What to read next: the latest history books reviewed
Looking for the next history book for your bookshelf? Explore the latest releases in popular history, from hard-hitting historical biographies to historical fiction, as reviewed by experts historians and the teams behind HistoryExtra
Discover the latest new history books taking up space on our bookshelves – from memoirs and biographies to the exploits of kings, the exposure of scandals and examinations of social and cultural change.
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The latest releases, as reviewed by historians
Scotland: The Global History, 1603 to the Present
Murray Pittock | Yale University Press | £25
While Scotland has existed, geographically, in roughly its present form for half a millennium, the small nation has adapted to huge political, economic and social transformations, from union and devolution to mass migration, industrialisation and deindustrialisation. It is rarely out of the British headlines these days, thanks to the prospect of another referendum on independence from the UK.
Interest in Scottish history, too, has never been stronger, fuelled by a dramatic rise in the number and quality of academic publications along with the modern popular histories that have been enriched by them. No longer parochial in outlook, historians of Scotland produce work explaining why its past matters, in terms that not only integrate research into global currents of scholarship, but also lead the way.
Demand for one-stop accounts of Scotland’s past and present has surged, and this book is one of many to meet this need. The author is a professor of English literature as well as a historian. His original research is grounded largely in the 18th century, especially the Jacobites, though he has produced creditable work on Romanticism and on national identity.
His discussion of Scotland’s languages in this book is sure-footed, though beyond that the background research is eclectic, sometimes eccentric. And even when cheerleading the Jacobites, to whose manifestly lost cause Pittock is a modern-day adherent, the treatment is episodic and allusive.
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The book starts with the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603. It is, of course, difficult to understand core narratives – such as the tensions between Highland and Lowland societies and cultures, which permeated Scottish history from the 12th to the 18th centuries – without understanding the medieval period. Pittock has already covered this ground in his more compressed A New History of Scotland (2003), and recycles some of that material here.
The mission remains the same, too: to chart the history of “a small nation that has had a disproportionate influence on culture, trade and industry throughout the world”. The Global History is about Scotland itself, Scotland in Britain, and Scotland in the world.
Thus we find breathless passages about migration, demography, popular protest, industrialisation and deindustrialisation, shifting trade patterns, religious developments, expatriate societies, colonies and empires, each interspersed with snippets of information that do little to further the argument. Need we be told, in a discussion of “socially responsible Presbyterianism”, that Scottish minister and economist Thomas Chalmers later gave his name to Port Chalmers in New Zealand?
Pittock draws on other works in his back catalogue, such as The Road to Independence? Scotland Since the Sixties (2008). This allows him to explore a range of topics. He covers Scotland’s postwar economic decline, buffeted by the twin pressures of British imperial divestment and capitalist globalisation. The rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) since 1934 is examined, too, along with the culture and political economy of Scotland’s largest cities, and the emergence of a distinct Scottish cultural agenda since the 1970s.
Also discussed are the impact of immigrant communities on Scotland and of Scottish emigration on it and the wider world, and the changes since 1999 in both Scotland and Britain as a whole wrought by devolution and the creation of a Scottish parliament.
Interpretations are quirky, occasionally one-dimensional. The ascent of the SNP comes over as inevitable, Pittock playing down the fact that unionism, broadly conceived, was the principal political force in Scotland’s 20th-century history. For most Scots in that period, nationalism was British, and therefore unionist.
Even on cultural issues there is little sustained analysis. Despite the book’s global scope, sweeping narrative and something-for-everyone approach, it lacks breadth of vision. There is, for example, little on the social side of cultural activities: how did ordinary people relate to their communities, work, marriage, material consumption, religious faith – as opposed to ecclesiastical organisation – and much else?
Will watching Bill Forsyth’s (admittedly enchanting) 1980 coming-of-age film Gregory’s Girl really help us appreciate the experience of moving from inner-city tenements to the proliferating “new towns” of central Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s? Some passages seem designed to be trendy or conversational rather than weighty.
