How clever an idea is this? In The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Lives Lynn Knight, beginning with her Grandma’s button box, describes the clothes worn by members of her own family and all the sewing, altering and mending that went on. From this family story she develops a history of women’s clothes, fashions (not at all the same thing), domestic lives and working conditions. For instance, a linen button, taken from the box, leads to an account of what they were used for, how they were made and what life was like for the women who made them. This is social history anyone can enjoy; it’s as easy to read as a novel. I very much like the way quotations from novels are used to illustrate a point.

For people of a certain age (me), there’s a lot of nostalgia in the sections dealing with the fifties onwards. Cuticura! I can’t even remember what it was (something for nails, I imagine), yet the name leapt off the page at me. Paper nylon petticoats! Coty L’Aimant! I even wore that myself in the sixties. Lynn Knight is very good at describing women’s longing for clothes they can’t have/afford, especially in wartime. She is in no doubt that clothes *matter*.
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Imagine finding out that your husband and your father are murderers. Then imagine finding that they are responsible for thousands of deaths. This is the situation of Hedda, once a beautiful Berlin socialite taking no interest in politics: ‘No one ever mentioned “das Judische problem” in the Schroeder household.’ Now she’s unhappily married to handsome Walter Gunther, a high ranking SS officer. By the end of the book her eyes have been opened and she’s a different woman.

When I started this book I wondered if I’d be able to get through it. Even when you already know the facts, reading about a meeting of high ranking officials who are calmly discussing the best methods of killing people is almost too distressing. Luckily, this being fiction, interest in the characters and their fate kept me reading. Although Germany’s military victories (and defeat by the RAF, yay!) are mentioned, the book is about the internal politics of a Germany where the law, medical ethics and Christianity are twisted to justify the cold blooded murder of ‘mentally impaired and chronically ill lebensunwertes leben – those deemed medically to be “unworthy of life” and subjected to what the Führer termed “mercy death,’ And, of course, the Jews.

Walter is a devoted servant of the Reich, anxious to be noticed as such by the high command and willing to obey any order. Karl Muller is a completely different character. Trained as an engineer and then as a doctor, it’s rather a mystery how he managed to achieve a high rank in the SS and be responsible for engineering gas chambers. Unlike Walter, Karl takes no pleasure in his work; he is at first sickened and then wracked by guilt: ‘Karl turned to prayer as an alternative to suicide.’ Karl and Hedda had met years before and their lives become linked again, although not romantically. Karl finds his own method of resistance, knowing where it will lead. Hedda has to deal with a violent husband and a threat to one of her children and becomes a braver person and a more loving mother as a result.

Thérèse Down has written this book to honour those who were part of the lesser known (and mostly Christian) resistance in the newly barbaric Germany. She’s done so successfully and although it’s fiction, The End of Law is a useful addition to the history of the period.

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley.

It’s hard for the British, with all their war myths, to imagine being on the losing side in a world war. Even harder to imagine loving your country while disapproving of the actions of the government. My Shanghai is written in diary form by Eiko, a beautiful young Christian Japanese woman raised and educated in England, where her father was a respected banker. She is married very young to the older, enigmatic Hiro and in 1942 they join the Japanese population of Shanghai. By that time there were 100,000 Japanese people in ‘the Paris of the Orient’ and the city was very cosmopolitan. Eiko has been brought up by her father to have liberal views and to mix happily with people of all races and religions. In Shanghai she soon makes friends amongst the Quakers as well as the Chinese and her fellow Japanese. The diary form of the book actually creates tension; Eiko’s first entries are so innocent but the reader knows what is to come.

The first bad news to hit is that ‘Daddy’, at first under house arrest in London, is interned on the Isle of Man. Then Japan’s alliance with Germany changes attitudes to the many Jewish refugees in Shanghai and they are moved to ‘designated areas’. Poor Eiko. Back in London she had ‘never thought about people being Jewish or not.’ She is especially worried about Irma, her friend and a tireless worker for the refugees. Her Quaker friends become ‘enemy aliens’. First they have to wear distinguishing armbands, then they are sent to internment camps. She gets fond of a young Chinese man to whom she’s been giving English lessons but he disappears, almost certainly to join the Communists. The young son of another friend is so brainwashed at school that he can’t wait to be a pilot in the service of his country. Things get worse and worse. There are food and fuel shortages because all resources must be devoted to the service of Japan. ‘Foreign’ words are banned, as are smart clothes. Japanese women must now dress like peasants.

