Category Archives: Reading History

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!

Reading History: “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” (by Tom Holland)

I have a complicated relationship with the works of the British historian Tom Holland. While I’ve enjoyed all of his books that I’ve read, I’m always struck by two things. First is his tendency to indulge his own stylistic flourishes to an extraordinary degree and, second, to try to craft an all-inclusive argument that subsumes all things into itself. Though these might at first blush appear unrelated phenomena, they are in fact related, and each feeds into the other.

In Dominion, all of the things that I both enjoy and find infuriating about his work are front and center. Stylistically, this book is somewhat self-indulgent. It doesn’t seem as if Holland has any form of impulse control when it comes to his flights of fancy and his rather rakish and cheeky turns of phrase. To put it another way, he sometimes to be so in love with his own clever Now, don’t get me wrong. I like a bit of pizzazz in my prose, but when it’s repeated again and again and again, it starts to get a little cloying and, ultimately, distracting. Sometimes, I think that Holland should really make an effort to find an editor who can rein him in and keep him from indulging in some of his most exaggerated tendencies.

In Dominion, Tom Holland looks into the deep roots of Christianity and how, since its founding, its permutations and adaptations have shaped the modern Western world. Beginning in antiquity, he then moves into the modern world, showing how Christianity is, in essence, responsible for everything from socialism to science to secularism. And, in a rather counterintuitive move, he even suggests that such thoroughly un-Christian institutions such as ISIS are, even if they don’t realize it, Christian (he makes a similar argument about Hinduism and Judaism). Given that Holland has made no secret of his contempt for much of Islamic thought, I suppose I shouldn’t find this surprising, but nevertheless I did find it intellectually disingenuous (to put it mildly) and intellectually imperialist (to put it bluntly).

The real issue with Dominion, and with Holland’s work more generally, is his tendency to mistake his premise for his conclusion. Throughout this book, I kept wanting to hear the actual evidence to support the large claims that he makes. It’s not enough to merely assert that basically ever aspect that we have come to associate with modernity owes its roots in Christianity, and I’m not convinced that you could truly support such a huge claim with any degree of intellectual honesty. However, I’m also not entirely sure that I disagree with some of these assertions–I agree that secularism has no identity without the religious with which it is juxtaposed–but I don’t really think that Holland effectively or convincingly proves this point or, for that matter, many of the other ones. While I think he’s on surer ground on antiquity and the medieval periods, once gets to modernity things start to unravel rather quickly.

And, to be just a bit nit-picky, Holland also tends to make some slight errors that are frustrating because they’re so easily corrected. Early in the book, for example, he says that the Byzantines referred to themselves as such, when it’s pretty well-known that, for the entirety of their existence, they referred to themselves as Romans (even Europeans referred to them as Greeks, not Byzantines). Though these aren’t world-ending, when one is writing a book of popular history, and when one has a particularly large audience, accuracy becomes even more important.

That being said, I do think that Dominion makes some important points. Holland is absolutely right that Christianity was a truly world-changing development, and he’s also right that we in the West (or, to put it somewhat differently, the Global North) do owe much of our patterns of thought and our cultural sensibilities to Christianity. However, to use it as some sort of ur-myth that explains all of modernity…well, that still seems like a bit of a stretch.

Overall, I think that Dominion is vintage Tom Holland, and those with an interest in the broad history of Christianity and its influence on the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds will find it both enjoyable to read and informative. However, it’s also important that they approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism and, if possible, to seek out other sources to flesh out his narrative.

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: “Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women”

Any time that you have a historical fiction novel co-written by the likes of Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, Sophie Perinot, and Laura Kamoie, you are guaranteed to have a rousing read about some truly kick-ass women.

And that is just what you get in Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women.

The novel is divided into six different sections and an epilogue. Each chapter focuses on a different character, ranging from peasants to aristocrats. As a result, we get a keen sense of the many different types of women who played such crucial roles in this pivotal historical moments. Most of the characters are women who took an active part in the Revolution and committed themselves to the cause of overturning the old order and creating something new, a political order founded on the fundamental principle of equality. These are women who aren’t afraid to write and to think and to protest, even when the powers that be would much rather have them stick to the roles that were considered appropriate for women.

