundreds were injured and eighteen were killed, either from crush injuries or from sabre wounds. Known as Peterloo, this incident is embedded in the national consciousness as a tragic milestone on the long, long road to democracy.
Robert Poole is Professor of History at the University of Central Lancashire. He suggests that 1819 should be seen in the context of the end of the long 18th century following the Glorious Revolution, as much as the beginning of the reforming 19th century. The Napoleonic Wars had ended at last, but for the handloom weavers and mill-workers in and around Manchester, peace brought no dividend. The huge national debt had led to high taxation, usually indirect which then as now hit the poor disproportionately. Wealth inequality, already major, was growing. Government policies such as the Corn Laws favoured landowners and voters (a tiny number of the wealthy) rather than workers. Wages, already low, were falling still further. Starvation was an actuality even for people working long hours in appalling conditions.
Poole concentrates most of the book on the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and 1819, with the focus on what led up to the massacre more than on its aftermath. He gives a detailed account of the conditions of the workers, the prevailing economic circumstances, the political environment, and the effect of recent upheavals in France on the establishment’s fear of bloody revolution. The book is clearly the result of immense research, pulled together into a very readable narrative that is accessible to the non-historian without in any way over-simplifying the content. There are maps of the area, and a generous helping of illustrations throughout, which aid in understanding how events were perceived at the time. Although it’s clear Poole is on the “side” of the reformers (who in today’s Britain would disagree with that position?), he nevertheless casts an objective eye on why the authorities behaved as they did, condemning where appropriate, but showing some understanding of the pressures they felt themselves under too. He also shows that, although there was no violence on that day from the reformers’ side, there had been violent incidents before, and it was known that the marchers had been being drilled by ex-soldiers, leading the authorities to fear an armed uprising. Overall I felt that Poole gave as even-handed an account of the background as possible, while not in any way minimising or excusing the atrocity that occurred.
Along the way, we learn a lot about the leaders of the Reform movement and their aims, not always uniform. Poole also tells us about the many spies embedded in the movement, reporting every word and action back to the Home Office. We are told about the Government’s use of political power to make it almost impossible for people to protest legally, and about the abuses of the legal system, such as the suspension of habeas corpus, to allow those perceived as ringleaders to be kept in jail for long periods often without trial. Poole tells us about the women who joined the reform movement, not at this early stage demanding votes for themselves, but in support of their men. Despite all the attempts to threaten, bully or otherwise silence them, the people marched, and marched again, and the authorities, local and national, unwilling, perhaps unable, to give in to their demands, felt they had to do something to restore order.
As a casual reader, I found the middle section of the book, where Poole describes the many marches and protests prior to the day of Peterloo, harder to plough through, although this is more a criticism of me than the book. For students, historians or people who like an in-depth approach, then the level of detail Poole provides will be appreciated. However, I found the long first section on the political, social and economic background fascinating and written with great clarity, while the description of the event itself at the end is excellent – a clear and balanced account, and by that stage Poole has ensured the reader understands all the various elements that came together to clash so tragically on St Peter’s Field.
Poole concludes by examining the numbers of dead and injured, explaining the sources historians have used for determining these figures. He discusses the trials and imprisonments that followed. He takes a very interesting look at the reporting of the day and how public opinion was changed by a few journalists offering eyewitness accounts. He then sets this event as a link in the chain of the longer reform movement, later leading to the 1832 Reform Act and on towards Chartism and eventual achievement of universal manhood suffrage, where every vote counted equally. He compares (as I did while reading) the period 1817/19 to today’s Britain (and I’d add America and several European nations, not omitting the EU itself), with populism rising as a response to an elite who don’t listen to the concerns of the people, (and again I’d add, or who discount the legitimacy of any democratically-expressed decision with which they disagree). I also found myself comparing these events to the ongoing Hong Kong protests, with a chilling sense of foreboding.
I was taught about Peterloo by an inspirational history teacher at school and it helped form my long-held opinion that if democracy is to survive, then democracy itself must be accepted by all as more important than any one political issue or partisan affiliation. Democracy is a fragile thing, and this book is an excellent reminder of how hard-fought the battle was to win it. I highly recommend it.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.
If there’s one thing I love more than most things, it’s being told all about a subject I know nothing about by someone with an enthusiastic passion for it and the ability to write in a way that brings it to life. I knew nothing about the various rock lighthouses that stand as warnings to shipping around Britain’s shore, and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide to them than Tom Nancollas.
He starts with a brief introduction of himself – he is a building conservationist who chose to study rock lighthouses for his dissertation, giving him a lasting interest in the subject. Having regularly visited as a boy both the Wirral coastline and Cornwall, where his family originated, he tells us he grew up feeling an affinity for the sea and a fascination for all its many moods. For this book, he set out to visit seven of the major rock lighthouses, sometimes getting permission to land and see the interiors, other times examining them from the outside. Along the way, he tells us tales of their construction and history, of the men who built, lived in and maintained them over the years, and of the many shipwrecks they have doubtless averted and of some they didn’t. His style is non-academic, sometimes lyrical, always enthusiastic, and I found myself coming to share his fascination for these incredible feats of engineering and his admiration for those who built and worked on them.
He begins with Eddystone, off Plymouth as a way of showing how what became the standard design for rock lighthouses developed. Eddystone has had four lighthouses over the centuries – the first rather whimsical structure unable to withstand its first storm, the second, a part timber building destroyed by fire. The third, (above), built of interlocking stone blocks which provided the strength and stability required to stand up to the sea’s constant pounding, became the model for future lighthouses, and lasted for many years until it too eventually began to shake. It wasn’t the lighthouse at fault though – the rock it was built on had eroded. And so the Victorians built a fourth, the one which still stands, still warning ships to steer clear.
The chapter is a great mix of explaining the building techniques in language easily understandable by the complete layperson, together with vignettes about the architects and builders which humanise the subject. Nancollas also fills in the historical background, lightly but with enough depth to give a feel for what was going on in Britain and the western world at each point. He talks of Britain’s growing status as a maritime trading nation and tells tales of the shipwrecks and disasters that gave an urgency to finding some reliable way of guiding ships safely through the rocky hazards around the coast.
Each subsequent chapter takes a similar form, gradually leading us round the coasts: to Cornwall’s rocky shores to visit Wolf Rock lighthouse; over to the Scillies to Bishop Rock; up to Scotland to the Bell Rock off Arbroath, built by the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson; to the now disused and decaying Perch Rock in the Wirral; over to Ireland to Fastnet off Cork; and to Haulbowline on Carlingford Lough, in a kind of no-man’s-sea between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Each has its own story and its own history, and Nancollas extends out to tell us something of the places near which they’re situated.
