Category Archives: Reading History

Reading History: “And They Called it Camelot: A Novel of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis” (by Stephanie Marie Thornton)

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a good historical novel. While I mostly prefer novels that are set in the distant past, recently I’ve found myself drawn to a recent crop of historical novels set in the more recent past. One of the best authors in that regard is Stephanie Marie Thornton. I very much enjoyed her novel American Princess, which was about the life of the spitfire Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, and so I was looking forward to her new book about Jackie O., the beautiful and enchanting wife of John F. Kennedy and the queen of Camelot.

As soon as I started reading the novel, I knew that I was going to be entranced, and so it proved to be. From the first page to the last, I found myself swept up in the heady and enchanting world of mid-20th Century America, when everything seemed possible.

The novel starts just before Jackie begins her romance with John Kennedy. The two quickly and fall in love and get married, and Jackie finds herself drawn along as Jack begins his political ascent. Of course, she also has to deal with a multitude of other conflicts and issues: his powerful family, her sister and mother, Jack’s health troubles and infidelities, the strain of the 1960s and its political conflagrations. Through it all, Jackie continues to show her signature strength and durability, weathering each blow. The novel concludes with a visit to the White House, where she stands with her two children and gazes at the portrait of Jack Kennedy, poised to take on the future and all that it holds.

Throughout the novel, we come to feel with Jackie as she confronts the realities of her husband’s infidelities. (She doesn’t have much good to say about Marilyn Monroe, needless to say). Like so many other political wives, she has to work through the complicated political calculus of whether to stay with this man that she so clearly loves, or whether she should set out on her own and leave him. Ultimately, she decides on a middle course, and in doing so she radically reshapes the role of the First Lady, shaping a template that will influence subsequent women. Most notable is her decision to remake the White House into a repository of American history, a testament to Jackie’s historian sensibility.

As important as Jack was to Jackie, her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, is also a significant figure. I have always found that particular relationship to be something of enigma, but in the novel Thornton makes the convincing case that Jackie married the Greek magnate in an effort to escape from the glaring lights of the public and to provide her children with some level of security. We can’t help but sympathize with her desires.

The novel steers something of a middle course when it comes to her relationship with Bobby Kennedy, which is understandable, given that historians and biographers alike remain similarly divided on the issue. The novel makes it clear that they felt dearly for one another, that Jack’s death brought them even closer together. Whether or not they ever consummated their relationship physically is left unclear, but in the end it is somewhat beside the point. For Jackie, Bobby is in many ways the man to fill the hole in her life left by Jack’s brutal death, and his subsequent death is yet another example of the tragedy that afflicts Jackie’s life.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the novel was the way that it emphasized the fact that Jackie Kennedy was a fierce and sharp intellect. This is no small thing, considering that the dominant image of Jackie in the popular imagination is of a glamor queen. However, this is a woman who knew French, who studied at the Sorbonne, who had a passionate interest in history, who went on to become an editor at a major press. It is her interest in history that I found particularly compelling, especially as she attempts to ensure that Jack’s legacy is remembered in the way that she deems appropriate.

And They Called it Camelot also allows us to see how it is that a woman who was more comfortable out of the spotlight than in it found herself at the center of one of the most famous presidencies in the history of the United States, the glittering queen who ruled over a golden court. At the same time, the novel doesn’t shy away from the fact that her life was also marred by an almost bewildering amount of tragedy. In addition to Jack’s brutal assassination in 1963, Jackie also had to endure several miscarriages (the last of which occurred right before Jack was killed). Time and time again, however, she

And it’s not just that the novel is well-constructed. It’s also just exquisitely written. The prose is at times incredibly lush, as frothy as the champagne that the Kennedys so frequently drink. At times, I simply allowed myself to just luxuriate in the prose. Though there is something to be said for using beautiful prose just for its own sake, here it serves a greater purpose. It allows us to believe that we are truly in the mind of the First Lady, with all of her refined taste and her nuanced ways of looking at the world. Every page is a pleasure to read, and before you realize it you’re done with the book.

