The History Woman's Blog

The British view of a nation that never was

Posted in History, Politics, Reviews by thehistorywoman on October 16, 2016

Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros (1515). © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Kupferstichkabinett.

Dürer’s rhino, Luther’s Bible, Bismarck dressed as a blacksmith, a VW Beetle and a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp – the exhibits of the ‘Germany – Memories of a Nation’ show seem both somewhat random and predictable.

What I was missing most of all was a grand narrative guiding me through the exhibition, directing my view from one item to the next with that inevitable logic with which A leads to B leads to C, although, as a historian, I should really know better.

I was probably expecting the museum counterpart of the undergraduate introduction to modern German history, ‘From Bismarck to Hitler’, or, if we want to start in the early modern period, ‘From Luther to Hitler’. And this being a British exhibition originally created for a British audience about its World War II enemy, some of that was certainly there. But it seems that the collaboration between curator Barrie Cook of the British Museum, and his former boss, Neil MacGregor, also tried to avoid too much coherence and inevitability, and that was probably a good thing.

Yes, there was the Reformation with the invention of the printing press and Luther’s Bible translation, there was the Thirty Years’ War, there were references to the nationalist movements of the early nineteenth century with their romanticised depictions of the German countryside, and space dedicated to Bismarck’s German unification of 1871. Yet, none of those movements settled the national question in any sort of definite or satisfactory way. The Reformation left Germany divided into Catholic and Protestant states and any subsequent attempts at German unity were overshadowed by the question who should or should not belong to the club.

There was surprisingly little about World War I, but a broad selection of bank notes illustrating the hyperinflation of the Great Depression, while World War II was represented more through images of suffering in concentration camps or destroyed cities like Dresden rather than by the standard narrative of Hitler’s rise and fall. Post-war German history was represented by the new division of East and West, a labyrinthine model of Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station as a central border crossing and the rather unexpected wetsuit worn by an East German in his attempt to defect to the West by swimming across the Baltic Sea. You need a lot of imagination to fill the gaps. (more…)

Improving the Nation

Posted in Early Modern, History, Reviews, Seventeenth Century, Uncategorized by thehistorywoman on March 26, 2016

Slack_imageIn his new book, The Invention of Improvement, Paul Slack sets out to do two things: first, to trace the ‘notion of improvement’ in seventeenth-century ‘public discourse’ (vii) in England; and secondly to show how ‘the quest for improvement distinguished England from other countries.’ (1)

Slack has not set himself an easy task as he analyses the concept of improvement in its ‘intellectual and political as well as social and economic’ (14) context across an entire century. But he does so most elegantly and eloquently, and the wealth of primary sources – both printed and archival – he employs shows that this book has been many years in the making and draws on decades of research. In fact, the work stands out more for its author’s extensive knowledge of the period, the great synthesis of a large amount of scholarship and the lucidity of its analysis than for the novelty of its argument as such.

For the book is unashamedly ‘Whiggish’ as a ‘story of progress’ (263), as its author acknowledges, telling the story of England’s rise as a great nation based on the steady and ambitious improvement of agriculture, manufacture and trade, which would lay the foundations for its Empire.

The motor of this ‘gradual, piecemeal, but cumulative betterment’ (1) were a number of creative minds dedicated to the task of making England more efficient through the application of their learning in the form of new social schemes and institutions. The foundations for improvement had already been laid under Queen Elizabeth and the early Stuarts with men like William Cecil and Francis Bacon, but things really began to take off with the English Revolution and the various projects of the Hartlib Circle, which combined utopian speculation and social reform.

In fact, it was Samuel Hartlib, who introduced the very word ‘improvement’ in its current meaning into English public discourse when he translated Jan Comenius’ Pansophiae Prodromus (1639), ‘and in doing so referred for the first time in print to improvement.’ (99) (more…)

Incredible universities

Posted in Academia, literature, Reviews by thehistorywoman on December 1, 2015

imageWhen I left my last academic job, a good friend and colleague gave me Ian McGuire’s campus novel Incredible Bodies, in case I would have any regrets. Like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, it’s a satirical novel about academic life and the dysfunctional characters that populate our universities and take themselves way too seriously, while pretending to shift the paradigms of this world with their research.