For example, while discussing Bishop Rock, he talks about the Scillies, once one landmass and perhaps even attached to Cornwall, now divided into somewhat isolated islands by rising sea levels. He doesn’t specifically mention climate change, but talks of how the Scillies will eventually be completely submerged and, as the highest point, the Bishop Rock lighthouse will be the last thing in that seascape to be seen above the water. It’s beautifully written, and I found it both moving and frightening.
Or another example – Haulbowline. The troubled history of the divided island of Ireland means that all records of its building have been lost, if they ever existed. The lighthouse is now unmanned, but Nancollas visits it and tries to visualise it as it once was, with the help of stories from the men with him – the ferry pilot, the lighthouse mechanic, and the grandson of a previous keeper. He tells of how during the Troubles, the British Navy patrolled the lough, stopping and searching suspect ships for contraband, smuggled weapons, etc. He describes the lighthouse as liminal, belonging to neither one side nor the other but standing as a kind of symbol of humanity amidst this disputed and often violent zone.
I have one criticism of the book, which is the lack of adequate illustrations. There are some black and white on page photos, but the book is crying out for glossy sections of full colour pictures: of the lighthouses themselves first and foremost, but also of some of the many men we learn so much about along the way. (I nearly deducted half a star for the lack, but in the end couldn’t bring myself to do it.) That aside, I loved Nancollas’ writing, when he is explaining technical stuff simply, or when he is musing more philosophically about things past and future, or when he talks lyrically of the power of the sea.
I had time, from the elevated perspective of the tower balcony and lantern, to study the sea, really look at it, and watch it behaving in a way you don’t really see from the shore. It breaks around the reef in repeating patterns that reflect the submerged geology around the rock’s waist. There is a point to the south-west, in the path of the Atlantic, where the sea gathers itself up and splinters over a submerged reef on a long, horizontal plume that looks like the scaly neck of a giant beast. On a smaller piece of rock nearby it breaks into a perfectly contained white cloud, always the same size and shape. Engulfing the Little Fastnet, the sea falls back and dribbles in thousands of streams down crevices that will deepen over the centuries. Here, you get something of the sea’s eternity – rising, falling, calming, dousing and rinsing and thrusting against the rocks in myriad ways, a lazy, beast-like play of motion that will never end.
A fascinating subject, brought wonderfully to life, I highly recommend this one.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All the lighthouse illustrations I’ve used are from Wikimedia Commons.
This is a straightforward, factual telling of the story of Ernest Shackleton and his crew, and their failed 1914 bid to cross the Antarctic on foot from west to east. It’s also one of the most stirring and emotionally turbulent books I’ve ever read. These were the days of the great explorers, making crazy expeditions in the name of scientific discovery, but just as much for national pride and for the sheer glory of being the first. Shackleton’s expedition was at least in part to wipe out Britain’s humiliation at being beaten to the South Pole by Norway’s Roald Amundsen.
If by any chance you don’t know whether Shackleton and his men survived, I urge you not to look it up before reading this one. I was extremely vague on the whole thing and as a result found myself totally caught up, willing them on, crying over each new disaster, celebrating with them over any small triumph. Talk about emotional rollercoaster! As it got towards the end, my tension levels were going through the roof, just as they would have been had these men been personal friends – indeed, after the long journey I’d made in their company, I truly felt they were.
Having set the scene for the expedition, Lansing introduces us to Shackleton the man – rather self-aggrandizing, hoping to enrich himself, but also a great leader, loyal to his men and capable of inspiring great loyalty from them – and from the reader. I didn’t totally like him, but if I’m ever trapped in a life or death situation, I hope Shackleton is my leader. Gradually, Lansing then brings each of the men to life, using extracts from journals and other records to show us how they worked together as a team, and played together to keep their spirits up and fend off boredom even when in extreme situations. We are made privy to their jokes, their foibles, their little rivalries, and most of all to their truly heroic will to survive. When you read old adventure stories, like Rider Haggard or Conan Doyle, sometimes the heroes can seem too good to be true. But the men of the Endurance are real, and they are as great as any fictional heroes – the stronger looking out for the weaker, no disloyalty, no factions emerging, no blame being cast around when things go wrong. Working together, finding ways to overcome every hurdle, never giving up hope… oh no! I’m going to start sobbing again any minute now…
Anyway! It all goes wrong early on, when the Endurance becomes trapped in the ice. There’s nothing the crew can do except wait, and hope that the ice drifts in the direction they want to go, or breaks up enough to allow them to get back to open water. But the great pressure of the ice on the hull eventually proves too much for the brave ship, and the men find themselves out on the ice with only what they could salvage before she went to her doom. From there on, it’s a battle between man and nature, with nature holding all the cards. Having said don’t look it up, I won’t spoil it by telling you what happens, but there are moments of drama, tragedy, hope, despair and even occasionally laughter.
Lansing presents all this in a rather understated way. The book is full of facts – like the compass position of the men each time they are able to take a measurement, or exactly what food rations they were allowed each day. He doesn’t give a running commentary on either people or events – he simply presents them to the reader, often using the crew members’ own words as recorded contemporaneously in their journals. Lansing’s language is wonderfully descriptive, but not full of overly poetic flourishes. This rather plain style, however, works beautifully – the events are so thrilling and the men are such heroes that they don’t need any great fanfares or flowery flourishes to enhance their story. And he makes us hear each crack of the ice, each groan of the ship’s timbers. We feel the bitter cold and the perpetually soaked clothing and bedding. And we are shown the men’s hunger so vividly that we too begin to see each passing seal as food…
Shackleton came to no. 5 tent, just at breakfast time, to inform Macklin that he had decided against the trip. It was a crushing disappointment, coming as it did on the heels of a miserable night of wet, misty weather during which nobody had slept much. Shackleton had hardly left when Macklin turned on Clark for some feeble reason, and the two men were almost immediately shouting at one another. The tension spread to Orde-Lees and Worsley and triggered a blasphemous exchange between them. In the midst of it, Greenstreet upset his powdered milk. He whirled on Clark, cursing him for causing the accident, because Clark had called his attention for a moment. Clark tried to protest, but Greenstreet shouted him down. Then Greenstreet paused to get his breath, and in that instant his anger was spent and he suddenly fell silent. Everyone else in the tent became quiet too and looked at Greenstreet, shaggy-haired, bearded and filthy with blubber-soot, holding his empty mug in his hand and looking helplessly down into the snow that had thirstily soaked up his precious milk. The loss was so tragic, he seemed almost on the point of weeping. Without speaking, Clark reached out and poured some of his milk into Greenstreet’s mug, then Worsley, then Macklin, and Rickinson and Kerr, Orde-Lees and finally Blackborow. They finished in silence.
I listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Prebble, and he does a fabulous job. The crew were a diverse group, with Irish, Scots, Australians, New Zealanders, etc., alongside the Englishmen who made up the majority, and Prebble gives each a distinctive voice and personality, complete with appropriate accent. This added to the feeling of getting to know them as real living individuals rather than simply as historical characters on the page.
A wonderfully emotive journey that shows the human spirit at its very best – I can’t recommend this one highly enough! I was a sobbing, traumatised wreck by the end – but was the ending tragedy or triumph? If you don’t already know, you’ll have to read it to find out… or better still, listen to the audiobook.
This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw Libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in, and differentiates between them by calling the book collections ‘libraries’ with a small ‘l’ and the rooms ‘Libraries’ with a capital ‘L’, and I’m going to stick with that for this review.
There’s so much in the book that I’ll only be able to give a flavour of it. Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. Purcell doesn’t simplify by explaining bookish vocabulary which may be unfamiliar to the general reader (like me!), so at first I found myself doing a bit of googling.
But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived. Because Purcell tells us as much about the storage of books as the books themselves, it also becomes an architectural history, and a history of the lifestyles, interests and leisure pursuits of these people – an aspect often not covered in standard histories which tend to be concentrated on politics and power.
Purcell follows a fairly linear timeline throughout. He starts with the speculation that the tradition of libraries in Britain began in Roman villas, with scrolls, and discusses in depth what kind of books would have been read. In the next few chapters, he covers the period up to and through medieval times, showing that there was a considerable level of scholarship amongst the nobility. He also discusses how books were stored before Libraries became a feature – in chests or flat on shelves in small studies or closets set aside purely for the purpose of reading and study. Not unnaturally, the main focus is on the English since they comprise by far the largest population, but happily he ranges out to Scotland, Ireland and Wales too throughout the book, which I found tended to bring together the histories of those nations, showing a common Britishness that often doesn’t come through in histories or biographies of a particular subject.
He then goes on to discuss the foundations (and fates) of the great libraries of the late 17th and 18th centuries, some of which would later form the basis of many of our great national and public collections today (and some of America’s and even Australia’s too). By now, some of the collectors were including lighter, more entertaining books amongst the great classics and heavy religious texts – novels, but also lots of informative books, like cookery books, books on animal husbandry, etc. English was by now more common than Latin and Greek, and books in modern languages were beginning to appear on the shelves of the well-travelled. Illustrated books of things like foreign flora and fauna made me feel that this illustrated book is part of a long tradition, and while wikipedia and Google are fabulous alternatives for those of us with modest homes, I lusted for the libraries of the 19th century in particular.
I also lusted for their Libraries! From the illustrations, the earliest ones look rather bare and functional – huge half-empty rooms surrounded by shelving. But by the 19th century, Libraries had become living spaces where people spent part of their leisure time. Railways had allowed for the tradition of the weekend house party to begin, and Libraries were becoming part of the attractions of the country house, sometimes even including billiard tables, or being situated next door to the billiard room. Comfy seats appear – and footstools, card tables, open fires and reading lamps. The nouveau riche in particular went for comfort and novels, and I found myself longing to either be a nouveau riche 19th or early 20th century country house owner, or at the very least to be invited to one of their house parties. Another place to be added to my ‘where to go when they invent a time machine’ list.
In the major houses, books regularly outgrew the space in the main Library, (don’t we all recognise that problem!), so that other rooms would gradually be co-opted into use as secondary Libraries. Purcell shows that many of the householders provided books and even occasionally specific Libraries for their servants, and some of the libraries gradually began to operate almost like public lending libraries for people in the surrounding countryside.
Purcell finishes by discussing the 20th century, when many of these libraries were sold off or donated, sometimes as a method of paying off swingeing inheritance taxes. He himself works with the National Trust, the body that has taken over responsibility for maintaining many of these great country houses on behalf of the nation, and he tells how they’ve gradually realised the bookish treasures they’ve acquired along with the houses. A sad and also happy end – the passing of a great tradition, but hopefully these rooms and books will be maintained and made available to scholars and the public for years to come, even if we’re not allowed to actually read them.
As you can hopefully tell, I loved this – it might have been heavy going in places, but I learned lots about a subject dear to my bookish heart. And those illustrations are to die for…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
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.
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.
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…
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.
On a day which had earlier been foggy but was now clear and calm, some passengers aboard the Lusitania stood on deck and watched the ‘dead wake’ of a German U-boat torpedo heading towards the bow of the ship. It was 7th May 1915; Europe was engulfed in war while the USA was desperately maintaining its position of neutrality. Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.
Larson starts with a prologue about the evening before the attack. Before she sailed from New York, the Germans had threatened they would attack the Lusitania, but the passengers weren’t particularly anxious. The Lusitania had been built for speed, the fastest ship of its time. Captain William Turner was confident she could outrun any U-boat. Anyway, given the threat and the knowledge that U-boats were operating around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, there was a general confidence that the Royal Navy would be on hand to escort them for the last dangerous stage of the journey.
Larson uses four main strands to tell the full story of what happened. We learn about the codebreakers of the British Admiralty who had obtained the German codes and were therefore able to track U-boat movements with a fair degree of accuracy. Eerily reminiscent of the Bletchley codebreakers of WW2, there was the same dilemma as to how often to act on information obtained – too often and the Germans would work out that their codes had been cracked, and change them. So some ships were left unprotected, sacrifices, almost, to the greater war effort. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, and was desperate to draw the US into the war on the British side. There appears to be little doubt that he felt that if German U-boats sank ships with American citizens aboard, this might be a decisive factor.
Secondly, Larson takes us aboard U-20, the U-boat that would fire the fatal torpedo, and introduces us to its Captain, Walther Schwieger. By using Schwieger’s logs amongst other sources, Larson creates an absorbing and authentic-feeling depiction of life aboard the ship, including a lot of fascinating detail about how U-boats actually worked – the logistical difficulties of diving, with the weight constantly changing as the amount of fuel aboard decreased; and how the crew would have to run from place to place to keep the boat level when manoeuvring. Larson widens this out to tell of some of the dangers for these early submarines, and some of the horrific accidents that had happened to them. And he takes us further, into the ever-changing policy of the German government with regards to the sinking of passenger and merchant ships.