Shanghai is an occupied city but there are divisions amongst the Chinese, between those who support the Nationalists (the Kuomintang) and those who think they are corrupt and that Communism is the answer. Small wonder that most people keep their heads down and are cautious about what they say in public. Whatever happens, Eiko manages to keep her husband and two little boys happy while running an efficient household with the help of loyal Chinese servants. When the tide starts to turn against Japan Eiko is saddened by news of the ‘heroic’ Kamikaze pilots, regretting the waste of young lives, disliking the military authority for its willingness to sacrifice the young and longing for a negotiated peace. After Japan’s surrender, the tables are truly turned. Brutal Japanese soldiers strutting about insulting the Chinese are replaced by impossibly tall and healthy looking Americans. Eiko’s family has been forced to move several times; first to make way for the Japanese military, eventually being herded into a designated area, just as the Jews had been. A far cry from the privileged luxury Eiko has been used to, yet she never gives up. Eventually the family is repatriated to Japan and the story ends.

Keiko Itoh has written this book as fiction, based on the experiences of her own mother and aunt. Yet it reads like history and I learned an awful lot from it about what it must have been like to live through those times, in that place. Many thanks to the publishers, Renaissance Books, for sending me a copy of such an interesting book, so atmospherically describing a city in turmoil and its unfortunate inhabitants, caught up in ‘interesting times’.

When one thinks of the Sitwells of Renishaw Hall, ‘The Trio’ of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell come first to mind. This book puts the record straight by showing how generations have made their mark on the place since 1625. Unsurprisingly, little is known about these early Sitwells and Sacheverells and their story takes up less than half the book. Nevertheless, they sound an interesting lot. Renishaw is an odd place: a great country house with a coal mine virtually at its gates. Perhaps that’s what gives the house a strangely dark and sinister look from the front. Inside, it’s extremely grand.

The story here really begins with Sir George Sitwell and his three children. Anyone with an interest in gardening knows of his book On the making of Gardens. His landscaping skills are responsible for the beauty of the gardens today. He also made a lovely garden in Italy. Poor Sir George was quite unfairly belittled and despised by his children, especially Osbert, who turned his five volume autobiography into a hate-fest for his unfortunate father. It’s good to see Sir George rehabilitated here as the intelligent man he really was.

Naturally, the artistic achievements of The Trio (such as they were) are dealt with in some detail: Edith’s poetry, Osbert’s writing, the feud with Bloomsbury, their patronage of the arts. They really were important figures after the First World War although today probably only Edith’s poems are considered worth reading. Osbert comes out of this as quite an unpleasant figure and a very vain one. How on earth could he have thought his writing equal to Evelyn Waugh’s? Waugh didn’t quarrel with him over it though because, like so many artistic figures of the time (Rex Whistler, for instance), he loved to visit Renishaw. Some of the greatest treasures at Renishaw are examples of the many paintings of the house and grounds by John Piper. Renishaw Hall is lavishly illustrated and includes reproductions of some of Piper’s striking work. Osbert commissioned his paintings and the author’s conclusion is that his greatest artistic achievement was his patronage of Piper, William Walton and others.

An interesting book, which I enjoyed, although a family tree would have been useful. My thanks to Elliott and Thompson for sending me a copy.

In These Times is exactly what the title suggests, the story of what it was like to live through the French wars. By drawing extensively on private diaries and letters as well as works published at the time, Jenny Uglow has brought a wonderful sense of immediacy to the reaction to great events taking place overseas. In 1793, as in 1914 or 1939, the writers didn’t know what the outcome of the war would be and they express their fears freely. We learn how the war was affecting bankers, manufacturers, farmers, families. One word is constantly repeated: trade. When trade was good, the well-to-do prospered and the poor were fed. When it was bad, banks and businesses failed and ‘Soup kitchens were back in the streets.’ In bad times, people were quick to blame the government and to demand peace. ‘Cobbett and others were now attacking the aristocracy and landed classes as parasites living off the nation, profiting from the war, showing how they influenced elections and made vast sums out of posts, sinecures and fees, patronage, colonies and customs.’ There was a surprising amount of support for Napoleon; Hazlitt, for instance, never ceased to admire him.

