Category Archives: History

Screening History: "The White Princess" (2017)

Warning: Some spoilers for the series follow.

When I first watched The White Princess (which I, unfortunately, didn’t finish the first time around), I was a little underwhelmed by Jodie Comer’s performance. However, having seen her in Killing Eve (where she is nothing short of brilliant), I thought I’d see if the series merited another try.

I wasn’t disappointed.

This miniseries focuses on Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter Lizzie who, despite her love for the dead Yorkist king Richard III, must instead marry the man who defeated him on the battlefield at Bosworth. As the series continues, she finds herself in two directions, as she must decide whether she will throw in her lot with her husband and their growing family or whether she will side instead with her mother and the remaining Yorkist affinity. In the end, she must make a terrible decision that truly shatters her heart, even as it finally means that she and her family can have peace.

One of the first things to note is that it’s an almost entirely different cast than its predecessor. With one exception–as the Duchess Cecily–there are no repeats from The White Princess. At first this is a little distracting, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made that they would go with older people. In fact, one of the drawbacks of The White Queen was that, as the years passed within the narrative, it got less and less believable to see these characters not at all looking their diegetic ages.

Further, The White Princess definitely benefits from having an older cast. Michelle Fairley’s Margaret Beaufot strides through her scenes with a steely, austere grace very different than that she brought to the role of Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones. Essie Davis is similarly great as an aging Elizabeth Woodville, a woman who remains so committed to her loyalty to the York cause that she’s willing to put her own daughter’s life at risk for it. And, upon rewatch, I am amazed at how well Comer does with this role, amply showing Elizabeth’s transformation from naïve young woman to ruthless politician.

Though some might dismiss The White Princess as something of an epilogue to the story recounted in The White Queen, but that sells the story far too short. For one thing, the series manages to avoid the shortcomings of the book, which basically amounted to Elizabeth striding around her various palaces while Henry goes off and fights against the risings and usurpers. Here, we get multiple points of view, ranging from Elizabeth’s scheming from her prison at Bermondsey, the Duchess Margaret of Burgundy’s lending her support to various potential usurpers, or Lizzie’s own struggles to reconcile the feuding factions of her family. The series is well-written enough, and the acting strong enough, that it helps to support some of the rather questionable historical choices (more on that in a moment).

If that earlier series was about two women fighting for each of their children to inherit the throne, this one is about what happens when the battle is done and a victor has emerged. How does one go about rebuilding a kingdom that has been in the midst of a civil war that has torn apart both the royal family and the land itself? For that matter, how do those who are supposed to be doing the crucial work do so when there are those who refuse to move on from the past? In this case, the success of the dynasty depends, not on the past and all of its recriminations, but on the ability of the new king and queen to bind up the wounds that separate them and, ultimately, to put their parents firmly in the background.

Chief among these are the two mothers. While it was easy to identify with Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen, her scheming starts to wear very thin by about the midpoint of this series, precisely because it endangers her daughter and her grandson. Davis does a lot with the role, but it does get frustrating to watch Elizabeth try to strong-arm Lizzie into surrendering her throne to her brother. That being said, there is a genuine connection between Davis and Comer.

On the flip side of the coin, Margaret is still haunted by her ordering of the murder of the Princes in the Tower (an argument that the books make that I find incredibly implausible). This ultimately leads to her estrangement from Henry and yet, oddly enough, also leads her to grow closer–in spirit if not in fact–to Lizzie, who must also make terrible choices regarding the safety and well-being of her children.

All in all, The White Princess is significantly stronger than The White Queen. Because the performances are so much more uniform than in its predecessor, it’s significantly easier to feel more involved and invested in them, rather than growing annoyed with adolescents storming about and arguing with one another. There are moments of genuine pathos, such as when Teddy, Earl of Warwick is executed, and the chemistry between Henry (Jacob Collins-Levy, infinitely better than Max Irons at portraying royalty) and Elizabeth is genuine, and it’s easy to grow involved in their romance.

If I have a complaint about the series, it’s the same that I have with the book. I just find it strains credulity to think that Perkin Warbeck was actually the lost Prince Richard. I tend to believe that he was who he confessed to be, a son of a boatmaker in Tournai, and that the man who was executed at Tyburn was Perkin and not a changeling (in the series, he is swapped out and the real Richard is given a royal execution by sword while Lizzie watches). Even more incredibly, Margaret of Burgundy actually sets up shop in London to continue plotting against Henry. It strains credulity to think that a duchess a.) would put herself at risk this way and b.) would go so long undiscovered.