One exception to this is the Princess √Člisabeth, the sister of Louis XVI and a devout royalist. While she comes across as a very proud and stubborn woman–hardly surprising, given her upbringing–it’s also hard not to feel at least a little bit of sympathy for her plight, caught as she is in a world that doesn’t understand. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for each of the characters, since so many of them are caught up in the gears of history.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this novel was the way in which the authors managed to twine together the various strands into a cohesive whole. To my mind, this is no small accomplishment, given the fact that you have some of the finest talents in historical fiction writing several different stories. The novel is roughly chronological, so that you have a sense of the way in which the Revolution unfolded, its highs and its lows, and its ultimate descent into the worst forms of barbarism and self-destruction (the infamous Robespierre makes an appearance).

I’ve always had a rather ambivalent relationship to the French Revolution, and reading this novel has reminded me of why this is the case. For, although that great historical event began with the loftiest of political and philosophical ambitions, all too quickly it began its descent into barbarism and bloodshed. And, as this novel makes clear, some of the first–and very often the most easily-targeted–victims of such violence were the women. Time and again, we witness these powerful and intelligent women persecuted by the very men who should be on their side, subjected to every sort of ignominy and humiliation. At the same time, it is precisely their willingness and their ability to persevere despite all of these setbacks that makes these women such extraordinary figures in history and thus an inspiration to those who live in the present.

It should be noted that this novel is not necessarily for the faint-of-heart. It doesn’t shy away from the more brutal turns of the Revolution–including the infamous use of the guillotine–and there are some truly tragic and heart-wrenching moments when characters are forced to confront their own dreadful mortality. There is a scene very near the end where one of the prime characters is awaiting her time at the guillotine, and I have to admit that I choked up when she had to contend with the reality that she was soon to meet her death. It’s one of the most exquisitely painful scenes that I’ve read in a historical fiction novel.

Despite the dark turns that the novel takes, one is still left with the feeling that, for those women who were so intimately involved in it, the French Revolution promised something more than their lives had possessed before. The novel does an excellent job conveying just how bifurcated French society had become on the eave of this great upheaval, with a yawning gulf between the haves and the have-nots (doesn’t this sound more than a little like our current moment?) Given the way that the nobility–and, of course, the royalty–refused to see the truth staring them right in the face, it’s hardly surprising that French society eventually ignited into a conflagration that ultimately couldn’t be controlled. History, though, is like that, sometimes, moments of seeming stasis that erupt into destructive chaos seemingly in the blink of an eye.

Indeed, even after the darkest parts of the Revolution are over, Sophie–the philosopher–is still struggling to make sense of what has taken place. In the eloquently-written epilogue, she is left to try to put together at least a few of the pieces of shattered world that the Revolution has left behind. Indeed, one of my favorite scenes in the novel occurs near the very end, when Sophie confronts the man who would go on to be the opposite of everything that the Revolution had supposedly stood for: Napoleon Bonaparte himself. The fact that she dares to challenge the man who would come to be one of the titans of his age is a fitting conclusion to a novel full of characters who are larger than life, striding across the stage of history.

Overall, I found myself utterly enraptured by Ribbons of Scarlet. Much as I wanted to savor every delicious, blood-soaked, tragic moment of it, I found that I simply couldn’t. I suspect that there will be many others out there who will devour it as quickly as I did. In my book, there is no greater measure of how good a book truly is. Ribbons of Scarlet shows us just how important women are to the workings of history, and for that reason alone it is worth reading and celebrating.

The only question that remains is: when will we get another collaborative novel from these fantastic authors? I suppose we’ll just have to be patient!

Reading History: “Starstruck in the Promised Land” (by Shalom Goldman)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book for review.

From its founding, Israel has had a particularly strong relationship with the United States, and it has, throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, become increasingly critical to American foreign policy in the Middle East. While it was, at first, praised by those on the left, as the plight of the Palestinians became more of an issue in the international community, the stance of both American popular culture and (to a lesser extent) political culture changed, so that it was those on the right who championed Israel and those on the left who sharply criticized (and often condemned ) its actions.

While numerous books have been written about the relationship between the United States and Israel, less examined has been the ways in which various figures in popular culture–singers, actors, and writers–have played a key role in the formation of such attitudes. That’s where Shalom Goldman’s Starstruck in the Promised Land comes into play. Drawing on a wide variety of documents and evidence, Goldman convincingly demonstrates how key popular culture has been to the ways in which Americans think about Israel.

