This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
It’s not been a great year for non-fiction books. Indeed, it’s been a while now since the last one, which is probably something to do with the pandemic, not to mention the general lack of courage and conviction among too many publishers and commissioning editors — many of whom are relatively inexperienced and partial to modish, censorious obsessions.
But the books published over the last twelve months that do pass muster are very good indeed and would grace any year, vintage or not.
The Tudors seem of especial interest to those so inclined
I’ll single out three. Before I get to 2022’s holy trinity, it’s worth mentioning in dispatches a handful of superb works that also achieve the holy grail: a combination of scholarship and readability.
Malcolm Gaskill’s dark and compelling The Ruin of Witches: Life and Death in the New World (Allen Lane), now out in Penguin paperback. Edward Wilson Lee’s A History of Water (Wiliam Collins), a Borgesian tale of murder and discovery on a global scale. Frances Spalding’s beautifully produced and elegantly written corrective, The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between Two World Wars (Thames & Hudson).
Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber), the first adult flowering of a “born writer” who has graduated from an acclaimed career as an author of children’s fiction.
Then there is Nicholas Morton’s magnificent, tightly-told The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East (Basic Books), which is imperial history of the highest order. It is at once empathetic, unflinching and miles away (literally) from the parochial narcissism of imperial history of a much lesser, though increasingly common order epitomised by Caroline Elkins’s Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire.
That is a book whose primary (some might say only) value lies, as Barnaby Crowcroft pointed out in these pages, in “what it tells us about our century, not for anything it says about the twentieth”. Inevitably, it will be lauded with praise and prizes by those who prefer the certainties of activism to the complexities of history.
A Cinematic Siege
And so to the three finest non-fiction works of 2022. There is a tendency among some historians, especially those desperate to get hold of a load of Netflix cash, to write more of a screen treatment than a book. I’ll mention no names, though the Tudors seem of especial interest to those so inclined.
Yet when you are as good a writer as Jessie Childs, and as assuredly immersed in the archives, the pages zing regardless with the technicolor of celluloid. Not least in Childs’s latest masterpiece (this less-than-prolific author only deals in such things) The Siege of Loyalty House: A Civil War Story (The Bodley Head).
That subtitle matters: for the story of long-besieged Basing House — the largest private mansion in England, located strategically between the Parliamentary stronghold of London and the Royalist capital of Oxford — is the English Civil War in microcosm.
Childs captures the horror, the courage, the sheer humanity of those, both Roundhead besiegers and besieged Cavaliers, who endured the long, desperate lulls punctuated by intense episodes of visceral violence.
Their world is vividly described and on occasion bleakly funny. Childs doesn’t overstress the obvious parallels with our own distracted times, yet the mid-17th century was similarly an age of “decayed trade, harvest failure, epidemics and wild weather”, as well as siege warfare.
Lucy Ward’s first book, The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus (Oneworld), offers similar unforced parallels with our present. It tells, with considerable elan, the unlikely tale of how Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, called upon a Quaker physician from Essex, Thomas Dimsdale, to rid her vast empire and intimate court of the “speckled monster” of smallpox via the recently mastered technique (with its origins in the Ottoman Empire) of inoculation, “the greatest medical discovery before Pasteur”.
At the heart of this learned, erudite book, full of rich and legible scientific detail, is the extraordinary, and extraordinarily moving, dynamic between the Empress and Dimsdale.
“She is of all that ever I saw of her sex the most engaging,” Dimsdale writes of Catherine, and her hold over him must have been of planetary scale, for he knows full well that, if he fails to make a success of the medical campaign she spearheads as an examplar to her less-than-enlightened peoples, he is the one likely to pay with his life. High stakes.
The reader of this rather thrilling account will also learn the difference between vaccination and inoculation; that science works, now as then; and that great women matter. For further evidence of the latter, read on.
It is fair to say that German scholars are not noted for their accessibility. There’s a reason why the likes of Chris Clark, Richard Evans and Ian Kershaw shift shedloads of units in the Federal Republic.
So three cheers, or should that be drei mal hurra, for Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger’s Maria-Theresa: The Habsburg Empress in Her Time (Princeton), the finest historical biography since Julian Jackson’s A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles De Gaulle, and then some.
Stollberg-Rilinger is rector of the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, Germany’s equivalent (sort of) to All Souls, and she is as rigorous in her dealings with the vast archive on the Habsburg Empress and her times as one would expect. One is surprised by the lightness of touch she brings to the study’s 1,000 or so pages, however, which may also reveal the similarly light touch of translator Robert Savage (it was originally published in German in 2017).
Whoever we shower the praise upon, the result is startling in its learning, its insight, its engagement with one of the great figures of European history and the milieu she inhabits.
This Amazonian figure, herself scarred by smallpox and mother of 16 children in 20 years, lost Silesia to Prussia in the War of Austrian Succession but made the remaining Habsburg possessions inseparable and indivisible.
She secured the imperial title for her husband, the far inferior (though not officially so) Francis Stephen, whose natural history collection became something of a model for museums across Europe.
Classification and order became a Habsburg obsession, one mirrored by Stollberg-Rillinger in her book’s awesome thematic organisation, which reinforces the principle that change should come from above and be implemented through the apparatus of a virtuous elite. State institutions were reformed, brilliantly, by Maria Theresa, a natural administrator: peasants were schooled and the privileges of the nobility curbed.
Modern Austria still owes much to her. Anyone who cares for history owes a great deal to Stollberg-Rillinger for this astounding, riveting tour de force which offers a blueprint for how history should be done.
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