The third aspect revolves around President Wilson and America’s lengthy vacillations before finally committing to war. Politically hoping to sit it out while Britain bore the brunt, Wilson was also suffering personally from the loss of his much-loved wife, closely followed by what sounds like a rather adolescent rush of passion for another woman. It appears that he spent as much time a-wooing as a-Presidenting, and his desire to spend his life taking his new love out for romantic drives meant that he seemed almost infinitely capable of overlooking Germany’s constant breaches of the rules regarding neutral nations. (I should say the harshness of this interpretation is mine – Larson gives the facts but doesn’t draw the conclusions quite as brutally as I have done. Perhaps because he’s American and I’m British. But he leaves plenty of space for the reader to draw her own conclusions.)
The fourth section, and the one that humanises the story, is of the voyage of the Lusitania itself. Larson introduces us to many of the passengers, telling us a little of their lives before the voyage, so that we come to care about them. There were many children aboard, including young infants. Some people were bringing irreplaceable art and literary objects across in the way of business. There were pregnant women, and nannies and servants, and of course the crew. Larson explains that the crew were relatively inexperienced as so many sailors had been absorbed into the war effort. While they carried out regular drills, logistics meant they couldn’t actually lower all the lifeboats during them, so that when the disaster actually happened this lack of experience fed into the resulting loss of life. But he also shows the heroism of many of the crew and some of the passengers, turning their backs on their own safety to assist others. Even so, the loss of life was massive, and by telling the personal stories of some who died and others who survived but lost children or parents or lovers, Larson brings home the intimate tragedies that sometimes get lost in the bigger picture.
And finally, Larson tells of the aftermath, both personal for some of the survivors or grieving relatives of the dead; and political, in terms of the subsequent investigations in Britain into what went wrong, and Wilson’s attempts to ensure that even a direct attack on US citizens wouldn’t drag his country into war.
Larson balances the political and personal just about perfectly in the book, I feel. His excellent writing style creates the kind of tension normally associated with a novel rather than a factual book, and his careful characterisation of many of the people involved gives a human dimension that is often missing from straight histories. He doesn’t shy away from the politics though, and each of the governments, British, German and American, come in for their fair share of harsh criticism, including some of the individuals within them. An excellent book, thoroughly researched and well told – highly recommended.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
For ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. They slept downstairs in the back parlour of their house, with a family friend who had come at their request to look after them. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from the house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.
This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. The idea of the matricide itself horrified contemporary society enough, but it was the cool behaviour of the boys over the following ten days that made the crime seem even more shocking. Evidence showed that the murder was planned – Robert had bought the knife specially a few days earlier, and he later claimed that he and Nattie had arranged a signal for when the deed should be done.
The first part of the book concentrates on the crime and the trial procedures and Summerscale covers these with her usual excellent attention to detail. Because they felt that their case against Robert would be stronger if his brother gave evidence, the prosecution were keen to have the charges against Nattie dropped, since at that time defendants were not allowed to tell their story in court. In the early proceedings, Robert had no lawyer or other representation and was expected to cross-examine witnesses by himself. The boys’ father was a steward on board a transatlantic cattle vessel, and wasn’t even aware of the murder till after the first hearings had taken place.
Although this all sounds horrific to our modern ideas of justice, especially for children, there seems little doubt that Robert was indeed guilty, and some of the court officers did their best to make the process as easy for him as they could within the system. The boys were held in an adult jail during the trial process, but had individual cells – a luxury they might be unlikely to get today. The boys’ extended family did show up for the hearings, so Nattie at least had some adult support.
The defence quickly decided to try for an insanity ruling, which meant that they actually preferred for there not to be a rational motive, while the prosecution felt Robert’s guilt was so obvious they didn’t need one. The result of this is that no-one ever really asked why Robert did it, and so the motivation remains unclear. Summerscale suggests on the basis of some fairly circumstantial evidence that the mother may have been cruel to the boys in her husband’s absence – there is a suggestion that she too suffered from “excitability” and extreme mood swings, and may have beaten the boys badly, but this is largely speculation.
In this first section, Summerscale also widens her discussion out to look at the society and living conditions of the time. Robert’s family was working class, but not grindingly poor – his father had a decent income, and the boys got a good education. However, at that time, there was much debate as to whether educating the poor was a good thing, especially since the ability to read allowed boys access to the “penny dreadfuls” of the time, which many considered to have a bad influence on impressionable young minds. Robert had a collection of such pamphlets, and the press made much of this. The crime took place in Plaistow in Essex, an industrial area within the range of the heavily polluted atmosphere of London. There was also much debate at that time about the general poor health of the urban poor, while the acceptance of the theory of evolution brought with it a belief in the possibility of its opposite, degeneration. It all reminded me of the “bad boy” culture that Andrew Levy discussed so thoroughly in his book about Twain’s young hero, Huck Finn’s America.
The second half of the book tells the story of what happened to Robert after his conviction. Summerscale is asking, and answering, the question of whether someone who has done such a dreadful thing can go on to lead a normal, even worthwhile life. Robert spent several years in Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, where again because of his youth he was in fact treated more kindly than we might expect. This whole section is fascinating in what it tells us about the treatment of those judged criminally insane. In fact, from time to time there were complaints that the treatment was too kind – that people were faking insanity to avoid the much harder regime in normal prisons.
This is not the end of Robert’s story, though. Following his eventual release from Broadmoor, Summerscale follows his trail through the rest of his life, uncovering some interesting and unexpected details about how he turned out. So often true crime stories from the Victorian era end with a conviction and capital punishment. This one, being somewhat later and also because it concerned a child, is intriguing because we are able to see the aftermath. At the point of conviction Robert would undoubtedly have been seen as some kind of monster, but Summerscale lets us see whether the rest of his life confirmed that or allowed him to find some kind of redemption. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is easily the equal of Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and personally, having worked with boys of that age with troubled and often criminal histories, I found this one even more interesting. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Group.
In 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.
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 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!
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!)
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.
Liberally illustrated by true tales of crimes from the Victorian era, the book’s real focus is on advances and developments in the science of detection and the prosecution of poisoning cases. In each chapter, Stratmann looks at one aspect of these and gives one or more examples to show their impact in practice.
Stratmann opens with the case of Eliza Fenning, a maidservant hanged for the attempted poisoning of her employers. This case came to be seen as a major miscarriage of justice, highlighting the inadequacies of the justice system as it related to poisoning cases. Cases were dependant on proof of two things – that the victim had in fact been poisoned, and that the accused had deliberately administered the poison. The science at the time was so weak that proof of the first part was almost entirely dependent on observation of the victim’s symptoms, and the second was complicated by the fact that poisons were readily available without any safeguards, and in fact were often used in small doses as medicines.
