Books of 2021 from Aspects of History
At the top of my favourites list of recent historical books is Leanda de Lisle´s Henrietta Maria. Although non-fiction, the book reads like a historical novel, with fascinating characters brought to life by de Lisle´s extraordinary research. This much maligned woman has been given a tough time by history, until now as the author dismantles those tropes that we’ve seen all too often. The Queen consort that emerges is a powerful one, and one that her husband, Charles I, was fortunate to have by his side.
Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris, tells the story of the hunt for the regicides of Charles I. The regicides are relentlessly pursued by the fictional secretary of the regicide committee Richard Nayler. His hunt takes him to the edge of the known world and spans decades. At times Nayler’s relentless pursuit takes on aspects of a Western, right up to the final showdown. Harris expertly brings together a number of story strands that encompass the seismic events which shaped Britain and the culture war between the Puritan Roundheads and the hedonistic Cavaliers that have moulded the British character ever since.
SAS Brothers in Arms, by Damien Lewis is a fascinating character study of the men who founded the SAS and the desert war they fought during WW II. Lewis follows the development of the SAS from its initial ‘butcher and bolt’ raids on enemy airfields, to the epic journey to link up with American forces following Operation Torch, the first British troops to do so. For me the heart of the book is the relationship between the founder of the SAS, David Stirling, and his second in command Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne. Mayne was an instinctive doer who made Stirling’s ideas happen.
Agent in Peril by Alex Gerlis instantly evokes the era and place it’s set, much like Alan Furst at his best. The novel picks up the characters from ‘Agent in Berlin’ as they become involved in the air war over the Ruhr in 1943 and the dire need for information about the accuracy of RAF bombing. Gerlis builds the tension as they are sent into Germany to test a new device that could turn the tide of the war. The novel also sensitively shows the human side of war and the cost civilians pay for it.
My book of the year in 2022 is King by Ben Kane, the final part of his acclaimed trilogy about the life of King Richard I. I’ve enjoyed many of Ben’s books over the years – mainly from the ancient history period – and was interested to see what he would make of the huge jump forward to the high medieval period of the late twelfth century world of Richard Coeur de Leon.
I needn’t have worried for all three books (Lionheart, Crusader and King) were a delight. Telling the story of King Richard I in three chunks – his early life, filled with the struggles with his father, Henry II, and his brothers; the adventure of the third Crusade’s failed attempt to reclaim Jerusalem from Saladin; and finally his time in captivity under Duke Leopold of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor – bounced along at a rollicking pace that left you as breathless as the knights fighting in the heat of the Middle Eastern sun.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, fun and frolicking historical fiction trilogy, you could do worse than pick up these books. Personally, I’m now looking forward to getting my hands on Ben’s latest offering, Napoleon’s Spy – another significant jump in time and place to the nineteenth century Napoleonic invasion of Russia.
A superb biography of an important man, Andrew Roberts’ The Chief. The Life of Lord Northcliffe. Britain’s Greatest Press Baron is about a febrile, showy, public and yet strangely secretive world that is very modern in both context and course.
For military history I favour Prit Buttar’s Meat Grinder: The Battles for the Rzhev Salient, 1942-43, as it gives due space to strategy and historiography as well as the more common ‘face of battle’ account.
A fascinating tale of interest in the wider world is offered by John Parry’s Promised Lands: The British and the Ottoman Middle East, which shows how the Eastern Question developed in the early nineteenth century.
Historical writing, whether fictional or scholarly, should be properly researched, lucidly written, imaginative, and thought-provoking. This is some of what I read in 2022: I learned a lot from all of them.
Diarmaid MacCullough’s massive A History of Christianity reduces a convoluted and controversial subject to judicious and immensely readable comprehensibility. My interest was engaged in even the most obscure of heresies.
Dan Jones’ Powers and Thrones begins with the fall of Rome, navigates the rise of Islam, and ends with the triumph of Luther. The Long Middle Ages become a real place, inhabited by an astounding variety of people, whose habits and obsessions flow straight into our own.
Marc Morris has written several brilliant books – the first is The Anglo-Saxons – about early English history. They gave me a vivid feeling for how things then worked in our country.
In her moving The Hired Man Andrea Forna subtly recreates the horrors of the internecine fighting in Croatia in the nineteen nineties, while successfully avoiding mere sensation.
Not quite history, perhaps, are Pat Barker’s novels The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy, in which she persuasively reconstructs a recognisable version of Homer – as experienced by the war’s main victims, the women.