And They Called it Camelot is one of the finest sorts of historical fiction. It allows us an intimate look into the mind of one of the most influential and well-known First Ladies to have inhabited the White House. It’s hard not to feel a profound sense of sadness at the fact that Camelot, that brief glimmering moment when America seemed poised on the cusp of a whole new world, lasted such a short period of time before being cut short by an assassin’s bullet. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I can’t wait for Thornton’s next effort!

Reading History: "Victoria" (by Daisy Goodwin)

I’ve always been fascinated by Queen Victoria, and it’s unfortunate that the image that dominates the popular imagination has been, until fairly recently, the dowdy old queen who appears in so many photos from the period. As a corrective to that, Daisy Goodwin has written Victoria, a novel that exists in conjunction with the British television series of the same name.

In this novel, we get a more intimate glimpse into Victoria as she comes to the throne. She is particularly drawn to the formidable Lord Melbourne. Though he starts out as her prime minister, she soon finds herself falling in love with him, to such a degree that she almost considers taking him as her husband. At the same time, she is surrounded by multiple people who want to see her manipulated for their own advantage, including both her mother and her conspirator Lord Conroy. Through it all, however, Victoria manages to assert her own identity and her own desires, until she meets the man who will change the course of her life forever: her cousin, Albert.

Goodwin excels at drawing us into the mind of the young Victoria, a woman who is willful and more than a little foolish sometimes. However, there’s no question that Victoria matures as the novel progresses, as she slowly comes to terms with what it means to be a queen. She must learn the painful lesson that so many monarchs both before and after her have had to absorb: that being a ruler means putting the needs of one’s subjects and one’s country ahead of one’s own. It’s really quite fascinating to watch Victoria learn these lessons, and her growing maturity is part of what makes her such a charming and sympathetic character.

Now, it must be said that there are times in the novel when it gets a little easy to lose patience with Victoria. She tends to be more than a little childish, and she indulges her whims to an unreasonable degree. However, that is precisely the point. This is a young woman who, because of her mother and her scheming paramour Lord Conroy, has kept Victoria sheltered from the outside world. Is it any wonder that, for a time at least, she was far too willing to give in to the demands of her heart, even if they exist in tension with the needs of the kingdom? And, besides, who hasn’t felt themselves falling in love with someone who showed us a bit of kindness and compassion when we needed it most?

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is in its exploration of relationships. Obviously, the most important one is that between Victoria and Lord M., but we also see the vexed and fractious bond she shares with her mother. There’s something almost tragic about the tension that always exists between the two of them, for while it’s clear that they truly love one another, there are always those who keep them from expressing that in the way that they both clearly want to. Lord Conroy deserves the lion’s share of the blame in this regard, for while he clearly has some affection for the dowager, he primarily sees her, and her daughter, as his pathway to power. Those moments when Victoria finally manages to attain a bit of closeness with her mother are some of the most affecting in the novel, and they remind us of the dangers of alienating those who should be closest to us.

Though the vast majority of the novel is told from Queen Victoria’s point of view, it does occasionally shift into other perspectives. For example, there are several times when we get to see into the mind of Lord Melbourne, and I often found myself struck by just how tragic it is that he and Victoria cannot have the romance that they both so clearly desire. Lord Melbourne is a man whose life has been marred by romantic tragedy, with his deceased wife having been responsible for hurting him (through an affair with Lord Byron, of all people).

Arguably the novel’s most important relationship is that which finally begins to develop between Victoria and her cousin Albert. When they first meet, they spar almost incessantly, each of them attempting to fight back against the feelings that they clearly feel for one another. It is only as they each begin to let their guards down and to embrace their own vulnerability–this is particularly difficult for Albert–that they allow their clear feelings for one another to begin to grow and develop. Though some reviewers have taken the novel to task for waiting until near the end to show the two of them falling in love with one another, I actually found that to be one of the novel’s greatest charms, their romance a satisfying way of bring it to a conclusion.

