Books of 2021 from Aspects of History
Law of Blood is the first in R.N. Morris’s new Empire of Shadows series, featuring magistrate Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky. In Law of Blood, Virginsky investigates the murder of a revolutionary and becomes drawn into the murky world of the Third Section (secret police) revolutionary politics and palace intrigues. This is a gripping thriller that subtly draws the reader into the turbulent world of Nineteen Century Russia. Morris effortlessly conveys the Tsarist Regime living on borrowed time, while the affable Virginsky struggles to hold back the forces of history. There are also some nice references to Dostoyevsky. I haven’t read Morris’s previous St Petersburg Mysteries Series, but their definitely on my reading list.
Keeping with the theme of the Russian Revolution, Shaun Lewis’s Where the Baltic Ice Is Thin has been another favourite of mine during 2021. It is the fourth instalment of his ‘For Those in Peril’ series, set during World War One, and is the best yet. It tells the tale of the Royal Navy’s little known submarine campaign in the Baltic, against merchant ships carrying vital iron ore from Sweden to Germany. Richard Miller the lead protagonist and a character based partly on the legendary Royal Naval officer Captain Francis Cromie, keeps up the campaign even as Russia disintegrates around him and explodes into Revolution. Lewis, a former Royal Navy officer, who served in submarines, is at his best. His depiction of combat in submarines and the drama of the control room is second to none.
George III, by Andrew Roberts. Private Eye has long commented, with reason and much humour, on the puffing of friends in such items, and I am a longstanding friend of Andrew. Having written two biographies of George (as well as others of George II, Walpole and Pitt the Elder), and a group biography of the Hanoverians, I am also the person best suited to write about Andrew’s George III.
Brilliantly written, this George comes from one of our finest biographers. Andrew has all the skills of the novelist, notably plot, characterisation and the deft depiction of setting and palletting of ambience, but he adds the truth of occasion and a judgment fixed in more than the convenience and conceit of a storyteller who can arrange his fictional pieces.
Andrew is sympathetic to George, but, more significantly, understanding of and through him. There is a clarity of assessment in George’s handling of America, his reviving of Toryism, innate patriotism, and fundamental decency. Based on a sound grasp of the sources, offering an up-to-date consideration of the king’s health, handsomely illustrated, and attractively printed, this is a work that should be in the library of all those interested in biography as well as those concerned with British or American history.
Roberts’ book exemplifies the degree to which the coverage of history is very often handled best these days by those outside the faddish world of academic history. We have here, history as literature and literature as history.
My year of reading was massively enhanced by a pair of rip-roaring dark age adventure novels. The first, A Time for Swords, is Matthew Harffy’s coming-of-age tale of a young English monk caught up in the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. In response, he must become a hardy warrior ready to take the fight to those greedy Norsemen when they return for more. Think “The Magnificent Seven” with bearded axes instead of six-shooters.
The other was, The Last Beserker, by Angus Donald. No ships in this one, but lots of dark Germanic forests and wonderfully weird pagan warrior lore. This time the enemy are Charlemagne’s Franks intent on bringing the Saxons to heel. A rollicking tale, for me made by the quirky friendship between the unlikely hero and his shieldmaiden side-kick.
As for other-worldly weirdness, nothing can beat Giles Kristian’s novella, Hellmouth. Turning medieval chivalry on its head, Kristian spins a tale of astonishing vividness, mystery and horror. By the end, you can feel him channelling his inner Dante as we descend into… well, you’ll see.
At the lighter end of history, Ravenna by Judith Herrin, was a fantastic follow-up to her previous book on Byzantium. Again, a fascinating dive into Late Roman/Byzantine history, rich with improbable but true stories which, as a novelist, it would be rude not to steal.
I was haunted by Anne Sebba’s Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. Superbly researched, it is a subtle and considered portrayal of a woman who, in the years of the US’s anti-communist hysteria, struggled with her political beliefs and the demands of being a loyal wife and mother. Her husband convicted of selling secrets to the Soviet Union, Ethel also died in the electric chair. Was her conviction safe? A tricky, contentious subject to investigate and to get right, Anne Sebba renders it both poignant and thought-provoking.
James Holland’s Brother in Arms: One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE-Day was equally haunting and impressive. The detail is phenomenal, the narrative gripping, but it is his skilful weaving in of the lives and fates of a group of Sherwood Rangers who manned the Sherman tanks which adds tension and piercing humanity. For these men – the ‘tip of the spear’ – who fought and died this, surely, must be the best tribute possible.
Sarah Winman’s Still Life opens as the Allies advance through Italy in 1944 and a young British soldier and a sixty-something art historian are flung together. Over the next four decades, the lives of an unlikely group of friends intersect and bounce off one another. Set in Italy and London’s East End, it celebrates friendship and love and, above all, the glory of art which ‘makes us feel alive and enriched’. Brava.
This was a vintage year for history. Where to start? First we had Katja Hoyer’s fluently written and convincingly argued panorama of the Second Reich, Blood and Iron. A brilliant debut, it marked her out as a talent to watch.
I also enjoyed The Spectre of War by Princeton’s Jonathan Kaplan, a deeply researched and game-changing reassessment of the origins of the Second World War, arguing that Communism, or a fear of it, was the key driver.
Richard Overy has written many fine books, but Blood and Ruins is his masterpiece. A huge single-volume history of World War II, it identifies the imperial ambitions of Germany, Italy and Japan as central to the cause, course and consequences of the conflict.
James Holland’s Brothers in Arms is a more tightly focused study of a tank regiment fighting from D-Day to Germany, but no less compelling for that. Visceral and intensely moving, he has done for British armoured troops what Stephen Ambrose did for the US Airborne.
In Operation Jubilee, his gripping and beautifully written account of the disastrous Dieppe Raid, Patrick Bishop deploys a forensic analysis of the surviving evidence to pinpoint exactly why this hare-brained mission was launched and who was to blame.