And I reread for the umpteenth time Josephine Tey’‘s novel The Daughter of Time, about the gallant but rather belated attempt by Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard to absolve Richard III of the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
Dear Little Corpses by Nicola Upson. This is the tenth instalment in Nicola Upson’s detective series featuring playwright, Josephine Tey as the amateur sleuth whom Upson portrays as a fascinating and complex character. The novel begins in 1939 and concerns the evacuation of children from London at the beginning of World War II. Two coachloads of children arrive in the quiet village of Polestead in Suffolk where Josephine and her lover, Marta, are taking a holiday before Marta flies to America where she is to work with Alfred Hitchcock. (For more on Hitchcock, I can recommend book number 4, Fear in the Sunlight.)
At the village fete, a four-year-old girl goes missing – not an evacuee. She has not been seen for twenty-four hours. Fortunately, Detective Inspector Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard, Josephine’s friend, is in the village and leads the investigation.
It’s a crime story, but also about how the outbreak of war brings suffering for the women whose husbands are called up and who must be parted from their children. It’s about the long-buried secrets in a small village which contribute to the sense of dread and tension. Nicola Upson handles difficult subjects with empathy and compassion and paints a vivid picture of village life at the outbreak of war.
A finely written detective story with plenty of twists and turns and with the bonus of an appearance by another ‘Golden Age’ writer, Margery Allingham. Josephine and Margery would make a wonderful detective duo.
My Books of the Year are Jessie Child’s superb Siege of Loyalty House, a beautifully-written and immersive tale that offers the reader a rare window into the terrifying events of the English Civil War, and one of the finest histories I’ve read in years; Max Hastings Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962, a brilliant, beautifully-constructed and thrilling re-assessment of the most perilous moment in history; and Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s The World, an epic global history that is cleverly and thrillingly told through the prism of family (or, more typically, dynasty).
The Siege of Loyalty House: A Civil War story by Jessie Childs. The ruins of Basing House in Hampshire have given up drinking glasses from Venice, a Yoruba ivory cup from west Africa, but little else of its buried treasure. They have, however, found many more modest items the leather sole of a child’s shoe, the severed skull of a young man, grim reminders of a two-year siege that ended in 1645.
The treasure had belonged to Basing House’s owner, the fabulously rich John Paulet, Marques of Winchester. It was known as Loyalty House after his motto, ‘Love Loyalty’, although parliamentarians had other names for it. Winchester was a Catholic, his house a ‘limb of babylon’ and a ‘nest of vermin’.
Childs’ is brilliant at conjuring the claustrophobia of a siege: the hell of other people. Amongst up to 400 hundred or so combatants, and as many ‘useless mouths’ there were resentful conscripts and hidden traitors: one may have been Winchester’s youngest brother, known as ‘hangman Paulet’ after he was obliged to act as the executioner of his co-conspirators.
We have here the civil war in microcosm: battles and politics, divided friends and families, in a wonderfully poetic piece of narrative history. The house is burned to ashes – with many men still in it, but the story ends with Winchester’ s son, Charles, who built a lodge over-looking the ruins, running hounds in torchlit hunts over the ‘bone riddled ground’ in the 1660s. Childs bring these bones back to living flesh and blood.
For my own professional reasons this year I took a deep dive into 20th century royal biography and two books particularly stood out. A lot of gloop is written about the Windsors so reading Edward Owen’s stellar The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-53 – was Christmas come early. Generating much more light than heat this academic book breaks new ground in terms of the royal family’s relationship with the burgeoning press. When it came to the House of Windsor, post war the fourth estate rarely had a day off. Our late Queen was born, married and died in a goldfish bowl.
In case you haven’t spotted the theme, my second recommendation (now out in paperback) is likewise royal and also digging about in the mid twentieth century. Alexander Larman in The Crown in Crisis bounces us through the abdication fiasco with his ‘own informed conjecture’, unapologetically assassinating the King who was never crowned. Edward was ‘one of the least distinguished figures ever to have reigned in Britain’ or, better still, ‘a wretched, quixotic ruler, an obsessed and demanding lover and, bar the odd instance of compassion and decency, a selfish and thoughtless man.’ Ouch. Charles can only do better.
I had a very good reading year. In non-fiction, I particularly enjoyed two books by Andrew Lownie. One, The Traitor King, focusses in particular on Edward VIII’s post-abdication life. The other delves into the complex public and private lives of the Mountbattens. 3 very odd and not very nice people who led riveting lives. Another royal biography I enjoyed immensely was Andrew Robert’s magisterial work on George III. Abyss, Max Hastings’ book on the Cuban Missile crisis was fascinating, gripping and frightening, given current international events. Early in the year I reread Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece, A Distant Mirror which, as when I read it before, was like taking a time-machine to Medieval France.