Even before the founding of Israel as a state, Americans were obsessed with the Holy Land. Throughout the 19th Century, American literary figures from Herman Melville to Mark Twain visited the region, and though they were hardly positive in their commentary, they nevertheless revealed how key the Middle East was to the American psyche. For Christians, especially those of a more apocalyptic bent, the region was a key part of their theology and their vision of the world.

As Goldman moves into the 20th Century, we see how more and more literary and artistic figures took up the cause of Israel. These ranged from composers such as Leonard Bernstein to authors such as James Baldwin. Bernstein in particular would become a key figure in Israel, often staging concerts for Israeli soldiers. As a scholar of film and popular media, I particularly enjoyed the ways in which Goldman interweaves the politics and history of the modern state of Israel with some of the key figures and texts of the era. Films like Exodus and singers like Johnny and June Cash were especially vital to the Israeli cause, the former by figuring the Israeli founders as freedom fighters not unlike those in many western films (the film’s leading man was Paul Newman) and the latter by continuing to highlight the integral relationship between Christianity (particularly of the evangelical variety) and Israel.

Goldman also demonstrates the extent to which American political stances on Israel–as well as those of our popular culture figures–have mapped quite neatly onto the cultural wars. Just as evangelical Christianity became a dominant political force in the latter half of the 20th Century, so they saw an embrace of Israel as key to their own cultural and social beliefs (hence the trips that the Cashes, devout Christians, made to the Holy Land). At the same time, as civil rights became a stronger current on the American left, it became more and more common for American entertainers to take up the cause of the Palestinians.

Just as importantly, Goldman discusses his own biography and how that has shaped his own stance on the subject. It is sometimes easy to forget that politics, for all of its ugliness, actually involves real people whose lives and identities shape how they think about and engage with the thorny questions associated with this troubled region.

Overall, this book is a strong contribution to our understanding of the deep history of the relationship between the United States and Israel. Goldman writes with erudition and nuance, recognizing that there are no simple solutions in the dilemma of Israel, and that the relationship between the United States and one of its key Middle Eastern allies has been and may always be complicated and messy.

This book is necessary reading for anyone who wishes to gain a nuanced and balanced understanding of this particular aspect of foreign policy. Given the extremes of emotion that Israel tends to arouse in both those on the left and the right, this book’s equanimity is a gift indeed.

Reading History: “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality” (by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein)

Ever since I read David McCullough’s magisterial biography of John Adams many years ago, I’ve always thought it was a shame that the second president and his son have never received the sort of approbation and celebration that their contemporaries have. Adams is almost always overshadowed by his frenemy Jefferson, and Adams is usually swept aside in favor of the towering might of Andrew Jackson (as well as, to a lesser extent, figures such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, who were also his contemporaries).

In large part, as Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein claim in their dual biography, this is because the two of them largely eschewed the trappings of celebrity, not only because it would have ill-suited their temperaments but also, and just as importantly, because they saw those who did so as caving in to the worst sort of impulses. To them, the rise of men like Jefferson and Jackson–one the frenemy of the senior and the other the victor over the latter–revealed both the dangers of parties but also the unpredictability (and thus the inherent danger) of the tide of popular opinion. For both father and son, democracy was a good thing in moderation, but throughout their lives they both entertained a health skepticism about the passions of the people.

Throughout this dual biography, Isenberg and Burstein situate the two Adams presidents not only in their political milieu, but also amid the intellectual life of the age. Both John and John Quincy were heavily influenced by the ancients, in particularly the Romans, and especially Cicero. To them, the ancient Roman Republican thinkers were the paragon of intellectual and moral achievement, and both saw a little of themselves in the doomed orator, who was one of the sole voices that stood out against the rise of tyranny in the form of Julius Caesar and his successors.

Isenberg and Burstein also note some of the two presidents’ less attractive qualities. Both of the Adams men were prone to bouts of melancholy and to self-pity, and both were often inflexible when it came to matters of conscience. The elder Adams in particular could be very waspish with his tongue, and he could often come across as a little self-pitying when he felt that his own contributions to the founding of the country were overlooked. JQA, for his part, was a stern moralist and became something of the conscience of the House, particularly given his staunch opposition to slavery.

