Books of the year 2018

It’s been a fantastic year for new history books, but which titles absolutely demand attention? Below, our panel of historians and experts recommend their favourite reads from 2018

(Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare for BBC History Magazine)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Tracy Borman

Anna Beer’s beautifully written and impeccably researched Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh offers a fresh perspective on one of the most colourful and controversial characters of the Tudor and Stuart age. Elizabeth I’s hero and the scourge of her successor, Ralegh is brought to life as never before. Dispelling myths, from potatoes and tobacco to cloaks being laid over puddles, the author shows that, when it comes to this famous adventurer, truth really is stranger than fiction.

My second choice is Kensington Palace: Art, Architecture and Society by Olivia Fryman, Sebastian Edwards et al. Throughout its history, Kensington has been regarded as the poor relation of the London palaces. Yet as this fascinating and comprehensive new study shows, it boasts more than three centuries of continuous royal occupation – all the way up to Princes William and Harry today. Its modest domesticity reveals a more informal side to the royal family than is usually glimpsed in the grander palaces.

It’s also the perfect time of year to read A Tudor Christmas by Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke (see page 62 for more on this topic). The Victorians have claimed a lot of credit for how we celebrate Christmas today. But as this jewel of a book reveals, many of our favourite festive traditions have their origins in the Tudor period. Henry VIII did things in style, presiding over a 12-day festival of revelry, entertainments and feasting – all at an eye-watering cost.

Tracy Borman’s latest book is Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him (Hodder, 2018)


Rana Mitter

In Crucible: Thirteen Months that Forged Our World, Jonathan Fenby gives a truly global account of a crucial time that has rarely been examined in detail by historians. The years 1947–48 saw a whole world being remade. Fenby retells well-known episodes such as the 1948–49 Berlin airlift with a combination of stylish prose and immense command of the historical detail. But the real eye-openers are the deft analyses of less familiar crises, such as the civil wars in Greece and China, and the horrific aftermath of partition in India.

Alev Scott’s Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire is very different in form, but no less gripping. A young British author of Turkish heritage explores the world that the Ottoman empire made, and shows us a Europe that looks very different when viewed from its south-eastern corner. As the Ottoman legacy state of Bosnia and Herzegovina threatens to fall into turmoil once more – in the wake of controversial elections earlier this year – this is a revealing and beautifully written guide to the history that still sits below the surface of our continent.

A bestseller in the Chinese world has now finally been published in English. In The Great Flowing River: A Memoir of China from Manchuria to Taiwan, Ch’i Pang- yuan (now aged 94) tells the story of growing up in the 1930s in a country riven by the war with Japan. Vignettes of refugee life and a tragic romance illustrate an underreported story – the losers from Chinese communism who went to Taiwan – in moving and poignant prose.

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford


Leanda de Lisle

It is often fiction – a novel or a film – that first sparks an interest in history. Elizabeth Fremantle’s psychological thriller The Poison Bed is the kind of book that achieves just this. Described as The Miniaturist meets Gone Girl, it tells the true story of the most scandalous murder at the Jacobean court and will, I hope, bring more readers to the Stuart period. Gripping, and full of surprises and rich detail, it is a book you can’t fail to enjoy.

My next choice is a heavyweight biography of a character transformed in the public imagination by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell: A Life is an immersive read. Don’t feel guilty about taking your time. He brings Cromwell’s world to life with wit and warmth and sympathy for the old devil. It is the Tudor book of the year.

Finally, I offer a history book that will surely inspire future fiction. Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain uncovers the extraordinary story of female spies from the reign of Charles I to the Restoration of Charles II. Some, like Lucy Hay – the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’ Lady de Winter – I know well from my own work. Others, like the tragic Susan Hyde (sister of Charles II’s leading minister the Earl of Clarendon), who died in prison, are uncovered for the first time. A work of deep scholarship and clever detective work.