It was a stand-out year for historical fiction. William Boyd and Robert Harris are masters of their trade, and I zipped through their latest books in no time. Boyd’s book, The Romantic, is set in the 19th century and is in the picaresque style of some of his earlier books, following the life of one adventurous man through an eventful life. Harris’ Act of Oblivion is a compelling story about the fates of some of the men who signed Charles II’s death warrant. I also thoroughly enjoyed the second in Niklas Natt Och Dag very dark series set in 18th century Stockholm. I’ve read several other excellent historical novels this year, but in the limited space allotted I’ll just mention one other which is The Bloodless Boy by Robert J Lloyd, a very original story set in the 17th century with the great scientist Robert Hooke as one of the main protagonists.
I dare say that I will not be the only author to select Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s The World as a Book of the Year. Do not be daunted by its length. The narrative is pacy and there is not a page wasted. The author has produced a masterclass in style and structure.
For those interested in military history I can recommend Devil Dogs, by Saul David. David has composed a visceral, violent, insightful and impactful account of the Pacific campaign in WW2 – containing a surprisingly touching coda which concerns itself with what happened to the protagonists of the book after the war.
As for fiction lovers and/or lovers of medieval history there’s Essex Dogs, by Dan Jones. The author’s knowledge of the period and its personalities create a bloody and brilliant portrait of medieval soldiering. The detail and insights never hamper the page-turning story, however.
Other notable books of the year include Konstantin Kisin’s An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West. Kisin is an eminently sensible and decent human being, who is wise enough to have a sense of humour to boot. Douglas Murray should be congratulated for his War on the West, a deserved bestseller. Finally, I should mention Bob Dylan (who Sebag-Montefiore rightly namechecks in his history of the world). Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song is perspicacious, revealing and downright fun. Had a wonderful couple of sessions reading the book whilst calling up the diverse selection of songs on Alexa.
David Gilman’s Master of War is a terrific start to a series. I haven’t been this happy to find a good ‘Book One’ since I read Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander. This is set in the reign of Edward III and there is enough archery and authentic period detail to please anyone. My word it grips, from the first few pages. I can’t quite believe I missed it before, but that means I have a few sequels still to enjoy – enough for Christmas and the New Year.
Those who enjoyed Bernard Cornwell’s Grail Quest books will love it. This is assured, confident storytelling and I’m delighted to have found this author.
Jessie Childs’ The Siege of Loyalty House: A Civil War Story is narrative history as it should be; archival, richly sourced scholarship made accessible by beautiful writing. This brilliant historian, who only delivers masterpieces, conjures up the English Civil Wars in microcosm.
Nicholas Morton’s The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empire in the Medieval Near East is a refreshingly objective imperial history. An engrossing analysis of the effects – still with us today – of the great Mongol expansion, into China and especially the Near East and Europe, it is history of a high order. 2022 has been a great year for great women.
In The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus Lucy Ward offers an engrossing account of the extraordinary relationship between Catherine the Great of Russia and a Quaker physician from Essex, Thomas Dimsdale, who she hired to rid her court and then her vast empire of smallpox. He succeeded in this high-risk venture by means of the innovative new method of inoculation. The contemporary resonances of a political figure employing science to lead by brave example do not need to be forced.
Finally, has there been a better biography produced this decade than Maria Theresa: The Habsburg Empress in Her Time? The Berlin-based scholar Barbara Stollberg-Rillinger offers a riveting and deeply humane portrait of this major European ruler – an administrator and reformer of genius – which is far more entertaining and readable than anything one normally expects from German academics.
2022 was another bumper year for books about the Second World War. Saul David continued a prolific run of books with his excellent Devil Dogs, which follows a single unit through the Pacific War from first to last. Ben MacIntyre brought out Colditz – a book that dives much deeper into the history of this notorious wartime prison camp than the usual tales of daring escapes.
An even better escape story is Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist, which is a brilliantly researched biography of Rudolf Vrba, the man who broke out of Auschwitz. For a book about such a bleak subject, it is beautifully nuanced and in the end curiously uplifting. But my favourite book this year has was Angela Findlay’s In My Grandfather’s Shadow, a moving personal memoir that traces the generational trauma that comes from having a Nazi war criminal in the family.