At the centre of the novel is Morris Gutman, a thirty-something over-worked and underpaid temporary lecturer in the English Lit department at the University of Coketown, who is still learning the ropes of the system while others are embarking on successful careers.

The aptly-named Gutman is a Candide-like character, who naively stumbles through the academic world thinking hard work, original ideas and compliance will eventually land him a permanent academic position. Alas, he soon comes to find out that it’s all about politics and whether or not certain people in power like you.

Only when an unfortunate car accident and a misunderstanding involving a challenging exchange student and a scheming colleague bring him closer to the centres of power, do his fortunes finally begin to change. (more…)

The English Revolution and its Patriotic Exiles

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on December 27, 2014

Major caseDespite the plethora of literature that has been published on the English Revolution and Restoration over the years, the topic of exile during this most exciting period of British history remains an understudied area. There is still much unseen primary source material to be uncovered in European and North American archives and plenty of gaps in knowledge to be filled. With Writings of Exile in the English Revolution and Restoration Philip Major has taken the plunge and produced a fascinating yet somewhat disjointed book.

Tackling Edward Hyde as the ‘Case Study of a Royalist Exile’ the first chapter engages with ‘many of the key corollaries of dislocation and dispossession with which royalist exiles are habitually preoccupied’, including ‘the loss and reassertion of identity; displays of stoicism, patriotism, friendship and nostalgia’ and the ‘intense debate on the discernment of divine providence’. These are accessed through ‘a close reading of Hyde’s Contemplations and Reflections on the Psalms of David’ (27) begun during his first exile on Scilly, Jersey and elsewhere during the 1640s and 50s and completed during his second exile in Montpellier in the late 1660s and 70s.

Chapter 2 on ‘Ceremony and Grief in the Royalist Exile’ explores the reaction of royalists ‘to the death of fellow exiles, as well as friends and family left behind in England’ (67). Major highlights the extent to which the use of the Book of Common Prayer in burial rituals as well as other Episcopalian traditions gave displaced royalists a shared sense of identity, while deaths within the exile community also enhanced Prince Charles’s public role and helped to revive the patriarchal image of King Charles I, which after the regicide was transferred to his son.

Chapter 3 deals with ‘Royalist Internal Exile’, primarily focusing on the banishment of royalists from London and their confinement to the countryside where focus on friendship networks and shared value systems and traditions resonated with issues pertinent to external exiles.

In his final chapter, Major then turns to the regicide ‘William Goffe in New England’ after the Restoration, showing that some of the key themes of exile such as ‘the choice of the place of refuge; the symbolism of the journey into exile; the critical importance of correspondence; the influential, sustaining role of Christian … belief; … and the attitudes of the exile towards the homeland from which he has been displaced’ (139) were similar to those we find in Hyde. Intriguingly, Major also observes that we find parallels between Goffe’s and Hyde’s use of the Psalms and other Biblical texts in their exile writings revealing their shared Protestant experience. (more…)

Divided Heaven – 25 years later

Posted in History, literature, Reviews by thehistorywoman on November 9, 2014
East German writer Christa Wolf (1929-2011).

East German writer Christa Wolf (1929-2011).

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall I have finally finished reading Divided Heaven by the East German writer Christa Wolf. It is a love story ended by the separation of the two Germanies, completed by the construction of the Wall, which aimed to prevent the defection of Eastern Germans to the West.

Divided Heaven, first published in 1963.

Divided Heaven, first published in 1963.

In Wolf’s novel the female protagonist Rita, a young woman from the East training to be a teacher, is in love with the academic Manfred, who one day fails to return from a conference in West Berlin. Manfred sends Rita a letter from the West, asking her to join him. But even before she visits him in the fateful summer of 1961 she knows that she cannot stay.