Arsenic was the poison most often suspected in the early days of the period, and at this time women were the ones most likely to be accused of using it. Although the focus of the book is on the science, Stratmann also touches on the social conditions behind many of the cases she discusses. Arsenic was easily obtainable and simple to use, and its use as a rat poison meant that there was nothing particularly suspicious about women buying it. At the time, divorce was difficult, especially for the poor, and especially for women. While men could divorce an unfaithful wife, a woman could only divorce her husband for much worse things; for example, if he was violent or deserted her. Married women had no property rights – whereas a widow could inherit her husband’s property. So the temptation to do away with a brutal (or sometimes just boring) husband was always there…
But it wasn’t only inconvenient husbands who could be disposed of with relative ease. During this period, the Government changed the law so that an unmarried mother could no longer get maintenance from her child’s father through the court. Add to this the rise of ‘burial clubs’ – an insurance scheme where payouts greater than the cost of the funeral would be made on the death of the insured – and it’s hardly surprising there was a rise in the number of cases of infanticide amongst the poor. Stratmann makes two interesting points about these cases – firstly, that women murdering their children tended to use laudanum rather than arsenic because it was a ‘kinder’ death, causing less suffering to the victim; and, secondly, that juries, who probably had a good understanding of the impossible poverty some women found themselves in, tended to take a more sympathetic and lenient view of such cases than we might expect from Victorian men.
Stratmann makes the point that, although there were indeed many poisoning cases in the period, much of the hysteria around the apparent prevalence of poisoning was due in large part to the effect of ‘moral panic’, as the media and special interest groups whipped up fear amongst the populace for their own advantage. The new Pharmacists Association and the forerunner of the British Medical Association saw panic over poisons as a means to boost recognition of their own professions as the best people to sell and control drugs, while nothing sells more newspapers than a horrific murder and, preferably, a good public hanging to follow.
As the science of detection gradually improved and the Government slowly began to take measures to make the purchase of arsenic a little harder, the focus changed somewhat to vegetable alkaloids, such as the infamous strychnine. Since these poisons were harder to get hold off and in some cases required a bit of knowledge to use effectively, the ‘moral panic’ pendulum swung and it was now men who were seen as the main poisoners, especially well-educated, respectable men. Again Stratmann raises some interesting points here, such as the reluctance of doctors called in to such cases to suggest poisoning because of the elevated social positions of the ‘suspects’. She gives us examples of cases where a wife would be slowly poisoned, with her attending physicians suspecting poison for days, even weeks, before death but doing nothing constructive to stop it. The British class system at play as usual – isn’t it great?
Meantime, the science was improving but unfortunately the egos of the scientists were growing alongside. Now both prosecution and defence would call ‘expert witnesses’ who would battle it out in court, more interested sometimes in their own reputations than in the guilt or innocence of the accused. This had the double effect of making it next to impossible for jury members to decide on scientific points they didn’t understand, while undermining public faith in science in general. In some of the examples Stratmann cites here, I was frankly glad I hadn’t been on the jury, as both sides set out to destroy the reputation of the other. She also compares the British system to the French, where the court would appoint its own expert, thus avoiding this kind of courtroom confrontation (but also meaning that perhaps too much reverence and faith was placed on one man’s opinion).
So, interesting stuff. Unfortunately overall, I found the interesting bits were pretty deeply submerged under a lot of scientific stuff I didn’t really understand and didn’t think was explained clearly enough for the layperson. Also, there are far too many examples of cases given, all complete with very similar gruesome descriptions of vomiting, bodily excretions, autopsies and horrific scientific experimentation, mainly on dogs. All the cases eventually merged into one mass of yuckiness – a few cases more carefully chosen would have been much more effective, in my opinion. By the final few chapters, I was skipping over the cases, and the science, I must admit, to get to the little bits of interest to me. In the end, I felt it was all too detailed and had too much repetition of points already made. However, it is undoubtedly a thoroughly researched and well written book which will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the science, justice system or social conditions of the time.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Before he became a politician, Churchill was both a serving soldier and a war correspondent, forging a relationship with the right-wing Telegraph newspaper that lasted on and off for the whole of his life. This book is an amalgamation of articles which appeared in the paper, either written by or about Churchill over his long career. Having thoroughly enjoyed another Telegraph publication last year, The Telegraph Book of the First World War, I had high expectations of this one, which sadly it didn’t wholly meet.
Some of the articles written by Churchill are outstanding. His description of the naval war in WW1 is lucid and revealing about the arguments over tactics between the politicians and Admiralty bigwigs. It’s a potted history of the whole thing, from the positioning of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow through to the U-boat war and the measures taken to combat it – the Dover barrage and the adoption of the system of convoys. As always in his writing, Churchill’s personality comes through – his criticisms of the Admiralty feel personal on occasion – but he is very good at making complicated issues clear for the less well informed reader.
He also speaks intelligently and perceptively about the ‘dole’ – how National Insurance should be used, in his opinion, to support those people who are left without work for a period of time. Many of the arguments he was putting forward back in the middle of the last century are still being debated today and he was unusually perceptive at recognising that the future would probably lead to an ageing population with all the pressures that would place on the newly-formed Welfare State. It’s rather depressing to think that present-day politicians seem to have been taken by surprise by issues Churchill foresaw 60 or 70 years ago.
There is also a rather excellent section in the book on Churchill’s post-WW2 plea for the formation of a United States of Europe, where he envisions much of what has subsequently come to pass, and pretty much in the way he suggested. He felt that it was crucial for France, still reeling from the war, to reach out a hand of forgiveness to defeated Germany, and to forge unbreakable bonds between first the major and then the minor nations of Europe to prevent the never-ending wars that had brought the entire continent to its knees. He believed both the United Nations and a treaty between Europe and the US (subsequently NATO) would be crucial in ensuring peace and in providing a bulwark against the encroachment of communism in the form of the USSR. All familiar stuff to us now, but prescient and influential when he was writing.
So there’s plenty of good stuff in here. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest is either filler or not set well enough in context to make it informative without pre-existing background knowledge. Each section has a little introduction, but these don’t give enough information to explain the background to the following articles. Therefore, the bits I’ve picked out as excellent are the things that I already had some knowledge of. But when Churchill is talking about his time in India way back before WW1, for example, I was completely at a loss – I didn’t know who we were fighting or why, or who won, and I was none the wiser afterwards. Like the First World War book, this one has no notes, but while I felt in worked in that book by pushing the reader into the same position as the original readers of the newspaper, in this one it felt like a real weakness – the original readers would have been aware of the context in a way that most modern readers won’t be. I also found the articles about Churchill arriving at train stations, complete with descriptions of what he and his wife were wearing, or the articles about his pets(!), lacked much relevance or interest to all but the most dedicated Churchill enthusiast.