The book promises contemporary focus, check-listing recent events, notably in the chapter covering events since 1967. Readers might prefer, instead, more historical context, to explain why particular current affairs matter – that, after all, is what a historian would do. Some passages are merely catalogues of names: bewildering lists of literary, philosophical and scientific worthies, books and films. Strangest of all, given Pittock’s core discipline, is the shortage of literary criticism.
On the plus side, the book is rich in detail, and the style lively, free-flowing, and engaging – much more readable than the dreary outpourings of some popular Scottish historians. “Discovery boxes” about topics such as tartan and “Auld Lang Syne” will please readers in the diaspora (which also gets a box). It’s hard, though, to justify a lengthy entry for the 17th and 18th-century financial “adventurer” John Law – except that he, like Pittock, is a Jacobite.
Yale University Press always produces beautiful books with copious colour plates and black-and-white illustrations, at attractive prices. This is one such, which will appeal to those who know relatively little of Scotland, past or present, and who relish a selective, opinionated romp strewn with random facts.
Entertaining and bamboozling in equal measure, it should also stimulate readers to search for more authoritative texts on their favourite topics or periods. And it will certainly look good on the coffee table.
Rab Houston is professor emeritus in history at the University of St Andrews, and author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008)
The Flame of Resistance: American Beauty. French Hero. British Spy
Damien Lewis | Quercus | £20
Josephine Baker was “a chameleon, a rebel, a warrior, a rule-breaker at heart”, according to biographer Damien Lewis. “She was undeniably at her best when she had a cause to fight for. For that… she could prove tireless, resolute, unbreakable.”
Baker, an American-born dancer and singer, worked as a spy in the Second World War. In his new book, Lewis takes the reader on an epic journey of discovery, from Baker’s early life in the slums of St Louis, with its brutal poverty and segregation, to the lights of the Parisian nightclubs and cabaret where she danced “until her shins bled”. We are also transported to the cultural and political melting pot of Casablanca and the bleak clinic where Baker, confined to her hospital bed for months, continued her vital resistance work.
Setting Josephine’s story within the bigger picture of espionage allows a fuller understanding of the world in which she sought to operate and survive. Detailed descriptions of political machinations within various intelligence bureaus with whom she served add an element of uneasiness and tension to the underlying narrative.
Just as Baker’s character is complex – a woman who carried secret messages in her underwear could hardly be anything but – the book’s narrative is complicated too, packed with anecdotes and information about her life. This sometimes jars, jolting the reader back to a childhood or prewar experience, but each episode is always worth hearing, often adding another layer to her multifarious personality.
As well as spiralling the narrative inwards, Lewis deftly spirals it outwards, too, so the wider picture of the war is explored in full and exquisite detail. The reader learns of Operation Torch and the desperate fight for control of north Africa, and of the birth and work of Special Operations Executive (SOE) alongside its US counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and its first 12 agents, or “apostles”.
Baker’s story is recounted in parallel with that of her partner in both resistance and love, Maurice Abtey, though the romantic aspect is pushed to the margins and remains largely unexplored. It is through Abtey’s eyes that we watch Baker develop from a cabaret artist to a fully fledged spy, flying across Europe with her menagerie and her tour trunks stuffed with music scores – on which key information was written in invisible ink. As Baker spreads her wings and undertakes solo missions far from his watchful eye, Abtey struggles with worries as his protegee flies the nest, despite knowing that he has trained her well.
Perhaps the most uplifting part of Baker’s story is her work boosting the morale of Allied troops. Taking the stage in old tour costumes, lit by the headlamps of military vehicles and sometimes even under attack, she sang firm favourites as well as the national anthems of the Allies in an effort to secure unity and camaraderie.
Insisting that her audience was not segregated by colour or rank, Baker truly seems to come into her own. A heroine, a fighter, an icon: Baker stands for everything we should aspire to – and Lewis shines a spotlight on every aspect of her difficult but glittering life.
Kate Vigurs is a historian and author of Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE (Yale, 2021)
Disgrace: Global Reflections on Sexual Violence
Joanna Bourke | Reaktion Books | £20
There are some books that should not have to be written. In our deeply flawed world, though, they are often the ones that are most urgently needed. So it is with Joanna Bourke’s new book, Disgrace, exploring the global history of sexual violence.