I found it pleasing to read how very bloody minded the British were, then as now, at any infringement of what they then termed their ‘liberties’. The press gang, new taxes, the ‘Defence of the Realm Act, passed on 5 April 1798, (which) required county and parish officials to ask every man between fifteen and sixty about his willingness to fight in an invasion, and if he would do so outside his own area.’ were all vigorously attacked, on paper and in physical actions. These were turbulent times: mobs, riots, arson and general disturbances, all savagely put down. We may complain of constant surveillance, but we don’t have soldiers on street corners. Yet.
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US edition

Rebellion (US) or Civil War (UK), is the third title in Peter Ackroyd’s ambitious projected six volume history of England. This book takes us from the accession of James VI & I to the ‘Glorious Revolution’. With his usual astonishing industry and ability to master a wide range of sources quickly, Ackroyd has written a very readable book. Yet I question where the market is for such a book, written by someone who is not a professional historian. It is a straightforward narrative which tells a story rather than explains events; still quite hard going for a reader with no prior knowledge of seventeenth century history. For those already familiar with the subject there is nothing new here and Ackroyd seems to have relied more upon older secondary sources than on new ones for his conclusions.

I’m a great admirer of Ackroyd’s writing on the whole. What I look for from him is the quirky take, the unusual insight. Sadly, I found neither in this book. He is at his best when writing about his favourite subject, London, or about writers and thinkers of the period. I wish he had used this social history as the basis for his book and given us something original.

I read the book courtesy of NetGalley.

UK edition

When I was teaching, I once set a class of young boys the task of writing about certain events in the seventeenth century as they might be reported in a newspaper. One effort began with the striking headline:

My sweet lads. They couldn't spell but they could have made as good a fist at writing historical drama as those responsible for yesterday’s first episode of ITV’s The Great Fire. The hero, Thomas Farriner the baker (Andrew Buchan), was completely modern in looks and speech. The one convincing character was the fictional Lord Denton, played by Charles Dance; the only actor who managed not to look a complete idiot in a wig. Really, it was laughable. And why must all historical dramas impose modern sensibilities on the past? Downton is the worst culprit but it’s true of all of them.
Seventy years today since Churchill made his famous ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech. Listening to it, tears come into my eyes every time he gets to ‘we shall never surrender.’ The speech was made in the House of Commons.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,

What of the myth that when the speech was broadcast, it was read by Norman Shelley? Robert Rhodes James said it was just that, a myth. I’m more convinced by Rhodes James, a reputable historian, than by David Irving.

This is the second new release Persephone have sent me and to be honest I wasn’t much looking forward to reading it because of the heavy subject matter: Ginzburg’s sufferings as a result of Stalin’s Purges of the late 1930s. Anyone coming to this book without prior knowledge of Russian history might think it a work of fiction, so fantastic are the charges brought against Ginzburg and other Party loyalists, so nightmarish the atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

Eugenia Ginzburg was an academic, married and with two children, when she was arrested in 1937, as the Great Purge began. Although completely innocent of ‘terrorism’ she was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment (it turned out to be eighteen years) and this book covers the first three years of her incarceration. For two years she was officially in solitary; then, with other ‘politicals’, she was moved, in a railway truck labelled ‘special equipment’, out to a labour camp which seemed to be at the ends of the earth. She describes the area as ‘neolithic’. If you’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago, the privations described in the book come as no surprise but Ginzburg keeps your interest throughout because it’s such a personal story and she writes so vividly of her fellow prisoners.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of her experiences is the passionate desire to live, when so often it must have seemed easier just to give up and die. Through interrogation, punishment, malnutrition, illness, frostbite, the loss of her family, she never gave up. It’s a great testament to her physical endurance but above all to her mental strength, that she kept going all those years. She stayed sane by reciting poetry, of which she seems to have memorised an astonishing amount. She describes her joy when, officially still in solitary but now with a cell mate, she is able to borrow books from the prison library and the two of them almost go blind, reading, reading, reading in poor light. That was luxury compared with life later on in the camp where so many others died. Once her sentence was completed, Ginzburg was condemned to remain in exile and was not ‘rehabilitated’ until 1955.