Those gripes aside, I truly did enjoy The White Princess, and I cannot wait to begin its successor The Spanish Princess. Stay tuned!

Screening History: "The White Queen" (2013)

When I first watched The White Queen way back in 2013, I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a fan. While I love costume dramas, there just seemed to be something missing from this one, which seemed oddly bloodless compared to Showtime’s The Tudors. However, having recently finished The Crown and feeling myself in need of some royal soap opera, I decided to turn back to it.

I’m glad I did.

The series definitely benefits from a re-watch. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a truly great series, either as a costume drama or as simply drama, it does its job well. It has characters that are easy to either care about or hate (Rebecca Ferguson and Amanda Hale are particularly fine). The story, while uneven, is compelling. And it has some gorgeous scenery and costumes to look at. The ingredients for a delicious costume drama are all there; they just don’t always hold together well.

The White Queen begins when Elizabeth Woodville (Rivers), daughter of a Lancastrian supporter, puts herself and her two sons in the pathway of the victorious Edward IV (Max Irons). After she meets him, the two find that they fall in love, marry, and ultimately raise a fine brood of children. Unfortunately, all of this unfolds against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, which leads, inevitably, to violence, bloodshed, and heartbreak.

While the story begins with Elizabeth, her tale is also interwoven with two other powerful women with their own dynastic ambitions: Anne Neville, daughter of the Kingmaker Richard Neville, and Margaret Beaufort, a scion of the Lancastrians who, driven by what she believes to be God’s will, does everything in her power to ensure that her young son Henry Tudor ascends to the throne as the last viable Lancastrian heir.

There’s no question that The White Queen succeeds when it focuses almost exclusively on these female characters (which is fitting, since that is precisely why Gregory wrote the books in the way that she did). Rebecca Ferguson is captivating as Woodville, ably conveying both her iron will and her vulnerability and her passion. Amanda Hale is her opposite number, and she really brings out the religious zealot part of Margaret’s character. I was also pleasantly surprised how well Fay Marsay did as Anne Neville, bringing to the character a steely ruthlessness that one doesn’t always associated with this queen. Between the three of them, these three women make the show, and it’s worth watching just for them alone.

The men are an altogether more mixed back, particularly Max Irons. He’s pretty enough, but he just doesn’t have the weight or the charisma to play a king like Edward IV, and his shortcomings are all the more glaring when he’s shown with Ferguson. That being said, the actors portraying both George and Richard (David Oakes and Aneurian Barnard) deserve special mention as standing out. I was particularly impressed with Barnard’s rather sensitive portrayal of Richard, arguably the most vilified of any English king. And, of course, credit must be given to James Frain, who has truly established himself as uniquely able to bring to life villainous yet oddly compelling villains (he is also known for his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors and Franklin Mott in True Blood).

The writing and plot are at times quite uneven, and the series only really seems to find its footing after the halfway point. Part of this stems from the fact that Edward dies, and so the drama benefits from no longer being distracted by how bad Max Irons is. Strangely enough, I think that the series would have benefited from having two half seasons rather than a single season often. The time jumps seem very contrived for the most part, and since the characters aren’t seen to age. The bigger problem is that these time jumps also short-circuit character development, so that we don’t really get to see the most important characters changing over time.

The White Queen also suffers from a very limited budget. This is far more noticeable in the few battle scenes, which feel very paltry in comparison to the lushness of the interior scenes and the costumes. In fact, as I watched the series I had to wonder why they didn’t simply jettison them altogether, or at the least choose one to focus on. As it is, the only battlefield death that has even a modicum of emotional impact is Richard’s at Bosworth, though even that is rather undercut by the choppy editing. Nevertheless, there is something powerful about the image of Margaret standing triumphant on the battlefield with her son, her years of scheming and manipulating and bloodshed having finally born fruit.

All in all, The White Queen is a very serviceable costume drama. While it doesn’t quite reach what I feel to be the stellar quality of The Tudors (which it clearly takes for a model) nor the grittiness of Game of Thrones (with which it was clearly designed to compete), it still deserves praise for its attempt. Like Gregory’s novels, the series shows us the substantial role that women have in the making of history. While history books might be full of the great battles between men, with all of their blood and “glory” and “heroism,” in reality it is in the drawing rooms and bedchambers that the fates of nations are decided. In that sense, it’s actually rather a good thing that the series chose to forsake the conventions of the epic–with its grand vistas, its cluttered battlefields, its daring acts of bravery–to focus instead on the power of the domestic.