There has also been a trend for travel books that take you along historical walking trails. Anthony Seldon’s The Path of Peace traces his journey along the First World War’s western front. Seldon has been instrumental in making this route an official walking trail in honour of the dead. Even more daring than this, however, is Timothy Philips’ The Curtain and the Wall, the story of his journey along the whole of the old Iron Curtain from the top of Norway to Azerbaijan. Along the way he uncovers some truly amazing forgotten parts of our both our continent and our history. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
What a year its been for reading and writing. I have read and enjoyed a wide range of fabulous books this year. Two which stand out are books that bring significant periods of time together. The first, Devil Land by Clare Jackson, tells the story of Britain between 1588 and 1688, primarily through the perspective of foreign ambassadors observing the apparent chaos . It’s a superb history. The second, was Robin Prior’s excellent Conquer We Must, which tells the story of Britain’s military and political leadership between 1914 and 1945. I’ve written a review of this ground-breaking book for the Aspects of History magazine.
Sticking with this period Jesse Childs’ The Siege of Loyalty House, Timothy Ashby’s Elizabethan Secret Agent and Anna Keay’s The Restless Republic all kept me fascinated. We are clearly going through a renaissance in brilliantly written non-fiction of the sixteenth and seventh centuries.
I read a lot of historical fiction too. I’ve loved Robert Harris’ Act of Oblivion, Jemahl Evans’ Sir Blandford Candy stories, Andrew Taylor’s James Marwood and Cat Lovett books and I’ve absolutely loved a new writer for me: Abir Mukherjee’s stories of 1920s Calcutta centring around the attractive characters of Captain Sam Wyndham and Surendranath (‘Surrender’) Banerjee.
On my home territory its also been a good year for military history. Saul David has produced a superb account of the ground-based Pacific War in Devil Dogs. Its first class, as is Al Murray’s brilliant new book Command, for which I’ve also written a review for Aspects of History. Anthony Beevor’s Russia and Gavin Mortimer’s The Phoney Major were other highlights.
The Curtain and the Wall by Timothy Phillips – An exceptional book written by an author who is absolutely passionate about his subject. As a researcher and author of the Cold War myself, I found Tim’s one-man journey to revisit the old Iron Curtain that separated East from West a unique page-turning experience. His episodic 5,000 kilometre journey from the Arctic Circle to the shores of southern Turkey lifts the veil to a western readership of how this crucial part of the continent that was so valued by both sides looks today. We see how the places and peoples which the Iron Curtain divided have been shaped by the past thirty years – for good and bad. In the current crisis in the Ukraine, a book such as this could not be published at a better time. Highly recommended.
A Village in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd – A remarkable effort to drill deep into the German psyche during the years of Nazi rule in Germany that provides insight into how ordinary people found themsleves attracted to and supporting the Third Reich. Boyd’s level of research to uncover ordinary voices from the Bavarian village of Oberstdorf weaves a tapestry that provides the clearest picture of what the German citizen’s experience was in this terrible period. Having spent years researching German archives for my own books, I applaud the sheer effort it must have taken Julia Boyd to unearth this amount of unpublished material. Definitely the most enjoyable read for me this year.
The last twelve months have seen an avalanche of top-quality history books. One of my favourites was The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland. It tells the story of Rudolf Vrba, an inmate in Auschwitz concentration camp, who became the first Jew to break out of the camp.
To make his escape, he crossed electrified fences, dodged armed guards and evaded thousands of SS men. His mission was to reveal to the world the truth, scale and horrors of the Holocaust. To do this, Vrba – a gifted mathematics student – committed every detail of the camp to memory, including the number of Jews being killed there. He then used this information to produce a detailed report that would reach both President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill: it would eventually save over 200,000 lives. A gripping tale of horror, sadism and extraordinary courage.
A very different world is conjured in The Siege of Loyalty House, Jessie Child’s meticulously researched account of the English Civil War. Her narrative is sharply focussed on the siege of Basing House, which becomes a microcosm through which she depicts the unsparing violence of the civil war. The strength of the book lies in the eyewitness accounts of it characters – a motley bunch of clergymen, apothecaries and merchants.
I’ve also recently enjoyed Saul David’s excellent Devil Dogs, which tells the action-packed wartime tale of K Company, 3/5 Marines, who fought their way from Guadalcanal to Okinawa; and Anthony Sattin’s thought-provoking Nomads, a sweeping history of humanity on the move – exhaustively-researched and lyrically written.