There have been criticisms of the book, which Rodric Braithwaite discusses in an Afterword. Ginzburg remained a Communist, blaming Stalin but never Lenin for the ‘mistakes’ which resulted in possibly twenty million deaths. As a Party member, she was perhaps partly responsible for what happened. Fellow survivors have pointed out inconsistencies in her story and have described her as ‘lucky’ or only interested in what happened to her fellow intellectuals. As Braithwaite points out, we who have never lived under a dictatorship have no right to throw stones. Whatever its faults, it’s a remarkable and important book. Into the Whirlwind was first published in the UK in 1967. It makes me angry that even after this and similar testaments appeared, some people in the West, (Eric Hobsbawm, frex), remained wilfully blind to the evils of Soviet rule. As for Philby and his ilk, they are beneath contempt.
Yesterday evening I watched the third programme in the series Ian Hislop’s Olden Days.. His theme was that the more industrialised Britain became, the more people looked back nostalgically to a largely imagined and romanticised rural past. This is a subject often dealt with before, notably by Roy Strong (link to my review). I’m writing about the programme now because of its interest to readers of Girlsown books.

The end of the nineteenth century saw the foundation of the great conservation societies, like The National Trust, which still exist today. One of these was The English Folk Dance and Song Society, founded By Cecil Sharp. There was some wonderful archive film of Sharp himself dancing with others. Seeing the young women in their tunics, waving handkerchiefs, one knew at last exactly what Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey Girls looked like when they were dancing (in The Abbey Girls Go Back to School, for instance). Hislop then moved on to the story of Daisy Daking (article by Hilary Clare), known to EJO’s readers as The Pixie. During the First World War she went to France to teach folk dancing to the troops. When I first read about this (in The New Abbey Girls?) I was very sceptical about what good it could possibly have done but I was quite wrong. It seems that shell shocked and depressed soldiers really did enjoy folk dancing and were very grateful to Daisy for her classes.

This was a very literary programme, moving next to Tolkien, with The Shire as an idealised England based on the countryside Tolkien knew as a boy, which had disappeared for good. We got Philip Larkin as well. I particularly liked Hislop’s conclusion that the countryside was a sort of ‘green portal leading to…a better world'. And as he pointed out, two hundred years from now, people may look back on our own times as ‘the olden days’. I’ve hardly touched on all the ideas in this programme, which is well worth catching on the iPlayer if you missed it.


Ettingham Park by John Piper, 1979. In the University of Warwick art collection.
Ironic, isn’t it, that it was Radio 2, the old Light Programme, which devoted three hours of its schedule yesterday evening to the Kennedy assassination? The minute by minute account owed a lot to Len Deighton’s Bomber. I started listening, but found it too distressing.
Q: Do you remember the Kennedy assassination?
A: Yes, very well.
Q: Was it very shocking?
A: Yes, very shocking.
Q: Did you watch the very first episode of Dr Who?
A: Yes.
Q: Was it frightening?
A: It was fascinating, full of new ideas. The police box that was bigger inside than out! Amazing.

Looking at the BBC’s coverage, one wonders which anniversary they consider the more important.

William Hartnell

Yesterday evening I watched An Adventure in Space and Time, a programme about the making of the first series and about William Hartnell. At times, I thought I was watching The Hour. These programmes seem designed to show off what the props department and costume designers can do. Then having paid all that attention to detail, they get things wrong. Walking Back To Happiness was a hit for the wonderful Helen Shapiro in 1961, not 1964. David Bradley was excellent, as always.

The memorial at Runnymede, UK

I wrote here that I enjoyed Lucy Worsley’s TV programmes (and admired her clothes). Yesterday evening’s offering, A Very British Murder was a huge disappointment. There was about fifteen minutes’ worth of factual information here, padded out to an hour by: Lucy dressed up as Maria Marten and ‘acting’ in the famous melodrama; Lucy singing about William Roper (Maria’s murderer); Lucy dressed up as the notorious murderess Mrs Manning and then playing all the courtroom rôles. It was a complete waste of time.

There’s another issue here. When I read on The Lucy Worsley Blog that ‘It’s publication day for A Very British Murder', I thought, hang on, hasn’t Judith Flanders got a book out on the very same subject? Indeed she has, The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. As the credits appeared at the end of A Very British Murder, I spotted ‘Consultant Judith Flanders’. Guess whose book will sell more copies? The BBC4 programme makers, thinking they’re on to a good thing, are now using Lucy Worsley not as an historian, but as a presenter. I wonder she wastes her time on such tosh.


My advice: read George Orwell's essay, The Decline of the English Murder.