Rita’s heart is in the East – with the people in her little village and with the workers in the factory, where she spends her summers. She is not attracted to the well-stocked shops in the West or the flashing lights of the big city, and in the end her love for her home, her socialist ideals and her wish for a break with the Nazi past is greater than her desire to be with the man who betrayed her trust.

The Berlin Wall, built in 1961.

The Berlin Wall, built in 1961.

It is an odd story to read twenty-five years after the socialist dream collapsed. It is a book that sheds a very different light on what it was like to live in the East. While Wolf does not shy away from criticising the rigid rules, the hypocrites and the corruption of the GDR system, she also shows the reader that there were real people with real ideals on the other side.

As usual with many failed political systems it was not the ideas, but the brutal manner of their execution that led to their downfall.


Laughing about Hitler

Posted in History, literature, Politics, Reviews, Twentieth Century by thehistorywoman on July 22, 2014

Look-Whos-BackIs it ok to laugh about Hitler? This seems to be the one big question critics have been asking themselves about Timor Vermes’s Look Who’s Back – a novel about Adolf Hitler waking up in 21st-century Berlin seeing a confusingly modern world through a Nazi lense.

Some teenage boys playing football on a field must be the Hitler Youth training, the large number of Turks in Berlin an indicator that they did support Germany in World War II after all. But Hitler is also impressed by the clever demagogy of the German Bild newspaper with its many pictures and extra large type, regretting that ‘the zealous Goebbels’ did not have that idea first, or the Nazis would have found ‘much more enthusiasm’ for their ‘cause’ amongst the elderly population.

The sight of what they take to be a Hitler lookalike shocks many Germans in the book. Yet, none of them take him seriously. They all think he must be a method actor and comedian out to challenge and provoke the German public, testing the limits of freedom of speech. Instead of arresting him for war crimes, Hitler is thus given his own TV show, where he is allowed to do and say whatever he wants as long as he agrees that ‘the Jews are no laughing matter’. (more…)

Lies, secrets and death on the eve of the Glorious Revolution

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on July 10, 2014

The Bitter Trade 3D Front Right WebThe Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander is a historical novel set in the murky world of London’s coffee houses on the eve of the Glorious Revolution. The son of an English dissenter and a French Huguenot, its young redhead hero Calumny Spinks lives under the shadow of his father’s dark secret dating back to Oliver Cromwell’s time which takes his mother’s life and traps him in the poverty of the weaving milieu.

Yet, he is determined to escape his fate and make his way in the world in the newly emerging coffee trade, which is at times only fractionally above board. Along the way, he meets crooks and wise men and a range of strong women, who teach him a thing or two about life and love, and that hardly anyone is who they appear to be at first sight.

Torn between the scheming daughter of a wealthy coffee trader, a popish seamstress and the waitress of a coffee house, who all carry their own secrets, Calumny stumbles from one adventure to the next as he uses his wit and ability to imitate voices to climb up the social ladder.

Calumny Spinks, telling name and all, is an old-fashioned hero, his first-person narrative of the chancer in dire straits reminding the reader of the picaresque novel of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Yet, Alexander wears his history lightly. (more…)

Tracking down the regicides

Posted in Early Modern, History, literature, Republicanism, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on June 1, 2014

Kings_Revenge_ImageI don’t read much popular history, and that is probably a mistake. By ignoring countless works written for a mass audience I miss what attracts most people to my subject area: a good story that is actually true, or at least could be true, reconstructed from sources scattered all over the archives and joined by creative ingenuity.

With historical writing, the lines between fiction and non-fiction are frequently blurred. Academic historians tend to lay claim to objectivity by comparing countless sources and weighing up possibilities and arguments, while novelists might have invested a similar amount of time to research but openly admit that they made up the missing bits and, most importantly, the majority of the action and dialogue.