Only occasionally does the outside world intrude upon the world of enclosed world of Buckingham Palace. There are some few mentions of the war in Afghanistan, and there is a crucial scene in which Alfred bears witness to the grinding poverty afflicting London. These incidents show us the broader world of which Victoria was a part, despite the fact that she spent the vast majority of her life moving in the upper echelons of power.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Victoria. My only disappointment, and it’s a relatively minor one, is that, so far, this is the only novel Goodwin has written about Victoria. Goodwin really has a knack for both capturing the essence of a historical period and for getting us inside the minds of her characters. Though she has, clearly been at work on the television series as well , to my mind there’s a particular pleasure to be had in the reading of a historical novel, one that’s be easily replicated in a television series. However, now that I’ve finished the novel, I definitely plan on watching the show, if only to enjoy the fantastic costumes that will be on display.

Stay tuned for my review!

Reading History: “The Romanov Empress” (by C.W. Gortner)

I’ve been meaning to read the works of historical novelist C.W. Gortner for some time now, and when I saw that he’d recently written a book about Dagmar of Denmark, the woman who would eventually become Tsarina Marie of Russia, I knew that I had to pick it up and read it. From the first page to the fast, I found Gortner’s story utterly captivating. In fact, I almost couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it!

The novel begins with Dagmar–known to many as Minnie–living in her native country of Denmark. While she is initially affianced to the young son of the tsar, after his unfortunate and untimely death she finds herself affianced to his blustering younger brother. What begins as a reluctant marriage soon blooms into true love, and they find true happiness with one another. Unfortunately, it is Minnie’s destiny to live in Russia during a period of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, and by the end of the novel she has lost nearly everything as the Russian Revolution sweeps the monarchy away.

Minnie is a captivating narrator, and it’s easy to like her. She’s fierce and intelligent, willful and clever, and she isn’t shy about letting others know about how she feels. The novel ably portrays the ways in which she was a positive influence on the rule of her reactionary husband, curbing some of his darker tendencies and channeling her own energies into a variety of charitable causes. Likewise, she tries–with only limited success–to imbue her sensitive and ineffectual son Nicky with the strength and determination he needs in order to secure his throne.

Now, the book doesn’t shy away from the less flattering aspects of Marie’s personality. She does tend to be a bit imperious, and she has a certain pride that doesn’t always allow her to be as sensitive to the needs of others as she should be. In particular, she has a difficult relationship with her two daughters, and she often finds it difficult to accept that they are not willing and/or able to follow the same path that she did. Born into a role that they didn’t ask for, one can hardly blame them for striking out on their own and forging their own destinies (in fact, it may be just that independent spirit that keeps them alive during the Revolution).

Minnie’s most difficult relationship, however, is with her daughter-in-law Alexandra. It’s not hard to see why. There’s no doubt that Minnie feels some jealousy that her beloved Nicky falls head-over-heels in love with a woman she deems unsuitable (for both good and bad reasons). For all of her flaws, Minnie truly cares about the well-being of the empire and the people, and she realizes, even if the two rulers do not, that their actions are exacerbating an already-existing political crisis. She sees the truth with a clarity that the rest of her family lacks, and this often means that she has the unenviable burden of seeing how the future will turn out, even as she is unable to change it.

I really admire a historical novelist who can both capture the ambience of a past historical moment while also not getting too bogged down in the details of material culture. I mean, I love the descriptions of fabrics and furniture and jewels as next as the next person, but sometimes it’s easy for novelists to get lost in the detail and to forget about the plot. Not so Gortner. He manages to keep the plot moving at a quick pace, and when I was finished with the book I was rather surprised to feel that I actually had a pretty good snapshot of most of Minnie’s life. What’s more, I felt as if I had a stronger understanding of what it was like to be a royal living in the heady days of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, right before the chaos of modernity swept all of their lives away.