In the future, I plan to watch both The White Princess, which chronicles the courtship and reign of Elizabeth of York (Woodville’s daughter, played by the inimitable Judy Comer), as well as the Spanish Princess, about the youthful exploits of the woman who would go down in history as one of the two most famous of Henry VIII’s wives, Katherine of Aragon.

Reading History: "The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors" (by Dan Jones)

Having finished Dan Jones’s magisterial history The Plantagenets, I decided to dive right in to the follow-up The Wars of the Roses, in which he documents the civil war that fatally undermined the Plantagenet dynasty and led to their final destruction and their supplanting by the upstart House of Tudor, in the person of Henry VII.

The Wars of the Roses is even more fast-paced than The Plantagenets. Some authors might have erred on the side of detail, immersing us in the byzantine connections among the various players, as well as the numerous battles, skirmishes, and plots that characterized this seemingly interminable conflict. Instead, Jones remains laser-focused on the key players, including and especially the kings Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, Richard II, and Henry VII. In doing so, he allows us to keep a firm grasp of how the conflict unfolded, and how each of the players had their own key part to play as it gradually consumed both of the cadet houses of Lancaster and York.

Jones sets the scene by showing how the success of Henry V in securing the inheritance of France for his son ultimately sowed the seeds for his son’s downfall. For, holy as he may have been, Henry VI simply was not a king capable of handling the enormous burdens placed on him by the time. Gradually, as the realm slipped beyond his grasp, he was confronted by his own rebellious nobles, including notably his cousin Richard, Duke of York. Jones makes no secret of his dislike of Richard, who was a bit too full of himself and prone to showing off.

As arrogant as Richard was, however, this wouldn’t have mattered if Henry VI had been a stronger king and if the Crown as an institution hadn’t been deeply damaged by his grandfather’s seizing of it from Richard II. Throughout the conflict that followed, ruler after ruler thought that they had a better right to it than its current occupant. For Jones, this extends to Richard III, arguably one of the most complicated figures in the entire saga. Jones is fairly judicious in his approach to this very divisive historical figure and, while he ultimately concludes that Richard almost certainly ordered the murder of his nephews (the infamous Princes in the Tower), he also takes pains to demonstrate that Richard was an able king, one who met his death at Bosworth bravely (and who came within a hairsbreadth of defeating Henry).

Jones is clearly no fan of the Tudors, and there’s good reason for that. It would have been difficult for anyone at the time–except perhaps for his mother, Margaret, one of the canniest survivors of her age–to imagine that Henry Tudor would ascend to the throne. However, as Jones demonstrates, he was able to do so precisely because the country had become destabilized enough to render it possible.

Furthermore, Jones makes the wise decision to show us the effects of the Wars after their supposed end with the victory of Henry Tudor at Bosworth. For, as Jones shows us, this wasn’t the end of the dynastic squabbling, not by a long shot. In fact, it would continue right up until the botched execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, Henry’s second cousin and one of the last members of the old dynasty. Those who occupy a stolen throne, it seems, are doomed to always feel unsteady upon it (or, to put it another way, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown).

Though there are many theories as to the ultimate cause and effect of the Wars of the Roses, Jones capably demonstrates that its principal cause was the fact that Henry VI was a weak and ineffectual king, totally incapable of binding together a realm that had already endured a significant amount of stress, still less of managing the numerous feuds that plagued the great families. The ultimate effect of these feuds was to damage, almost beyond repair, the idea of the Crown as an institution. No longer could it be guaranteed that it would be passed down in legitimate line; instead, it could be snatched by any warrior or rebel who thought that he had a better right to it than the current occupant.

All in all, I truly enjoyed this foray into one of England’s darkest yet most fascinating periods. Full of rich detail, breathless narrative storytelling, and perceptive historical insight, The Wars of the Roses is the best kind of popular history.

Reading History: "The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England"(by Dan Jones)

I’ve long been a fan of popular history. Maybe it’s my love of narrative that makes this genre so appealing to me, or maybe it’s just the fact that we happen to be living in a period in which this form of history writing is flourishing both within the United States and the UK, but whatever the case, I’m glad that we are living in such a time and that we have historians like Dan Jones.

In my view, there are few popular British historians who can match Dan Jones for sheer writing ability. As soon as I started reading this book, I found myself caught up in the sweep of events as we make our way from the disastrous sinking of the White Ship and the death of King Henry I’s only son to the similarly disastrous reign of King Richard II and his eventual deposition at the hands of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (who took the name Henry IV).