There is some consolation in the fact that for any number of bodice rippers there is probably one Wolf Hall or, an old favourite of mine, An Instance of the Fingerpost, while for any number of bad popular history books, there is one like The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History. Its authors Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, writers, filmmakers and journalists, have done an excellent job researching the fate of the regicides of Charles I, many of whom had to escape from the British Isles at the Restoration of the Stuarts. Some went to the colonies and others to Europe, while those who remained in the country had to keep their heads down or arrange themselves with the new authorities.

I’m not sure whether ‘manhunt’ really adequately describes the actions of the new Stuart government against the regicides, as Charles II did not in all cases explicitly sent out the bloodhounds. After all, he had promised to forgive and forget in his Declaration of Breda (1660). Most of his ‘agents’ were shady ‘volunteers’ who aimed for reward or attempted to prove their doubtful loyalty to the new regime, while orders to find and assassinate the exiles more often than not were given indirectly by those close to the King, such as his sister, the Duchess of Anjou, in France, or driven by a vengeful Parliament of angry Cavaliers.

Nevertheless, the book describes in much detail the actions of the regicides, the precariousness of their situation after the Restoration, the martyrdom of some and the constant fear of those who survived at home and abroad, knowing that an assassin might come for them any time. (more…)

Grumpy George and his family: The First Georgians at the Queen’s Gallery

Posted in Art, Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, History, Reviews by thehistorywoman on May 25, 2014
David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

The first Georgians must have been a grumpy lot. At least this is the impression visitors of the exhibition The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760 get. For all the publicity materials show a smiling David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel painted by William Hogarth, while none of the pictures of George I (1660-1727) currently displayed at the Queen’s Gallery were apparently friendly enough to make it onto the posters.

The oil painting of the king of Great Britain and Ireland, and elector of Hanover by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which greets viewers at the entrance of the gallery, looks rather stern and serious as if George was weighed down by his newly acquired role. The Act of Settlement (1701) had transferred the succession to the English throne to his mother, Sophia of Hanover as the next protestant in line. As she died shortly before Queen Anne, George had to uproot from his native Germany to take up his new responsibilities. Indeed he did not seem to have much to smile about.

Speaking little English and not exactly welcomed with open arms by his new subjects, he had arrived in Britain without his wife Sophia Dorothea, who had abandoned him and, as a punishment for her adultery with a Swedish count, was imprisoned in her native Celle. George I was also alienated from his eldest son, the future George II; and, of course, there was the Jacobite threat to consider.

King George I, from the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller. / Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

King George I, from the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller. / Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

The exhibition shows a deceptively harmonious-looking oil painting by Pierre Mignard of the alternative royal family of the Catholic James II around 1694, by now safely exiled to France. Yet, the Jacobite threat would persist, and uprisings, such as those of 1715 and 1745 would make the new Hanoverian dynasty feel uneasy on their throne. This is also documented through the many military maps displayed in the exhibition, some of them used by George II’s younger son William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721-65) on his campaign in the Scottish Highlands. Nevertheless, 300 years ago this Hanoverian dynasty began an unbroken line of succession to the present monarch Queen Elizabeth II.

There are more playful elements to the exhibition that reveal happier times and interesting personalities within the royal family. For instance, there is Queen Caroline’s Wunderkammer of small treasures, containing little hardstone carvings of the Tudors, or wax and ivory carvings of various family members alongside miniature paintings and enamels by the Dresden-born artist Christian Friedrich Zincke. In fact, there are many items in the exhibition that remind the viewer of the royal family’s German origins.

Apparently, the family had a particular liking for the work of Hans Holbein the Younger, and Queen Caroline discovered a complete set of his drawings, while one of the more famous items displayed in the exhibition is the oil portrait of Sir Henry Guildford (1489-1532), one of Henry VIII’s companions of his younger years.

