Book Review. The Scandal of George III’s Court. By Catherine Curzon.

In 1820 crowds and reformers clamoured in the streets demanding that Queen Caroline, the popular wife of the unpopular George IV’s, be granted her rights. The unfaithful husband wished to divorce her on grounds of infidelity, but she was determined to be queen. 

The events that followed were farcical, as the royal family’s dirty linen was put on full display and many thought the ongoing crisis might lead to a constitutional disaster. Petitioners, espousing the cause of the queen barred the Duke of Wellington’s way while he was out riding. They demanded he give a cheer for the queen. 

The private lives of the monarchs were no secret, everyone knew what the King and Queen had been up to, as if it had been a weekly soap opera. The Duke raised his hat and obliged, but added ‘May all your wives be like her’ as he rode on.

You honestly cannot invent more high profile scandal than what is contained in the history of the Georgian monarchy. The court itself was hardly a place of refined pageantry, it was a place of passions and intrigues, both petty and great. The court was a scandal.

This book is a slim, good quality hardback with a single image section filled with black and white portraits of the major players, captioned with simple identifying tags. There is an index, a bibliography and a notes section.

Not as dramatic or romantic as the Stuart’s, nor as institutional as the Saxe Coburgs the House of Hanover represent an ideal of monarchy that is both recognisably opulent and scandalous.

The appeal of any monarchy revolves around the daily life of its court. The rich and powerful have a reputation for excess and insanity that is more than borne out by this book.

You can have no better tour guide to the subject. Catherine Curzon’s sense of humour and eye for detail is eminently suited to opening a window of the court of the house of Hanover and peeking in.

(She is something of a whiz at the ins and outs of the Georgian Royalty you know) We of the online court know her better as the great brain behind the Madame Gilfurt blog and an all round good egg.

Her descriptions of important members of the royal family, their attendants, friends and retainers and the associated goings on offer a glittering, extravagant contrast to the typical Austin view of the Georgian and regency eras.

In this book she delivers on her promise to get to the bottom … I mean lift the petticoats … I mean tailcoats … untangle … She investigates allot of the most famous scandals associated with the various George’s and their queen’s.

Dangerous husbands, philanderers, and that surprising instance of the King’s son, the Duke of York (who went right up to the top of the hill and back down again), CinC of the army getting into hot water over his mistress and the dodgy sale of army commissions.

So have some snuff and a reviving gulp of brandy handy as the author takes those naughty caricatures from Gillray and Rowlandson and tells the story’s behind them. By the end you will wonder how any of the royal family managed to keep a shred of reputation.

Josh.

Book Review: The Pharaoh’s Treasure by John Gaudet.

  • Amberly Publishing.
  • ISBN 9781445689944
  • Paperback
  • 15 Jan 2019
  • 40 Images.

In the 1991 movie Black Robe, Ernest Schellenberg plays an Algonquin leader escorting a Jesuit missionary. One of the best scenes is when the priest demonstrates how writing works.

In 1532, when the Sapa Inca, Atahualpa was awaiting his fate, he would ask that words be written down for him so that he could learn Spanish. Not least so he, a man who knew nothing of writing could observe how the work of a scribe was performed.

Where would we be without paper? He asks typing on a touch sensitive screen, ordering pixelated keys to generate letters that will never be printed.

Like all good true stories The Pharaoh’s Treasure focuses on a something simple and uses it to expose greater truth.

Behind every royal library were scribes, and behind them were the people who made the materials that allowed the library to exist at all.

When so much is a trick of the eye, untouchable, generated and at the same time more accessible than ever the value of paper is all at once enhanced and diminished.

A handwritten note shows you care. It’s also a demonstration of class. What was once a commonplace gesture now speaks in volumes.

Already we think about paper much differently to what we did 70 years ago. Might we conceivably return one day in the distant future to looking at it as prized commodity?

When did it become so time consuming to write something with our own hand? He said ruefully staring at the image on his screen.

Waxing lyrical, or poetic about the timeless qualities of communication has already been done efficiently enough in this book for me to add anything.

Gaudet’s book is well written and full of fascinating detail. Not your average history book and very original. It is primarily concerned with the history of Papyrus. The Pharaoh’s Treasure.