Understandably, I have spent much of the year reading on the subject of Russia and Ukraine, and aside from the older staples, there were some very impressive new additions. Antony Beevor’s Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921 was a game attempt to unravel an infernally and murderously complex period; while The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes did a wonderful job of explaining how Russia has ended up in its Putinist cul de sac. Straying into current affairs, Mark Galeotti’s work on modern Russia – especially his Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine – is as accessible and insightful as anyone could wish, while Overreach by Owen Matthews gives an admirably clear and comprehensive account of the run up to Putin’s ill-starred invasion of Ukraine.
Away from Ukraine’s travails, I made a rare (for me) foray beyond the modern era to read Jessie Childs’ new adventure in 17th century mayhem; The Siege of Loyalty House, a gripping account of the dark fate of Basing House during the English Civil War. Back on more familiar ground, I much enjoyed Joshua Zimmerman’s biography Józef Piłsudski: Founding Father of Modern Poland, while the World War Two highlight of the year for me was undoubtedly Devil Dogs; the new offering by the increasingly (and annoyingly) prolific Saul David on the story of K-Company, 1st US Marine Division, telling their story through the war in the Pacific. Derring do in spades and as engagingly written as ever.
All of these will be heartily welcomed by the history buff in your life and I recommend them without hesitation!
The Capsarius by Simon Turney. I’ve read some of Simon Turney’s Roman fiction in the past, but this book, without its focus on Roman Rome, is a little different and very enjoyable. I didn’t read this book quickly – rather, I enjoyed it slowly, taking delight in reading a small amount each day over an extended period. It’s a story rich with detail, as our main character, The Capsarius, travels through a land he’s clearly excited to visit, being so very strange to his birth land, and yet one he understands is filled with danger. The heat, the lack of water, and the need to stay close to the great river Nile bring into play some very dangerous enemies, the crocodiles of the delta.
The Capsarius is not your usual Roman warrior. He’s a skilled and widely read individual, keen to hold on to the ideals he has as a medic in the Roman army, even though he’s pitted against just about everyone in the legion, and his superior’s really don’t seem to like him a great deal – not that it worries him. He’s a man of reason, and yet one who’s thrust into a strange land, with even stranger gods, and gods who seem to speak to him. The interplay between the reasoned man forced to question his beliefs because of the pervading Egyptian religion is skilfully drawn.
This is a slow burn, which rewards the reader with two really quite different battle scenes in the second half of the book when our Roman hero finally encounters their elusive enemy. A wonderful read – with just the right amount of humour and peril – set in a wonderfully drawn land of intrigue and danger.
Valentia by Adam Lofthouse is a fascinating reimagining of Britannia during the late 360s. This then is Roman Britain, complete with Roman soldiers and senators, Roman weapons and, of course, Hadrian’s Wall. (It’s the 1900 anniversary of Hadrian’s Wall this year, so it’s all quite apt:)) But, this is also a world of Germanic warriors, Saxon invaders, the tribes from beyond the Wall, and even some pirates. Historically, the end of Roman Britain might be a few years in the future, but this is a world on the brink, the reach of the Romans starting to fade, and the events in Valentia tell of a people as yet unaware of the coming calamities, and, Adam tells it very well. We have abandoned Roman forts, discontented Roman soldiers who aren’t getting paid on time, and the tribes from across Hadrian’s Wall more aware of what might be happening than the Romans. And the emperor is very far away in Rome.
Our two main characters, Tribune Sixtus Victorinus, and Felicius are opposites of the same coin; one jaded and drunk, the other, still a career Roman soldier. Between them, they must disentangle the unexplained events on the borderlands, and then they must rouse support from all that they can to defeat the coming rebellion.
Valentia starts fantastically well, immediately sucking the reader into the world of the 360s. It’s really quite hard to put the book down as the tension ramps up. Tribune Sixtus is a sympathetic character, for all, he is perhaps to blame for many of his problems. The small group of warriors who make up his area of command are well-sketched, and there is tragedy in the offing. Felicius’ life is more regimented, and it is Felicius who gives us the glimpse of what it was to be a Roman in the waning years of the Empire.
I really enjoyed Valentia. The book starts with a bang and builds really well to its conclusion, meeting a great cast of characters on the way.
Penny Ingham – Twelve Nights. Sometimes a book is just an absolute delight to read, and this is one of those. Penny Ingham has written both a delightful murder mystery, but also an immersive story set in Tudor London. The smells, the sights, the political unrest, the politics, the religion, problems with the Scots, the theatre, Shakespeare, Marlowe and the underbelly of Tudor London. It is, somehow, all crammed into this novel, and none of it feels forced on the reader. This is total immersion into the London of late Tudor England, and given how I’ve grown weary of all the ‘Tudor’ stuff, this reassures me that authors are still out there, conjuring up something new and fresh to delight the reader.