Last but not least is Andrew Roberts superb revisionist biography George III. Incapable of writing a dull sentence, Roberts deploys deep scholarship and impeccable analysis to exonerate the ‘Farmer’ King of both stupidity and tyranny. He was, writes Roberts, one of our most admirable monarchs (an adjective that could never be used for his wastrel son Prinny).
Charles Townshend has spent much of his career writing about Ireland and its troubled history. He has made the study of political violence one of his principal concerns. Back in the mid ‘70s he wrote The British Campaign in Ireland 1919-1921 which explored how military struggles helped to shape political developments. In more recent years he has produced Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (2005) and The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence (2013).
The Partition is the third volume of his trilogy bringing all this work together in marking the centenary of the division of Ireland. Townshend clearly and compellingly puts events of one hundred years ago into the story of the Irish nationalist demand for independence and the Irish Protestant commitment to the Union. Partition became the only solution to a seemingly impossible clash of creeds. After the death and emigration of the Famine years, Ireland is a relatively small and underpopulated island, but its problems have been large and challenging, preoccupying more than one generation of British and Irish leaders. The Partition is an important book that provides not only a background to events one hundred years ago but is highly relevant to events that are still unfolding today as the UK and Irish governments struggle to reconcile their conflicting responsibilities to Brexit and the European Union. Well written, full of insights and impressively topical.
George V: Never a Dull Moment, by Jane Ridley. For nearly a decade Ridley’s Bertie has been my go-to bible for George’s father and now she has more than matched that meaty endeavour with a riveting, ambitious take on a King so often maligned and overlooked. His was an epic task – to usher monarchy into the modern era – and Ridley helps us understand how pedantic, safety-first George negotiated an epic sweep of history, war and revolution. An absolute must have for anyone interested in the exceptional survival of Britain’s modern monarchy.
Looking for Trouble, by Virginia Cowles. The girl could write! A roving wartime reporter for the Sunday Times, the BBC and NBC, Cowles’s memoir (published arguably too soon in 1941) hits a more intimate note than the newspapers allowed and enjoys a certain lightness of touch: London in spring 1940 with its grey hats and spats, gentle protests and pink cheeked children is ‘almost comical’. On this occasion Cowles ‘smiled’ and so did I, no matter that we all know what came next.
Powers and Thrones, by Dan Jones – I’m no medievalist – too far away and fantasy-fuelled – but Mr Jones has a way of keeping things real – hurling you across a thousand years with fresh pace and a keen eye for an individual yarn and delicious eye-popping facts. More broadly it begs the question where did we come from and makes you wonder where the hell we are going.
Our Queen Elizabeth, by Kate Williams. Her extraordinary life from the crown to the corgis. Yes this is a children’s book because history is for beginners too! You may as well get that elementary lesson about Britain’s constitutional monarchy in early and from one of our most respected royal historians. Big writing and lots of pictures – easy does it. This picture book is on my daughter’s Father Christmas list! (I know cos I put it there…. )
Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes. While my first passion as an historian and archaeologist is the classical world, the evolution of early humans comes a very close second. Indeed when I wrote the freestyle essay component of my A Level History exam many years ago it was on the subject of where Neanderthals sat on the human family tree. The subject has always fascinated me, especially as so much new data has emerged over the past 15 or so years based on genetic analysis, and from new archaeological investigation.
Together, we are very fortunate today that they allow us to have a much clearer picture about our relationship with our hominid cousins of all types. In this fantastic book, which I can’t recommend enough, Rebecca Wragg Sykes brings the reader absolutely up to date with the latest research, beginning by explaining each step of our research over two centuries across the entirety of Eurasia. Rebecca is also fully aware that this is a field of study where new evidence can emerge at any time to change the way one perceives the subject matter, and elegantly acknowledges this by guiding the reader to where to look next for such new developments. Finally, the book is written in a beautiful style. Do give it a read!
For its breadth of scholarship, argument and sheer enjoyment my Biography of the Year is George III, by Andrew Roberts.
Straddling both the past and the present, in terms of plot, my thriller of the year is Henry Porter’s The Old Enemy. Porter sends his old protagonist, Robert Harland, off in style and establishes a new one.
My historical novel of the year is Sharpe’s Assassin. It’s not a return to form from Bernard Cornwell, because he has always maintained a standard that others can only dream of. Whether you are new to the series, or a veteran of devouring Cornwell’s novels, you could not ask for a better holiday read.
Other noteworthy books of the year include Saul David’s SBS: Silent Warriors. A deserved bestseller, David has written a page-turning work that takes us through WW2, through the eyes of the burgeoning special forces organisation. Tessa Dunlop has written an original and enjoyable take on WW2 as well, in the form of Army Girls.
I am getting to the point in my life where I am re-reading plenty of novels: Graham Greene and John le Carré. The Human Factor, The Quiet American, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will brighten up (or darken) any holiday season.
Crown & Sceptre, by Tracy Borman. An impressive and beautifully choreographed 1,000-year history of the British monarchy from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II. Powerfully told, Borman shows how the monarchy has adapted to change and recreate itself without losing its traditions.
Brothers in Arms, by James Holland. Another cracking read and in-depth research by Holland into a little told aspect of the Second World War. He has shone a light on the courage, yet immerse hardships, for tank crews in war. Confined to a metal “coffin”, these men forged bonds like brothers and endured intense sacrifices.
SBS: Silent Warriors, by Saul David. A terrifically exciting book on the history of the SBS – the Special Boat Service – in which David has been to me rare access to the SBS archives. There are so many new stories illuminated of special and dangerous operations. A real page-turner.