Leanda de Lisle’s most recent book, White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr (Chatto and Windus), won the Historical Writers’ Association Non-Fiction Crown for 2018


Laura Ashe

The towering achievement of the year must be Diarmaid MacCulloch’s long-awaited biography Thomas Cromwell: A Life. Immersed in the documentary sources, MacCulloch wittily guides us through the twists and turns of Cromwell’s remarkable career, and the vast changes he masterminded in English government and society. Hilary Mantel’s brilliant novels are an acknowledged inspiration and ally: lovers of Wolf Hall will enjoy comparing her fiction with MacCulloch’s painstaking history.

In dramatic contrast is the utterly compelling The Colour of Time: A New History of the World, 1850–1960 by Marina Amaral and Dan Jones. This handsome volume showcases photographs from the middle of the 19th century onwards that have been carefully rendered into full colour – in some cases from research, in others with plausible guesswork. The effects are sensational, bringing into astonishing new vividness some famous images, and many obscure ones, documenting global events and eras of seismic importance.

It’s been a great year for one of England’s most important yet least-known medieval kings: Henry II, first of the Plantagenet line. Following Claudia Gold’s gripping retelling of his life, King of the North Wind, Nick Barratt’s The Restless Kings: Henry II, His Sons and the Wars for the Plantagenet Crown takes a Europe-wide view of this turbulent and formative period, through the machinations of a formidable extended family.

Laura Ashe is professor of English literature at Worcester College, University of Oxford


Andrew Roberts

One of this year’s most enlightening reads was George Morton-Jack’s The Indian Empire at War: From Jihad to Victory, The Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War. It tells the revelatory story of the 1.5 million Indians who played a role in the mammoth global conflict. Written with brilliant verve from the perspective of the Indian soldier and using almost entirely new information, it fits the Indian experience superbly into the overall Great War narrative.

Jonathan North’s Nelson in Naples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799 uncovers a dark part of the life of our greatest naval hero, while sensitively and intelligently putting it in its correct historical perspective. Nelson’s responsibility for the massacre of the Neapolitan Jacobins in 1799 will now no longer need to be debated by historians.

Tirthankar Roy’s deceptively entitled A Business History of India: Enterprise and the Emergence of Capitalism from 1700 completely explodes the idea that the British Raj was a primarily exploitative construct, and explains how the commercial relationships between Britons and Indians were symbiotic, and produced something lasting, worthwhile and generally mutually beneficial. It’s a revolutionary book, posing as economic history.

Andrew Roberts is an author and historian. His latest book is Churchill: Walking With Destiny (Allen Lane, 2018)


Alison Weir

Tracy Borman’s outstanding Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him is a masterfully woven account of a large cast of Tudor characters, vividly portrayed in an engaging and pacy style. It’s a work of historical artistry and Borman is in complete command of the vast source material. She affords us a new perspective on a king who has dominated the national consciousness for centuries – no mean achievement. This is one Tudor book you must not miss!

Adrian Tinniswood’s Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the Royal Household endlessly fascinates, affording myriad insights into the workings of the royal household, and spanning the centuries from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II. Tinniswood is one of our finest historians and he brings to life the reality of royal life behind the scenes in stunning detail. If you want to know about the private lives of monarchs, this brilliant, beautifully illustrated account will more than satisfy.

Steven Brindle’s monumental and definitive Windsor Castle: A Thousand Years of a Royal Palace is a must for anyone interested in royalty and architecture. Impressively researched, encyclopaedic in scope and lavishly illustrated, it tells the story of the monarchy through one of its chief residences. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It deserves widespread recognition – and to be on every history lover’s bookshelf.

Alison Weir is the co-author, with Siobhan Clarke, of A Tudor Christmas (Jonathan Cape, 2018). She is currently researching a novel on Katherine Howard, the fifth in her Six Tudor Queens series.


Dominic Sandbrook

My favourite books of 2018 were all about empire and its legacies. In the last year or so, empires – and the British empire in particular – have, in my opinion, been the subject of sanctimonious, self-righteous posturing. The three books I’ve chosen here, however, are models of scrupulous, fair-minded scholarship. They aim to explain the past and bring it alive, rather than merely to peddle cheap moral judgments. In his American Empire: A New Global History, AG Hopkins places the growth of the American empire from the late 18th century in a broader global context. Sweeping, ambitious and hugely illuminating, his book is surely the definitive account of perhaps the most underestimated ‘European’ empire of all.