There are also ornate items of furniture, gilded chairs and marble-topped side tables, as well as a silver dinner service, from which the family would eat English, German and French dishes. Alongside Meissen porcelain the viewer can also admire Chelsea plates with garden motives and a rather absurd-looking asparagus-shaped needle case.

Royal hobbies are reflected in the beautiful harpsichord next to a marble bust of Georg Friedrich Händel, while a number of sporting guns for game shooting reveal a taste for rather more bloody pursuits.



The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, open until 12 October 2014.


English republicans on film in New Worlds

Posted in Early Modern, History, Republicanism, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on April 27, 2014

I never thought I would see Algernon Sidney on TV. Now I have – on the recent Channel 4 drama New Worlds, which looks at English radicalism during the Exclusion Crisis. He is cast as the grand old man of republicanism (Donald Sumpter, made to look much older than Sidney’s 60 years) who has survived Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration to pass on the torch of the “good old cause” to the next generation. “Let this hand be an enemy to tyrants”, says Abe Goffe (Jamie Dornan) to Ned Hawkins (Joe Dempsie), as they link theirs before the latter returns to right the wrongs in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the New World, while the former, the fictional son of the regicide William Goffe (James Cosmo), who died across the Atlantic, is determined to set an end to the Stuart monarchy in England.

The photogenic young cast of 'New Worlds' (from left: Alice Englert, Jamie Dornan, Freya Mavor, and Joe Dempsie)

The photogenic young cast of ‘New Worlds’ (from left: Alice Englert, Jamie Dornan, Freya Mavor, and Joe Dempsie)

The words written by Sidney into the visitors’ book at the University of Copenhagen in 1659, have become the motto of the new generation. Nevermind that he originally wrote them down in Latin, “manus haec inimica tyrannis”, they now stand for the young radicals’ hatred of monarchy (and would later become the official motto of the state of Massachusetts in the USA). Yet, Sidney himself has mellowed. When Abe goes to meet him for help and advice in episode three, Sidney is no longer keen to rid the world of all kings, he wants to subject them to parliamentary rule to avoid another Civil War.

So Sidney and Goffe get involved in the Rye House Plot to kill Charles II (Jeremy Northam) and his younger brother James, Duke of York (Samuel James), as they are travelling back from the races at Newmarket to replace the King with the Duke of Monmouth (Tom Payne) as a constitutional ruler. When the plot is foiled and discovered they are arrested at Sidney’s home and taken to the Tower. The papers seized from his desk, the manuscript of his Discourses Concerning Government (published posthumously in 1698) are used in evidence against him to prove his hatred of monarchy and murderous intentions. Thus he has to die the death of a traitor in episode four, swearing off violence before he departs from this world, while Ned smuggles his writings into Boston, from where they inspire a new generation of Americans hoping for indepndence from Britain.

While most critics found the much anticipated New Worlds badly written, soulless and disappointing as the sequel to the amazingly popular Devil’s Whore by the same creators Peter Flannery and Martine Brant, I was most interested in the historiographical aspects of the four-part series. The Whig myths around the regicides seem alive and well outside the world of academic history. William Goffe is confirmed as the Angel of Hadley, who defends the English settlers from an attack by Indians before jumping to his death, while Algernon Sidney is confirmed as the mellowed republican and respectable defender of constitutional monarchy, brought to the scaffold by a cruel and unjust government.

As a historian I was also somewhat disappointed that the creators of New Worlds found it necessary to introduce two very contrived love stories, between Abe Goffe and Beth Fanshawe (Freya Mavor) in England, and between Ned Hawkins and Hope Russell (Alice Englert) in the colonies, to get their audience interested in one of the most exciting periods of English history. While I enjoyed some of the period detail and was pleased to see that there are film-makers who share my passion for the seventeenth century, I nevertheless think that the original sources tell the most exciting stories, and that someone should be bold enough to produce a historical drama without artificial enhancements and changes to the original plot. Seventeenth-century history as reality TV, a documentary filmed as drama, now that would create truly new worlds.