Reflections of Alan Turing, by Dermot Turing. Turning’s nephew busts some of the myths surrounding his uncle’s life, including the claim that Alan Turing was a codebreaker. It is compelling reading as he challenges much of what we think we know about his uncle. I was engrossed by some of the family stories which have not been portrayed elsewhere.
Traitor King, by Andrew Lownie. Meticulously researched and with so much new material on one of the most controversial Royals of the 20th century. Lownie reveals shocking new aspects to the life of Edward, Duke of Windsor, and firmly placed the Duke as a traitor to his country.
My Books of the Year are the two volumes of Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries, Vol 1 (1918-1938) & Vol 2 (1938-1943), edited by Simon Heffer and published this year by Hutchinson. I understand that the first volume would have been published last year, but was postponed because of the pandemic. In any event, both mighty tomes – each running to 1,000 pages or so – descended on the reading public this year like two mastadons: massive, rather woolly and definitely creatures from a long-gone era. To say that ‘Chips’ Channon was a social climbing, anti-Semitic , bi-sexual snob is, based on the evidence of his diaries, a considerable understatement. Equally, it is self-evident from these lightly redacted volumes that Channon’s judgment on all the subjects he touched was almost invariably on the wrong side of history: the Abdication, appeasement, Churchill and Hitler being but four of those subjects where Channon got it spectacularly wrong.
Nonetheless, despite the objectionable views, the endless name dropping, the appalling miscalculations and misjudgements, and the irritatingly coy references to his obviously rampantly gay ‘other life’, there are gems buried in the ordure. For example, who knew that French aristocrats used to address the Almighty and royalty using the familiar ‘tu’ rather than the formal ‘vous’ – and the information that the Dukes of Lévis-Mirepoix were so certain of their descent from Moses’ great-grandfather that they habitually referred to the Virgin Mary as ‘notre cousine’. For these and other facts alone it worth persevering with these massively over-footnoted reminiscences of a man who would today be serving time for his rancid views.
Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows, by Ruth Scurr. Scurr is a dazzling, brave and highly original historian who takes great risks. Astonishingly, she always pulls it off. After brilliant biographies of Robespierre and John Aubrey, she now turns to Napoleon – and his love of gardening. As a lonely child in Corsica, he developed a love of flowers, but it was the chaos of the French Revolution and a consequent desperate need for order that gave him his love of the French style, as opposed to the anarchic English style of gardening beloved of Josephine, who is a key character in the fine work.
Napoleon’s Plunder and the Theft of Veronese’s Feast, by Cynthia Saltzman. More Napoleon. He wanted to make Paris the cultural centre of Europe, and fill the Louvre (which he renamed after himself) with the finest treasures of the Continent, plundered on haiku campaigns. Veronese’s extraordinary work, The Wedding Feast at Cana, when Christ’s first miracle, the turning of water into wine, took place. was on the list. It had hung in San Giorgio Maggiore, where the Serene Republic greeted distinguished visitors. When Venice fell to France in April 1797, its fate was sealed. To be taken to France, it had to be taken off the wall and cut in half. It now hangs, largely ignored, in the same room as the Mona Lisa. It is much the greater painting.
The Horde, by Marie Faverau. Faverau covers about 400 years of history in this superb study, which questions what we mean by the concepts of Empire and State. This is the book that’s come closest to allowing me—and therefore I think lots of others—to understand this unfamiliar world. It’s painted on a huge canvas. She uses the phrase ‘empire on horseback’. We tend to think of the Mongols—with some justification—as bloodthirsty, genocidal maniacs, going across the plains of Asia. This book suggests something a little more nuanced.It displays a remarkable use of sources: Mongol, of course, but also Russian, Persian and Arabic, which shows how closely the Mongols and Islam were linked.
London’s Golden Mile: The Great Houses of the Strand, 1550-1650, by Manelo Guerci. This book is not only a terrific example of architectural history, but also a fine piece of detective work, about the great buildings that were created on the Strand between roughly the 1550s through to the 1650s. The early part sees Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the English Reformation, when a new class of rising Protestant bureaucrats—the Cecils, the Howards, Thomas Cromwell—follow Henry VIII’s lead when he takes over Thomas Wolsey’s Whitehall Palace and makes it the centre of government. The people around him, newly enriched by the dissolution of the monasteries and other transfers of the land, decide to make their physical presence felt in these houses—they call them ‘houses’, but they’re really palaces. There are 11 of them, and they link the government part of London, which is Whitehall, and Westminster, by means of this 1,300-metre ribbon to the legal and business world of the City.These extraordinary houses owe something to European patterns, but are also English in their way. The great tragedy is that almost nothing of them remains. There’s an arch on the Victorian Embankment from one of the houses but they disappeared mainly during the civil wars.
The Habsburgs: To Rule the World, by Martyn Rady. Rady is a specialist in Eastern Europe, and he is at the School of Slavonic Studies at the University of London. He’s written principally on 20th-century history, particularly with an interest in dictatorship, fascism and totalitarianism. In this book, he tells us the story of the Spanish Habsburgs—Charles V and Phillip II in particular. What he does is restore the primacy of Central Europe to the Habsburg dynasty’s story. He takes us right back to the beginning, to a place called Habsburg and their very modest roots in Switzerland. The Habsburgs always refer to themselves as ‘the house of Austria’. The book full of little gems. For instance, that the Brazilian football team play to this day in Habsburg colours. And that Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which he conducted at the Congress of Vienna, was his atonement for dedicating the Eroica to Napoleon. In less capable hands, this could be a mess, because there are all kinds of threads coming together, but he manages to put those strands together in a lucid and elegant way. Too many books these days are too big. He tells this story with a great deal of economy and concision. It’s really difficult to imagine anyone writing a better history of the Habsburgs.
