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Books I Haven’t Managed to Write About Yet

cinderI had a high and lofty goal of writing about everything I read this year, even if only a sentence, at the beginning of the year. I’ve failed at that, but here are a few thoughts on books I have read and think are worth talking about this year so far.

CinderScarlet, and Cress by Marissa Meyer

I loved these books. I went on a work trip to London and had to stay overnight back in February and I managed to read Cinder and Scarlet back-to-back on the evening (in between a trip to Forbidden Planet and a curry for dinner). I didn’t sleep much, needless to say, but I loved them. I got completely and totally absorbed in Cinder’s world. By a small stretch of time I managed to wait to read Cress - about a month – but my resistance wore down absurdly quickly and I devoured that one, too, although so far I think Cinder is my favorite. And now I have to wait all the way until 2015 for Winter, which seems pretty unendurable whenever I think about it!

It’s difficult to pin down why I loved them so very much. I really liked the way they reflected fairy tales, how they’re burdened by expectations and each girl has to make her own way, and because each book has a great romance going on (although I think Cress’s is probably the weakest) without being just about that romance. There is so much packed into each book, so much emotion and story. I even like how they reflect a wider scope of the world within fantasy and each girl comes from a different place and different walk of life. I so hope Winter is just as good as the first three books in this series.

germaniaGermania, Simon Winder

I didn’t really love Germania, but I appreciated it a lot, and it reminded me of why Germany is so interesting. Winder basically goes off on a long, rambling, nostalgic and affectionate rant about Germany and takes his readers along for the ride. So while it isn’t an organized history of much of anything, it has a whole lot of charm. Just the subject of Germany is complicated now, still, in the shadow of both World Wars. They fundamentally changed the way that Germany was perceived by the rest of the world, especially Europe, and Germany’s reputation hasn’t recovered in the way. Anecdotally, I’ve never met anyone obsessed with German culture, like people so frequently are with France or Italy, and German friends I have had do say that there is still shame pervading Germany because of what happened. But Germany was regarded completely differently before those wars in ways that it’s now difficult to imagine.

Winder agrees with this interpretation. Germany is kind of disregarded now, certainly compared to its European neighbors, but it’s an enchanting country with a bizarre history, so fractured into tiny little pieces that still hold on to their own eclectic pasts. I felt a fragment of this when I went to Munich almost two years ago; I had never really heard of any of the people or places around Munich, but there are royal palaces and paintings and little bits of history all over the place. I wanted to know more, but it feels like learning more about Germany is unravelling a massive swath of history that has the potential to be overwhelming. I’ve picked up little bits and pieces, like in Vanished Kingdoms and Noble Endeavours and I have Christopher Clark’s history of Prussia for when I get some time, but this book in part reminded me how much I don’t know and how much I’d like to find out. It also made me really, really want to visit Germany again. I haven’t been anywhere else where history smacked me in the face quite so vividly in so many different ways. That history is complicated and has a traumatic relationship with the rest of the world, but it’s important to remember the good right along with the bad.

Anyway, if you are at all interested in Germany, I would recommend picking this up. Like I’ve said, it isn’t a straight history and didn’t really satisfy my cravings to know more, but if anything it made those cravings much stronger.

a dance with dragons dreams and dustA Dance with Dragons: Dreams and Dust, George R.R. Martin

I’ve been re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire for months mostly so I could get to book five finally (and so I could know what was going to happen on the show, as I’d forgotten a lot). Unfortunately, I remember A Feast for Crows as a disappointment, and I was pretty bummed that I didn’t much like this first installment of A Dance with Dragons, either. In the UK, they split it into these two books, and the first half just didn’t grab me although I slogged through. I guess I’d forgotten in my head how sexist, brutal, and depressing Martin’s world is. I was primarily disturbed by the excessive and unnecessary sexism, in this particular book; it just felt relentless and I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading the book as much as I thought I would. Plus, I think at this point, the series is just too long. A new minor character seems to pop up every other page, distracting me from the characters who are actually interesting to read about, but everything just gets worse for them too, with no actual break. It’s too dark, too long, too frustrating to read. I used to like this a whole lot more than I do now and discovering that has been disappointing. I haven’t been in a rush to pick up the second half and I’m not sure when I will.