There’s no question that, for many, the Romanovs are the epitome of tragedy. Unwilling or unable to transform their country in the ways that it needed in order to move into the 20th Century, they ultimately found themselves victims of a situation of their own making. While the novel ends on a somewhat triumphant note–with Marie escaping from the Bolsheviks–it also leaves us in no doubt that she has lost almost everything that was dear to her. That crown and throne that she committed so much time and energy to preserving has now been utterly abolished, and to make matters worse she doesn’t have definitive word about what happened to her beloved Nicky and her grandchildren.

Of course, now we know that Nicky and his family were indeed slain in the basement of the house in Yekaterinburg, in one of the most infamous slaughters in a regime known for its barbarity. One can’t help but feel a powerful sense of pity for Marie, never knowing exactly what happened to either of her two sons who perished in the Revolution. She can hardly blame the woman for insisting that they might still be alive, clinging to the hope that there might be a restoration of the monarchy that she worked so hard to preserve. To my mind, Minnie, more perhaps than any of the other members of her family, draws us into the complicated mindset of the last ruling Romanovs. She might not be perfect, and the system of which she was a part might have been fatally flawed, but you can’t help but have at least a little bit of sympathy for them, trapped as they were in a gilded cage.

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Romanov Empress. It has all of the things that I usually look for in an historical novel, and I can’t wait to dive in to some of the other books that Gortner has written. Next up is his novel about Isabella of Castille, certainly on of history’s most powerful queens. Stay tuned!

Reading History: “The Habsburgs: To Rule the World” (by Martyn Rady)

I’ve always found myself fascinated with the Habsburgs. As one of the most powerful and prominent (as well as long-lived) dynasties in Europe, their dynastic fortunes played an outsize role in the fortunes of Europe as a whole and, as the centuries progressed, they came to play an increasingly important role in both the stability and the eventual disintegration of Central and Eastern Europe. So, when I saw that there Martyn Rady’s new book on the dynasty, I leapt at the chance to read it.

Rady provides a detailed account of Habsburg fortunes, from the founding of the dynasty until its monarchical demise in the aftermath of the First World War. While certainly the titanic figures feature largely in his narrative–figures such as Charles V (who sparred with Martin Luther), Maria Theresa, and Franz Joseph–he also pays attention to the lesser-known figures, such as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. We see the ebb and flow of their power as they have to contend with the fundamentally unstable nature of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the numerous conflicts, both religious and political, that roiled Europe, ranging from the Protestant Reformation to the rise of nationalism.

While the book is, naturally, primarily about the political fortunes of the dynasty–particularly its Austrian branch–it also delves into the complicated relationship between the Spanish branch of the family and their eastern cousins, as well as various other European powers. The French often figure largely, particularly Louis XIV and Napoleon, the latter of whom would inflict one of the most crushing defeats the dynasty would endure. The Habsburgs also frequently found themselves in conflict with their own nobles, as well as the Ottoman Empire. Through it all, however, they aspired to be the guarantors of stability and peace–and as purveyors of the legacy of the Roman Empire–and, if they didn’t always succeed in those endeavors, Rady makes the case that they should be respected for at least attempting to do so.

In addition to being rulers of vast domains, the Habsburgs were also voracious collectors of knowledge and devout defenders of the Catholic faith, and Rady does an excellent job of providing a big-picture view of the culture in the Habsburg domains. They truly saw themselves as a dynasty destined to rule the world, and from the 15th to the 19th Centuries, that no doubt appeared to be true. Even though the Protestant Reformation rocked their domains–and severely curtailed their power–they still managed somehow to be bastions of Catholicism. Likewise, the Habsburg commitment to knowledge and order provided a fertile environment for both art and science to flourish.