I can’t deny that my love of the BBC comedy, Upstart Crow, definitely played into the joy of reading the novel – a strong female lead being one of the most appealing features – but this isn’t a comedy, this is serious business, and it is such a well-told story with a motley cast of all levels of society, from the servants to the Tudor nobility, featuring all any of us could ever want to know about what it was truly like to live at such a time.
And the story doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the day, and our main character is sorely tested time and time again. I really don’t want to give any spoilers, but this novel nicely ties in with all the bits of Tudor England that draw readers to it, the scandal and the dark underbelly, the glitz and glamour and the high echelon of society. Twelve Nights is a veritable tour de force; a wonderful tale.
The Maids of Biddenden by GD Harper is that rare beast which entirely absorbs the reader from page one. Helped by a flowing style of writing and the immediate and impending danger that the twins find themselves in as six-year-olds, the reader is entirely absorbed in the story, and their fate, so much so that it’s difficult to put the book down. That said, it is not just the twins themselves that drive the story – the people they interact with, those with their best and worst interests at heart – are all believable and well-written, and there are occasions when the reader will be left frustrated and angered that some seem to face little punishment for their actions. The story has a number of points of view, and I found that they all worked very well – offering a view of the twins as they think of themselves, and also as others perceived them.
The story is effectively split in two; the first 45% tells the story of the Maids as young children. This element of the story is filled with a deep sense of foreboding that drives the story onward and makes the reader fearful for the future of the Maids. The narrative then moves forward a few years, and we see them as young women trying to make a name for themselves and use their talents for good. At this point, the immediate landscape that the Maids encounter broadens considerably, and we move away from the nunnery and the settlement of Biddenden, into the politics and events of the early twelfth century, that almost consume the lives of the Maids for the remainder of their years – they lived during the time of the tragedy of the White Ship.
The story doesn’t lose focus here, but because the impending danger has passed, the reader is absorbed in how the twins accomplish all they do. There is a great deal of attention to detail here – medical knowledge and music – and it’s fascinating to see how the Maids’ lives interact with known events from the period.
This is a delightful story. I was entirely engrossed and found myself snatching what time I could to carry on reading it – something that doesn’t happen all that often. I highly, highly recommend The Maids of Biddenden for fans of historical fiction, and also for those who don’t normally read the genre. The challenges that the twins face are well told, and the reaction their appearance sparks are conveyed well, although as the reader you will be offended by the prevailing belief that they are Godless and a monstrosity and the fact that they were a ‘sight to see’ as opposed to always being appreciated for who they were and what they could accomplish. The historical notes at the back of the novel are also fascinating.
The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West is not the sort of book I’d normally read, as it’s a novel about Spiritualism, the in many ways ludicrous cult that gripped so many otherwise-rational parents mourning the loss of the beloved sons in the Great War. Yet it caught my eye in a bookshop as I was about to go on holiday, and utterly gripped me from the moment I read page one on the plane, till the end. Based on true events, which I’m afraid is pretty much essential for me, it was also beautifully written, especially as this is Mr West’s first novel.
I had bought William Boyd’s The Romantic before he spoke about it at the Cliveden Literary Festival, and after he did I could not wait to read it. Tracing the life of a man who meets many of the great figures of the Romantic movement, and who fights at Waterloo into the bargain – so lot of true events there too – it is a sort of early 19th century version of Boyd’s sublime 2002 historical novel Any Human Heart, which I consider to be one of the very greatest novels of the 21st century.
My postman hates me. This year, I was a judge for the Historical Writers’ Association Gold Crown award for historical fiction. This, combined with my regular commitment to review the five best historical fiction books a month for The Times, means sacks of books were delivered to my door.
I can entirely recommend the whole HWA shortlist. My fellow judges are discerning and talented folk, and no bread rolls were thrown at the judging lunch. Small Things Like These by Clare Keegan, is a slim novel about an ordinary man in Ireland discovering what is happening at a children’s home and deciding whether to be brave. This was also on the Booker longlist and it is brilliantly done. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed takes a true life crime as its starting point, and builds into an layered, astute and devastating portrait of a Welsh town and its immigrants in the 1950s.