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Review: The End of Plagues, John Rhodes

the end of plaguesDisease is a constant in our lives. For those who aren’t privileged enough to live or be born in a first-world country, disease and death is an even greater, every day fear. But many of these diseases are now preventable, primarily due to vaccination, and it’s the history as well as the future of this very modern medical miracle that Rhodes explores with this book. As an example, smallpox used to kill two million people or more every year. Now, it’s virtually extinct, surviving in just two known test tubes in the world. Rhodes starts with the pioneering work of Edward Jenner and moves through time to explore the discovery and science of vaccination, its history, and the current fight against some of the world’s fiercest diseases.

The End of Plagues was a fascinating and unexpectedly inspiring book. I had never really learned (or don’t remember) anything about the history of vaccines in school or otherwise, but I’m always interested in learning more about the world. This book spans the entire world when it comes to the history of immunisation and the fight to eradicate diseases. Most of the discoveries were made in Europe and in the United States, but the latter part of the book focuses heavily on the struggles which have and still are taking place in the Middle East and Africa to finally defeat some of the illnesses with vaccines. Disease is truly global and Rhodes looks at the entire world to get a clearer picture of where progress lies; it’s easy to forget that diseases we’ve obliterated from our own countries still flourish in others with many still suffering from illnesses we no longer see. But the progress that we’ve collectively made is astounding and it’s inspiring to read about so many countries coming together and choosing to protect their people and improve the world in the fact of extraordinary difficulties.

The history was really interesting too, although the book skipped around a little bit in the initial chapters which made it harder to follow. I got the drift quickly though, as discoveries came in hard and fast after Jenner first made his vaccine. One thing I was surprised to learn is the chequered history of older vaccinations. Because the vaccines were actually developed before the corresponding science, there was a huge amount of trial and error and it’s immensely safer now that we actually understand exactly what happens when a vaccine is placed into someone’s body. It’s a balancing act and in many ways it’s fortuitous that Jenner made his discovery exactly how and when he did (the book refers to this as serendipity and it resulted in a couple of discoveries). Vaccines are safer now, but despite the element of luck those initial vaccines and the ongoing campaigns now have eliminated scourges that have haunted humans throughout history.

Rhodes is extremely fair when it comes to understanding why people refuse vaccines for their children and even shares his own experience with doubt. Although links between vaccination and autism have been disproven, there is still a vocal minority of people who are firmly against vaccination for various reasons. While their children definitely benefit from herd immunity, these people open cracks in our defense against serious illnesses. Rhodes explores the history of vaccination and where those worries come from. In the end, though it’s small consolation to the few parents whose children do suffer side effects, vaccination has changed the world much for the better. The simple fact that children can play outside in midsummer without worrying about permanent paralysis or death proves this. Rhodes isn’t heavy-handed, but logical and understanding; worries are there, but he went ahead and vaccinated his daughter because he knew the consequences that ensued from a lapse in that “herd immunity”.

Definitely recommended – whether you’re questioning vaccination, whether you’re interested in history, whether you’re curious about efforts to cure current scourges (primarily malaria and HIV), whether you just want to learn something new. This is a book I’m glad to have read.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: Edward III and the Triumph of England, Richard Barber

edward iiiKing Edward III of England is a pretty fascinating guy – especially if, like me, you have a deep and abiding interest in the Middle Ages. This surprisingly successful king, although that’s quite a simplified interpretation, managed to overthrow the rule of his mother and her lover as a teenager, laid claim to France, which started the Hundred Years’ War, and founded the Company of the Garter, a chivalric order which still survives unlike so many of its contemporaries. He was also the father of Edward the Black Prince (a name which is too awesome not to use, even though he was not called this during his lifetime), one of the most intriguing historical figures in England for me. In this work of history, Richard Barber not only looks at Edward and his reign, but those who surrounded him, inspired him, and succeeded him.

Of course, I loved it. I’d been looking forward to this book ever since I heard about it, particularly because I was already familiar with the historian who wrote it. It was right on par with my expectations. I appreciated so much the approach that Barber took – this isn’t a biography of Edward. It’s a complete view of everything happening around Edward, putting him firmly in the context of the period. This, for me, far more than historical fiction these days, gives me a feel for the period. It’s about the battles and tournaments, the personalities that filled the court, the literature that these people read and which inspired and taught them about their world. It’s really difficult to separate Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, his queen, from the obsession that the Victorians had with the Middle Ages, but Barber does his best and pulls out as much history away from that as he can manage.

