Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought Us Back from the Brink by Anthony McCarten Viking, 336 pages, £8.99
Accompanying a major new film, this is a smoothly written account focusing on the dramatic early weeks of Churchill’s premiership.
The first 40 per cent is a potted biography, offering familiar generalities (“Winston was foremost a Victorian”) and incontrovertible facts (“He was also an aristocrat”).
The book centres on the author’s conviction that Churchill “seriously entertained the prospect of a peace deal with Hitler”. McCarten writes that he is “aware that this is an unpopular view, and one that puts me at odds with almost all the historians far moore immersed in this period of historyh thanhan I can claim to be”.
Nevertheless, heh believees we should make morre of Chuurchill’s willingness too listen tot peace proposals. Rather than interpret thiis as Churchill playingg for time, attempting to outmanoeuvre caabinet colleagues at a mooment when his own position was insecure, MccCarten believes we shoulds admit that Churcchill wavered. If we doo, we cann then admire his abilitya to have doubts annd subsequently make thhe right decision – “the markm of a true leader”.
But this is danccing on a pinhead; it mighht make for a dramatic filmm, but itt doesn’t purposefuully aug-ment the historiccal recordd as there’s not an ounce of new evidence. It conflates what Churchill said, and allowed others to think and do, with what he actually thought, and intended to do. It overlooks his confidence in Britain’s capacity to avoid defeat, and to win if America came in.
Churchill believed Britain should fight on, and understood that even inquiring about peace terms would be catastrophic for morale. But he also knew that his position was assailable, and that if he was replaced, those prepared to do a deal would likely come to power. So he had to finesse what he said, keep Chamberlain and Halifax onside, and in the end managed to outmanoeuvre the would-be peace-seekers by going to the full cabinet.
A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray Oneworld, 288 pages, £9.99
Thomas Carlyle once said: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” He got it wrong, as Jenni Murray illustrates in this fascinating book. Her interest is in women who fought prejudice and succeeded, despite their background and gender.
We find a rich assortment of figures, including queens, writers, scientists, artists and politicians. Each woman’s story is told warts and all.
Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, argued that it was not nature but culture that rendered women “weak and feeble”. Although she stated that womenn should strive for equaequality, WWollstonecraft herself attemmpted suicide when rejecteed by her womanising lover.
Elsewherre, Murray accounts how the noovelist Fanny Burney becaame thee first woman to writee abouut her own breast canccer andd harrowing mastectommy, before going on to livee a longg life, demonstrating cancer caan be survived.
WWe aree also reminded that thee suffraagist Millicent Garrettt Fawceett was a passionate belieever in the British empire and a severre opponent of Home Rulee for Ireeland and independencee for India. We learn, too, that the forrmidable Barbara Casttle alwways insisted on being ssmartlly dressed. She once whippped a fresh dress out of a smaall suitccase, telling Murray: “TTricel, llove, marvellous stuff.. Shove it in your bag, shakke it out, no ironing.”
Although aimed at a young audience, this entertaining book will be enjoyed by women of all ages.
Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba Orion, 496 pages, £9.99
Anne Sebba’s new book is a thoroughly researched, readable history from the perspective of women living in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris. It tells the stories of around 100 “not so ordinary women”, who survived war, hardship, resistance and, sometimes, deportation.
Sebba approaches difficult subjects with tact, empathising with the motivations of women on all sides, including collaborators. The strongest section describes Ravensbrück concentration camp, where many of the book’s heroines were deported, allowing Sebba to draw their stories together. She then follows the survivors back to postwar Paris, charting their efforts to create support networks in the face of grief and lack of public understanding.
Sebba’s style is conventional, reproducing stereotyped visions of Paris, and often neglecting working-class experience in favour of high society glamour. Nonetheless, her original research, and highlighting of so many interesting stories, make this a valuable work.
WinstonChurchillWinstonChurchill with Neville Chamberlain in c1939