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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - CONTENTS -

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

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