Books of the year 2014: History, from the Great War to David Kynaston's Modernity Britain

This year’s crop reflect a rich, golden age of history writing, says Piers Brendon

Piers Brendon
Thursday 04 December 2014 20:00 GMT

We are living in a golden age of history writing. This year's crop, fertilised by poignant anniversaries, is particularly rich. Of course, there is also plenty of dross – look no further than Boris Johnson's self-promoting volume on Winston Churchill, written in the style of the Beano. But with so many good books on offer this Christmas the choice is embarrassingly hard. Here are some of the best.

David Reynolds's The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon & Schuster, £9.99) is a masterly study of the impact of Armageddon on the modern world and the reinterpretation of the conflict in the light of subsequent events. Thus, for example, when our "finest hour" eclipsed the first day of the Somme as the key moment in Britain's national saga it encouraged the view enshrined in Oh, What a Lovely War! – that the struggle in the trenches had been futile. Even now Poppy Day is an exercise in ambivalence: we salute war heroes in the name of peace.

In The Fateful Year: England 1914 (Viking, £25) Mark Bostridge presents a series of fascinating vignettes, some familiar such as the staging of Shaw's Pygmalion and Asquith's epistolary affair with Venetia Montagu, others little known, such as the amazing Burston school strike. Together they illustrate how war leapt, as Henry James put it, like "some awful monster out of his lair". Despite peacetime violence such as that of the Suffragettes, Bostridge argues, nothing prepared the English imaginatively for the brutalities to come. To that extent Philip Larkin was right: "Never such innocence again."

Anticipating the bi-centenary of Waterloo, Jenny Uglow has produced a tour de force, In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815 (Faber, £25). Based on prodigious research, chronologically organised and attractively written, it coruscates with descriptive detail. Uglow records, for example, that what helped to make the fortune of Robert Peel, father of the eponymous Prime Minister, was the use of pauper children to clean his factory machines while they were still working. These children went barefoot, it was explained, because if they were given shoes "they would run away."

Even more dazzling, because it combines sumptuous illustrations with luminous text, is Neil MacGregor's Germany: Memories of a Nation (Allen Lane, £30). The book thus presents a stereoscopic vision of Germany's history which, like its geography, has been tragically fragmented. The chief unifying element was culture. So here is vividly displayed everything from Gutenberg to Goethe, Holbein to Meissen, the imperial crown to the Iron Cross, beer steins to sausages, the Brandenburg Gate to the gate of Buchenwald, with its sinister inscription Jedem das Seine (To Each His Due).

Colin Jones provides a marvellous surprise with The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris (OUP, £22.99). He shows how Vigée Le Brun's self-portrait, with its flashing smile, caused a sensation when it was exhibited in 1787. Refined people had previously kept their mouths shut since few over forty had any teeth, including Louis XIV. Improved dentistry and the cult of sensibility changed that. But ancien régime dentists became victims of the Terror and mountebanks with pincers returned. As late as the 1930s, when a Russian was said to lie like an eyewitness, a Frenchman "lied like a tooth-puller".

Last but not least is the most recent volume in the series with which David Kynaston is definitively charting our post-war history, Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 (Bloomsbury, £25). It's a magnificent achievement. Kynaston shows that even the recent past is another country. Guided by him, journeying through it is not just a delight but a revelation.

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