My other main complaint is that the book is by no means complete. We are told that Churchill wrote a series of fortnightly articles for the paper during the run-up to WW2. But we only get to read a couple of them. Had the bits about his budgerigar been left out, perhaps the space could have been filled with something more enlightening. Also, the way the book has been divided up into sections by subject means that the timeline jumps all over the place – one minute we’re in the 1940s and then suddenly we’re back in the 1910s. And oddly, WW2 seems to be almost entirely missing! I grant that Churchill probably didn’t have much time for article writing at that period; however, presumably the paper was reporting on the war and on Churchill’s role, but the mentions of it in this book are few and far between.
So, despite a few excellent articles, overall I found the book pretty disappointing. A missed opportunity – with more focused editing, a linear structure and fuller contextual information I feel this could have been done so much better. As it is, I can’t give it more than a lukewarm recommendation at best.
From the early 19th to the mid 20th century, London spent large parts of the winter months shrouded under dense and dirty fogs, so thick that people quite literally could walk into the Thames without seeing it. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period.
As the Industrial Revolution got underway, factories began belching their coal smoke into the air of a city that was already at the heart of a great Empire and, for its time, huge – a mass of people, living cheek by jowl, often in intolerable conditions of poverty. And in winter, these people would huddle round their coal fires adding to the polluted atmosphere. As the population grew, so did the smoke. The location of London meant that it was already prone to mists and with the addition of all this coal smoke, the mists became fogs – fogs that worsened throughout the 19th century, reaching their peak in the 1880s and 90s, but remaining significant for several decades after that, until finally legislation and health concerns abated the worst of the pollution.
Corton tells us that Herman Melville coined the expression “pea-soup” to describe the thick consistency and colour of the London fog – yellow, as pea-soup was commonly made from yellow peas at that time. But it was Dickens who first made use of the fog in literature, descriptively at first but later, as he developed as a writer and as fogs worsened, as a metaphor for the corruption and social degeneracy of the city.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…
… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Gradually the fog became such an all-pervasive feature of London life that other writers began to use it in similar ways. Corton gives many examples, from writers famous or forgotten, showing the different ways they used fog in their work. Sometimes it would be used as a cloak for hideous crimes, sometimes as a tool to show the poverty, not just physical but also a poverty of aspiration, in society. Some writers used it as metaphor for the restrictions placed on women, while others allowed their female characters a freedom they could only have when shielded by the anonymity that the fog gave. And as the fogs worsened, a sub-genre developed of apocalyptic fiction – the fog shown as finally sucking the life from the inhabitants, or as a cause for moral corruption so severe that it and the inevitable destruction of the city that followed took on almost Biblical proportions.
Artists, too, became increasingly fascinated by the fog – the colours in it depending on the type of pollution and the invisible sun above. And not just local artists – famous artists travelled from Europe, America and even the Orient to try to capture this phenomenon. (I guess once they managed to pollute their own cities enough, they were able to stay home!) The book is wonderfully illustrated with examples of this art – I read it on my Kindle Fire which is good for colour illustrations, but I wished I’d been reading the hardback.
Alongside this, Corton tells the story of how the fog impacted on people in real life and of the long fight by reformers to have the use of coal smoke regulated and reduced. The story of the beginnings of the fog and the various theories that were propounded as to its cause fascinated me, as did the descriptions given in journals and newspapers of how it actually felt trying to get around during a fog. Corton shoes how real-life criminals could use its cover for their activities, including the linklighters – the boys who carried torches to light people as they travelled – who were notorious for their criminality. The dangers for women in particular are emphasised, with a feeling that they were unsafe in the fog without the protection of a man.
At first, I also found the tale of the political fighting to do something about the fog interesting but, after a while, I began to find the telling of it too detailed, especially the Parliamentary side of it, and it began to drag. I found I was increasingly glad to get back to the literary and artistic sections. The problem of the fog decreased gradually over the 20th century, but wasn’t finally resolved until the 1950s. As a result, Corton continues her story of how it was used in literature and art well beyond the Victorian era, but as the fog faded, so did its usefulness as a metaphor. Corton makes the point that writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though writing well into the 20th century, often based their stories back in the 1880s and 90s so that they could use the fog to its fullest effect.
Overall, I found this great in parts and rather dull in other parts. The effect of reading for review is that I have a tendency not to like to skip, otherwise I would fairly early on have been jumping the sections relating to the various politicians and reformers. The sections on writers and artists were of much more interest, to me at least, although here I did feel that sometimes Corton was stretching too far, and drawing conclusions about fog as metaphor that aren’t always justified by the reading of the books. But then this is a fault I routinely find in literary criticism. Despite that, one that I am sure will be enjoyed by anyone interested in either crime or literary fiction of the period. And it occurred to me it would be great as a research tool for any writer out there wanting to set their book in the London of that period…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvard University Press.
In 1606, Shakespeare wrote three plays – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. James Shapiro sets out to show how this burst of creativity reflected the events and concerns of the times and to reveal what Shakespeare may have been thinking as he wrote.
Shapiro reminds us that Shakespeare was as much a Jacobean playwright as an Elizabethan one, and suggests that these later plays show how the English world had changed since James I came to the throne in 1603. For most of the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, the major concern of the political classes had been the question of succession, but now that question had been resolved. Not only had James succeeded peacefully to the throne but he had two sons, securing the continuance of his dynasty for at least another generation. There was now a new question – as King of both Scotland and England, James was eager to create a union between them, a plan that was less attractive to the powerful elites in either nation. It was in this context that Lear was written, though Shapiro makes the point that it’s unclear whether the play is pro- or anti-Union – apparently scholars have continued to argue it both ways over the intervening years.
As well as the contemporary context, Shapiro looks at Shakespeare’s use of sources. In the case of Lear much of the play is based on an earlier play, King Leir by Samuel Harsnett. Shapiro shows how Shakespeare retained the basic structure and some of the language of the earlier work, while changing much of the text and creating a considerably darker ending. He speculates on how these changes would have played with the expectations of a contemporary audience familiar with the earlier play, making Shakespeare’s ending even more shocking in its unexpectedness.
The end of 1605 was marked by the Gunpowder Plot which, though it failed, revealed the rising anxiety over religious divisions and led to an atmosphere of fear and tension. Shapiro shows the links of the plotters to the Midlands and hence to the society that Shakespeare knew well. Following the plot, there was a threatened uprising near Stratford with friends and neighbours of Shakespeare on either side. Shapiro gives a good picture of how small the world of the gentry was at this time, and how Catholicism may have gone underground but hadn’t gone away. All of this would have meant that Shakespeare would have felt more than interested – involved almost – in the plots and their aftermath.
