Muddling Through: Power, Politics and the Quality of Government in Postwar Britain by Peter Hennessy, Indigo pounds 7.99. Peter Hennessy, author of Whitehall and Never Again, is very much a pundit's pundit: "a national treasure", in the words of an eminent one. But he's such a lucid and engaging writer that he deserves to be the people's pundit as well: a journalist who researches like a proper historian. The collected essays in this book mostly began as talks written for Analysis on BBC Radio. The first section deals with the monarchy, Suez and the British atomic bomb, enlivened throughout by Hennessy's having trawled through miles and miles of dusty archives in search of the fresh and telling quote. The second section offers witty pen-sketches of Britain's post-1945 Prime Ministers, with a particularly warm tribute to the often-overlooked Clement Attlee: "Attlee came up as a welfare worker, a man of great compassion, a man of caring," as Kenneth Harris has said. "That wouldn't have gone down very well in the age of the yuppies, certainly," notes Hennessy. "But that is not to say that the age would not have benefited from his presence."
Shadow Baby by Margaret Forster, Penguin pounds 8.99. What makes an acceptable women's potboiler? This one is as easy to read - and as empty of convincing period detail - as any Barbara Taylor Bradford, but it's less squalidly cynical, which is no bad thing. Evie, born in 1887, is sent to an orphanage after the woman she thinks is her "grandmother" has died. Why did her mother abandon her as a baby? Shona, born in 1956, can't understand why the woman she believes to be her mother is so secretive and timid. Why did her real mother give her up for adoption? The two plots move in parallel, opening to a square dance as the mothers' own stories are told. As the abandoned girls themselves reach child-bearing age, the tales begin to converge.
A World of Their Own Making: A History of Myth and Ritual in Family Life by John R Gillis, OUP pounds 8.99. In 1990, a survey suggested that 80 per cent of American families ate together most nights. Two years later, a more scientific study found the proportion dropped to a third because the first respondents had been talking about the lives they saw themselves as living rather than the lifestyles they really had. It is this gap between "the families we live in and the families we live by" that John R Gillis historicises - and what a full and turbulent gap it is. Before the Victorian era, courtship games were more like those found in the playground: shoving and thumping were common forms of endearment, kissing was expected to draw blood, and in Wales (why Wales?) "it was not unknown for a boy to urinate on a girl he was particularly fond of". As Gillis notes, marriage began as a property arrangement, then took in children before becoming a love relationship in a couple's dotage; nowadays, it tends to happen the other way about. This excellent, lite-Foucauldian history follows the turnaround from the middle ages up to the present, investigating how it happened and why.
Emily Tennyson: The Poet's Wife by Ann Thwaite, Faber pounds 14.99. Emily Sellwood (1813-96) first caught a glimpse of her life's true love in 1822, when she was nine. As teenagers they fell in love; and yet, Alfred (1809-92) was so afraid of the "black blood" he felt he had inherited from his alcoholic father, they did not marry until 1850. Then, Ann Thwaite contends, Emily skilfully used all the resources open to her, as a mid-Victorian woman, to make their partnership a remarkable success. The last thing we should do is to undervalue and forget women who lived 'hidden lives'." Thwaite, herself a "poet's wife", quotes George Eliot: "the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts". Her biography accordingly blends modern scholarship with an unusually deep sympathy for the very different sentiments of the Victorian mind and heart - so telling a story itself with all the textures of a fine Victorian novel, and at full-blown Victorian-novel length.Reuse content