Rady also demonstrates the extent to which the Habsburg monarchs also provided a foundation upon which Eastern Europe could base itself. As strange and contradictory and unwieldy as their domains ultimately became–most evident in the clunky appellation “Austro-Hungarian Empire” to define their domains during the 18th and 19th Centuries–it was largely due to their influence that the region remained as fundamentally stable as it did. Ultimately, of course, even such an august dynasty couldn’t withstand the forces of history and the rising tide of German nationalism, and so they became embroiled in Prussia’s ambitions. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the spark that would consume the dynasty and lead to the disintegration of its fortunes.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Habsburgs lost almost all of their political clout. However, as Rady points out, its most prominent member, Otto, actually became a prominent figure in the drive to achieve unity and peace in Europe. One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if he’d succeeded to the throne.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Rady’s book. He has a keen eye for historical detail, and while at times it’s rather easy to get lost in the bewildering sea of names and dates and places, Rady does usually keep you grounded in the main narrative. It’s clear that he admires the Habsburgs as an ambitious but deeply flawed dynasty that often became victims of their own success. For those who want to get a richer and deeper understanding of a European dynasty so famous that they’ve become almost mythological, Rady’s book is highly recommended.

Reading History: “The Scourge of Henry VIII: The Life of Marie de Guise” (by Melanie Clegg)

Marie de Guise is one of those Renaissance women who’s suffered something of an image problem. Since she doesn’t shine as brightly as her contemporaries or her descendants–Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici and, of course, Marie’s infamous daughter Mary, Queen of Scots–she tends to be glossed over by most histories of the period. Since she reigned as Queen of Scotland for such a short time as the consort of the ill-fated James V and was, for most of the rest of her life a regent rather than a regnant, it’s perhaps understandable.

However, as Melanie Clegg argues, this is a grievous injustice, and Marie deserves a great deal of respect for her ability to navigate not only the cutting world of French politics, but also those of the Scots. Born into a family that gradually rose in power, she ultimately found herself wedded to the mercurial James V of Scotland. Upon his death, she did everything in her power to make sure that the throne was kept secure for her daughter Mary, even though this often put her at odds with the Scottish nobility. In Clegg’s deft hands, we find ourselves swept along with Marie’s later life as she skillfully navigates the unfriendly political world of Scotland.

Unfortunately, as Clegg amply demonstrates, Marie’s life was doomed to be marred by tragedy and disappointment. A great deal of this stemmed from the nature of the Scottish nobility, who were always consumed with their own internecine feuds and attempts to grab power for themselves. However, her life was also marred by personal tragedies, most notably her years-long separation from her daughter. For all of her success in keeping Scotland in line, she ultimately died abandoned by all but, ironically, the very men who were her most steadfast enemies.

Despite the book’s title, Henry VIII actually plays a relatively minor role in the book and in Marie’s life as a whole. However, it is true that England’s rulers, both Henry and his successor Edward (as well as Edward’s guardian and uncle Edward Seymour) were to prove formidable enemies to Scottish independence. Marie actually deserves quite a lot of credit for managing to keep the English at bay as much as she did, though they did of course inflict a great deal of damage on the Borders and, at times, even the capital Edinburgh itself.

Clegg has a keen sense of narrative momentum, and she doesn’t allow her biography to get bogged down in the mundane details in the way of some other historians (I love Alison Weir, but she does have a tendency to get down into the weeds a bit). Clegg shows us the highs and lows of Marie’s political life, giving us a good idea of the type of woman she was and how she managed to succeed in the world of Renaissance politics. She also gives us enough details about the material world to give us a sense of the everyday life of the period.

As informative and readable as this book is, however, it does suffer a number of handicaps. Foremost among these is the lack of a comprehensive biography or any notes. Now, for the lay reader this probably doesn’t really pose much of a problem. I daresay that most people read biographies and popular histories for the information, not for the rigour of the historian. However, for someone who wants to know exactly how Clegg is reaching her conclusions, it can be a little frustrating to not have a paper trail of any kind to follow. I don’t hold Clegg entirely accountable for this, as it seems to me that the editors at Pen & Sword should be a little more diligent in ensuring that they’re providing their readers with accurate material.

All of that being said, Clegg deserves a great deal of credit for bringing Marie out of the shadows into the light of day. She truly was one of the most extraordinary women of the Renaissance and, while not native to Scotland, she clearly cared deeply for her adopted country and did her best to govern it as effectively as possible under incredibly difficult circumstances. I’d definitely recommend this book to others, though with the caution about reliability.

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!