Christmas books: History

The way we lived then
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The Independent Culture

Historians have their own history, with its arcs of ascent and descent, its tales of dynasties and disciples, its tides of influence and oblivion. One great and very public crash came last year when David Irving left the High Court, after his failed libel action against Penguin, legally labelled as an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier. D D Guttenplan's The Holocaust on Trial (Granta, £17.99) ably recounts the hubris and nemesis of a gifted military historian who has (it would appear) not much in the way of heart or soul.

Perhaps that's an occupational hazard. Joanna Bourke caught a lot of flak from the battlefield buffs recently when her brief and salutary People's History of the Second World War (Oxford, £14.99) kept its sights firmly trained on the suffering of civilians – especially women and children. Readers in search of the warped method behind all that madness should find the paperback of Michael Burleigh's magnificent The Third Reich: a new history (Pan, £9.99) – a worthy winner of this year's Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction.

In Britain, few historians have risen so high or cast so broad a shadow as J H – Sir John – Plumb. The Cambridge godfather of rigorous but readable wide-angle narrative died this autumn. However, a small army of his former students still shape our view of the past – on the box and on the bookshelves alike. One Plumb protégé, Simon Schama, continued his multi-media march through this island's story, both on TV and with an eloquent bestseller about the bloodstained 17th and 18th centuries, The British Wars 1603-1776 (BBC, £25). Another Plumbite, Niall Ferguson, blended economics and statecraft in masterly (if sometimes contentious) fashion with a survey of the links between finance and power since 1700, The Cash Nexus (Allen Lane, £20). Does money talk? Of course, but never quite as loudly as politics and ideology. Hard luck, Mr Melmotte.

Another Plumb pupil, the prolific Roy Porter, published an often hilarious illustrated account of doctors and their (pretty low) image before the 20th century, Bodies Politic (Reaktion, £25). Porter also has to his credit the paperback of his tremendous overview, Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world (Penguin, £7.99). Yet another busy Plumb-er was David Cannadine, now boss of the Institute of Historical Research. In Ornamentalism: how the British saw their empire (Allen Lane, £18.99), he claimed, with some panache, that the British Empire was built far more on class snobbery and dressing-up rituals than on racial prejudice. Put crudely, the sahibs generally preferred the company of someone posh and dark to any homegrown oik. Pashas or paramount chiefs ranked much higher than (say) the poor bloody infantry of the British army. Those men terrified Wellington, but they come into their own with Richard Holmes's moving history of footsloggers in the age of muskets and floggings, Redcoat (HarperCollins, £20).

Scum of the maritime sort had their spell in the limelight with The Many-headed Hydra by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker (Verso, £19). This compelling history of the "revolutionary Atlantic" portrays pirates, sailors, dockers, sea-going whores and other dregs of the ocean and coast as briny rebels, who resisted the global commercial order and even disrupted the slave trade for decades. Long John Silver as a guerrilla hero, anyone?

Other colourful delinquents throng the pages of Sarah Bakewell's The Smart (Chatto & Windus, £17.99). With a brio that matches her subject, Bakewell follows the adventures of the tart and swindler Caroline Rudd in rackety Georgian London, and the fate of the poor (male) saps she fleeced. A shade reluctantly, Bakewell concludes that her deeply seductive anti-heroine still has to rate as a rather Bad Girl.

Whereas Marie Antoinette, in Antonia Fraser's absorbing and persuasive new biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), appears as the guiltless, luckless foreign "scapegoat for the monarchy's failure" in France. She lost her head but not her dignity. Fraser's revisionist defence of the more-sinned-against-than-sinning Queen is sensitive but not at all sentimental.

That judgement also applies to the iconic wives discussed by Alison Weir in Henry VIII: king and court (Cape, £20). Weir even redeems the portly monarch from the stereotypes of posterity, paying attention to the cultural sophistication of the young, almost-slim ruler's court.

In the case of one former Keeper of the Queen's Pictures, artistic erudition and court status hid a multitude of sins. With Anthony Blunt: his lives (Macmillan, £20), Miranda Carter not only delivers an irresistible biography of the Tory-Communist traitor, but anatomises the mid-century British elite with a fine surgical scepticism.

More elite mystifications bite the dust in Matthew Sweet's witty and provocative squib Inventing the Victorians (Faber & Faber, £16.99). The gloomy Queen's reign receives a total makeover, emerging as a raucous playground of sex, drugs and consumerism. An over-reaction to the legend of stocking-clad piano-legs? Possibly; but it's a fizzing treat of a polemic, too.

Fresh views of the past also shape the sumptuous Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History (Penguin, £30). Information-rich maps – from Stonehenge to the Superstore – blend well with fluent narration. The cartography gives a visual form to new discoveries: about Roman troops on Hadrian's Wall, say, or shifts in dialect. This is state-of-the-art "four nations" history, not the stale tale of England-plus-the-fringes.

Some of the most exciting current work comes from the crossroads of historical storytelling with other kinds of knowledge – ecology, say, or archaeology. The latter discipline drives Facing the Ocean: the Atlantic and its peoples by Barry Cunliffe (Oxford, £25). Cunliffe finds a sea-borne unity of communities along the Celtic fringes of Europe, from the Hebrides and Ireland to Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia. Forget the Mediterranean: from Neolithic times to the Renaissance, this long, damp shoreline was the original "Eurozone".

More southerly lands and seas take centre stage in Mike Davis's impressive and original Late Victorian Holocausts (Verso, £20). Davis, a brilliant Californian maverick scholar, sets the triumph of late 19th-century Western imperialism in the context of the catastrophic El Niño weather-patterns at that time. Their impact, argues Davis, weakened local societies through drought and famine, cleared the ground for colonialism – and so ushered in the "Third World" as a zone of poverty and exploitation. This is groundbreaking, mind-stretching stuff, at the sharp end of the new, global "Green" history.

A more purely entertaining exercise in the same eco-conscious research comes with Food: a history by Felipe Fernández-Armesto (Macmillan, £20). His smorgasbord of topics in culinary history, presented with huge relish, stretches all the way from cannibalism to Burger King. Progress?

After such plenitude, some strenuous adventure beckons. Satisfy its call with Ninety Degrees North by Fergus Fleming (Granta, £20), a vividly frostbitten account of North Pole expeditions (mostly doomed) from Franklin in the 1840s to Amundsen in the 1920s. "The going is atrocious," as the Russian Sedov wrote in 1914; but the reading, in a warm room, is great fun.

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