A 4,000 year old history that can be written because of the medium it studies. That is special. It is what Papyrus has done best for longer than parchment & pulp paper put together.

The Pharaoh’s Treasure shows us why Papyrus was so special. It is a mundane but key note. It’s durability, sustainability & simplicity  was it’s success. 

Because of these key facets of its manufacture and use, Papyrus became a time capsule for the collected knowledge of the centuries.

Previous to its widespread use, information had to be imparted on clay & stone. Though Papyrus was more susceptible to fire it was easier to store in large quantities, so much of what we know is thanks to this treasured paper. 

All of the above make up a central point of John Gaudet’s book. This ancient story is at the heart of everything we think, and want to remember. 

Think about the last time your laptop crashed, or your phone went dead on you. Sometimes … indeed most of the time, the answer to our problems can be solved by a piece of paper.

Suddenly technology doesn’t seem as friendly as that notebook. Suddenly that long history of paper becomes very relevant. And this is why you’ll enjoy this book.

Josh

Book Review: Beyond the Northlands by Eleanor Rosamond Barraclough.

In reading this book I have learnt a super car game for long journeys, (spot the Viking place/name). And that Tolkein was hopping mad with Hitler for appropriating history.

Professor Tolkein wrote that ‘I have in this War a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolph Hitler… ruining, perverting, misapplying, & making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit… which I have ever loved, & tried to present in its true light.’ Beyond the Northlands shaped up well.

The author, Eleanor Rosamond Barraclough is light and engaging. And good at rhyming as well! Her choice of subject matter matches the tone. Who indeed doesn’t like to read the marginal scribbles of scribes who have been working too long? 

It strives to understand what Tolkien called ‘that noble northern spirit.’ Creating a readable and understandable work of history that is at the same time uncompromising in its depth.

To do this the author has gone to the sagas and searched them for clues and messages that rebuild the world of the ‘Vikings.’

Understanding the old Norse (and Norwegian rather than other Scandinavian/Viking Countries is the focus here), sagas and voyages within their historical and cultural context is difficult.

With the great enthusiasm across the world for all things Viking and fantastic, this book is an extremely helpful guide to a very complicated and bewildering subject, that is at the same time deeply engrossing and mysterious.

Wonderfully illustrated and authentic to place and time, the author has written perhaps one of the ultimate works for those wishing a deeper insight, as well as those new to the study of medieval Scandinavia.

Josh.

Historyland’s Top Five History Books from 2018.

So many books, So little time. I can’t be more original than that. 2018 was a year of reviews. The generosity of publishers and authors allowed me to keep content running to the website while I focused on other projects. Words fail to express my gratitude, both to them and to every visitor. Here are my favourites.

Pursuit of Empire. By Davinder Toor. 

An invaluable and important cultural document, ablaze with colour and history. The rare, the well known, the strange and the familiar all easily combine in one of the most lavish and wonderful catalogues of Indian art ever put into binding. Lovers of art and history will love, indeed they will reverence this book.

The King and the Catholics. By Antonia Fraser.

The book is as compulsive, detailed and human as the most stunning political exposés. Not only that but it offers a surprisingly inspiring and positive story to what increasingly seems to be a jaded and angry world. It will keep you gripped to the final dramatic finish.

The Sultans. By Jem Duducu.

If you like your history epic but with a light touch, Sultans is the book for you.

Legion vs Phalanx. By Myke Cole.

Myke Cole has written an accessible, entertaining and detailed narrative of the development of infantry warfare in the ancient world. If as is suggested st the end, a military system is a representation of the society it comes from, then there is a lesson there.

Napoleon: Spirit of the Age. By Michael Broers.

Without an axe to grind nor a trumpet to play, Broers has written a truly even-handed and nuanced second volume. Perhaps it is still a little merciless to a newcomer but it is as gripping and thoughtful as it is interesting.

Happy Reading in 2019, Josh.

Book Review. Peckuwe 1780 by John F. Winkler.

‘the conflicts of the “old frontier” have not been in such good hands for a long time.’