Blackout, Simon Scarrow: a riveting tale and the best historical fiction, for it is rigorously based upon real events and anchored in the history of the time, and intensively researched with it. As the Allied bombers start to stalk the skies over WWII Berlin, a blackout is imposed on the city and with it come the villains and chancers who stalk a city mire in darkness. One of those is a serial killer who preys on vulnerable women, assaulting and murdering them in horrific ways. As the hunt for the killer begins, it becomes increasingly obvious that this is no ordinary murderer – he has links to the highest echelons of the Nazi party and if the detective tasked to track him down succeeds, the ramifications will be explosive, an not to mention career – or even – life ending for our hero, Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke. A brilliant tour de force and utterly convincing.
SAS Sea King Down, Mark Aston and Stuart Tootal: revelatory, in that this is one of the first ever first-hand accounts of the SAS’s war in the Falklands and all that followed. As the title suggests, this book centres around the dramatic and cataclysmic crash of a Sea King transport helicopter packed full of SAS troopers into the freezing seas around the Falkland islands. But that – and the tragic events that unfold, making this the single greatest loss of life for the SAS since WWII – is but one of a series of action and adrenaline-packed missions and misadventures, which make this book such a compelling read.
Empire Of Pain: the Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Raden Keefe: shocking and revelatory in the truest sense of the word, this brave and courageous true story chronicles three generations of the Sackler dynasty’s grip on the opioid drug industry, particularly in the USA. The author has been showered with awards and accolades and he deserved every one: unbeatable narrative history and investigatory reporting rolled into one revelatory, astonishing read.
2021 has been a good year for books about the Second World War and the immediate postwar period. Richard Overy brought out Blood and Ruins, a massive (and, at £40, expensive) reimagining of the war not as a simple conflict between neighbours, but as the last hurrah of empire. Giles Milton published Checkmate in Berlin, a thrilling account of the war’s after-effects on the destroyed German capital: it is the kind of history that reads like a novel, and yet is nevertheless scrupulous in its citation of source material. For pure, Boys’ Own adventure, you can’t beat Saul David’s official history of the Special Boat Service during the war: SBS – Silent Warriors was published this autumn, and became an immediate Sunday Times bestseller.
But for me, the best of the lot was Harald Jähner’s brilliant and engaging study of Germany during the decade that followed the war. Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945–1955 is well researched, engagingly written, and full of surprises – even those of us who have made a career out of studying the postwar period. This was a time of austerity, violence, crime and a new Cold War – and yet, as Jähner makes clear, many Germans let their hair down in a way that the rest of Europe and America wouldn’t allow themselves to do until the 1960s. It’s a fascinating book, and deserves a place on any history buff’s Christmas list.
This year has been a good year for writing and publishing high quality history. I’m going to go off piste and rather than describe a single book, I will list a few of those that I have consumed this year. In no particular order I have loved reading Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe’s Assassin, delighted that my favourite Rifleman has been allowed another action-filled outing.
Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den is a fascinating story of loss, hope and the everyday trials of life from inside a Roman bordello. Ed Caesar’s The Moth and the Mountain is a brilliantly told story of Maurice Wilson’s mad-cap scheme to demonstrate that mind could triumph over matter, failing in his attempt to climb Everest on his own.
I finally got round to reading Rowland White’s superb Harrier 809 and loved this story of cobbling together an additional Harrier squadron for the Falkland’s War. Giles Milton’s Checkmate in Berlin is the latest in his fabulously rich tapestry of storytelling, revealing the desperately slow pace at which the Western Allies only began to understand the full extent of Stalin’s designs for post-war Germany. Likewise,
Saul David amazed me with both Crucible of Hell and his official history of the SBS. The scale of the fighting on Okinawa, one of the Japanese home islands, was staggering in terms of its scale and savagery. It was here that the Allies finally comprehended the task facing them with a land invasion of Japan proper.
But the stand out book for me has been James Holland’s amazing Brothers in Arms, in which he brilliantly describes the bloody 11-month story – one of tragedy and triumph – of a British territorial armoured regiment between D Day and May 1945. Its been a good year!
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. Larson is a hugely bestselling author in America, but much less well known over here. Newly published in paperback, The Splendid and the Vile tells the story of Winston Churchill’s first year in office, when Britain stood alone but defiant and the Luftwaffe attempted to bomb the country into submission. Told largely from primary sources, it’s a superb read – so good, indeed, that I immediately read another of Larson’s books, In the Garden of Beasts about America’s ambassador to Berlin at the time of Hitler’s rise to power. Another fine piece of writing.
Shadow State by Luke Harding. Luke Harding and I recently did a joint speaking event at Lincoln Book Festival. I spoke about the historic Cold War (1945-9); he spoke about the contemporary Cold War, which is the subject of his latest book, Shadow State. It’s an investigation into the methods that Russia has been using to conduct an increasingly subversive and destructive war against the UK in particular, and the West in general. It makes for a terrifying read: Harding – an award-winning investigative journalist – lays bare how Putin helped Trump into the White House and influenced the Brexit referendum.
Operation Pedestal by Max Hastings. Max Hasting’s latest book is a blow-by-blow account of one of the lesser known stories of WW2 – the massive Allied naval convoy sent to rescue Fortress Malta in the summer of 1942. It’s packed with action: aerial bombardments, torpedo attacks and stricken vessels. It’s also a rare tribute to the brave merchant seamen of both Britain and America, who remain the neglected heroes of WW2.
The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald. The late W. G. Sebald is much in the news recently, with a newly published biography, Speak, Silence, by Carole Angier. (It’s fast approaching the top of my reading pile). I recently re-read and hugely enjoyed The Emigrants, now republished as a Vintage Classic. It is certainly classic Sebald, a curious hybrid of fiction and non-fiction that draws you into the strange lives of its four protagonists. Both mischievous and mesmerising, it’s illustrated with Sebald’s trademark black and white photographs that further blur the lines between fiction, reality and reportage.
