I’m really spoiling you with the guest spots right now, aren’t I? Today, one of my dearest friends, authoress Ankaret Wells is going to talk about her favourite history books…
Hi, fellow readers of Mme Guillotine’s blog! It’s great to be here with you to talk about my 10 favourite books of historical non-fiction.
I love historical novels, but there are times when I want to be immersed in a period without being constantly worried about the protagonists and how they’re going to make it to their happy-or-otherwise ending. (Why, yes, I do tend to overinvest, why do you ask?). And that’s when I reach for the non-fiction. It’s like going round a museum with a friend who’s got an exciting story to tell versus going round the same museum alone – they’re both good.
So here are my top 10. I’m afraid they’re a bit UK-centric, but there are some excursions to France, Australia, parts of Africa, and dinner tables all over the globe.
10. The Stolen Woman by Pat Shipman.
This is the fascinating true story of Victorian explorer Sir Samuel Baker and the love of his life Florence, who he abducted in a carriage after failing to buy her at a slave market in the wilds of what are now Bulgaria. The pair of them then went off to Africa brave hazards which ranged from barely navigable rivers to battling to suppress the slave trade. But an even harder fight was ahead of them when Sam tried to introduce Florence to Victorian Society on his return.
Pat Shipman’s writing style isn’t for everybody – it straddles the awkward ground between biography and novel, and there’s also a tendency to rhapsodise about both Sam and Florence’s good looks when, in their photos at least, both of them look as if their most salient characteristic is a refusal to take any nonsense from anybody. But I’d still recommend this book for the story. Did I mention it also includes a bored teenaged Maharajah? It does.
9. Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford.
Sadly my copy doesn’t have this lovely cover! In the same way that Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels are sometimes more about Georgette Heyer’s world than they are about the Regency, this is sometimes more about Nancy Mitford than it is about Madame de Pompadour, but her wit and humour is such a good fit for the febrile court of Louis XV that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Read it for the anecdotes quoted from letters – Nancy Mitford always finds the ones that illustrate Madame de Pompadour’s court and her times best.
I’m not interested in food blogging – I’m sure I’m missing out, but it’s just not my cup of tea, or indeed beautifully photographed plate of pasta – and my irrational hatred of books with unexpected recipes in is only topped by my irrational hatred of books with unexpected ghosts (ask me sometime why I didn’t get into the Aunt Dimity books) but I still read this with great satisfaction. It’s a brilliantly simple idea. Margaret Visser takes a dinner menu of sweetcorn, chicken and rice, salad and ice cream, and charts the history of each ingredient, showing the sometimes surprising journey of how it reached the table.
Margaret Visser expresses some decided opinions, not all of which I agreed with. Still, you’ve got to expect some idiosyncracy from the author of such an individual book. From olive oil’s part in anointing royalty to the salt-mummies of Salzburg, it all comes together and somehow the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That often happens when you eke meals out with rice and salad, I find, but Margaret Visser does it with remarkable style and verve.
To balance out Sam Baker’s imperialism, here’s a look at the bloodstained history of Africa from the other point of view. I have to admit, when a friend recommended this to me I said ‘Washing the spears? Didn’t Robert Jordan make that up?’ but he was insistent that I try it, and I’m really glad I did.
It charts the tumultuous lifetimes of Shaka Zulu and his successor Cetshwayo, and it’s one of those biographies that spreads out from around its subject like light from a lantern and illuminates the whole society and times and political struggle that surround them.
Even if you don’t think you like military history, I’d recommend this – I always end up having to squint at diagrams of battles and thinking ‘this might as well be the instructions for assembling a sofa as far as I’m concerned’ but Donald Morris’s writing style made the manouvrings of the Zulu, Boer and British nations crystal clear, on the battlefield and off it.
Also,there’s a very brief appearance by Jane Austen’s great-nephew, who dies at Isandlwana.
6. A.D. 500: A Journey Through the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland by Simon Young
The 500s aren’t a period that often get studied at school, and nor do they show up much in historical TV series except for the occasional cursory mention by Neil Oliver climbing a hill with the rain in his hair (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Simon Young has stitched together the available sources and written the diary of a fictitious Byzantine embassy visiting the British Isles in the 500s. On the way they encounter everything from the suggestion that sheep droppings make protein-rich trail rations to the rituals surrounding the coronation of a High King of Ireland. This is a fascinating glimpse into a world that’s alien, but familiar. Like Saxon gold glinting under a plough-furrow. Wonderful.
5. Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty by Catherine Bailey.
If you’re interested in the tumultuous century between 1850 and 1950, this is the book for you. It’s the fascinating story of the Fitzwilliam family and their family seat at Wentworth Woodhouse. At the beginning of the book, the Fitzwilliams are vastly prosperous from their coal mine holdings, and their house – twice the size of Buckingham Palace – stands in the middle of acres of park and yet more acres of coal seam. By the end of the book, the family has withered away amidst not one but two accusations that the heir apparent was born out of wedlock and should not inherit, and nationalised open-cast mines surround the house and are threatening its foundations.
As well as telling the story of the Earls of Fitzwilliam and their astonishingly contentious womenfolk, the book tells the stories of the men and women who worked in their coal mines, and the political struggle for fair wages that led to the way of life that centred around houses like Wentworth being swept away. It’s not always an easy read, but it’s never preachy, and it’s utterly absorbing.
The only complaint I had was that I would have liked more about the second dispute about the succession, which actually came to court – it gets a big buildup, but then it’s tidied away in a few short paragraphs in the final chapters. Still, if the only grumble you have about a book is that you’d like more of it, that’s not much of a criticism really.
