Show me both the wood and the trees!
From spies to statesmen, the year’s best histories balanced dizzying scope with telling detail, says Simon Heffer
erhaps the most improving history published this year was the great scholar Keith Thomas’s fascinating
(Yale, £25). It tells how, between 1530 and 1789, the English well-to-do developed a code of behaviour, necessary not least because of the aristocracy’s readiness to kill each other when in receipt of a slight. Thomas leaves no aspect of this process of refinement unexplored: “In 1661, a cookery book specified that one should not put more than two fingers and a thumb on a joint when carving; by 1670, it was said that ‘the neatest carvers’ never touched the joint at all, save with a knife and fork.”
Also outstanding is Ruby Lal’s
(WW Norton, £19.99), the story of the first and only female ruler of the Mughal Empire. As well as being a crack shot – she once dispatched four tigers with just six shots – Nur Jahan, perhaps more remarkably for 17th-century India, navigated “the labyrinth of feudal courtly politics and the male-centred culture of the Mughal world”. It is the perfect curtain-raiser to David Gilmour’s heavyweight (in every sense) (Allen Lane, £30), which starts with the granting of the East India Company’s charter in 1600 and ends with the hippy invasion in the Sixties.
Diarmaid MacCulloch’s (Allen Lane, £30) chronicles the life of a man who helped effect the Reformation for Henry VIII before ending, in the traditional way, on Tower Hill. His was not a charming end, though as the author notes “even botched beheadings are soon over”.
(Weidenfeld, £25), Antonia Fraser recounts the saga of the emancipation of British Catholics, who finally achieved equal civil rights in 1829. Hitherto Catholicism had, since the Reformation, been considered “a form of national treachery”, with Catholics blamed for the Great Fire of London.
So much British history is London-centric but TM Devine, probably the foremost historian of Scotland, challenges that. In
(Allen Lane, £25) he shows how the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century failed to prevent the mistreatment of Highlanders evicted in favour of a “rational” use of land – worse than anything happening in
Ireland at the time. The reader is left wondering how a full-scale revolt was avoided.
This was a year of important centenaries. That of the Armistice is detailed in Guy Cuthbertson’s
(Yale, £18.99), which covers the day itself, including AJP Taylor’s observation that complete strangers were seen in London “copulating in shop doorways, celebrating, as it were, the triumph of life over death”.
Richard Overy notes another crucial event in
(Allen Lane, £14.99), writing that “the RAF was created out of bitter arguments over its necessity, and for half a decade after 1918 the future of the RAF as an independent service, separate from the Army and Navy, hung by a thread.”
July was the centenary of the murders of the Tsar and his family in a cellar in Yekaterinburg by the Bolsheviks. In
(Hutchinson, £25), Helen Rappaport correctly ticks off George V for refusing to give them asylum – “it was fear of inflaming the radical Left-wing sentiment for the revolution and against the Imperial Family that was gathering ground in Britain” that drove him – but concludes that under no circumstances would the Romanovs have been allowed to leave Russia in any case.
Not long after the Great War, in 1924, Britain had its first Labour government, whose downfall after only eight months was assisted by a letter claiming a link between Leninist Russia and British socialism, which Gill Bennett, in her
(OUP, £25), concludes persuasively was a forgery. The story of espionage receives its definitive treatment in Christopher Andrew’s
(Allen Lane, £35), which starts with Biblical times, then concentrates on European and American spying up to the present.
An immaculately researched case study of the world’s secondoldest profession comes in
(William Collins, £20),
Svetlana Lokhova’s superb account of a Soviet spy-ring operating in the Thirties at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, trying (successfully) to close the superpower technology gap. Also revelatory is
(OUP, £20), Nadine Akkerman’s history of female spies in 17th-century Britain, a time of civil wars and revolutions. “While they began as mere couriers,” Akkerman writes, “carrying secret messages in their hair or between the many layers of clothing they wore, women were soon taking the quill in hand and writing those letters themselves.” If caught, the women were treated more leniently than were the male spies – unless it was decided that they were also witches.
The before, during and after of the Second World War moved, as usual, a great number of historians to take up their pens. Benjamin Carter Hett’s
(Heinemann, £20) The poet’s letters to his family (chiefly, to his mother Eva) paint a vividly enjoyable picture of chilly houses, disgusting food and his own tender side. (Faber) examines Hitler’s rise to power by asking why the Weimar Republic fell. His answer is straightforward: “The Nazis took over the Protestant middle-class camp” because “German Protestants had theological and political reasons to dislike the Weimar Republic”.
(Viking, £25), Antony Beevor gives a day-by-day chronicle of this serious setback for the Allies. Beevor broadly agrees with Churchill, who told the
In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilisation in Early Modern England Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan The British in India Thomas Cromwell: A Life The King and the Catholics Scottish Clearances Peace at Last RAF, 1918 The The Birth of the The Race to Save the Romanovs The Zinoviev Letter: The Conspiracy that Never Dies The Secret World: A History of Intelligence The Spy who Changed History Invisible Agents Democracy by Philip Larkin The Death of Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944
The concluding novel in Cusk’s trilogy about Faye, a surrogate for herself, is delivered in her customary vodka-clear prose, with a hint of artifice. (Faber)
by Rachel Cusk