It would appear that the dreaded Covid lockdown did at least bear fruit in a bumper crop of history books this year. Andrew Roberts’ monumental biography of George III warrants being mentioned in despatches, as does Sean McMeekin’s excellent, eye-opening Stalin’s War.
However, three books stood out for me. The first was Wendy Lower’s The Ravine, a remarkable piece of forensic historianship, uncovering the story behind a massacre of Jews in Miropol, Ukraine, during the Holocaust. Starting from a single photograph, Lower not only discovers the names of the victims, but also those of the perpetrators. Meticulous and humane, it is an outstanding piece of detective work.
Next is Jane Rogoyska’s Surviving Katyn, which revisits the Katyn Massacres of 1940 – the systematic mass murder of the Polish officer corps by the Soviet NKVD – but focuses on the accounts of the few survivors of the massacres, as well as those brought in to investigate the crime, to cast a stark light not only on the experiences of the Poles in Soviet detention prior to the murders, but also on the cynical Kremlin cover-up that followed. A cover-up that continued, astonishingly, until 1990. As one of the still slim corpus of works on this touchstone subject, Rogoyska’s book is elegantly written and hugely persuasive.
Lastly, someone once said that a little part of every author dies when their friends are successful. Saul David’s excellent new book, SBS is testing that theory to destruction. Engaging, erudite and minutely researched, it drags the SBS – deservedly – into the spotlight, and propels its author – equally deservedly – into the first rank of British military historians.
The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan. In 1820 Edinburgh awaits the (possible) arrival of King George IV, an opportunity for lavish ceremony, balls, and much social mingling. Meanwhile some await with more trepidation the flowering of the mystical Century Plant in the new Botanic Gardens. The Agave Americana, a rare plant in this part of the world, will die as soon as the flowers are set and the very few valuable seeds produced. But who will lay claim to these precious seeds? Will it be the professional botanists who wish to reproduce this marvellous plant, or a Mistress Belle Brodie, an expert in the dark arts of perfumes and lotions to enhance the senses? Nor is Mistress Brodie all that she seems in her gentile, well-kept household.
Ms Sheridan creates a delightful conflict of interests, where secrets must be kept against a backdrop of indulgence and scandal. The consequences will be shattering when these secrets can no longer be hidden. A charming novel, beautifully written, with characters that appeal as women begin to claim their freedom to follow their own dreams, The Fair Botanists is a read as delectable as the long-awaited flowering.
Natalie Livingstone’s The Women of Rothschild is an extraordinary achievement: a fascinating panoramic portrayal of the women of the banking dynasty across three centuries, in all their myriad achievements and struggles, their lives variously luxurious, tragic, peculiar and creative. Their impact was a revelation – on the Balfour Declaration, the House of Commons, even Spare Rib magazine. The image of Gutle Rothschild, the matriarch who wouldn’t leave her sunlight-deprived house in the Frankfurt ghetto for superstition while her children spread across Europe, has stayed with me.
Two other glorious works, this time about the Georgian period that I have written about: Tristram Hunt, in The Radical Potter, underlines brilliantly the consumerism and politics of the age in the character of Josiah Wedgwood, in whom we can see all the energy of the era – the campaign for abolition, the birth of international trade, the stirrings of the industrial revolution, the combination of mass production and aesthetic sense.
Andrew Roberts’s George III is a wonderful revisionist portrayal of the monarch who presided over the high point of architecture and the loss of America. Obviously meticulously, majestically done – but also a total joy to read.
Jeremy Crang, Sisters in Arms: Women in the British Armed Forces during the Second World War. This is the first scholarly book to tell the history of British women in Britain’s armed forces between 1939 and 1945. It is an essential read for anyone interested in the social and cultural history of the war, and it places women squarely in the wartime narrative. It is also part of the broader history of women’s search for equality of status and treatment, which was hard to find in wartime forces aggressively dominated by men. Crang explores all aspects of female life in the forces, from food and lodging to sexual harassment. This is an original story, scrupulously researched, full of information and extremely well-written.
Cecily by Annie Garthwaite.Cecily, the story of Cecily Neville up to, and including 1461, is a wonderful retelling. Having read Anne O’Brien’s The Queen’s Rival last year, which offers Cecily’s story from the late 1450s onwards, I feel that this unknown woman has now been brought to life in wonderful detail. Cecily is told from Cecily’s point of view and begins much earlier than the 1450s. There are some events that she can’t know or witness, even though the reader may well be aware of them, and the author manages this incredibly skilfully. We know what Cecily does, and we know other events when she knows them. It’s a perfect way to ensure the reader, even if they know the history of the time period, doesn’t get ahead of themselves. Cecily is an engaging and headstrong woman. The author gives her a voice that we can understand, reflecting a quick intelligence and an ability to piece together events skilfully. Some scenes may feel rushed, and there is a refusal to dwell on the royal splendour of the court, but I think this added to the story. It is the interaction of the king, queen and the courtiers that’s important, not who was wearing what and eating what. This is absolutely my sort of historical fiction book. I only wish I’d read it sooner.
Daughters of Sparta by Claire Heywood, is that most wonderful of books – one that draws you in from the very first pages and won’t let go of you until the end. I read it in just over a day. I didn’t want to put it down. It’s a retelling of the siege of Troy, something I’m not overly familiar with. But, the storytelling is engaging, the characters of Helen and her sister, Klytemnestra, beautifully sketched while everyone around them, apart from their mother, stays very much in the background. This is their story, and the reader is always aware of that. At times the reader will hate either or both of the sisters, at other times, the reader will understand their pain, and their desire to be more than their birthright. A beautifully evocative story that speaks of the loneliness of royal marriage, of the heavy, and life-threatening expectations placed on young women to become mothers, and you will be swept along by a tale you think you know but might not.
