Girouard, Mark. Historic Houses of Britain.

NY: Morrow, 1979.

Girouard is best known (and most highly regarded) for his astute explanations of architecture’s history and theoretical development. In that sense, this is one of his lesser works, being more of a pictorial guide book with miscellaneous history added, but it’s still an excellent place to sink an afternoon.


Published in: on 31 October 2011 at 6:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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Heyer, Georgette. An Infamous Army.

London: Heinemann, 1937.

Heyer is best known for her several dozen light and humorous romances set in Regency England, but she also was capable of far deeper and more complex historical writing. Before Heyer, the best known and most highly regarded fictional account of the Battle of Waterloo was in Thackeray’s classic Vanity Fair. (Victor Hugo wrote about the battle, too, in Les Misérables, but he was writing from the French viewpoint.) More recently, Bernard Cornwell, justifiably famous for his rousing and highly accurate battle scenes, did a marvelous grunt’s-eye view of the battle in Sharpe’s Waterloo. So how does this novel fair, compared to those?


Virgoe, Roger (ed). Private Life in the Fifteenth Century: Illustrated Letters of the Paston Family.

NY: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989

Not many people ever have heard of the Paston family of Norfolk during the Wars of the Roses, not even most historians. They weren’t peers at that time, though they became connected to several titled families over the course of a century. They came from the northeast part of the county, along the coast, where there were few large estates and, like many families in the area, the Pastons had long been free yeoman farmers, not required to perform much in the way of service for local lords.


Iggulden, Conn. Emperor: The Death of Kings.

NY: Delacorte, 2004.

This is the second volume in this novice author’s quadrilogy about the rise of Julius Caesar, and it has the same fundamental problem as the first one — Iggulden’s willingness to rewrite and pervert the known facts of history for his own convenience. The action here follows the supposed early careers of Gaius Julius and his closest friend, Marcus Brutus (the documented biography of whom Iggulden almost completely ignores), as they go off to posts as junior legionary officers following the death of the Consul Marius and the dictatorship of the Consul Sulla.


Iggulden, Conn. Emperor: The Gates of Rome.

NY: Delacorte, 2003.

Ever since I first became seriously interested in history (living overseas at the age of ten did that), I’ve also been an avid reader of historical fiction. A skillful author, one who understands both writing and history, can communicate a great deal about the past and can do it in an interesting and even absorbing way. Someone like Cecelia Holland can put solid meat on the bones. But there are a few basic rules which Iggulden, a first-time novelist, seems not to have grasped.


Heyer, Georgette. The Convenient Marriage.

London: Heinemann, 1934.

This is one of the most unusual of Heyer’s Regency romances. For one thing, it’s not even set in the Regency period but a long generation earlier, during the 1770s. For another, the plot is much more sophisticated and the characters, both leading and supporting, are far more multidimensional. And there’s far less dependence on impenetrable sporting cant — except for the highwayman, of course, whose professional jargon confuses even some of the young gentlemen.


Girouard, Mark. The English Town: A History of Urban Life.

New Haven: Yales University Press, 1990.

I’ve been an historian since I was quite young, even before I ever thought about what “history” meant. I’ve always lived more in the past and I’ve always perceived the world from the perspective of what came before, of how things got to be the way they are. My interests are very broad, from 11th century Norman military society, the role of the Germanic tribes in the decay of Rome, and pre-Columbian exploration, to the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, town-building on the American frontier, and the role of cavalry in the American Civil War. I have a special interest, though in what’s called “social history” — the story of ordinary people, acting on the world in the aggregate and upon each other, day by day, one at a time.


Published in: on 15 October 2011 at 1:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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Paton Walsh, Jill & Dorothy Sayers. A Presumption of Death.

NY: St. Martin, 2002.

Certain long-running series of stories featuring noteworthy protagonists seem to become a lure to other writers to continue the hero’s adventures. The most prominent example, of course, is Sherlock Holmes. And most of the many attempts to write additional tales featuring the Great Detective have been pretty weak. (These days, there’s the phenomenon known as “fan fiction,” but that’s almost always amateur stuff and since it’s written for non-commercial fun, no one expects it to be better than mediocre.)


Heyer, Georgette. Faro’s Daughter.

Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1942.

Heyer’s story of London in the very early 19th century is rather different this time: Deborah Grantham is the sort-of manager of the gambling house run (very haphazardly) by her widowed aunt, Lady Bellingham. The aunt’s genteel card parties had been very successful and she thought to make enough operating a full-time establishment to get out of debt, but through a combination of bad luck and poorly managed expenses, they are instead on the verge of financial ruin.


Published in: on 11 October 2011 at 5:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Huggett, Frank E. Life Below Stairs: Domestic Servants in England from Victorian Times.

NY: Scribner, 1977.

I’m not sure I know why myself, but I find the whole subject of 19th century domestic life, and especially of the Victorian version of domestic service, a fascinating topic. It’s a subject in which I have read a good deal over the years and I believe I now understand the intersecting forces of industrialism and imperialism that led to one-third of the female population of Britain being engaged in personal service at the end of Victoria’s long reign — the largest single class of labor in the country — and the social pressures that led some middle class families to starve themselves so they could afford to pay for extra servants and thereby enhance their own status in the eyes of their neighbors. It’s a weird dynamic by our present standards — or even to most Americans at that time.