Jones brings to life the tumultuous period of the Middle Ages, in which giant figures of the Plantagenet strode across the stage of history. These range from Henry II, arguably one of England’s most successful monarchs to such disasters as Edward II, whose reliance on his favorites ultimately led to his deposition by his own wife and her lover. These were monarchs who were grand and ambitious, and who wanted (and sometimes succeeded in) creating a vast empire that often encompassed significant portions of France.

However, in Jones’s telling, the saga of the Plantagenets is a tale of fortune’s wheel, which matches the rises of a great dynasty with similarly spectacular falls into ignominy. It’s also a tale of not only of individual monarchs but of the institution of the Crown itself. As he ably demonstrates, the medieval world was one in which a great deal indeed relied upon the person of the king being someone who could hold his realm together, someone who could steer the ship of state through both the good times and the bad. Some rulers did this superbly well, while others, often for reasons that weren’t entirely within their control, did not.

While, of course, Jones’s primary focus is on the personalities of the kings and queens of the dynasty, he has a keen eye for the sorts of detail of social and cultural forces that led to both the successes and failures of the Plantagenet monarchs. These range from the influence of foreign powers–most notably France and Scotland–to traumatic events such as the Black Death, which played a key role in reorganizing medieval English society. While these events and figures are often in the background rather than a focus, they still are an essential piece of understanding this dynasty’s successes and failures.

Just as importantly, Jones is very adept with description. Reading The Plantagenets, one can almost feel the terror of battle, hear the screams of those sentenced to a traitor’s death, the deafening clamor of medieval warfare, and the pomp and majesty of a coronation. Though it’s become rather a cliche to say that a book makes you feel as if you were actually there, in Jones’s case it isn’t very far from the truth.

As with his several other books, Jones also has a keen sense of narrative momentum. There was never a moment where I felt bored or felt like I was being dragged through all sorts of detail (much as I love the work of another prominent British historian, Alison Weir, she tends to lean too heavily on material details for my taste). Indeed, for such a large book, I’m still rather surprised by how quickly I tore through it, so engrossed was I in its narrative propulsion. Jones knows how to sift through the myriad details of the medieval period and to show us those that are the most germane.

It takes a rare talent to make the medieval period–in many ways so different from the Renaissance that succeeded it–come to life for modern readers. Fortunately for us, Dan Jones has done exactly that, and The Plantagenets is all that narrative history should be and more.

I’ve already finished the sequel volume, The Wars of the Roses, so stay tuned for my review!

Screening History: "The Crown" (Season 3)

Anyone who knows me even passingly well knows that I have been in love with Netflix’s The Crown from the moment that it premiered. Part of this stems from my own avowed monarchical tendencies and my fascination with the institution, but another comes from the stars chosen to play the characters, the writing, and the sumptuous costume and set design. I’ve thus been waiting impatiently for the day when the third season would at last see the light of day and now, having finished the entire third season, I’m ready to share some of my thoughts about it.

To start with the most obvious: the aging up of the characters. There still seems to be a great deal of disagreement among the series’ fans whether this was a good move or not and whether it might not have been better to simply keep the cast and age them artificially. While it did take some getting used to, I found that as the series progressed I grew more and more used to Colman and company as the Royal Family, until it was hard for me to remember that there had been other people playing these characters. Colman is simply amazing as Elizabeth, a woman verging on middle age who gradually realizes just how much she has sacrificed for the Crown and the country, and the rest of the cast accomplishes something similar. I was particularly pleased with the casting of Josh O’Connor as Charles, who turns in one of the season’s breakout performances.

As fantastic as the central cast is, however, the guest stars are no less resplendent and captivating. While I’m not a huge fan of Edward III/David (given his Nazi sympathies), I have to admit that Derek Jacobi really manages to capture a sense of faded grandeur and exquisite tragedy. On the other end of the spectrum, Charles Dance as Louis Mountbatten threatens to carry off the whole season, since I can think of no one better to play that sort of man, a creature of a bygone world that remains determined to mold this one to his own designs.

Some critics have dinged this season for paying too much attention to the other characters in Elizabeth’s orbit, and there is truth to that argument. Charles at last starts to come into his own, and Philip (as was the case with previous seasons as well) has at least one episode where he’s the focal point. Both father and son have to contend with the fact that their masculinity is going to be perpetually called into question because neither of them is the queen. So long as she lives, they remain subsidiary. While each of them manages to make peace with this phenomenon, the series makes it clear that it isn’t an easy process, that each of them must make sacrifices–some of them quite heart-wrenching–for the good of the Crown.