  • Author: John F. Winkler
  • Illustrator: Peter Dennis
  • Short code: CAM 327
  • Publication Date: 18 Oct 2018
  • Number of Pages: 96

https://ospreypublishing.com/peckuwe-1780

The Shadow War.

Along the western frontier of the 13 colonies a shadow war was being fought. While Washington fought the famous battles that won Independence for the United States, men like Daniel Boone were fighting in the wilderness in a much less clear cut war.

Faced by a wide array of Indian tribes, men like Boone and Clark were engaged in a fight on which depended the future of the western border of the new nation.

In dozens of unknown or forgotten ambushes, massacres and battles the border of the frontier that was to be won after independence was secured. Though the British gave what aid the could to these far flung wilderness campaigns, it was predominantly an Indian affair.

Since the beginning of the war the nasty business of bush warfare had been flaring up in the hotbed of the Ohio Valley. Settled by the British colonies after the defeat of the French it was still vulnerable to the Indian tribes who lived to the north and west of it.

Chalawgatha

By 1779, the Indians who were allied with the British, and those who fought the settlers, were raiding with impunity through modern Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois. Not to mention the devastating raids along the New York frontier. 

The State government of Virginia feared the depopulation of the Ohio and the onslaught of the hostile tribes. Money and munitions were fed westward into the hands of the legendary frontiersmen to combat them.

Colonel George Rogers Clark decided to lead a strong force of militia, regulars and woodsmen mostly from Kentucky and Illinois through the untamed wilderness to the Indian town of Chalawgatha and destroy it. 

Chalawgatha was an infamous base from which some of the most destructive raids of the war in the west had been carried out.

The various Indian leaders were outnumbered and poorly equipped, yet they were masters of wilderness warfare. Clark built a road from the Ohio to Chalawgatha in order to supply his men. Abandoning their town the Indians moved to a spot ten miles north of the town called Peckuwe on the Mad River.

Legends of the Old Frontier.

This was not a turning point in the American Revolution but it was a point of movement for the westward expansion that followed. I suspect that the conflicts of the “old frontier” have not been in such good hands for a long time.

It also played a crucial role in forming the legends of men like Clark, Boone and Girty. As usual John F. Winkler brings methodical research, scholarly and entertaining detail and remarkable clarity to his work.

Illustrated with many fascinating photographs, detailed maps and double page Campaign series illustrations by Peter Dennis, (who has included many portraits into these paintings), this is a solid Osprey Campaign title. 

Book Review: Japan Story by Christopher Harding.

‘unhurried … never boring, always lucid, with some of the most fluid prose imaginable and the most serene voice I’ve encountered, Japan Story is not just a good read, it is a revelation’

It’s difficult to write an original review about a book for which a review has already been written that I completely agree with. But that is how I feel as I set out to type this.

A New Take on a Familiar Story.

As Neil McGregor points out on the back of one of the loveliest dust jacket’s of 2018, there isn’t anything hugely different about this book but at the same time it’s unlike most of the history’s of Japan I’ve encountered before

Japan Story takes you on a familiar journey, but subtly guides you through it with a nonconformist perspective. The journalists who mocked the Meiji elite’s attempt to be more western than the west at the expense of Japan’s unique refinements.

The people who realised that they had not had a revolution but a restoration, agitators and terrorists desperate to find a way to make their voices heard.

The proponents of female suffrage who were at odds with the traditionally promulgated Meiji view that women stood as the ideal of home and society, and tellingly were therefore allegorised as a personification of Japan’s traditional values. 

If there had been a revolution the wheel of change had turned as truly a Samurai revolution. An eastern version of the Restoration of 1660, and indeed that is exactly what it was, a restoration. Here Samurai is to be taken literally, it had been a revolution for the already entitled.

There is a common perception that Japan embraced modernity with a wholehearted vigour. That the people followed where the modernisers led without qualm or objection. 

Japan Story blurs the edges of this neat perception of Japanese History, and shows us a more messy, conflicted and human background to it all.

Stories are how we Survive.

‘A modest Asian country rises rapidly and purposefully to a parity is sorts with the advanced seafaring empires of the west, briefly it descends into corruption and cruelty & is deservedly crushed; but then it soars again’ 

That is the nutshell story of Japan, a history that the author challenges. To give an example I will briefly focus on the part that I am most familiar with.