The Deception of Harriet Fleet by Helen Scarlett, is a deeply atmospheric novel, tightly wrapped up in the injustices of how women were treated in the 1800s, when they were expected to shut up and look pretty. But, none of the women in this story are pretty – they are all haunted – by the events that have befallen them and on which the societal norms of the period can be blamed. Eleanor is a deeply troubled young woman, Harriet, her governess, is running from her past, and even the household servants are subjected to the whim of their master, Mr Wainwright. Wrap that around a family tragedy that no one will talk about, and the novel becomes engrossing and fascinating, even as it repels. The way the women of the story are so completing misunderstood makes for harrowing reading, and when the double truth is eventually revealed it feels satisfying, even as shocking as it is. I confess, I didn’t predict either of the mysteries. A well-thought out novel, which doesn’t drop the suspense until near the end – and even then, I think it’s understandable.
Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman’s Hitler’s American Gamble strikes me as a very important book. Covering the events of that most pivotal month in global history, December 1941, it is subtitled ‘Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War.’ It covers in absorbing detail those crucial five days between the Japanese attack on the United States in the Pacific and Hitler’s suicidal (as it turned out, literally) decision to go to war with an uninvadeable country with limitless productive capacity. Truly eye-opening, myth-busting history.
Lawrence Bergreen’s In Search of a Kingdom is subtitled Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire and is a scrupulously researched but also excitingly written history of Drake’s circumnavigation of 1580. The author has written about the other great explorers Magellan, Columbus and Marco Polo, and so is at home with the extraordinary dangers that these driven men faced. At a time when we are all meant to feel ashamed and guilty about imperial adventurers such as Drake, this book takes the refreshingly opposite line that the will to explore is part of the human condition and on ends the book feeling that Drake was flawed, but a terrific leader and a giant of the era.
Toby Ferris’s Short Life in a Strange World is an art history book such as you have never read before. Aged 42, Toby Ferris set out to visit each of the 42 surviving paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which took him to 22 galleries in 19 cities in 12 countries. The paintings form a backdrop to Ferris’s own life, his thoughts about the world and family relationships that – along with his penetrating insights about Bruegel’s work and what is going on in the panel-paintings – make this a profoundly satisfying, idiosyncratic and intellectually stimulating read.
Military History Of Afghanistan: Great Game To Global War On Terror by Ali Ahmad Jalali: this compelling, authoritative history by an Afghan scholar ( veteran politician) who rejects cliches of ‘graveyard of empires’ and complexities of relations between all powers from Russia and Britain, to Sikhs, Iran and Pakistan – and the personalities. Unputdownable, nuanced and essential.
One total delight is Mozart: The Reign Of Love by Jan Swafford: a sublime, towering tour de force of brilliant scholarship that is both exuberant accessible but also masterfully researched and thought out. Every page is a wonder in a work that totally recasts the cliché of Mozart – backdated from the romantic vision of genius in the nineteenth century – to render him in all his joyous wild brilliance.
That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade In Black Sea Slaves 1260-1500 by Hannah Barker is really fascinating, revelatory, authoritative and shocking – the history of the white slavetrade in enslaved Slavs, Circassians, and Georgians who were traded by Genoan, Venetian and Egyptian traders not just to the Islamic empires of the Ottomans and Mamluks but also to Italy and the west: obligatory reading for anyone interested in the slavetrade.
Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History a fresh, compelling new history of the neglected role of Africans in European history that combines high scholarship, a span of 2000 years, humane sensitivity and accessible writing with a fascinating cast of characters. Important, poignant and illuminating but also enjoyable.
I so admired Katja Hoyer’s Blood And Iron: Rise And Fall Of The Germany Empire 1871-1918, an outstanding, authoritative & gripping short but deep history of the Second Reich, rendering its singular flawed nature as part-democracy, part-medieval-autocracy with acute portraits of its cast of heroes and monsters.
Saul David’s SBS: Silent Warriors: The Authorised Wartime History is swashbuckling, shoot-from-the-hip wild ride through the secret derring-do operations of WW2 commandos, based on their own archives: gripping stuff.
Bart van Loo’s Burgundians: A Vanished Empire is a thrilling narrative of the brutal dazzlingly rich wildly ambitious duchy that was the most advanced and sophisticated economy and the most extravagant flashy court of its time. Filled with flamboyant murderous and debauched dukes, courtesans, courtiers and maniacs, it is a total pleasure to read.
Dan Jones’s Powers & Thrones a is new history of the Middle Ages is excellent it combines his usual narrative exuberance and playfulness with the authority and span to bring together an amazing masterly gripping panorama.
Marc David Baer’s The Ottomans is a masterful, gripping and revisionist new history of a unique power family and a culture – finely written, based on deep scholarship and filled with a cast of fascinating characters – conquerors, eunuchs, empresses, generals, and thinkers, all linked by a fresh analysis that places the dynasty where it belongs – at the centre of European history.
Richard Overy, long-reigning maestro of 20th century history, delivers a magisterial new history with his Blood & Ruins: The Great Imperial War 1931-45, remarkable in span, depth and scholarship, impressive in sweep and vision, that rightly sees WW2 as starting in China in 1931 and recasts the conflict as a distorted sequel to an earlier epoch.
Lastly, Tom Gallagher’s Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused To Die should be read in tandem with Paul Preston’s superb Franco biography because the two are often described together while in fact Salazar who ruled Portugal from the last twenties to late sixties was a singular and rare phenomenon unique to Portugal, not a fascist but a reticent, unshowy former economics professor turned conservative autocrat. Anyone fascinated in 20th century Europe should read it: I could not put it down.