James Barr’s Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East focuses on the Middle East from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s, when Britain lost its hegemonic position to the United States. Covering everything from the high drama of the Suez crisis to Britain’s bloody retreat from Aden, his book is written with rare fluency, drama and attention to detail.

Finally, no book of the year was better at painting the human stories behind the experience of empire than David Gilmour’s wonderful The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience. Civil servants and clubs, Kipling and Curzon, polo players and prostitutes, they are all here, evoked with admirable style and sympathy. I defy anybody not to enjoy every page.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, broadcaster and newspaper columnist. His books include The Great British Dream Factory (Allen Lane, 2015)


Simon Sebag Montefiore

When talking about the best books of this year, a good place to start is Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s targeted Assassinations by the military analyst and journalist Ronen Bergman. This is a real-life assassination history, documenting how the state of Israel set about destroying its enemies, often by nefarious means. The research is forensic and the narrative is fascinating.

My second choice is also about espionage. Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War is one of the best spy tales I’ve ever read. It’s the story of Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian double agent who became one of the most significant spies of the Cold War. I couldn’t put it down and read it deep into the night.

Lastly, I want to mention Peter Heather’s book Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian. The analysis here is really penetrating, and the research is new. Heather weaves a brilliant narrative of the Emperor Justinian’s rule in the sixth century, looking at the wars and adventures that led him to conquer much of the Mediterranean for Byzantium. It’s an amazing read – everyone should go and search it out.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s books include Written in History: Letters that Changed the World (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2018)


Peter Frankopan

In Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East, James Barr looks at the competition between Britain and the US over oil, money and influence that marked the middle of the 20th century – and has left its scars today. London and Washington had divergent aims and often worked against each other in ways that were as devious as they were creative. It’s a brilliantly written account that serves as a useful reminder that alliances and history can be deceptive.

My second choice is Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity by Nicola di Cosmo and Michael Maas (eds). This wonderful selection of essays brings the connections between Europe and Asia from c300–900 AD to life. It’s is a period long overlooked by historians, but one bursting with written sources, rich material culture and questions that deserve investigation. I enjoyed every single paper, written by some of the best scholars in the world.

Fergus Butler-Gallie’s A Field Guide to the English Clergy is not a book to read on the bus or the Tube: I found myself regularly bursting out laughing. Butler-Gallie has raided the sacristy of vicars, curates and lay preachers to find “eccentrics, pirates, prelates and adventurers”. The richness of the material is just wonderful, and although the book revels in its offbeat approach, it is a gentle and rather lovely book that shows what a wonderful world we live in.

Peter Frankopan is professor of global history at Oxford University and author of The Silk Roads – A New History of the World (Bloomsbury, 2015) and The New Silk Roads (Bloomsbury, 2018)


Anne Applebaum

How did we get to where we are today? What lies behind the politics of Brexit, Trump and Putin? The first two books I’ve chosen are very different, but both seek to explain the politics of 2018 by dissecting recent history. Adam Tooze’s Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World focuses on the history of the multiple financial crises of 2008–09 in both Europe and the United States, but also puts them in the broader context of the breakdown of the post-1989 security system. He relates the loss of confidence in ‘the west’ – its institutions, its politicians – to the failures of western financial elites, as well as to the Russian invasions of Georgia and Crimea.

Meanwhile, in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, Timothy Snyder deals with a similar period, but focuses on the Russian assault on American and European democracy. He examines the intellectual origins of Putin’s animus towards the west as well as the Russian state’s malign influence campaigns in Europe. Much like Crashed, it offers unexpected insights into the seemingly familiar events of the past decade.