The disgrace is, clearly, not the victims’ but belongs to the ideologies, institutions, legal frameworks and power structures that have allowed this type of harm to be inflicted on so many people for so long. It is a type of harm that traverses time periods and national borders. This is a book written in fury: a call to action – and rightly so.
There are many terrible stories here, among them those of teenage mill worker Mary Ann Houay, gang-raped in Manchester in 1833; of “PR”, a teenager raped in Italy in 1992; and of Millicent Gaika, of the South African township Gugulethu, raped in 2010.
There are also, thankfully, stories of change. So we learn that the initial conviction of PR’s attacker was overturned in 1999 – in part because Italy’s highest court ruled that the removal of his victim’s tight jeans would have required her co-operation. This ruling provoked outrage, with activists adopting blue jeans as a potent symbol. The “blue jeans” defence was eventually undone in 2008, nearly a decade later – shamefully slow progress, but progress nonetheless. As Bourke shows, the legal injustice in PR’s case was not a sad exception to an otherwise equitable legal and social system. Such flawed and damaging ideas about victimhood are deeply entrenched.
These ideas are made more dangerous when combined with racism and colonialism, which embed views about who can be a “true” victim. Moreover, as Bourke shows, some people – girls and women, minoritised ethnic communities, asylum seekers, non-binary and LGBTQ+ people – are more vulnerable than others, and these vulnerabilities are cumulative.
During apartheid, women of colour were 4.7 times more likely than white women to be victims of rape in South Africa. In that nation, too, 86 per cent of black lesbians live in fear of sexual assault, while just 44 per cent of white lesbians report the same.
Interpretations of victims’ behaviours are liable to change, though. Mary Ann Houay was seen to be believable in 1833 because she conformed to the stereotype of “real” victimhood. Following the attack, she became intermittently blind; she was described as “delicately formed”, requiring “wine, salts, and other restoratives… to keep her from sinking under the effort” of the trial. In 19th-century Britain, these supported her claims.
As Bourke shows, such ideas about the behaviours of “true” victims soon changed. Distressed rape victims were accused of being “hysterical”, discrediting their accusations. It was only in 1974 that “rape trauma syndrome” was described, observing that women responded to rape in a range of ways, and that these stress responses should not be used to deny their experiences. That term was itself replaced in 1980, when post-traumatic stress disorder became a widely accepted diagnosis.
Ideas about who can be a victim can change, too. In the 1920s, Russia became the first country to outlaw marital rape, followed by Czechoslovakia in 1950, then Poland in 1969 and Italy in 1976. England and Wales did so as recently as 1992, and France in 1994.
This book is compelling, engaging and important. Bourke closes her book with some suggestions for ways to create a rape-free world. We should heed them.
Sarah Crook is senior lecturer in history at Swansea University
A Question of Standing: The History of the CIA
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones | OUP | £20
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, a leading authority on US intelligence, has crafted an excellent history of the CIA – erudite but fluent and accessible. It engages with important issues of interpretation while at the same time driving forward a compelling narrative of events. It is concise yet wide-ranging, tracing the history of US intelligence from its beginnings to the Biden presidency.
After explaining the origins of US intelligence, notably the establishment of a clandestine unit during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency and the creation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War, the author examines the formation of the CIA in the context of an ever-intensifying Cold War. It had, he argues, “instant authority and standing” because it was “the world’s first democratically sanctioned secret service”, created by congress in 1947.
In the 1950s, the CIA became resourceful in the ways it collected intelligence – for example, flying U-2 reconnaissance planes over the Soviet Union, and constructing a tunnel under the Russian sector in Berlin. However, covert operations in that decade, including the overthrow of governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), began to damage the moral standing of the US on the world stage.
Even so – and despite the failed CIA operation to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, plus the agency’s inability to prevent presidents from fighting a disastrous war in Vietnam – the CIA remained popular with the US public.
During the mid-1970s, however, in what became known as the “Year of Intelligence”, (1975–76), a series of inquiries revealed numerous ethically troubling CIA practices. One of these was the use of assassination as an instrument of statecraft to eliminate foreign leaders. What followed, inevitably, was a degree of congressional oversight of the intelligence community.
