Just One Damned Thing After Another: Jodi Taylor

★★★★

The Chronicles of St Mary’s: Book I

Madeleine Maxwell – short, opinionated redhead – is a maverick. She’s also an historian, which amounts to much the same thing. At school, Max is saved by her teacher Mrs De Winter, who channels her disruptive tendencies into a deep passion for history. Many years later, having gained her PhD from the University of Thirsk, Max has a second reason to thank Mrs De Winter, who puts her up for a job at the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The historians of St Mary’s have a public reputation as eccentric, shabby and lovable: a band of chaotic academics who pursue the bits of history that others don’t reach. How do you drive a quadriga? How far could Icarus have flown? What are the constituents of Greek fire? But the initiated soon learn a different story. Once Max has passed her interview, she enters a thrilling world where ‘practical history’ takes on a whole new meaning. For St Mary’s have discovered the secrets of time-travel, and there are no limits to their research. A roistering tale of historical skulduggery, physics, and plenty of tea, this is a glorious, geeky gem of a book: historian’s catnip.

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Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing

Lange: Unemployed lumber worker

(Barbican Art Gallery, London, closed on 2 September 2018)

Dorothea Lange was no stranger to adversity: at the age of seven, she survived an attack of polio which left her with a limp for the rest of her life. After studying photography in New York, she moved to San Francisco in 1919, opening a portrait photography studio in the city centre. She became the favourite photographer of the city’s elite, gifted with a shrewd insight into the personalities of her sitters. But in the early 1930s something changed. Lange began to see impoverished men, women and children flooding into the city from the ‘Dust Bowl’ states out east. Droughts and over-farming, coupled with the economic crash of 1928, had ushered in the Great Depression. Their plight electrified her: in 1934 she closed her studio and devoted her life to cataloguing the world around her. The Barbican’s stunning retrospective was a worthy celebration of this remarkable woman: a visionary artist with a social conscience, capturing images which, even a century later, evoke the brutal realities faced by many thousands of her countrymen.

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Fanny and Stella: Neil McKenna

★★★

The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England

London theatres were notorious for their seedy reputations, but the events of 28 April 1870 were shocking even by the standards of the West End. As the audience filed out of the Strand Theatre, two garishly-dressed ‘ladies’ were arrested by police officers, who accused them of being men in drag. Carried off to Bow Street police station, the women were revealed in due course to be Ernest Boulton (known as Stella) and Frederick William Park (known as Fanny). McKenna’s book unfolds the story of their extraordinary trial for indecency and delves into the secret gay underworld of 19th-century London. It’s a fine story, but its historical credentials are undermined by a relentlessly salacious tone and by McKenna’s fondness for floridly narrative, unsubstantiated assertions.

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Dancing Bears: Witold Szabłowski

★★★

True stories About Longing for the Old Days

There’s a fascinating premise behind this book by the Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski. Its first half is devoted to the tale of how Bulgaria’s entry into the EU obliged it to forbid the keeping of dancing bears, thereby destroying one of its cherished traditions. Following the ‘rescued’ bears in their new home, Szabłowski looks at how the animals are coping with their new ‘freedom’ and also follows the fate of their former keepers. In the second half of the book, the bears’ clumsy encounter with their new freedom forms the framework for a series of vignettes assembled in various Eastern and Central European countries, whose peoples are still struggling to define their identities and purpose in the aftermath of Communism. Unfortunately the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first part, but the book as a whole offers a glimpse of an unfamiliar world struggling in that gap between death-throes and birth-throes.

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The Ark Before Noah: Irving Finkel

★★★★

Decoding the Story of the Flood

Deep within the British Museum is the Arched Room, a soaring vaulted hall lined with shelves of cubbyholes. This is where the cuneiform tablets are kept and it feels rather like the Holy of Holies. I’ve only been once, but that single visit impressed me mightily: not just the architecture, but the hushed air of industry as scholars and students sat hunched over at the central line of desks, working away at deciphering these ancient fragments. Tablets might be business letters, court records or poetry. It’s an ongoing detective story and my brilliant Assyriologist colleagues never know what they’re going to turn up. In this book, the irrepressible Irving Finkel tells the story of the most exciting recent discovery, when a member of the public brought in a cuneiform tablet which offered fascinating new evidence about the story of the Ark and the Great Flood.