I’ve been enjoying The Viking Great Army and the Making of England . Written by two Professors of Archaeology at the University of York, Dawn M. Hadley and Julian D Richards, this book is a fascinating mixture of history and archaeology. In 865 what became known as the ‘Great Army’ of Vikings began a series of campaigns that lasted until 878. There were many Viking raids on England before this period, but this was different: there were more of them, and this time the Vikings weren’t going home. This permanent infusion of Scandinavians changed England’s political and ethnic makeup in dramatic fashion. An Anglo-Scandinavian culture developed, and the traumatic events of these years paved the way for the eventual emergence of a single English kingdom to replace the squabbling mini-states.
Hadley and Richards tell their story well. Their writing is highly accessible, even for a non-specialist like me. The highlight of the book is their description and analysis of the Viking camp at Torksey, where the Great Army spent the winter of 872-73. Recent archaeological discoveries there have fleshed out the previously very bare bones of what we knew about the Great Army to an astounding degree. The story of how these discoveries were made and interpreted, with cooperation between amateur enthusiasts using metal detectors and archaeologists deploying up-to-date scientific methods, makes for a real page-turner. Who knows: by the time the paperback appears, there may be new findings to report.
I’ve found the best books this year to have been those with a grand sweep. Dan Jones’s Powers and Thrones looks at England from the final, faltering, steps of the Romans till the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. He does this with colour, intelligence, and wonderful clarity. Dan Jones is a brilliant storyteller. He keeps his hand on the tiller on this marathon voyage, guiding the reader with matchless dexterity. A triumph.
Cat Jarman’s debut, River Kings, does the near impossible: presenting the much-travelled Viking tale in a fresh light. From a single decorative bead, found in an English burial ground, she goes on a detective journey to find out where it came from, and how. The answer is India – not a territory normally associated with the warrior Vikings. I look forward to her next work with huge anticipation.
Tracy Borman’s Crown and Sceptre is terrific. It tells the story of Britain through the lives of its kings and queens. Borman blends the academic with the entertaining, to bring it all to life with a rousing but informative voice. I defy anyone to find this book less than riveting.
My favourite book from our lock-down times is The Invention of Medicine by Robin Lane Fox, a great Oxford classicist’s contribution to the most needed discipline of the day. By original and skilful argument, it shows how some of the direct observations attributed to Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’, dated by him earlier than most of us had thought before, influenced Thucydides and other writers at the very birth of reasoned history.
The Eternal Decline and fall of Rome, by the Californian classicist, Edward J. Watts, is another history with potent contemporary resonance. The first name in it is that of Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan’s name is almost the last. Trump earns his place with his inaugural address promising to “make America great again,” President Reagan with a speech in 1969 on the theme of “decline and fall” in which Rome collapsed in bureaucracy, excessive welfare payments, taxes on the middle class and long-haired students wearing makeup. Watts takes his readers from republican Rome to Republican Washington with a resounding theme that anyone promising to restore lost greatness is probably up to no good.
In a year when the phrase ‘Tory monetarism’ became almost as much a part of distant history as Hippocrates, Nicholas Wapshott’s Samuelson Friedman is a lively telling of the rivalry between the great Keynesian, Paul Samuelson, and the monetarist, Milton Friedman. At this Christmas of extraordinary global debt it is Samuelson who can smile more brightly from the stars.
Two recent books cast new light on areas of ancient Greece that have long lurked in the shadows. Thebes once rivalled Athens and Sparta but is now largely forgotten. Rich in mythology (think Heracles, Oedipus and Antigone, not to mention the god Dionysus who was conceived here), birthplace of the great praise-singer, Pindar, and for part of the fourth century bc supremely powerful, the city suffered in antiquity through making the wrong choices (it sided with Persia, and opposed Alexander the Great, who razed it to the ground). With many ancient sources hostile to the Thebans – Athenians called them ‘Boeotian swine’ – is has been hard to build a true picture of their achievements. But drawing on literary references, inscriptions, and artefacts (some housed in Thebes’ new museum) – and written in an easy, almost conversational style Paul Cartledge’s Thebes goes a long way towards doing so.
Robin Lane Fox’s remarkable The Invention of Medicine similarly brings to vivid life the island city of Thasos in the fifth century bc, when it was home to the author of books of case studies now called Epidemics I and 3, whose details are so forensic that we can diagnose his patients’ ailments and pinpoint their addresses in the modern city. Around these works Lane Fox weaves a compelling history of Greek medicine, before arguing that they betray such scientific rigour that their author can be none other than Hippocrates himself.
Though two novels, both historical debuts, stood out for me (Leonora Nattrass’s The Black Drop and Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den), I’d like to chose Simon Thurley’s Palaces of Revolution. Subtitled ‘Life, Death and Art at the Stuart Court’, it tells the story of the doomed dynasty through its palaces in Scotland and England. These were far more than residences: they were also centres of government and works of propaganda in stone and marble, brick and wood. Lively and authoritative, you can read the book as an alternative history of one of our most important royal families. Good illustrations, too, and if you like plans of buildings (oh, I do), you will find much to enjoy here.
Nero and the Art of Tyranny , Hareth al Bustani. Ever since I first read Henryk Sienkiewicz’s towering Quo Vadis soon after General Lew Wallis’s Ben Hur (more years ago than I care to admit), I have been fascinated by ancient Rome. But, to be honest, Sienkiewicz’s ‘Narrative of the time of Nero’ caught my imagination even more firmly than Wallis’ ‘Tale of the Christ’. Since then, I have been fascinated by Nero, his excesses (perhaps apocryphal), his life and times. It is no surprise, then, that I found Hareth al Bustani’s Nero and the Art of Tyranny so fascinating. To be fair, though, even had my ignorance been absolute and my interest limited, I would still have been gripped by the narrative mastery of this brilliantly focussed biography.
