Books of the Year: History

From the American Civil War to the rise of feminism: how great battles have shaped the world we live in

Sweeping epic or intimate chronicle? The best of this year's histories deal magnificently with these contrasting methods of configuring the past. And two of the year's most exciting books are defined by the scope of their ambition. Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire (Allen Lane, £30) illuminates one of the least-known episodes of British history: our complex, hypocritical and tormented engagement in the American Civil War. The use of a vast range of primary sources builds a powerful emotional immediacy, while her lucid handling of the diplomatic dodging which twice brought the countries to the brink of war lends the narrative a 19th-century grand manner.

Keith Jeffery's MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (Bloomsbury, £30) has a similarly daunting range, though its literary affinities lie more with Graham Greene or John Banville. The shady glamour of the spook industry is here in abundance, but Jeffery provides a panoramic account of the politics of the world's best-known espionage service throughout the 20th century. Le mythe gaullien remains the most potent in French history during the same period. Was the hero of France's finest hour a brilliant visionary whose nobility saved the honour of a nation? Or a dogmatic nationalist whose inability to compromise marginalised both himself and his country? Jonathan Fenby's wry, sympathetic biography of Charles de Gaulle, The General (Simon & Schuster, £30), is a brilliant investigation of both man and myth, engaging with the contentious role of the Free French in the Second World War and with France's struggle to re-establish herself as a global power in its aftermath.

Edith Cavell, the wartime nurse who helped more than 200 men to escape the front line, is a heroine on both sides of the Channel. Diana Souhami's biography (Quercus, £25) champions the courage and leadership which made a pioneer of this clergyman's daughter, who fought as much for the perception of women as she did for the men she rescued.

Royal history, too, is all about defiant women this year. Helen Castor's She Wolves (Faber, £20) considers the tumultuous careers of the Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margueret of Anjou. The precedents established by these women were essential in resolving the Tudor succession crisis of 1553. Giles Tremlett's Catherine of Aragon (Faber, £20), meanwhile, uses fresh Spanish sources to present a passionate and tenacious woman who fought dramatically to retain her rights.

In Death and the Virgin (Weidenfeld, £20), Chris Skidmore conjures an Elizabethan whodunnit from the mysterious death of Amy Robsart, the wife of Elizabeth I's long-term admirer Robert Dudley.

Lucy Worsley's Courtiers (Faber, £20) is also concerned with intrigue and bloody ambition, albeit in the more polite world of Kensington Palace. Taking the 16 courtiers represented in William Kent's Grand Staircase painting, Worsley herds them through the glittering confusion of the court so vividly that one can hear them scheming.

Nella Last in the 1950s (Profile, £8.99), edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson, is a poignant reminder of the pleasures of micro-history. So recent, yet so irrevocably lost, the 1950s Cumbria of this third volume of diaries is a place of gentle pleasures and careful economies, set against Nella's perceptive comments on political anxieties and the ongoing drama of her husband's nervous breakdown.

Dominic Sandbrook's State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 (Allen Lane, £30) makes an effective case for the decade of discontent as the cradle of contemporary Britain. Five states of emergency may have been called in three years, yet the 1970s produced much which we now take for granted, from feminism to chicken tikka. The real delight of the book is the sense of temps retrouvé an older generation of readers may find in Nella Last. Twentieth-century history is tantalisingly close, yet the quaint deferentiality which stubbornly pertains in Sandbrook's dingy new world aligns it more closely with Nella's; a reminder of just how dramatically different are our own times.

Lisa Hilton's books include 'Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens' (Phoenix, £9.99)