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Koh-i-Noor: William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

★★★½

Back at the beginning of August, I used my summer holidays to play ‘tourist’ in London. My first stop was the Tower of London and, among the ravens, armour and tales of bloody executions, I popped in to see the Crown Jewels. At that point I was already aware of this new history of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond and wanted to see it for myself. I discovered, as many have before me, that its legend casts a far larger shadow than its reality. Indeed, it looks almost modest alongside the Cullinan I Diamond that sits atop the monarch’s sceptre, or the Cullinan II in the Imperial State Crown. So what was it about this rather unassuming diamond that captured the imagination of generations? With Dalrymple and Anand as my guides, I embarked on an engaging tale of blood, war, ambition, extravagance and conquest.

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The Battle of Salamis: Barry Strauss

★★★★

The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece – and Western Civilization

Just before dawn on 25 September 480 BC, a Persian armada sailed out of the harbour at Phaleron, just along the coast from Athens. The ships took up position at the entrance to some narrow straits between the Greek mainland and an island called Salamis, where the Greeks had taken refuge. Their fragile alliance, so the Persians had been told, was on the brink of collapse. All they needed was to provoke panic: the Greeks would crumble. And… well, it didn’t quite happen as planned. What unfolded over the next twelve hours was one of the greatest sea-battles of antiquity, and Barry Strauss’s book brings it to pulsing, vivid life. This isn’t a story of nautical jargon and dry-as-dust tactics: it’s swashbuckling of the first order, set against a mighty clash of civilisations, and populated by a cast of characters so colourful that it’s easy to forget it all actually happened.

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Natalie Zemon Davis

★★★★

In 1560 Jean de Coras, judge of the Parlement of Toulouse, found himself faced with an extraordinary case which had come up on appeal from the court at Rieux. A woman, Bertrande de Rols, claimed that the man with whom she had lived for four years was not, in fact her husband Martin Guerre, but an impostor. The husband himself denied the charges and claimed that his wife was being unwillingly coerced by his avaricious uncle, who hoped to get his hands on the family inheritance. This alone would have offered de Coras an intriguing case, but the complex tale of Martin Guerre presently developed an unexpected twist that elevated it into one of the most fascinating courtroom dramas in history. Natalie Zemon Davis’s reconstruction is a classic of modern historical writing, offering an irresistible glimpse of the social and sexual mores of the Renaissance.

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Cleopatra: A Life: Stacy Schiff

★★★★★

What do you think of when you think of Cleopatra? The asp? The siren lure of Egypt? Danielle de Niese, dripping with jewels? Elizabeth Taylor? Whatever we think of, it’s almost certainly incorrect. In this beautifully-written biography, Stacy Schiff tries to peel away the centuries of accretions in the form of purple prose, propaganda and the overheated male gaze, to reveal the ruler beneath. Don’t judge this book by its cover. The publisher has done the author no service in that respect. It’s packaged like a lightweight historical novel, with the traditional faceless woman in historical costume and lashings of pink and gold. It deserves better. Intelligent, gripping and extremely readable, this is the best biography I’ve read in some time.

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The Ladies of Llangollen: Elizabeth Mavor

★★★★

Like the Chevalier d’Eon, the Ladies of Llangollen came my way thanks to a work project. When trying to find an introduction to their lives, I judged that Elizabeth Mavor’s book seemed the best option, despite now coming across as slightly dated (it was published in 1971). Yet, for all that, it presents a thorough and sensitive discussion of these two remarkable women, who created an idyllic lifestyle together on their own terms and in defiance of social convention. Drawing on the Ladies’ own journals and correspondence, along with the letters of their immediate circle, newspaper reports and other documents, Mavor’s book isn’t just the sound introduction I was looking for, but an admirably unbiased and scrupulously fair double biography.

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