This was also a time obsessed with tales of witchcraft and demonic possession, subjects in which James himself was deeply interested, becoming personally involved in investigating some of the cases of alleged possession. Shapiro shows how both these contemporary concerns – plotting and the supernatural – fed into the writing of Macbeth.
Shapiro’s own writing is very readable and it’s clear he has researched both the period and the plays thoroughly. However, I feel the book sometimes lacks focus, becoming more of a history of the year than an analysis of the plays. While he ties contemporary concerns well into both Lear and Macbeth, I felt the section on Antony and Cleopatra was looser and therefore less successful. He also discusses some other aspects of the year, such as theatre closures due to plague, which, while interesting in themselves, didn’t seem to have much relevance to the creation of these specific plays. I feel the book rather falls between two stools – the attempt to tie everything back to the plays makes the history feel a bit superficial and occasionally contrived, while the lack of information about Shakespeare’s life means that a lot of Shapiro’s analysis is necessarily based on assumption rather than fact. In terms of interest, I found parts of it fascinating and other parts frankly rather dull – of course, I realise that much of that is subjective. But I felt that a tighter structure focused more clearly on the plays would have worked better. Or alternatively perhaps, a structure that focused exclusively on the events and concerns of the year with less of an attempt to show their relevance to the plays. Trying to do both somehow left me feeling a bit shortchanged on each.
However, there is certainly enough of interest to make the book well worth reading even if it didn’t quite meet my expectations. In amongst the other stuff, Shapiro gives a good picture of contemporary theatre, from Ben Jonson’s masques to the collapse of the boys’ companies as a result of the plague. He discusses how Shakespeare’s own company was ageing by this period, allowing Shakespeare to write some older parts. He shows the pressure that companies were under to produce new plays to feed the appetite for performances at court. But he also goes off at a tangent at times – for example, discussing how Kings were traditionally expected to ‘cure’ the King’s Evil (scrofula) – leaving me wondering about the relevance to the subject of the book.
A bit of a mixed bag then – I’d be tempted to recommend it more strongly to people with an interest in the society and culture of the period than to people primarily interested in Shakespeare. And, since I am interested in the period, in the end I got enough from it to feel my time had been well spent.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Following the death of James VI and I in 1625, rumours abounded that he had been done away with by his favourite, George Villiers, by then Duke of Buckingham. Over the intervening period these rumours have been dismissed by historians, partly on the grounds of lack of real evidence and partly as a result of developments in the field of forensic medicine, which suggest other, natural causes for his death. In this book, the authors’ position is that whether James was or wasn’t murdered is not the point. They argue that it is how and why the allegations were made that matters, and how they were spread, perceived by contemporary society, and altered over time to suit the end purposes of various factions. They set out to prove that the allegations played a major role in the downfall of Charles I, and were still exerting a political influence many decades after the event, all through the period of Cromwell’s Protectorate, through the Restoration, and on to the final demise of the Stuart dynasty.
The authors start by examining the relationship between James, his son Charles, and Buckingham, favourite of both Royals. They show how Buckingham had worked his way up on the basis of favours granted by James to a position of extraordinary power and influence, a position which his contemporaries felt he abused. Through marriage and patronage, Buckingham had advanced many of his family and friends and this was thoroughly resented. Buckingham was also close to Charles and, by the time of James’ death, he was seen as exerting too much influence over the new King.
The authors then go into the actual circumstances of James’ death in great detail. They use an interesting technique, to examine the same event or period from a variety of different perspectives. So they look at the medical practices in place at the time, the medical protocols put in place by the King’s chief physician, letters written by a courtier giving the layman’s view of events in the sickroom. Then they discuss the aftermath – how the King’s death was immediately mythologised as a ‘good’ death – i.e., that he died sure in his Protestant faith, and how this view was spread to the populace. They look at the evidence, and subsequent rumours, relating to Buckingham’s behaviour in the sickroom, when he apparently gave the king a ‘plaster’ – some kind of poultice – and a potion, without the full sanction of James’ doctors. And they look at how this was the period when the practice of autopsies was in its infancy and how that played into the rumours.
This approach of coming at the thing from various angles gives a slow and thorough build-up to an extremely detailed picture, and it’s the approach they take with each section of the book. The other main participant in the ‘story’ is George Eglisham, who put in print the rumour that Buckingham had in fact poisoned James, in his pamphlet The Forerunner of Revenge. Starting with a biography of Eglisham, they circle through printing and distribution methods, the growing use of propaganda on both sides of the religious divide, how this division has to be seen in a European rather than simply British context, and so on. They then follow the journey of the pamphlet, arguing that it and the rumours it contained played a crucial role in the failed Parliament of 1626, a role not given due weight by more recent historians. And they suggest that the pamphlet maintained its important influence throughout Charles’s reign and beyond, with his defence of Buckingham’s role making Charles seem complicit in his father’s murder in many eyes. This, they suggest, helped to define the public attitude to the Stuart dynasty through the rest of the century, and they show how the pamphlet was frequently re-edited and re-produced to further the schemes of various factions, with Eglisham being represented as everything from the disaffected Catholic that he actually was through to being some kind of Protestant hero when it suited.
As any regular reader of the blog will know, I am a bit of a history and politics geek, and I found the story the authors told fascinating. However, I will say this book is much more academic in style than most of the history I’ve reviewed, therefore a tougher read. It is a brick, coming in at about 550 pages plus notes, and goes into a great depth of detail, including extensive quoting from sources – I’ve barely touched on the ground it covers. It is very well written, though – thoroughly explained and convincingly argued, and free of academic jargon, so still quite accessible to the general reader. Personally I found it an immersive experience, at some points feeling that I knew the players and politics of the period of and just after the ‘murder’ better than I do the contemporary political scene. Although I’d say it’s perhaps geared more towards an academic than a general audience, it certainly isn’t necessary to have an existing knowledge of the period going in – my knowledge of the Stuart era could be described as sketchy at best, and I found the authors gave me all the information I required to understand the background to the events they describe. In fact, as well as the specific arguments of the book, I feel I now have a thorough grounding on the general political history of the period. The book is also extensively illustrated throughout, particularly with the frontispieces of the various books and pamphlets to which the text refers, which is extremely helpful in understanding the authors’ explanations of their symbolic features. So, with the proviso that it’s not what I’d think of as a light, casual read, highly recommended.
Alastair Bellany is associate professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England. Thomas Cogswell is professor of history at UC Riverside. His books include The Blessed Revolution: English Politics and the Coming of War, 1621-1624.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.