I love spy stories, so I was delighted to be offered the latest book by Robert Harris. An Officer and a Spy is a fictionalised account of l’affaire Dreyfus, one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in modern history and an event which rocked France and aroused international interest. A good subject, but would it be possible to make a thriller out of a story when the outcome is already known? I needn’t have worried. By writing this account as if narrated by one of the people most involved in the case, Robert Harris provides day by day, detailed descriptions of events as they unfold and really brings the past to life for the modern reader. Some of the topical references grated on me slightly, e.g. ‘I had tickets to the Salle d’Harcourt, to attend the first public performance of Monsieur Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’. This is a minor detail; I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed an historical novel more.

In the 1890s, France is still suffering the effects of the disastrous Franco-Prussian war of 1870; the protagonist, Georges Picquart, is himself a displaced Alsacien. The army High Command is full of suspicion and paranoia. The book opens with the degradation of Alfred Dreyfus, found guilty of treason and sentenced to a living hell on Devil Island. The government, the army chiefs and the public are relieved that the traitor who sold secrets to the Germans has been dealt with and the case closed. Enter our hero, army officer Picquart, who has been involved in the trial. Having pleased his masters, he is promoted to Colonel and appointed head of the euphemistically named Statistical Unit, i.e. Intelligence. This puts a few noses out of joint but Picquart is ambitious and takes on a job he doesn’t much relish.

A chance remark by a friend leads him to ‘The tiniest speck of – no, I shall not call it doubt, exactly – let us say curiosity lodges in my mind, and not so much about Dreyfus’s guilt as his punishment.’ The fun begins when he finds evidence of another spy within the army and begins a fresh investigation. ‘At some point I seem to have ceased to be an army officer and become a detective.’ Slowly he comes to the horrifying conclusion that Dreyfus is innocent and the ‘secret dossier’ which convicted him is worthless. His attempts to pursue the other spy and acquit Dreyfus are met with a stone wall of army intransigence. The High Command is prepared to lie and kill in order to cover up its mistake. Picquart is ordered to stop his investigations: ‘…you will drop your pernicious insistence that Dreyfus is innocent. Otherwise the consequences for you will be grave.’ Will Georges have the courage to go on? It’s this dilemma which is at the heart of the book. ‘The thing is, I have no wish to destroy my career. Twenty-four years it has taken me to get this far. Yet my career will be pointless to me – will lose the very elements of honour and pride that make it worth having – if the price of keeping it is to become merely one of the Gonses of this world.’

Picquart does the honourable thing, with dire consequences. In the second part of the book he is no longer alone, as leaks have made some of the details of the case publicly known. He associates with other Dreyfusards: ’On Sundays I begin regularly to go for lunch at the home of Madame Geneviève Straus, the widow of Bizet, on the rue de Miromesnil, along with such new comrades-in-arms as Zola, Clemenceau, Labori, Proust and Anatole France.’ As the end approaches, tension mounts as the two sides battle it out and the world’s press descends on France to report on the sensational events.

The Dreyfus Affair was all about anti-Semitism. The casual way in which officers are pleased to fix on a Jew as culprit, the references to Dreyfus as ‘a regular Jew’, the Parisian crowd baying, ‘Down with the Jews!’ ‘Death to the Jewish traitor!’ are sickening. It comes as no surprise to learn from a footnote that one of the army conspirators was later ‘Head of Jewish Affairs in Vichy France.’ Sadly, much about the Dreyfus case is still relevant, both the anti-Semitism and the issue of the power of the state, which could organise a Kafka-esque conspiracy against an innocent individual. In these days when few people seem to learn any history, An Officer and a Spy provides an excellent introduction to French politics before the First World War and is also a fast paced spy story. Highly recommended.

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley. To be published by Random House on 26th September. ISBN 9780091944551

Astonishingly, you can hear the voice of Dreyfus in 1912 here.

For the past few days I’ve occasionally been leaving my quiet, rural retreat to join the crowds thronging the streets of Victorian London. I’ve been almost deafened by the continuous roar of noise around me, half choked and blinded by the sooty, smoky air. I’ve gawped at funerals, executions, fires, runaway horses and street accidents. I’ve eaten on the hoof, buying breakfast on the way to work and if I’m lucky getting a chop and a pint of ale for dinner. I’ve had to struggle to walk through the human traffic jams, dodged the wheeled traffic, avoided the eager traders and hawkers with their familiar cries. It’s been exhausting, smelly, dirty, overwhelming; but my goodness, it’s been living, in a city that never sleeps. Charles Lamb wrote, ‘I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much Life.’