Not only is the narrative drive irresistible, the detailed research is awe-inspiring. Here we are presented with Nero the man, stripped of the negative publicity presented by later (mostly Christian) commentators. In place of the ‘spin’ of those later historians, we have a simple linear story that pushes forward with a dazzling speed that almost conceals the academic depth. Nero’s birth and upbringing. Nero’s road to the Emperor’s throne. Nero’s early years as an intelligent young ruler keen to do his best by the empire he now rules. Nero’s slow slide into lunacy by way of paranoia and the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. A breath-taking achievement notably light on lions and martyrs.
It takes a special book or author to jolt me from my love of the 17th century. Carol McGrath and Book Two in her ‘She-Wolves’ trilogy fits both counts. The Damask Rose follows Eleanor of Castile, wife of the future King Edward I, through the highs and lows of her fascinating life. Not only do we traverse the tragedy of civil war, but readers also experience Eleanor’s personal life, which was no less turbulent. Her character is vividly crafted and stands out from the pages with excellent descriptions and dialogue. She is irascible and stubborn when it comes to her arch-enemy, Gilbert de Clare – but equally courageous and loyal in her husband’s service.
A suitably dramatic opening occurs at Windsor Castle, which Eleanor holds for her husband, and it is here that she comes face to face with Gilbert. It is an encounter that neither character will forget. The opposing emotions of grief and joy collide in a most touching scene, leaving Eleanor unable to celebrate the birth of her third child, due to lingering grief over the loss of her second.
But the story is not told solely through Eleanor’s eyes; we are able to watch events from afar via Olwen, a herbalist, who holds her mistresses loyalty, but no great rank. It is this which makes the story all the more relatable and riveting; that such a dramatic plot has been woven together from two very different standpoints.
Firstly, I must recommend Sarah Gristwood’s The Tudors in Love. It is rare that a book doesn’t just offer new knowledge (previously ignored facts or under-reported quirky episodes) but new ways of thinking. This is what The Tudors in Love does: it invites and encourages an entirely new way of considering how these well-known figures interacted with one another. Even for those who know a great deal about, for example, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, or Elizabeth I and the earl of Essex, there is much here that will be new. This marvellously readable book is like discovering a Rosetta Stone, whereby we don’t just discover what people did and how they did it but come to understand the language of courtship and love as something quite alien to modern conceptions and expectations.
Eye opening too is Edmond Smith’s Merchants. This exceptional, scholarly book is written with verve and style and will immerse readers in a vibrant world glimpsed only occasionally in plays and histories. It will widen their scope of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries not just geographically but culturally and socially – and its handling of sources will provide an exemplar for students and scholars alike. A colourful, witty treat, from the pages of which waft exotic spices and sea salt.
Army Girls is Tessa Dunlop’s moving account of 17 surviving veterans of the Auxiliary Territorial Service who served during the Second World War. Written during lockdown (which cannot have been easy for the vets), Dunlop has brought the female military experience to life via oral history that demonstrates their unequal status in the army, with misogyny and condescension throughout. It’s a wonder the men didn’t experience more casualties on the Home Front.
Robert Lyman’s A War of Empires is an epic history of the war in the Far East. A riveting phoenix-from-the-flames style tale of turning catastrophic defeat to victory, more importantly it gives a voice to the more than two million Indians who volunteered to save their country from the threat of Japanese invasion.
Alex Gerlis’ pacy thriller, Agent in Berlin provided some welcome relief with his novel of espionage in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. It’s a brilliant spy story, with great characters alongside the grand scale of Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into the war.
Finally, Agents of Influence by Aaron Edwards is fascinating on the covert war in Northern Ireland. During the 1980s both the RUC and British Intelligence had infiltrated the IRA with informers, and as paranoia increased, so did the bodycount as those merely suspected were murdered. Despite this, the UK government continued to gain remarkable access to the upper echelons of the IRA’s Army Council, which was a key factor in leading them to the negotiating table.
Lots of wonderful books came out this year. With the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence and the creation of Pakistan coming up in 2022, I found Marina Wheeler’s The Lost Homestead a very moving account. Marina’s mother was a Punjabi whose family had to flee so she writes from both a personal and a historical perspective.
Then I have been captivated by Marc Morris’ The Anglo-Saxons, partly because I know so little about the British Isles prior to the Norman Conquest and partly because he tells such a well-constructed story. A companion volume is Dan Jones’ Powers and Thrones which tells another story of the Middle Ages but over a longer time frame and on a wider canvas. It is as gripping as all his books.
Travelling back rather further in time, Alice Roberts’ Ancestors tells us about British pre and early history through the discovery of seven burials. Despite a slightly irritating condescension in the narrative, the subject matter is absolutely fascinating and reminds us what a very short time we have actually been around. Then I am much looking forward to reading Andrew Roberts’ new biography of George III which is on my Christmas list.
The book which impressed me most, and which I most enjoyed, this year is Andrew Roberts’s George III. It is based on such astonishingly wide-ranging and original research that I felt I was reading about the period for the first time. Unknown facts and wonderful anecdotes had me turning the pages with a curiosity I seldom feel when reading about supposedly familiar events. Andrew Roberts is remarkably even-handed, and there is no special pleading on behalf of this genuinely misunderstood and wilfully misrepresented monarch who did his best to be a good constitutional ruler during a very choppy period in British history.
And he really did not do too badly. He emerges as a slightly dull but endearing character, and it is hard not to empathise with him. There is much here that is sad, even tragic, given his terrible bouts of depression and bipolar disorder, but there is also much that is hilariously funny. Many a myth is exploded, only to be replaced by a far more interesting, if less striking, truth. No, he did not address trees in Windsor Park, but he did on one occasion talk without stopping for nineteen hours. In most accounts, his ‘madness’ overshadows the fact that he had an enquiring mind, interested in a wide variety of subjects, from astronomy and horology to farming, literature and the arts; he was a discerning collector and an accomplished musician. And the ‘tyrant’ of American legend was far more broad-minded and liberal than I had been led to believe by most historians.
Books of 2021 from Aspects of History