Adam Zamoyski’s Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth deals with a completely different era, and yet some of the issues are similar. Arguments over who deserves to rule; what are the qualities of a nation; how should Europe be organised – many of these old disputes first arose in Napoleon’s time. Like all of Zamoyski’s books, this one uses new sources and descriptions to make familiar incidents and stories seem fresh.

Anne Applebaum’s most recent book is Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Allen Lane, 2017)


Nick Rennison selects this year’s best historical fiction

One of 2018’s most impressive historical novels was Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. In the winter of 1809, John Lacroix returns from the Peninsular War to his home in Somerset, damaged in body and spirit. Recovered physically but not psychologically, he flees to the Scottish islands to escape his demons, but he is pursued there by two dangerous men from his past.

The latest novel by the prize-winning author of Pure successfully combines elements of an old-fashioned adventure story with a moving study of a man in search of personal redemption.

In Mrs Whistler, Matthew Plampin brings the Victorian art world vividly to life, through a memorable portrait of the flamboyant American painter James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), as seen through the eyes of Maud Franklin, his muse, mistress and would-be fellow artist. As Whistler feuds with philistines who fail to appreciate his work, and defies lawsuits, potential bankruptcy and the betrayals of supposed friends, Maud struggles to escape his shadow and assert her own identity, both personal and artistic.

My third choice is Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley. Set in a 1930s Suffolk village still deeply affected by the losses of the First World War, this subtle, intelligent novel tells the story of troubled teenager Edie Mather, eager for opportunities to enrich her life. A charismatic visitor from London appears to offer them but she is not all she seems. In her brilliant reconstruction of a seemingly lost past, Harrison finds echoes of dilemmas and anxieties that continue to haunt contemporary England.

A compelling debut novel of the year was Paul Howarth’s Only Killers and Thieves, an Australian ‘western’ set in Queensland in the 1880s. After the murder of his parents on their remote farmstead, teenager Billy McBride joins an expedition into the bush to punish the nomadic band of aboriginal people assumed to be responsible for their deaths. The further his party advances into unexplored territory, however, the more Billy suspects that he is not being told the truth about the killings.

Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is an unexpected but triumphant foray into historical fiction by a writer whose previous works all have contemporary settings. A small village in medieval Somerset is disturbed by the unexplained death of the richest man in the tight-knit community. Told in the voice of the village priest, it is both an unconventional murder mystery and an unforgettable re-creation of 15th-century rural life.

Nick Rennison is the author of Carver’s Truth (Corvus)


Award winners

Three historical reads that bagged literary prizes in 2018

1

Wolfson History Prize

Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation by Peter Marshall

Published 500 years after the Reformation sent shock-waves across Europe, this sweeping and authoritative volume examines how religious change took root in English society, revealing a process rife with complexities and contradictions.

2

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

Inspired by the real story of the Cragg Vale Coiners, Myers’ novel follows a gang of counterfeiters operating in 18th-century Yorkshire under the charismatic leadership of ‘King’ David Hartley. Peppered with episodes of grisly violence, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

3

James Tait Black Prize for Biography

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Scathingly rude, tremendously witty and devastatingly glamorous: this is the Margaret we are offered “glimpses” of in this convention-bending satirical biography.


The year ahead, by Ellie Hawthorne, BBC History Magazine staff writer

Looking forward to 2019, the books coming up promise to be just as thought-provoking as those our experts have selected here. As a fan of all things Victorian, I’m particularly looking forward to Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, which takes a sideways look at a much- sensationalised episode, asking what the stories of Jack the Ripper’s victims can tell us about life as a woman in the 19th century.

Several intriguing biographies are in the pipeline too. Philip Mansel will give his take on France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, and those interested in the medieval world should look out for Janet L Nelson’s new life of Charlemagne.

Come summer, the 75th anniversary of D-Day is sure to generate some action-packed accounts – James Holland’s promises to be a particularly high-energy endeavour. And looking ahead to autumn, Peter Hennessy will be turning his attention to the transformation of British society in the 1960s, in Winds of Change.

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Finally, I’m saving a space on my bookshelf for Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri (left), which examines how black hairstyles have been understood, and more often misunderstood, through history.