That being said, they also reveal that John Quincy was probably slightly savvier as a politician than his father. When he saw that the Federalists were doomed–thanks in no small part to the machinations and later death of Alexander Hamilton–he joined the enemy and served in the administrations of both James Madison and James Monroe. Some thought him a traitor to the principles that he supposedly espoused, but in reality he knew that he was called to serve, and he wasn’t one to let party affiliation get in the way of his duty.

Throughout the book, we get a strong sense of just how raucous and acrimonious politics could be, both during the Founding era and in the generation that followed. These were men (and they were exclusively men, though women like Abigail Adams were profoundly influential) were men of towering intellect, fiery ambition, and they could often be quite cruel to one another. Indeed, the book points out that it is precisely this volatility that was both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the emerging republic.

All in all, I very much enjoyed The Problem of Democracy. As with many other popular history books produced in the last several years, the authors implicitly draw connections between our own political moment and that of the Founding Fathers. Much as we might like to think that we have moved beyond some of the darker and less pleasant parts of our collective history, Isenberg and Burstein reveal that we must still contend with the shortcomings of the popular will and those who would manipulate it for their own advancement. As the rise of Trump and a particularly violent and dangerous strain of nationalism have made clear, there is still much we must do to keep this republic. Hopefully, we can solve this seemingly intractable problem before it’s too late, and the American experiment goes up in flames.

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: “Anne of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait” (by Alison Weir)

When it comes to the wives of Henry VIII, a few stand out in the popular consciousness: Anne Boleyn (obviously), Katherine of Aragon, perhaps Jane Seymour. Then maybe Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. Rarely, I suspect, do many people give much of a thought to Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife whom, it was said, he found so physically disgusting that he had their marriage annulled. Indeed, it is often held that the failure of this marriage is what cost Thomas Cromwell the king’s love and eventually his life.

Poor Anne has not received much justice from popular culture. Joss Stone did a serviceable job portraying her in The Tudors, and Philippa Gregory brought her usual soapy approach to at least part of Anne’s life in her book The Boleyn Inheritance. But other than that, she has tended to hover in the background, eclipsed by her more glamorous peers.

Enter Alison Weir’s new book, Anne of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait.

I’ll admit that when I first heard that acclaimed historian and historical novelist Alison Weir was writing a six-book series about these women, I was a little dubious that she’d be able to write anything new or exciting about them. To some extent, alas, I was proved correct. While the earlier entries in this series were enjoyable, they all seemed to lack a certain spark that would have made them really soar. Don’t get me wrong. They were enjoyable; they just weren’t thrilling.

With Anna of Kleve, I think she may have finally hit her stride. The novel doesn’t get bogged down in relentless recitations of detail (Weir is nothing if not rigorous in that regard), but it does give us a very rich, thorough portrait of Anna’s emotional state as she moves through the dangerous world of Renaissance politics, both in her own country and, later, in Henry VIII’s England.

The novel starts with Anna’s young adulthood in the Duchy of Kleve, during which she has an illicit affair with one of her cousins and gives birth to a bastard child, a secret she carries with her for the rest of her life. After interminable negotiations with the English, she eventually sets sail to be the next Queen of England. Unfortunately for her, King Henry takes an instant dislike to her, and she ultimately feels pressured to concede to an annulment, after which she is granted significant wealth and manages to stay out of the worst of the political troubles that afflict the kingdom.

The novel is quite a brisk read, and Weir manages to keep the pace going while also largely adhering to, and even correcting, the historical record. We learn, for example, that Anna was a devout Catholic, though her marriage was intended to solidify Henry’s relations with the Protestant German princes. Indeed, Weir does a fine job of conveying how integral Anna was to the politics of her day, and how astute she was in her own political calculations.

Admittedly, Weir does take some rather generous liberties with the established truth, most notably in the ongoing plot-line of Anna’s illegitimate son and her cousin Otho, who is truly the one love of her life. Her reasoning on this in the “Author’s Note” reads a little thin to me, but I will agree that it does give the book an emotional core and resonance that I think it might otherwise have lacked (the irony is not lost on me that the very thing that makes the novel really work is the one thing that is probably not true).

That quibble aside, the novel is a strong outing. Indeed, one of its greatest strengths is in its ability to portray Anna’s emotional attachment to Henry. Rather than fighting to hold onto a position that knows is rightfully hers, she quickly gives in to the king’s request and becomes, in effect, his sister, blessed with manors and incomes and wealth. She’s shrewd enough to realize that she has far more to gain as the king’s sister than as his wife, and her reasoning proves sound when it is revealed that Catherine Howard has been committing adultery with and is summarily executed. At the same time, however, Weir does show how it must have stung for Anna to accept what was, in many ways, a humiliation, even if a lucrative one.