The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley is a dazzlingly inventive alternative history of a Britain which has been beaten by Napoleon. The Great Passion by James Runcie is set during the build up to the first performance of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. A deeply moving book about grief and the transcendental power of music. Finally, Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is an epic, powerful account of a female aviator in twentieth Century America.
This October, I took my children to Pompeii, and was struck afresh by the brilliance of Elodie Harper’s Wolf Den and The House with the Golden Door. She brings so Pompeii vividly to life that my fourteen year old ignored TikTok and devoured them both while we were there. High praise indeed.
Art historians may concentrate on the beautiful in classical art but historians of the ancient world need to see the ugly too. Exposed, The Greek and Roman Body, by Caroline Vout, shows the images of bodily functions and failings that are just as common in pottery and sculpture as all those perfect breasts and thighs. Vout is a vigorous exposer of hackneyed ideals, the guide you’d always want in our rather too reverential museums. An equally valuable book is The Fasces, A History of Ancient Rome’s Most Dangerous Political Symbol by T. Corey Brennan, sadly necessary for those watching the politics of our time.
I particularly enjoyed three novels this year. Robert Harris’s new political thriller, Act of Oblivion, tells the story of two regicides on the run from royal vengeance in the wide open spaces of Restoration America. Harris uses this framework to cast a long look backwards at the Civil War and the Protectorate. Among other things, the book is a warning against extremists.
William Boyd finds inspiration in a more recent epoch in his latest novel, The Romantic. It’s a whole-life narrative with an eighty-year span that tells the story of a fictional Irishman, a man of feeling and action who rattles through the nineteenth century. Our hero takes in Waterloo, the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, Byron and Shelley, and the East Indian army in the course of a variety of careers that include soldiering, authorship, farming and brewing (in America), and acting as the Nicaraguan consul in Trieste. And then there are the love affairs… Boyd has fun with this expertly researched and beautifully written novel, and so does the reader.
Finally, if you’ve ever wondered what life was like in the Highlands in the bitter aftermath of Culloden, you should read S.G.Maclean’s historical crime novel The Bookseller of Inverness. There are shades of Stevenson about this gripping story of persecuted Jacobites, treacherous neighbours and murder. It’s superb.
My Book of the Year is Simon Turney’s brilliant and illuminating Agricola, Architect of Roman Britain. My choice last year was Simon Eliott’s Roman Britain’s Missing Legion which also features Agricola as the IXth Hispania went missing under his governorship.
Turney starts his biography with Tacitus’ De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae ‘Of the life and thoughts of Julius Agricola’, although he tests the historical annals as recorded by Agricola’s son-in-law against the archaeological evidence on the ground. As well as examining Agricola himself, he revisits the reputations of previous governors Scapula, Paulinus (though he skips over his campaigns against Druidic Wales and Boudicca), Cerialis and the underestimated Frontinus, whom Agricola himself relieved in Summer 77.
Turney’s work on the ground presents us with a pattern of conquest and Romanisation as governor after governor expands and consolidates Roman Britain, laying foundations upon which Agricola will build, from camps and forts to cities, most of which, if not created, are strongly improved by him, allowing the borders of Empire to creep ever northward.
Flavian administration, events such as the eruption of Vesuvius and the deaths of his sons, all impact upon Agricola’s governorship – causing this expansion to pause and facilitating a Celtic counter-attack beginning with the near annihilation of the understrength IX Hispania on the wild northern border. Which in turn prompts one last fatal, pitched battle at Mons Graupius in 83, completing the Roman conquest of all of Britannia before the victorious Agricola finally retires to Rome and obscurity.
The best book I have read in recent years, that describes nautical life in the ancient world, is Tides of War by Stephen Pressfield. Sea of Flames by Alistair Forrest runs it very close. Set against the civil wars in the final years of the Roman Republic, Sea of Flames gives us the story of Greek sailor Eurycles and the Amazonian Zara. The heir apparent of the assassinated Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, has joined forces with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. But his inheritance is being contested by the youth Octavian, and the epic pre-Empire struggle for control of Rome is set to take place. Eurycles, as the result of his father’s murder, chooses a side and is dragged into the murky world of the spymaster Agrippa in order to achieve vengeance.
The tension gradually ramps up as the final key battle at sea nears. This is where the detailed research of Forrest comes to the fore. We hear the sights, sounds and smells of life onboard a ship in the ancient world. The creak of the oar stroke, the odours of rank rotten fish and the unwashed bodies of the ship’s crew and marines. The sight of the flights of fire bolts are clear as they the cross turbulent waters of the Ionian Sea. But Forrest is also a skilled storyteller and a detailed account of one of the pivotal battles of the age is told through the eyes of well rounded and engaging characters. All building to a crescendo as the Battle of Actium rages to its physical and emotional climax.