For about nine decades Japan could confidently assume that the eyes of the world are upon her. As a result the county put on the greatest mime show in history, which opened to rave reviews. But with that, the author observes, came a potent self consciousness quite opposed to the traditional view of self confidence.

Meiji reformers could not bear to draw condescending looks from the foreigners they had one made fun of, or in several cases literally tried to murder and burn out of house and home.

I’m more used to reading of Itō Hirobumi when he was a Chōsū rebel during the Bakumatsu. But in 1887 the one time arsonist threw Japan’s first masquerade ball in the lavish Deer Cry Hall (Rokumeikan).

It was a scandalous affair but the government and the upper classes wanted to look their best.

‘The tut-tutting of visitors … mattered. There were anxious calls for curbs on bathing naked in public or urinating in the street’.

Alright, that last one seems fairly sensible, but you get the idea.

These calls came not from outraged foreigners, but from the leaders of Japan. Put in this light, Harding reveals that for the average subjects of the restored emperor, everything was quickly turning transparent.

Japanese culture was simplified and sold to a very receptive international clientele, eager to prove the superiority of the western system.

As a case in point, he points out that the nationally accepted story of japan from the Meiji Era to the present is in itself inherently fabricated. Within that he points to the obvious and most recognisable legacy of Japanese history, the Samurai. 

In so doing he points out that even Samurai culture was packaged up and put on show, proudly advertised as a Japanese equivalent of Europe’s chivalric tradition.

To the disappointment of many a documentary filmmaker and pop culture fan, Nitobe Inazō’s bestselling Bushidō: The Soul of Japan (1900) was ‘published in English, for foreign consumption’, but then again, stories are how we survive.

The other side of the coin.

Through this book we can see that, rather than Japan being doily and resigned to its march to the future there was something of a clash of ideas.

While the great and good espoused western fashions and pastimes, traditionalists spoke of the waltz much as Europeans did 80 years before.

A Japanese journalist is even quoted as bemoaning, in excruciating detail, the the wanton effect dancing had on ladies: ‘when a woman reaches such a state, were is the innate modesty of the virtuous maiden’.

Worship and reverence for the emperor was real, but so was the practical side of devotion to a figure the average Japanese person found as almost too legendary to actually be real.

Even then we find that attendance was poor for Meiji era Imperial processions. Allot of work went into encouraging turnouts as a patriotic duty and the short term answer was to ensure children were brought to watch Royal events. Coming from a country that still has a constitutional monarchy, it sounds rather familiar. 

Because most of my reading and research has focused on 19th century Japan, it would be of no use to speak deeply of how the author treats the tumultuous events of the 20th century. However the same sense of moment and originality carries through the entire book. 

It would be difficult to be certain if the author’s confident opinions will be shared by everyone, such a thing would surely be impossible. However I was unable to take great exception to anything.

I got the impression that instead of opinions, any resolution based thereon was pitched in terms of thoughts and ideas. The reader is free to ponder and accept or reject as they please.

Japan Story also succeeds in begin generally entertaining and is scattered with all sorts of fascinating titbits, a good example being Japan’s overlooked role in WW1.

‘The imperial Japanese navy escorted hundreds of allied ships in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, while injured soldiers on the western front occasionally found themselves being tended to by nurses from the Japanese Red Cross’.


Moved along with an unhurried pace, never boring, always lucid and with some of the most fluid prose and the most serene voice I’ve encountered, Japan Story is not just a good read, it is a revelation.

Josh.

Book Review: The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan.

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Since the uncorrected proof arrived at Historyland HQ the news has been full of headlines that echo the themes of The New Silk Roads. You’d think it was mad coincidence, but actually it’s more like inevitability. Type “New Silk Road’ into Google and the Belt and Road initiative is the first prompt to appear on the list. News from the east is devoured as heartily as the breakfast it is read over, and curiosity about what is happening there is fast becoming a part of everyone’s daily lives, which means the Silk Road’s are alive and well.

Go here to enter a giveaway.

Continue reading “Book Review: The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan.”