In the 1980s, the CIA failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union (though it did internally consider that scenario), but nonetheless played a role in the process that led to the end of the Cold War. For instance, the agency established a relationship with the anti-communist Polish resistance movement Solidarity.
The new millennium, however, would see the greatest damage inflicted on the CIA’s standing and reputation when the agency failed to anticipate the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Furthermore, it was coerced by the White House into finding in Iraq evidence of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. What followed was the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which clipped the CIA’s wings by creating a new intelligence tsar and a National Counterterrorism Center that assumed responsibility for some of the CIA’s work.
This book brings the action up to the present day, discussing tensions with Donald Trump, who turned against an agency that had identified Russian assistance in his 2016 presidential election victory. It also explores the establishment of more constructive relations between the CIA and the White House following Joe Biden’s victory in 2020.
Throughout this insightful history, Jeffreys-Jones emphasises how the CIA’s “effectiveness has depended on its standing” with not only the White House but also the American public. This is important because public opinion affected the attitude of the president and congress towards the CIA, and the agency was dependent on the House of Representatives for appropriations.
A commendable aspect of this book is its even-handed tone. It would be too easy for a writer to portray the CIA as a wholly nefarious force – toppling governments, planning assassinations – that fuels anti-Americanism throughout much of the world. But Jeffreys-Jones also makes clear the constructive role often played by the CIA in assisting presidents in shaping US foreign policy. The result is a perspective that is both balanced and compelling.
Mark White is professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London
Am I Normal? The 200-Year Search for Normal People (and Why They Don’t Exist)
Sarah Chaney | Profile | £16.99
Paraphrasing The Handmaid’s Tale, “Normal is what you’re used to.” As Sarah Chaney notes, this sentiment is as true in present-day society as in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Gilead. Here, Chaney explores the history of normality in relation to human bodies, minds, emotions and societies.
Drawing on an impressively broad range of scholarship, she confidently and fluently covers topics ranging from obesity, parenthood, life expectancy and IQ to the mass production of clothes, historic US “ugly laws” (restricting public appearance for disabled or poor people), gender-nonconforming “Mollies” (gay and cross-dressing men in Georgian and Victorian England), and the case of the man who stopped taking psychotic drugs in order to be able to cry at his mother’s funeral.
“Normality,” on this reading, is the product of a particular kind of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) society: normal bodies and minds are white, middle-class, male, usually cis- and able-bodied, and at least ostensibly heterosexual.
As Chaney demonstrates, this has devastating consequences for individuals and communities. When a particularly privileged way of being human is used to define what is normal, less-privileged people are characterised as abnormal, even pathological. Disabilities have to be overcome or hidden away, bodies born female suffer from medications calibrated to a masculine “standard”, and people of African descent are categorised as subnormal and over-emotional – or even excluded from society altogether.
At the end of this analysis of attempts to define the vast variety of human experience, I returned to one key question. The author does an outstanding job of showing how precarious this historically novel concept is: why, then, does it persist? Is it because it’s so tightly linked to the self-image of the powerful? Or is it an important tool for navigating industrial, urbanised, democratic societies? I’d love to hear Chaney’s thoughts on alternatives.
Amanda Rees, reader in sociology at the University of York
Budapest: Between East and West
Victor Sebestyen | Orion | £25
Television promotions for European river cruises often feature a boat sailing along the Danube with the Hungarian parliament building as a backdrop. An extraordinary blend of London’s neo-Gothic Palace of Westminster and St Paul’s Cathedral, this edifice is probably the most spectacular piece of architecture in central Europe – but it has not always been to everyone’s taste.
As Victor Sebestyen reminds us in his new history of Budapest, whereas Hans Christian Andersen celebrated its “fantastical… unreal beauty”, the Hungarian writer Gyula Illyés dismissed it as “a Turkish bath crossed with a Gothic chapel”. Either way, Sebestyen judiciously concludes, it begs to be noticed.