Judith Flanders says that Dickens ‘invented London’. She means that what we think of as ‘Dickens’ London’, a place full of wildly eccentric people and improbable happenings, was in fact the real thing: ‘Much of what we take today to be the marvellous imaginings of a visionary novelist turn out on inspection to be the reportage of a great observer.’ Certainly, many of the incidents she records seem stranger than fiction. ‘In Dickens’ own time, the way that people lived was not Dickensian, merely life.’ The city was transforming itself at incredible speed. ‘Migration, particularly from Ireland during the Famine years towards the middle of the century, resulted in the eighteenth-century infrastructure of London being swamped by the huge mass of its nineteenth-century residents. Transport, sanitation, food distribution, housing: none could cope with the numbers pouring into the capital every day.’ No wonder that life was lived so much on the streets.
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Our library currently has a small display representing an olde tyme kitchen. It caught my eye at once because when I was a child we had a kitchen cabinet very similar to this one; ours was pale yellow. They were very useful. You have two cupboards at the top with glazed doors. In the middle, a flap lifts down like a desk top to make a work surface. ISTR ours had an enamel inlay so that you could roll out pastry on it. More storage at the back. Underneath, two drawers and two more cupboards. When I asked permission to take photos, I was told that there’s a bigger exhibition at our local artsy centre, so I must find time to get down there. People love all this stuff now, and seek it out. When I told the librarian that ‘we used to have one’, she replied, ‘so many people have said that!’
I’m expecting some glad cries of recognition.
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image from The National Army Museum site

Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of The Churchills,
David Starkey’s new series about Winston Churchill and his illustrious ancestor John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. Dr Starkey has a thesis and sets out the argument in his usual forthright way. The gist is that spending ten years writing his biography of John Churchill turned Winston (as Starkey calls him in a rather familiar, Thatcher-y way), into a great war leader. The subject would make an interesting lecture, or perhaps an essay to be included in a published collection. This being television, it’s spread over three hour-long episodes. It got off to a good start, grabbing the viewer’s attention with a voice over quotation which seemed to be about the Second World War but was in fact about The War of the Spanish Succession. My problem was with the visuals, not the script.

Dr Starkey is probably right to say that the earlier conflict is ‘largely forgotten.’ The eighteenth century is an unpopular study area these days and a history student could probably get through school and university and remain ignorant of the battles of Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet. So it’s sensible to begin at Blenheim Palace and explain just why it was built. We saw Starkey inside Blenheim (bizarrely decked out for Christmas at the time of filming); Starkey outside Blenheim, wearing a rather fetching green overcoat; Starkey talking to camera. Hang on, isn’t it rather boring for the viewer just to see a talking head? Liven it up. Oh help, the livening up. The lecture was constantly intercut with either archive film of Nazi Germany or clips from terrible old films. Do you know Ballet Shoes? Remember the film about Charles II in which Pauline played his sister? That sort of thing. Louis XIV persecutes Protestants: cue film of Jewish refugees disembarking, just as the Huguenots had arrived in England centuries before. Mention Charles II or James II: show old black and white movie. Some viewers may have been confused.

Dr Starkey is aiming to show that studying the early eighteenth century campaigns gave Winston Churchill a better understanding of Europe in the 1930s. Seeing Louis XIV’s ambition of achieving hegemony in Europe helped him to suspect Hitler’s aims before other people did. Eventually England faced the same choice as in the days of John Churchill: stand aside and let the tyrant take over Europe, or intervene and put a stop to him. The programme dealing with that aspect should be interesting. Not that I was at all bored by yesterday’s episode, just irritated by the constant use of rather pointless illustration and the spinning out of what I would have preferred to be a concisely told story. David Starkey is right, in my opinion, to admire Churchill, but I found his claims for Churchill the historian unconvincing. Nothing would induce me to read Churchill’s massive biography of Marlborough; ‘word pictures’ and endless description do not make the kind of history I like to read. Argument-based history and analysis is what I like and you rarely see it on TV; so in spite of the annoyances, I’ll be watching again next week.

‘Over the five days of the trial, thousands of Isabella Robinson’s secret words were read out to the court, and the newspapers printed almost every one. Her journal was detailed, sensual, alternately anguished and euphoric, more godless and abandoned than anything in contemporary English fiction.’

