Books you might have missed
Jeremy Black recommends three history books that have been neglected by literary reviewers
Most good new books are overlooked by the public, but it is not really their fault. Those who follow new books from the reviews in newspapers or literary journals, or, in pre-Covid times, from piles in bookshops, will be sometimes pleasantly surprised to find a book that is of genuine merit. But all too often these days the books reviewed are by one celebrity (or at least journalist), reviewed by others of this ilk, and have been published without any process of “blind” peer-review. Their claims to definitive status or, indeed, originality are generally a joke.
I have long given up regarding periodicals such as the LRB or the TLS as any guide to merit
In this column I hope to draw attention to those little-known books that deserve consideration. The coverage will be eclectic, as I have to have read the books in question, but the common characteristic will be that the books, as far as I am aware, have not been reviewed in any newspaper or any literary review, although I have long given up regarding periodicals such as the LRB or the TLS as any guide to merit and therefore do not have the time to read them. Three works for this starter, each very different, which reflects my view that we should all read widely.
The Origins of the British Empire in Asia, 1600-1750 (2020) by David Veevers is a monograph published by Cambridge University Press. Veevers, a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Queen Mary, London, provides a well-researched study of the practice of the early British presence in Asia. The emphasis is transnational in the sense that we see not so much conflict, as the ability of the East India Company to grow within the framework of the Mughal empire. The seventeenth-century Company is presented as developing as a decentred corporate structure in which Asian agency plays a major role, Asian understood both as the English in Asia, and as Asians themselves. The Mughals emerge then as more able than the Company to bend transnational networks to serve their own interests. Force is seen as forming only a small part of the relationship.
In the early eighteenth century, the British state becomes more intrusive and capable. Veevers, however, presents the settlement following the Company’s victory at Plassey in 1757 as representing not some jarring transformation of a trading company into an imperial power, but the zenith of a long process in which the Company’s presence was expanded from within existing Asian political and economic frameworks. Clive emerges in part as a Mughal noble and Bengali landowner. Moreover, Veevers argues that a major obstacle to understanding the Asian origins of the British Empire was the idea that Britain could succeed without operating within mutually beneficial frameworks of economic and political power. This is clearly relevant for discussion of empire as a whole as well as the British Empire, and, indeed, the slave trading networks of the period.
A very different eighteenth-century Britain emerges from a hitherto unnoted map auctioned in 2018 (and the only copy known in public or private ownership); a map edited by Richard Oliver, Roger Kain and Todd Gray as William Birchynshaw’s Map of Exeter, 1743, and published in 2019 for the Devon and Cornwall Record Society by the Boydell Press. The much-illustrated work is used both to throw light on Exeter in 1743 — its topography, society, economy, government, and religion — and to discuss the mapping of Exeter from the sixteenth century to the 1980s. A handsomely produced book that will be of great interest to those interested in cartographic history or that of eighteenth-century England.
The third work is the publication in 2021 by St Augustine’s Press of an unabridged version of Churchill’s The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan. This is the 1899 two-volume edition and not the 1902 abridgement. The impressive scholarly edition, by James Muller, includes not only an introduction that considers Churchill’s early career and views, including on Islam, thousands of new footnotes, and an appendix that reproduces Churchill’s Sudan dispatches before they were edited by The Morning Post. There are also unpublished illustrations by a fellow officer, Angus McNeill. The upcoming book is an important edition that is of great significance not only for those interested in Churchill, but also for imperial expansion at its heyday.
Jeremy Black’s recent books include George III and England in the Age of Austen.
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