The parliament building is a late-19th-century confection. So is Budapest, which became a single city in 1873, uniting Pest, Buda, and Óbuda in the north. In the wake of unification, the city was comprehensively rebuilt, and Sebestyen is never less than thorough in his description of its transformation. Buda’s tumbledown Church of Our Lady (the “Matthias Church”) was given a spire, colourful tiles and a lavish interior. The city’s waterfront was embanked, the mud flats paved over, and a grand boulevard modelled on the Champs Élysées driven through Pest.
Till the mid-19th century, what is now Budapest had been a backwater. True, Buda had a royal palace, built by Maria Theresa on the ruins of its medieval predecessor. But it had long been neglected by Hungary’s Habsburg rulers, who preferred to stay in Bratislava, a day’s journey downstream from Vienna. Until 1848, Bratislava – now the capital of Slovakia – was the home of Hungary’s parliament and the centre of the kingdom’s political life. Pest was not much more than a horse market.
Sebestyen sticks mostly to the modern period when the city came of age. He takes us through Budapest’s historical, architectural and cultural maturation, but is always alert to the larger trends that have shaped its character – not least the 19th-century Jewish migration to Hungary that gave Budapest its effervescence and intellectual heft. The result is not only a rich portrait of a city but also a masterful survey of central European history that deserves to be in every cruise vessel’s library.
Martyn Rady, Masaryk professor emeritus of central European history at University College London, and author of The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power (Allen Lane, 2020)
What else is on our bookshelf?
A Woman’s World, 1850–1960
Marina Amaral and Dan Jones | Head of Zeus | £30
When Marina Amaral and Dan Jones were working on 2018’s bestselling The Colour of Time, the duo note in the foreword to this new book, they were struck by how few women featured in its pages. This new compilation of colourised photographs sets out to reframe the same era as that earlier collection – 1850 to 1960 – with a renewed focus on the stories and experiences of women. From science and sport to schooling and statecraft, the striking images offer a new window on to fascinating, inspiring lives.
Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle
Jody Rosen | Bodley Head | £25
In a world of smartphones and self-driving cars, what explains the continuing global popularity of the humble bicycle? That’s one of the questions powering this book, which blends history, memoir and travel writing to assess the rise and rise of the bike – and where it might be headed in the future. From its invention in the early 19th century to its association with World War I combat, women’s social mobility, and the spread of empire, this is an enthralling overview of a quiet transport revolution.
Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year
Eleanor Parker | Reaktion Books | £14.99
Both an accessible introduction to the Anglo-Saxon age and an evocative celebration of its seasonal rhythms and links with nature, this book guides readers through the year as captured by the writers of the era. Those deep connections meant that the changing seasons had a huge impact on the ways in which people lived and worked, made sense of the world, celebrated times of plenty and withstood hardship – and what’s surprising is how many of those customs extended for many centuries to come.
Race and Reckoning: From Founding Fathers to Today’s Disruptors
Ellis Cose | Amistad | £20
Making sense of the United States’ 21st-century racial tensions through a series of historical turning points, this bold, opinionated book suggests that the narrative of ‘American exceptionalism’ has gone hand in hand with a more sinister trend of endemic discrimination and the exploitation of racial anxiety for political ends. The big-picture narrative is studded with extensively researched, and often very moving, case studies spanning the Civil War-era Reconstruction to the present day.
Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It
Janina Ramirez | WH Allen | £22
If you’ve ever caught one of Janina Ramirez’s TV documentaries, you’ll be familiar with her combination of deep knowledge of her subject and enormous, infectious enthusiasm. She brings both to this new look at the medieval era, which highlights the stories of women often omitted from the record. As well as charting their experiences and overlooked contributions, Ramirez also offers a masterful overview of the diverse array of sources that can help us understand more about their lives.
Henrietta Maria: Conspirator, Warrior, Phoenix Queen
Leanda de Lisle | Chatto & Windus | £25
Leanda de Lisle’s 2018 book White King charted the often hidden depths of Charles I, who changed the monarchy forever – and paid the ultimate price. Here, de Lisle turns her attention to his wife, Henrietta Maria, similarly shading with nuance a character who can sometimes be reduced to primary-colour simplicity. Chronicling her early life in France and her advocacy for the role of women, it’s a very different take from the more familiar caricature of a flighty, bigoted temptress.