The trial referred to was the divorce case of Robinson v Robinson and Lane. It was scandalous, as any divorce was then, and only made possible by the ’Matrimonial Causes’ Act of 1857. What made it such a curious case was that the evidence against Mrs Robinson was based entirely on what she had written in her diary. The learned judges had to decide whether what she wrote was fact or the product of a fevered imagination. In effect, she was either guilty of adultery or mad.

Isabella was a widow with a son when she married Henry Robinson, a prosperous engineer. The couple had two more sons, but the marriage was not a success. They lived for a while in Moray Place, Edinburgh; Cornflower has kindly provided some location photos here. This was a good address. ‘To rent a house in Moray Place cost between £140 and £160 a year in 1844, according to Black’s Guide’. The Robinsons moved in professional and upper middle class circles of the ‘rational thinking’ and progressive kind, people interested in science and ‘improvement’. Their friends included the phrenologist George Combe and Robert Chambers, the publisher, and their closest relationship was with the family of Edward Lane. Dr Lane was an advanced thinker, a believer in hydropathy and the benefits of letting nature cure sickness. His wife Mary was born a Drysdale and her brother George wrote a book on sexual philosophy. Lane later set up his own clinic at Moor Park, Farnham in Surrey, where Charles Darwin was frequently treated. I mention all this to highlight the double standards which prevailed at the time of the trial, when men who held advanced views and had been happy at one time to enjoy Mrs Robinson’s conversation, were quick to distance themselves from her once her reputation had gone.
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I was reading an article in today’s Telegraph about telly-dons and why it’s wrong to be snobbish about them. In the bitchy world of university historians, it seems, no sooner does a colleague dare to appear on television than he or she loses credibility as a serious historian. What? Once a chap like David Starkey has spent half a lifetime buried in Tudor documents, why shouldn’t he make some money by sharing his knowledge with the rest of us?

Not that he’s free from bitchiness himself. He apparently criticised Lucy Worsley for what he termed ‘historical Mills and Boon’ on television. I do have some sympathy with this view, having a great aversion to mob cap history, but in spite of that, I’ve found all her programmes lively and interesting. She may look about twelve with her little hair slides, but she is, after all, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Hardly a job you get by looking cute. Also (my turn to be shallow) I really like her clothes, especially the teal coat and purple gloves combo. She’s wearing the coat again for her latest series, Antiques Uncovered but is outshone by the dandyism of co-presenter Mark Hill. Ooh, those velvet collars take me back. In yesterday’s episode he even sported a curly brimmed bowler, very appropriate for the Victorian seaside artefacts they were looking at. It’s social history and if it’s also popular (damning word) history, it's none the worse for that.

I wish Mary Beard hadn’t bothered to respond to A A Gill’s insulting and pointless remarks about her appearance. ‘Leave it Mare! ‘e’s not worth it!’ She looks what she is, a fifty seven year old woman who doesn’t worry much about her image. Why should she? In the last episode of Meet the Romans she had me crying over little dead Roman babies. If that’s not bringing the past to life, what is? I hope to see lots more programmes like this one, fronted by older women with grey hair. The British are supposed to like eccentricity. Do we really want homogenised presenters, all toned and bronzed and with their teeth fixed until you can't tell one from another?

I ordered Helen Rappaport’s book from the library, which whizzed it over from Weymouth in no time. It tells the story of Prince Albert’s death and Victoria’s reaction to it in exhaustive detail. The subtitle ‘the death which changed the monarchy’ is less well dealt with in my opinion.

This book reads like a novel; I read it far more quickly than would be usual with a non-fiction work. By page eighty two the prince is dead and the rest of the book is devoted to the results of that calamity. Since officials had played down the seriousness of the prince’s condition, the news shocked the nation. Bells tolled throughout the land and people packed the churches, just as even in this Godless age they do in response to shocking events like the death of Princess Diana and 9/11. The queen’s hysterical grief and the following forty years of mourning are well documented. Some of her behaviour, such as preserving Albert’s room exactly as it was when he died (his shaving water replaced daily) and having a portrait of him hanging over ‘his’ side of the bed wherever she stayed now seems bordering on madness. Yet the queen was completely sane, if suffering from what we now call depression. For years she blackmailed her family, her ministers and the country in order to avoid public duties she felt unequal to carrying out alone, as she always emphasized. Although in robust health she played the weak little woman card for as long as she could.
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January 2017



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