Among this is the surprising discovery of how little we actually know about the founding of the Order of the Garter, or its history in the early days. Chivalric orders sprang up in this period in a number of countries, and Barber looks at each of these and tries to find out where Edward got the idea from, who might have been in that order, and why – ultimately, drawing the conclusion that it sprang in some form from the battle of Crecy, which we learn about in as much detail as we can manage. Barber goes so far as to research the layout of the battle and the tactics that might have been used by the English to gain the spectacular victories that they did, which was really fascinating and something I hadn’t read about before. There are a lot of primary sources here and Barber doesn’t hesitate to quote directly, with often large portions of pages taken up with excerpts giving us a huge amount of insight.

In addition, the book isn’t particularly dry, although as with every bit of history I’m obsessed with, your opinion on this may vary. I’d think it would be perfectly readable and enjoyable for someone who might be looking to move on from historical fiction to something based more on primary sources and fact. I loved it, and if you are interested in tournaments, battles, and the high middle ages, this book is definitely for you.

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Review: Noble Endeavours, Miranda Seymour

noble endeavoursThe histories of England and Germany have been intertwined for centuries. Among other things, the tie is in the very root of the words we speak, as the English language is based on a Germanic language, albeit with plenty of other languages thrown in for good measure. Miranda Seymour picks up the story of these two countries in the seventeenth century with the marriage of an English Stuart princess to the Elector Palatine, the son of a very different German landscape. From those nuptials to the end of World War II, Seymour picks up the story of these two countries primarily through people that loved and lived in both of them.

I had an interesting time with Noble Endeavours. I couldn’t say that I loved it unreservedly, because it had faults. As it’s set over a wide span of time, there were very many historical personalities introduced, and I for one found it surprisingly difficult to keep track of who everyone was over the centuries. I could have used some sort of guide to who was who in the front or back of the book, especially when some of those mentioned got married and their names changed. In places it felt scattered as we jumped from one person to another (who I invariably didn’t remember). This may have been partly my fault as I didn’t read the whole thing in one go, preferring to jump in and out over the course of a couple of weeks, normally how I handle non-fiction these days.

When the book was great, though, it was really great, and at times I could feel how some of these people were genuinely pulled between two countries. The best part was towards the end where we got to the World Wars – not “best” because of the circumstances, but because it gave me the opportunity to view the huge historical turning point from a new angle. And, because of the focus on specific people, we get a much more intimate view of the heartbreak caused by these divisions. Both World Wars were devastating events and this book brought more of that into focus through individual affected people from all sectors of society rather than a big picture view.

The part that I found most horrifying, actually, was how wilfully Hitler was ignored and even praised by Brits for revitalizing Germany when they had plenty of evidence of what his actual plans were. Part of that was due to the way the two countries had interacted for several hundred years, part of it was because those plans were well hidden on both sides, but it’s scary how many lives may have been lost because intelligence reports were ignored and insider knowledge was dismissed. And the price is still paid to this day.

Not a perfect book, but a fascinating one. I’d recommend Noble Endeavours for anyone interested in English or German history.

All external links are associate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Guest Post: Susan Higginbotham, author of The Woodvilles

Woodville small coverToday I’m thrilled to welcome Susan Higginbotham, author of such fantastic historical novels as The Traitor’s Wife and Hugh and Bess, with a guest post to celebrate the release of her first published non-fiction work! The Woodvilles is out now in the UK and on Kindle in the US; in the meantime enjoy Susan’s post below on the death of Edward Woodville.

In April 1488, Edward Woodville, the youngest brother of Elizabeth Woodville and one of the men who had shared in Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth three years before, was awarded the Order of the Garter. He did not enjoy it long, because on July 28 of that same year, he fell in battle attempting to aid Francis, the Duke of Brittany.