But to me, that’s precisely the point. The series isn’t called “The Queen”; it’s called “The Crown.” This season, more than the two that preceded it, really explores the effects of that institution on the people who are forced to labor under its aegis. Though this takes its most burdensome toll on Elizabeth, there’s no question that it also has consequences for Philip, Charles and, of course, Margaret. I’ll admit I was a little dubious about casting Helena Bonham Carter, if only because her stardom (at least until before Colman’s Oscar) blazes so much more brightly than anyone else in the cast. However, it ends up being the perfect casting, as she too must confront the reality that it is her elder sister who will always occupy the throne while she, the dazzling personality, must play second fiddle. In the end, she has to shoulder the heavy burden of eternally being aware of her secondary status.

Though it might just be me, I also found that this season was even more emotionally fraught than the previous ones. Time and again, we see the emotional toll that life as a royal takes. There’s a scene near the very end, in which Elizabeth and Margaret are conversing after the latter’s failed suicide attempt. Each of them comes to realize how necessary they are to the other. For Elizabeth, Margaret is the sister that she loves dearly and without whom she cannot imagine living; for Margaret, Elizabeth is not just a sister, she’s the embodiment of the nation. As she reminds her elder sister, she must go on, even when the rest of them cannot. Given that Margaret would eventually predecease her sister, this commentary is both poignant and profound, a reminder of just how rich The Crown’s mythologizing of Elizabeth has been and continues to be.

The third season of The Crown is one of those seasons of television that seems to simply dazzle and sparkle, so well-polished is it. Throughout, Elizabeth emerges as a woman solemnly committed to her duties as a monarch, as a symbol in which her people can invest their emotional and patriotic energies. Say what you will about the institution, but if nothing else it does provide a measure of temporal and political stability even in times of tremendous change.

Speaking of which, there’s a central irony to The Crown that I personally find absolutely fascinating. A key tension has always been the extent to which Elizabeth can ever be truly known as a person, given how much of an iron grip she, and the Palace, have always maintained over her image. In casting stars such as Claire Foya and Colman, the series aims, I would argue, to demystify her a bit, to reveal the human behind the mask. However, in the very act of using stars–even ones as seemingly unglamourous as Colman–to portray these characters, the series actually remystifies them. What’s more, the series is also very self-conscious of the role of popular media, particularly television, and the ways in which they have shaped not only the way that the people understand the royals, but also how the royals understand their subjects, and themselves.

I truly enjoyed this season of The Crown. It feels as if the series has truly begun to mature. While it’s still unclear just how far they intend to extend the timeline–whether, for example, they plan on exploring some of the same territory as Morgan examined with his film The Queen–we still should feel very fortunate that we had four seasons of some of the best royal drama on television.

Reading History: Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands (by Dan Jones)

Dan Jones has established quite the reputation for himself as a purveyor of breathlessly-paced narrative histories. From the Wars of the Roses to the rise and fall of the Plantagenet dynasty, he’s always had the ability to convey important historical information in a way that is engaging, enjoyable, and erudite (the crucial, three “e”s of popular history).

In Crusaders, he’s done it yet again, immersing us in the cutthroat and bloody wars for the Holy Land that occupied so much of the medieval period. This is a saga peopled by some of the titans of the Middle Ages, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, and many others. Some of these figures will be somewhat familiar, particularly to those who have watched the Ridley Scott film Kingdom of Heaven–such as Baldwin, the leper king of Jerusalem–while others will be less so. Regardless of how well-known they are, however, Jones manages to imbue each of them with the rich characterization that we would expect from a novel.

As Jones shows, these were men and women of both piety and politics, who strode across the stage of history in all of their barbarity and beauty. He demonstrates how the power of personality was a driving force of these conflicts, and how thin the margin of victory could be in any particular battle. Time and again, it was the foibles of human nature that led to defeat of the Crusaders and the victory of the Muslim forces that they were determined to expel. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the fact that so much of medieval society was founded on status. Small wonder that men and women often found themselves seduced into believing they were invincible.

Yet, for all that the book focuses a great deal on the Europeans, it also gives attention to the other key players in this drama, particularly the various Muslim dynasties that ruled over both Egypt and Syria and that continued, despite everything and despite their own fractious politics, to fight back against (and ultimately defeat) the Europeans who had invaded their territories. Most noteworthy in this respect is the Kurdish warrior who would become known as Saladin, arguably one of the greatest warriors of the Middle Ages. And, of course, it also focuses a bit on the Byzantines, especially the feisty Anna Komnene, whose accounts of the Crusaders are both wickedly funny and incredibly valuable.

