BBC History Magazine - - Books / Paperbacks - Ash­ley Jack­son is pro­fes­sor of im­pe­rial and mil­i­tary his­tory at King’s Col­lege Lon­don and the au­thor of Churchill (2011) June Purvis is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Portsmouth and au­thor of Em­me­line Pankhurst: A bi­og­ra­phy (2002), and Christa­bel

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

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