In that sense, the novel is more emotionally textured than I found the other three entries in the series to be. There, I often felt at somewhat of a remove from the titular heroines (part of this may be due to the fact that Weir chose to narrate each of the books in third person limited, rather than the first person). Here, however, we really get a chance to live inside Anna’s head, to experience with her the trials and tribulations of the Tudor era. It also allows us to get a more sympathetic perspective on Henry, a man vainly fighting against encroaching age and infirmity.

Likewise, it answers the question: what exactly happened to Anna after Henry VIII died? Some, no doubt, remember that she was actually present at Mary’s coronation, but others will have assumed that she died in obscurity. In fact, she continued to fight for rights against all the odds. While she died in her early 40s (probably of breast cancer), she nevertheless managed to outlive all of Henry’s other wives. Needless to say, that is quite a feat!

Anna of Kleve is a fascinating portrait of a royal woman’s struggle to not only survive but thrive in a world haunted by the past. Confronted with challenge again and again, she nevertheless perseveres. And when, in the end, she finally succumbs to illness, she does so surrounded by the people that she loves, including her illegitimate son. Her story is one, then, of ultimate triumph over adversity. Finally, after all of these centuries, Anna gets to tell her own story, and Alison Weir deserves tremendous praise for doing it with such grace, beauty, and eloquence.

Reading History: The Tragic Daughters of Charles I (by Sarah-Beth Watkins)

My thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book for review.

I have to confess that when it comes to English royalty, I’ve never been much of a fan of the Stuarts. Somehow they lacked the charismatic panache that characterized their successors the Tudors, or the operatic tragedy of the Plantagenets. They just seemed rather bland in comparison to all of this.

Recently, however, I’ve taken an interest in them. They embodied all of the contradictions of the era, drowning in opulent wealth and yearning for absolute power yet struggling with the financial and political limits imposed by Parliament. Given these contradictions, is it any wonder that one of them, Charles I, ended up losing his head to the executioner’s axe?

Sarah-Beth Watkins takes as her subject the doomed daughter of this doomed monarch. As the title of the book suggests, Charles’ daughters fared little better than their father. Several died before they reached the age of 20, and those that lived to be older, Mary and Henriette, died before they reached 30, the former from smallpox and the latter as the result of a stomach ailment (and possibly poison).

Throughout their young lives, both Mary and Henriette faced struggle and difficulty, particularly once they were married to foreign princes: Mary to William of the Netherlands and Henriette to Philippe, brother of Louis XIV. Both also found themselves at the center of politics, first as their brother attempted to regain his throne and then, after his restoration, in the feuds and jostling that inevitably arose between the powers of Europe. In a bitter twist, Mary survived to see her brother return to the throne but died shortly afterward.

Given that she lived the longest and was married to the brother of the King of France, Henrietta’s life takes up the latter half of the book. Though plagued by personal sadness–her husband was abusive and paid more attention to his male lover than he did to her–she was nevertheless a savvy political player and a valuable ally for her brother at the heart of the French court. Through her closeness to both her brother and her brother-in-law the king, she was able exert a formidable influence on politics, and one can’t help but wonder how much more she would have been able to accomplish had she but lived longer.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. The prose is, unfortunately, rather clunky, and it lacks a certain dynamism. One learns a lot from the book, but I found it very easy to get bored while reading it. I strongly suspect that this has to do with the fact that there just isn’t a whole lot of material due to the very young age at which these women died.

Relatedly, the author tends to use far too many long quotes from primary sources. One gets the sense that she felt pressed to fill out the book to a standard length. While, of course, it is customary to include at least some quotes from letters, diaries, etc., the sheer length of the ones in this book become distracting after a while, and they certainly break up the momentum of the narrative.

That being said, the book is a serviceable introduction to these tragic young women. While their own lives were cut tragically short, those of their descendants would go on to be rather illustrious. Mary’s son William would in fact go on to become King of England as William III, while Henrietta’s descendants would go on to sit on the thrones of several different countries. Through their children, the tragic daughters of King Charles found their own form of immortality.