As fascinating as the main narrative is, however, I personally found the bits toward the end to be the most illuminating. Here, Jones demonstrates the extent to which the rhetoric of crusading became increasingly debased as various popes used it to justify their own political aspirations. Here, we see crusading zeal turned against the Cathars in southern France in the form of the notorious Albigensian Crusade, as well as the brutal repression of pagans throughout the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. And, of course, crusading rhetoric was also used as a pretext for the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula through the Reconquista.

Dan Jones has a keen eye for historical detail, and he gives us enough information for us to feel as if we truly have a firm grasp of the broad contours of the Crusades. At the same time, he never loses sight of the thrust of his narrative, so that by the time that you’re finished with the book you’re sort of at a loss as to how it could all have been over so quickly. What’s more, Jones has a voice that’s all his own, though it shares a bit in common with such noted contemporary historians as Mary Beard and Tom Holland (let’s here it for popular British historians!) Throughout the book, you feel like you’re in the hands of a truly knowledgeable guide, and you never get lost.

And, as Jones makes clear, the Crusades are very much still with us, continuing to inflect the ways in which the conflict between the West and the East continues to play out. Reading Crusaders, it’s hard not to feel discouraged about the rivers of blood that have been shed in the pursuit of religious war, if only because the problem seems as intractable as ever. History, it seems, is doomed to repeat itself.

Reading History: “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (by Daniel Immerwahr)

It’s become commonplace in certain circles–particularly the academy–to point out that, throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries America has practiced a form of imperialism, exporting its ideas and way of life throughout the globe, often at the point of a sword (or, more accurately, the barrel of a gun). There is, of course, a great deal of truth to the idea that the United States exerts a substantial influence on the world via ideas and military intervention rather than traditional colonialism. However, as Daniel Immerwahr argues in his new book How to Hide and Empire: A History of the Greater United States, far too little attention has been paid to the territorial possessions that this country has accrued throughout its existence, and his book sets out to correct that.

I’ve long been a fan of popular history. Don’t get me wrong, as a scholar and aspiring academic I definitely still see the value of academic history written for and published by university presses. However, there’s a certain vitality about history intended for mainstream audiences that you don’t (often) find in books written by and for academic audiences and researchers. Fortunately for those of us who devour such things, Immerwahr (a trained history and associate professor of history at Northwestern) manages to combine scholarly rigour with an eye for engaging storytelling.

Thus, How to Hide an Empire is compulsively readable, not just because its subject matter is still so tremendously pertinent, but also because Immerwahr has a strong grasp of both narrative pacing and language. He moves at a breakneck speed through the history of American colonization, yet he also manages to drill down into the details of such far-flung territories as Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico (as well as those territories, such as Oklahoma, Alaska, and Hawai’i that ultimately became states). It also details how, in the decades after the Second World War, the U.S. relied more on technology, transportation, and culture to exert its imperial influence on the world.

One of the book’s great strengths is its emphasis on the ways in which the United States, despite its protestations to the contrary, has from its very beginnings been a territorial empire. Indeed, this “greater United States” (as Immerwahr calls it) was often key to the national interest, whether that was militarily (both Alaska and Hawai’i were, after all, very close to Japan), cultural, or social. In doing so, he also points out how long-lasting these territorial acquisitions were, and he reveals some aspects of the colonial story that many Americans have forgotten. I daresay that, if I were to ask a dozen random strangers whether they knew that the Philippines had been a part of the United States for much of the 20th Century, they would say no. Indeed, as Immerwahr points out again and again, those living in the mainland remain startlingly (one might even say frighteningly) ignorant not just of the fact of U.S. empire, but also of the gruesome atrocities that were being committed on American soil.

How to Hide an Empire peels away the self-mythologizing that Americans so consistently engage in to convince themselves that the U.S. is unlike all of those other countries that conquered so much of the globe in the 19th Century. It forces us to confront the ugly realities of American territorial violence, while also paying attention to the ways in which those living in those territories have fought back against their oppression. Though they did not always succeed in their ambitions, they nevertheless reminded the powers that be on the mainland that they were not to be idly used and abused by their colonial overlords.

The book also points out the fundamental injustices that still characterize the mainland’s relationship with its territories. Those living in those places may (in most cases, except for American Samoa) be United States citizens, but they are denied the right to congressional representation or to vote for president. To my mind, the fact that these injustices continue to go on without people on the mainland taking to the streets in protest, tells you all you need to know about how terrible this system remains.

How to Hide an Empire is necessary reading for anyone who wants to learn about the ways in which the United States has always been an empire, even as it has so completely convinced its own citizens that it isn’t.