4. We Are At War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times by Simon Garfield
This is a bit of a cheat: I’d like to recommend all three of Simon Garfield’s books of Mass Observation diaries, but this is the first one chronologically so probably the best place to start. In the late 30s, the Mass Observation project asked people from all walks of life to keep diaries: over half a century later, Simon Garfield put together entries from some of the diarists to provide an astonishing record of what ordinary people were doing as the world went to war.
Each book contains contributions from four or five diarists: there’s only one constant between all three books, the writer Maggie Joy Blunt. From what we see of her in these extracts, I really wish I could read her novels and articles. The other diarists are all fascinating in their own ways, and what really draws you in are the little details – the difficulty getting food for a canary, the cost of a loan to emigrate from South Africa, the way one Edinburgh diarist has trouble finding combs and another has no trouble at all picking up sailors. If you ever want to write a novel set on the Home Front in Britain in WWII or in the days immediately after, these should be on your shelves.
3. The Smart by Sarah Bakewell
Now for something frothier. If by ‘frothy’ you include forgery and hangings in 18th-century London, that is. Sarah Bakewell tells the story of Irish adventuress Margaret Caroline Rudd, who romps through the seamy underworld and the steamy bedchambers of the great, the good, and the grasping-to-survive and then finds a second life in the news sheets of the day when she becomes involved in a notorious court case.
Both as a biography of a scandalous woman, and as a biography of a scandal itself, this is gripping reading. You’ll be wondering quite which of the protagonists were telling the truth up until the end. The disorderly streets of London itself are so vividly drawn, they’re almost another character. A great evocation of a woman, a place, and a time.
And this one is an evocation of a place, a time and a whole ship full of women. Sian Rees tells the story of the Lady Julian, one of the first ships to carry a cargo of female convicts to Australia. As she begins, we’re once again in eighteenth-century London and once again dealing with lawbreakers. However, the vast majority of these women are in a lower rank of society to Margaret Caroline Rudd, and most of them seem to the modern eye to be much more deserving of sympathy.
One unfortunate girl falls asleep in a privy and has no good explanation of how she got there. Another is in possession of a silver spoon, but says that it fell off the back of a dust cart. Then there are a couple of teenage prostitutes and their minder who robbed a man of a wheel of cheese, and a farmer’s daughter who ran away with an officer, and was then deserted by him and accused of theft by her landlady.
All of them and many more go through the rough justice of the Old Bailey, the horrors of Newgate, and are finally decanted onto the Lady Julian for a voyage which takes in South America and Cape Town before reaching its destination, a desperately struggling young colony which was hoping for provisions rather than city-bred females. But the story doesn’t end there, as Sian Rees goes on to tell the strange story of one of the sailors who promised to return for his convict sweetheart, and how he didn’t quite keep his promise.
Sian Rees is even-handed rather than judgmental when talking about the women and the crew of the Lady Julian, though she is rightfully scathing about the conditions aboard other convict transports, and about the mismanagement which greeted them on their arrival. Also, she is one of the few writers who manages to make events on board ship entirely understandable to people who, like me, have only ever been on a Channel ferry. Recommended.
1. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
And here it is, my favourite non-fiction historical book of all time. I read this first when I was fourteen and it made a huge impression on me, and I’ve re-read it regularly ever since. The book concentrates on France and England, but, like the medievals themselves, it isn’t afraid to set out to the Holy Land or to the world of the Ottoman Turks. It’s a tumultuous ride through the vast and contradictory landscape of the years from 1300 to 1450, taking in everything from the Romance of the Rose to the Dance of Death, from cathedrals to crusades, from good kings to bad kings to megalomaniac kings to kings who believed themselves to be made of glass.
Scholarship has moved on since Barbara Tuchman wrote this book, but it still stands as a great achievement. If you want to know what medieval people ate and drank, what they quarreled about, how they brought up their children, this book is there to show you, but there are no simple answers. Rich villagers lived cheek by jowl with poor villagers, rich monks were visited by the same reforming churchmen as poor monks, and grandees who owned lands from Portugal to Serbia rode alongside poor knights who could barely afford a horse.
What I love about A Distant Mirror is that while it does justice to the major figures, it also shines a light on the lesser-known – not just Joan of Arc, but also the sea-captain Enguerrand Ringois, living at the dawn of what it meant to be French but sure that being French was worth dying for. Not just Edward III, but his cousin Charles of Navarre, hopping around Europe scheming and plotting like a demented Miles Vorkosigan. Not just the Black Prince, but the mercenary captains who he dined and drank with, who were willing to threaten the life of a Pope but who also worried about their immortal souls.
Also, after you have read this book, you will have a minor superpower: if people at parties keep telling you in great detail about things you don’t care about and patronising you about how much more they know than you, you can stun them into silence and make a swift getaway by telling them all about the Papal Schism.
Honourable mention: I couldn’t let this chance go by without mentioning Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe: Words of Wisdom from the Golden Age of Agony Aunts by Tanith Carey. I’m not sure it wholly counts as nonfiction, but it’s definitely historical: a joyous romp through the last century in blunt, flowery, and occasionally utterly incomprehensible words of agony aunts.
I hope you enjoyed this journey through my bookshelves! Many thanks to Melanie for letting me ramble on.
No worries! Thanks for such a great post! Ankaret currently has two books out in her science fiction with a twist ‘Requite’ series: The Maker’s Mask and The Hawkwood War and is about to release Firebrand, which is a steampunk adventure and looks VERY exciting indeed.