(P.S. I forgave the authors for the book title since in the first line of the introduction they give him his proper title of King James VI and I. 😉 )
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.
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.
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.
The Daily Telegraph is one of Britain’s most prestigious newspapers, established in 1855. This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in the paper during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information.
There is a very informative introduction, written by Michael Wright, discussing the role of newspapers in general and The Telegraph in particular as organs of propaganda throughout the war. Much of the information they printed, especially in the early days of the war, was controlled by the War Office and, indeed, there was a feeling amongst parts of the Government, including Winston Churchill, that the course of the war should be reported entirely from London. However, permission was given for correspondents to travel to the war-zones, and while reporting was still restricted and censored, the experienced and talented correspondents were still able to give vivid accounts of events soon after they happened.
Between the two parapets of these adversaries, so near to each other, corpses lie, mud-caked, rotting, in their last tragic gesture – German corpses and Italian. The air of death is all around; a heaviness as of sepulchre pervades the life in the trench. A German lies on the parapet of the enemy’s trenches. He thrusts out his hands and his head from the trench. No one pulls him in or casts him forth. You see the spikes of helmets pass and repass this horror tranquilly. It is an indifference terrifying and splendid. Death has become a familiar. He is always there; he comes and goes, tapping this or that one on the shoulder, gathers all, and for those who fall is neither shuddering nor respect. A dead body is a companion who sleeps and will not waken.
13th February 1915
The articles and reports are given entirely without footnotes or contextual explanation, and there are no notes at the end of the book. At first I found this an exceptionally strange editorial decision, especially given the advance warning in the introduction that the truth and accuracy of the reporting could not always be relied on. Since my knowledge of the conduct and progress of the war could at best be described as sketchy, I was sure, rightly, that I wouldn’t spot where the reporting veered from what we are now told by historians.
This feeling lasted for the first hundred pages or so, when I suddenly realised that I wasn’t reading the book as history any more, or at least not as war history. The lack of notes in fact put me in the same position as any contemporary reader of the paper – I had no other sources of information so had to rely on the reports entirely, and try to see through the words to the truth they were revealing, distorting, exaggerating or minimising. I don’t know if that was the reason for the decision not to annotate the book but, whether or no, it turned out to be incredibly effective in giving me an insight into how it must have been for the mothers, fathers, wives of soldiers and sailors far away and in mortal danger. And that had the odd effect of giving me a different perspective on the use of propaganda in such situations. I began to feel that, if I was the mother of a son on the Western Front, of course I would want to be told that morale was high, that the food was good, that the Tommies were better equipped than Fritz. Of course I’d want to think they were singing Tipperary as they marched to the Front, that they were achieving something, that their deaths were not wasted. Because, if it were my son and I was powerless to help him, how would it help me to know that for the most part the soldiers were dying for nothing?
The men who were going up to the battle grinned back at those who were coming out. One could not see the faces of the lying-down cases, only the soles of their boots as they passed; but the laughing men on the courier – some of them stripped to the waist and bandaged roughly – seemed to rob war of some of its horror, and the spirit of our British soldiers shows very bright along the roads of France, so that the very sun seems to get some of its gold from these men’s hearts.
Tonight the guns are at work again, and the sky is flushed as the shells burst, over there where our men are fighting.
3rd July 1916 – The Somme
That’s not to suggest that the correspondents didn’t paint a starkly horrifying picture of the war-zones – they did, and some of the images will haunt me for a long time to come. But they tended to ‘spin’ it so that the rotting corpses and body parts embedded in the mud and trenches are almost invariably German, and it’s the Germans who commit the horrors like releasing poison gas – when the Brits do it, it’s only in perfectly fair retaliation. German poison gas kills civilians, Allied poison gas is much more discriminating. However, they also frequently express admiration for the enemy – his courage, his gallantry – especially in the sections relating to the war in the air. One of the things that struck me most was how much more similar the fighting was in style to the wars of the nineteenth century than to the later wars of the twentieth. We see the progression from a ‘traditional’ war with cavalry and bayonets, to the tanks and aircraft of the later days of the conflict.
At that moment neither in France nor in England had the question of gas as a weapon even been considered. It was, indeed, months after the Germans began the use of gas that Commissions were appointed in England and France to commence the study of the question, and more months again elapsed before we had prepared any gas at all. Finally, when we did start using gas, all we had were tear bombs, with which we tried to reply to much more dangerous gases sent over by the Germans.
The German reply to the Geneva Red Cross is thus the most cynical lie even the German Government has ever been guilty of. It is satisfactory, by the way, to learn from those who know that for a considerable time past the enemy is being paid back in his own coin, and that though late in this field of scientific barbarism we now have gases that are worse than any German gases.
25th September 1918
The book is enormously wide-ranging. The sections on the war itself don’t just concentrate on the Brits; there are reports about the contributions of all of the Allied nations and some from the other side too. (Scots, Irish and Welsh people should note that most of the journalists refer to Britain as England throughout, but they do mention nationalities when discussing specific regiments.) The Russian Revolution is covered – not in depth, but enough to give a flavour of how bewildering it must have been at the time. And there’s lots of stuff about the ‘home-front’ too – the civilian effort, the munitions workers, the land workers, the internment of enemy aliens. We hear about food supplies, about the American Santa ships bringing toys for the children of the servicemen on both sides in the period when they remained neutral. And we are shown the pressure that was put on young men, especially single men, to ‘volunteer’, with the word ‘shirker’ being thrown around freely by politicians and journalists alike.
The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it’s the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here – these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. If these reports could affect me like that one hundred years on and knowing something of the truth, how much more effective must they have been at the time?
Shells were rushing through the air as though all the trains in the world were driving at express speed through endless tunnels, in which they met each other with frightful collisions. Some of these shells, fired from batteries not far from where I stood, ripped the sky with a high, tearing note. Other shells whistled with that strange, gobbling, sibilant cry which makes one’s bowels turn cold. Through the mist and the smoke there came sharp, loud, insistent knocks, as separate batteries fired salvoes, and great clangorous strokes, as if iron doors banged suddenly, and the tattoo of the light field-guns playing the drums of Death.
3rd July 1916 – The Somme
This is a massive book – 570 large pages of small print and no illustrations. It’s beautifully printed on high quality paper and is a tactile delight, despite its fairly considerable weight. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war. If they didn’t always get it right, if they allowed themselves to be used for propaganda purposes from time to time, they still provided an invaluable service to their readers, and now again to modern readers in giving an insight into how the war was seen at the time. One I would highly recommend to anyone interested either in the war itself or in the social history of the period.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Aurum Press Ltd.