Reading History: “A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin” (by Simon Jenkins)

Every so often you find a book that is quite upfront about what it is and what it isn’t, and such is Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin. Beginning with ancient Greece and going from there, Jenkins provides a magisterial overview of several thousand years of European history. It’s a bit of a greatest hits of the past 3,000 years of history, ranging over the great convulsions that have rocked the continent almost from the beginning of its existence.

The early parts of the book are a bit too reductive for my tastes, and I would say that the book really doesn’t hit its stride until he moves out of antiquity and into the medieval, Renaissance, and modern periods. There, he starts to provide what I view to be actual historical analysis rather than repetition of the traditional narratives about both antiquity and late antiquity. Once we get into the more recent centuries, we begin to see how the conflicts that roiled these centuries set the stage for what was to come later.

As Jenkins makes clear, Europe has always struggled with two competing impulses: the desire to forge a collective identity and the equally powerful drive to seek self-determination for its constituent parts. Just as importantly, Jenkins points out that Europe’s other continual struggle has been against the impulse to barbarism and warfare. Again and again, Europe has been convulsed by armed conflicts that have left hundreds of thousands of dead. One would think that this would provide an imperative for the various nations to find some way of preventing such conflict, but such peace has proved elusive.

As a result of this deep history, Jenkins allows us to see the reasons for the current struggles and upheaval afflicting the European Union. I would go so far as to suggest that it is this contextualization that is the book’s primary contribution to an understanding of European history. One senses that his own ambivalence about the EU might be coloring some of his conclusions–and some of his analysis–but as a whole I find his diagnosis of the problem (if not his solutions) convincing.

I do have a few quibbles with the book. While Jenkins makes it clear from the beginning that most of the figures he discusses will be men–presumably because most of the most important figures in European history have been male. I find this to be a rather disingenuous argument, and it runs the serious risk of marginalizing those figures who have actually been far more influential than Jenkins seems to give them credit for.

All in all, A Short History of Europe is a useful guide for those who may not have much of a knowledge of European history and want to understand how it is that the entity that we know came into being. It also helps us to understand why it is that Europe continues to be such a draw for so many people around the world, a continent characterized by its utopian desires and the concomitant inability of those desire to be fulfilled.

Reading History: “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mid of America” (by Greg Grandin)

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley for providing me an ARC in return for an honest review.

Every so often you read a piece of history that is blistering, refreshing, and utterly compelling. Such is historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. This book explores the ways in which the frontier as a concept, a myth, and an ideology has remained central to how America has conceived of itself and how, in the latter part of the 20th and the early 21st Centuries, the myth has at last begun to collapse upon itself.

The End of the Myth is roughly chronological, starting with the American Revolution (when the frontier was basically the Appalachians) and moving into such epochal events as the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War II, and the recent financial crisis. He has a keen eye for detail and an ability to parse primary texts to expose the assumptions undergirding ideologies. Indeed, so sharp is his close reading ability that I almost felt at times like I was reading a trained English professor (which, coming from me, is quite the compliment).

Two figures loom large in his analysis: Andrew Jackson and Frederick Jackson. The former was the first populist president, a man who based his “egalitarian” vision on the brutal exploitation and oppression of people of color and Native Americans. The latter was, arguably, one of the most influential historians of an era, one whose theorization of the frontier provided a set of parameters within which any discussion of this concept must take place.

As Grandin points out throughout the book, the frontier has, from the beginning, symbolized the political aspirations of the United States. That is to say, it has served a multitude of purposes: as a safety valve, as the engine of empire, as a means of social control. So long as there was a frontier, the inner problems facing American politics–white supremacy and all of its ugliness foremost among them–could be projected outward. Those toxic, destructive energies could be used to expand the boundaries of the nation, while simultaneously serving the needs of those in power.

Beyond the realities of the political, however, the frontier has also served as a unifying me The frontier, and the promise of infinity that it represents, allowed Americans to believe that they were immune to the cyclical nature of history, with its rise and fall of empires. The frontier promised perpetual growth. Because of the frontier, America could convince itself that it existed outside time itself, a fantasy that would inevitably come crashing down into ruin as the realities of the limitations of the frontier became more and more obvious as the 19th and 20th Centuries progressed.

As Grandin explains, now that the frontier has utterly closed, the very energies that it was meant to channel have redounded upon the country. In the wake of globalization, endless wars in the Middle East, and the financial meltdown of 2008, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. The social unrest and problems that have always existed at the heart of America’s accomplishments–and which were, to an extent, deflected by the frontier–have now burst into the open. The wall, with all of its ugly rhetoric and racist overtones, is the ultimate physical symbol of the closing of the frontier.

