Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Mary Lovell and Ian Mortimer: when history writing 'rocks'

Historians need a scrupulous approach to research and the ability to muster a coherent argument. But if they want to produce one of those books that congregate in tempting, multi-coloured piles in Waterstones, they need to be more than historians; they need to be talented writers too, able to turn both the research and the argument into something lively and entertaining.
I confess I am addicted to the history pile in Waterstones. I visit it regularly, and I never come away with just one. Those three-for-two offers are just irresistible. So I have a lot of history books. But probably eighty percent of them languish, half-read, on my shelves, because the story-telling falls short and I lose interest.
Currently, though, I'm reading two that are superb. I’d like to share my enjoyment of them with you. I’d also like to look briefly at why I think these succeed where others fail. The books in question are ‘Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth’ by Mary S. Lovell and 1415, Henry V’s Year of Glory’ by Ian Mortimer
Both authors have researched the driest of primary sources -  letters, account books and other financial records, court rolls, parliamentary proceedings, and so on – to ensure the bones of their stories are as sturdy as possible. But they have put flesh on those bones with fascinating insights into the central characters, creating heroes and villains who wouldn’t be out of place in a novel. Similarly they both bring the setting and the wider story to vivid life. They are written as history books, not fiction, and they both stand up to examination as such, but they have adopted many of the characteristics of a novel; interesting and/or sympathetic protagonists, an exciting plot-line, beautifully painted settings.
Will the Council at Constance ever be able to force the dastardly Pope John XXIII to stand down? What will happen to poor Jan Hus, languishing in his dungeon? Will the French see through Henry’s machinations before his preparations for war are complete? Even though I know the answers, it’s still like reading a thriller. And Bess of Hardwick ‘s story is a beautifully told domestic saga, set against a background of high drama, political intrigue and treason. Despite her fourth marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury clearly being a love match, is it doomed to disaster by Shrewsbury’s stewardship of the captive Queen of Scots? I like Bess so much, I’m finding it  particularly painful to read about this part of her life.
So, please, buy these two books, or borrow them from your local library. You won’t be disappointed. This is how history should be written but very seldom is.

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