One of the most celebrated biographies of 2022, Leanda de Lisle’s Henrietta Maria: Conspirator, Warrior, Phoenix Queen has earned every accolade it has received. This scholarly yet accessible study of the maligned Stuart Queen is an exercise in how to redress the wrongs of centuries of unjust misogyny and xenophobia. Keen political insights and investigation of religious divisions keep company with delicious social tidbits (the introduction of parquet floors; the rise in fashion of the ‘coach and six’). If readers wonder what it means for a history tome to be written with the drive, energy, and wit of a great novel, they need look no further.
Robert Stedall continues his journey through the early modern period – across both Scotland and England – with an enthralling look at Elizabeth I’s Final Years. The iconic English Queen is no stranger to biographical (or academic, or popular) studies. Stedall’s excellent book, however, manages to do something new by focusing not on Elizabeth but on the personalities around her in her final years. He conjures up a world of backbiting and chivalry, of jealousy and ambition.
Jessie Childs’ The House of Loyalty is one of the few books I’ve read that managed to make me feel claustrophobic. Superbly researched, it tells the tale of the men and women under siege in Basing House during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Though nonfiction, the book does more than any text I’ve ever read (or film I’ve watched) to capture what it is to be trapped, under fire, and in constant danger. Superb.
There’s no doubt about my book of the year: The World, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. This is not just your standard world history, and by writing it through the prism of family, Montefiore has made it immediately identifiable as one reads of the great dynasties, whether emperor or writer, general or artist. Written with lashings of elan, I raced through its 1300 pages, and learnt about Hawaiian royal families, and looked at mid 20th century Iran in a new light. This special book should please any lover of history on the big day.
The great joys of running the Aspects of History podcast is that I get to choose what I read, and Jeremy Paxman’s Black Gold is a wonderful telling Britain’s industrial past and how crucial it was to empire, and all gained off the back of the efforts of the heroic mineworkers. Their exploitation in the 19th century, the tragic accidents and the strikes of the 1970s and 80s are described with sensitivity, and make this book a real gem.
Alex Rowson’s Young Alexander uses archaeological evidence, including recent finds, along with the usual sources to bring a new way to tell the story of the great man. Of course, Alexander was never old, but his upbringing and education were so crucial in forming the man, and Rowson has brought that early period to life.
Command, by Lawrence Freedman is a real page-turner, as various conflicts post-1945 are analysed from both a military and political standpoint. The French war in Indochina and Algeria, the Falklands, Israel, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan are all here, as well as many other fascinating examples, and the book ends with the current conflict in Ukraine. A must-read.
The Phoney Major, by Gavin Mortimer looks at a figure who has been placed on a pedestal, examines the documentary evidence, and piece by piece re-writes the story of the so-called founder of the SAS, David Stirling. It is Paddy Mayne, the great Ulster soldier (and former Ireland & Lions lock forward), who emerges as the driving force behind the unit, and Stirling’s brother Bill as its father.
Since HM The Queen died, I had a renewed interest in her early life, and I’ve just finished Tessa Dunlop’s Elizabeth & Philip, which looks into the couple’s courtship and early years together. The future Queen emerges, as one would expect, as a dignified young woman, but it is Philip’s upbringing that fascinated me the most. A worthy tribute.
Command, by Lawrence Freedman. In his admirable new study of high command Lawrence Freedman discusses these conflicts, and many more in sixteen essays. He covers both the well-known scenarios but equally offers fascinating analysis of less known wars such as the Pakistan Civil War of 1971 and the Congo Conflict of 1965. His essays of the Falklands and Iraq are especially valuable not least perhaps because the author was the official historian for the former and chaired the enquiry into the latter. His analysis of the differing US and UK perceptions of Iraq and the problems this posed for commanders is the only accurate version I have read to date. He is also particularly good on the origins of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Unlike too many military historians, he includes excellent maps.
Yet what really makes this study special is that he reminds us that command is about people, both politicians and military men, with all their fears and flaws, vanities and preconceptions. Personal relations are as important as experience and ability. Even giants like MacArthur can fall on their hubris.
Freedman concludes, unsurprisingly, that both politicians and commanders have a duty to make high command work. Never has that been more important than today when Europe could face years of conflict. The greatest responsibility of a government is the safety and security of its people. It is an important book – really first class – and timely.
Books of 2021 from Aspects of History