Grandin pulls no punches in what he sees as the political ramifications of the frontier myth and its demise in the 21st Century. Sometimes, in fact, I found his political claims (and investments) overshadowing his historical consciousness, particularly in his analysis of the Clinton and Obama years (admittedly, this may be because of my own political investments). Nevertheless, I do think that there is a danger in allowing one’s political investments to so transparently mold the perspective one takes on events.

Despite that, this is the sort of bracing, politically-engaged history that is like a breath of fresh air. Grandin tears away the air of obfuscation that allows so many (particularly white) people to believe that the frontier is some sort of infinitely tappable resource that can be exploited at will. Just as importantly, Grandin suggests that, if we want to create a more just and equitable country, we must confront the very ugly and violent parts of our collective past. Only by confronting our original sins can we move forward into a hopefully bright future.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Anastasia” (1956)

I’ve always had a fascination with the legend of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of the doomed Nicholas and Alexandra who was rumoured, for much of the 20th Century, to have survived the massacre that struck her family. Before there was the exquisite Anastasia of animated fame, there was the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

The film is a briskly paced drama. While this was not quite what I was expecting–given the grandiosity of the subject matter–it works well for the film, rendering it more of a character study than the epic one might expect to tell the story of one of the most famous royals of the 20th Century. Though there are a few scenes that contain the extravagance one might expect from a period drama, for the most part the tension is between the three principal characters: General Bounine (Brynner), Anna Koref (Bergman), and the Dowager Empress Marie (Helen Hayes).

All three characters have an investment in maintaining the fiction that Anna really is the long-lost Anastasia. For Bounine, it’s the chance to make a great deal of money, while for Anna herself it is a means of recovering an identity that she may in fact have never had. And of course for the Dowager, it represents an opportunity to regain the loving family that was taken away from her in the fires of brutal revolution.

The film finds its most soaring effect is in its use of music. There is a remarkable sequence during a visit to Denmark to visit the Dowager Empress and the exuberant strains of Tchaikovsky greet her entrance (though her face isn’t revealed for a few more minutes). Though she is a supporting character, Helen Hayes manage to imbue this formidable historical figure with a grace that cannot be rivaled.

Bergman manages to imbue her own figure with a certain tragic elegance, as she is drawn in to the plot of Brynner’s rapacious general. As he draws her into his scheme, she begins to lose even the sense of who she is. Is she, in fact, the long-lost daughter of the tsar, or is she just another nameless orphan who has been brought into the scheme of an avaricious and embittered nobleman? The film leaves the answer unclear, and that is part of the pleasure.

She is matched by two other formidable characters, Brynner’s general and Helen Hayes’ iron-clad Dowager. Yul Brynner has always been one of my favourite actors from classic Hollywood, an object of simply exquisite and imposing male beauty. This film is no exception and, while he once again plays something of an asshole, he still maintains a measure of charisma. One always has to wonder what really lurks behind that austere and often callous exterior, what fiery, sensuous heart lurks in that brutal breast.

For her part, Hayes is truly magnificent of one of the 20th Century’s most tragic figures, a woman who lost her entire family and was frequently beset  She seems to bite off her words in a tense conversation with the general, and she is even more scathing to her attendant, remarking acerbically, “To a woman of your age, sex should be nothing but gender.” This is truly one of the most wonderful lines I have heard in a film.

More than that, though, Hayes is in many ways the emotional center of the film. When she finally comes to accept Anderson as her long-lost granddaughter, it is a truly heart-wrenching moment in the purest melodramatic form (ironically, she initially condemns Anna for indulging in precisely that kind of melodrama). If you don’t feel the familiar tug on your heartstrings that is the hallmark of a really good (which is to say, effective) Hollywood melodrama, then you may want to reconsider whether you are actually a fully-functioning human.

Given that we now know with a certainty that Anastasia was in fact murdered with the rest of her family, the film cannot but be fundamentally melancholy. We know all too well that the glamorous Russian princess perished at Yekaterinburg, the victim of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet the film, as any good melodrama should, indulges our hope that maybe, just maybe, history has lied to us, that in the world of fantasy known as Hollywood film, the doomed Russian princess lives on. It might be a fantasy, but it’s a pleasant one.

All in all, Anastasia is a truly compelling product of its time, full of beautiful colours, exquisite performances, and a story that is as sad as it is beautiful. Truly an exquisite film.