The duke, who had offered succor and support to Henry Tudor as well as to Edward Woodville during their exile, was threatened with a French invasion. Edward longed to help his old friend. As Polydore Vergil tells it:

Edward Woodville, a stout and courageous man . . . either to avoid the tedium of peace or moved by his love of the duke, earnestly beseeched King Henry that by his permission he might go to Britanny with some band of soldiers to aid his friends. And, lest the King of France could reproach Henry for this, he said he would go secretly with no supplies, which would give a show of unfeigned flight. The king, who hoped that a peace would be arranged by his ambassadors, was so far from indulging Edward’s ardor that he strictly forbade him to undertake any scheme of the kind, thinking it foreign to his dignity to offend Charles, to whom he hoped to ingratiate himself in a matter of little importance which he thought would do nothing to aid the Duke of Britanny. But Edward, when the king had forbidden him to do as he wished, decided to act without his knowledge, and quickly and secretly went to the Isle of Wight, of which he was lieutenant. And from there, having gathered a band of soldiers to the number of approximately four hundred, he crossed over to Britanny and joined with them against the French.

King Charles of France instructed his commander, General de la Trémoille, on 5 July 1488 to “make war as vigorously as you can,” an order which the general followed with enthusiasm. On 28 July, Duke Francis, after meeting with a council of war that included Edward, determined to go to the relief of Fougères and St Aubin, both under siege. Although it turned out to be too late to save the fortresses, which had surrendered, the Bretons determined, as reported by Molinet, “to engage the French . . . as best they could.”

The Marshal de Rieux was in overall command of the Breton forces, Trémoille in charge of the French. To fool the French into believing that there were a large number of English troops, the Breton army dressed 1,700 Bretons in surcoats bearing the red cross of St George, like the men of Edward’s forces.

Plaque on Isle of Wight commemorating Edward Woodville. Photograph courtesy of author Dorothy Davies"? Thanks!

Plaque on Isle of Wight commemorating Edward Woodville.
Photograph courtesy of author Dorothy Davies”? Thanks!

As reported by Edmund Hall:

When both the armies were approaching to the other, the ordinance shot so terribly and with such a violence, that it sore damaged and encumbered both the parties. When the shot was finished, both the vanguards joined together with such a force that it was marvell[ous] to behold. The Englishmen shot so fast, that the Frenchmen in the forward, were fain to recule to the battle where their horsemen were. The rearward of the Frenchmen, seeing this first discomfiture began to flee, but the captains retired their men together again, & the horsemen set fiercely on the Bretons, and slew the most part of the footmen. When the forward of the Bretons perceived that their horsemen nor the Almaines carne not forward they provided for themselves & fled, some here, and some there, where they thought to have refuge or succour. So that in conclusion the Frenchmen obtained the victory, & slew all such as wore red crosses, supposing them all to be Englishmen. In this conflict were slain almost all the Englishmen, & six thousand Bretons, Amongst whom were found dead the lord Woodville . . .

Legend has it that only one of the men who had left with Edward returned to the Isle of Wight: a page named Diccon Cheke.

When the Knights of the Garter met again in 1489, they would hold a requiem mass and offer the swords, helms, and crests of two fallen knights, one of whom was Edward. It was left for the heralds to write his epitaph: “a noble and courageous knight” who bravely fought and died for a cause not his own.

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Review: Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, Norman Davies

vanished kingdomsHistory is written by the victors. It’s a common phrase that nearly everyone has said or heard. Our history books and our world views are shaped by the people who won wars. Europe’s states, particularly those of western Europe, seem fixed in place. Italy, Germany, Spain; these are definite countries, aren’t they?

Well, as it turns out, and as those who study European history might know, not really. The borders, names, and actual existences of states in Europe have shifted dramatically over the course of the last 2,000 years, with many states completely and totally forgotten except by those who once lived in them. There were seven kingdoms and duchies called “Burgundy”, none of which exist now. Spain was historically fragmented into different countries in the middle ages and exists in an uneasy state now with Catalans seeking independence (and simultaneously forgetting states of their own). The united states of Italy and Germany are fairly new and the destruction of Prussia happened in the twentieth century. And Poland? Poland was completely absorbed into other countries for a time, while the Kingdom of Montenegro not only failed to exist after World War I, no one actually seemed to care. The country only gained independence again in 2006.

Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved this book. It took me a month to read (during which time I read plenty of fiction) but I found it absolutely fascinating. The book is arranged in roughly chronological order from around the dissolution of the Roman Empire to the fall of the Soviet Union, with 15 states that have either vanished or had huge parts of their history forgotten by the popular consciousness. There’s no real connection between the choices except that they’re all in Europe. Each chapter is broken into three parts. The first part looks at what is happening in the region today, to give us context for the history which follows in the second part. The third part then looks at how well the history has been remembered (or misremembered). This structure worked really well for me; I always like having some sort of context to understand history, and I know enough about the bits and pieces around most of the “vanished” kingdoms to understand the history pretty well too. He goes into more detail with some countries than others, which according to some other reviews makes the book a bit dry, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all.

Naturally this is only a surface glance at each of the 15 “kingdoms” – which can also be empires, duchies, republics, etc. – but it’s a starting point to go out and explore more. Unfortunately a few of the places have been forgotten so thoroughly that the remaining documentation is slight or non-existent, or in another language, but Davies has copious notes at the back of the book, although I’d have loved a suggested reading list of sorts for each.

I really enjoyed the way Davies looked at how history is remembered, too. Each country is different, of course, but it’s fascinating to see how countries treat their own pasts. One of the most extensive was, unsurprisingly, at the end of the chapter on Ireland. Ireland is hardly a forgotten country, but its relationship with England and eventually the United Kingdom is very complicated. Davies ruminates at length on the future of the UK, which he doesn’t think is going to last very long.

All in all, Vanished Kingdoms was completely and totally fascinating. I only wished there were more kingdoms to read about! Very highly recommended.

All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

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Review: Catherine the Great, Robert K. Massie

catherine the greatCatherine the Great is an iconic female monarch, known even to those who have never glanced at Russian history. Her reign ushered in something of a golden age for much of Russia, symbolized by cultural and physical expansion, the effects of which were felt for decades after her reign had concluded. In this biography of Catherine, Robert K. Massie covers the entirety of her life, from her origins as a relatively modest German daughter of a prince, through her disastrous marriage to the heir to the Russian throne, until her death as one of Russia’s greatest rulers.

Massie’s biography looks intimidating, at almost 600 pages long in hardcover in my edition, but his narrative of the flow of Catherine’s life is incredibly smooth and easy to read. I actually managed to read a lot in one sitting and in parts it could almost read like fiction, which makes this a very accessible non-fiction read. I can imagine most readers enjoying this if they have an interest in imperial Russia and Catherine’s long reign. Massie also makes Catherine easy to relate to; he draws from her letters and her own memoirs to try and build her character and explore how she might have been feeling through her life.

I didn’t like that there seemed to be little connection to Massie’s sources aside from the originals, though, and the notes aren’t marked in the text, which I didn’t like either. A lot of the start of the book is based on Catherine’s memoirs, which means that we have to take her word for the way that things happened, and I’d have liked some sort of evidence of external sources corroborating what she says. In reality Massie consulted a lot of sources, but it’s really hard to see what’s coming from where. It made it difficult for me at least to trust what he was saying.

That said, though, I liked how comprehensive this book was and how well it was structured. It roughly follows Catherine’s life chronologically as the book is separated into sections, but each chapter within those sections tends to deal with just one subject. This made it very easy to follow what was happening in Catherine’s life at any given time, but also allowed the author to delve deeper into each subject. As I said earlier, it’s very easy to feel sympathy for Catherine, and the frequent quoting from her memoirs and letters helps us as readers feel as though we are actually learning about the real woman. Because Massie starts at the beginning of her life, we can understand some of the motivations she’s had for later actions. In addition, Massie never passes judgement on her for any of her actions, which makes him a valuable biographer for a woman who often gains undeserved negative press for the number of “favorites” she had (when male monarchs did the same without any note).

He follows the shifts in her political focus easily, too, and traces how the relative enlightened idealism of her youth is crushed by the realities of ruling a country, an aspect of the book that I found particularly fascinating. But again, he doesn’t pass judgement on her; he doesn’t judge her for her inability to free Russia’s serfs, for her eventual censoring of the press after the French Revolution, or for any of her other political actions which don’t particularly match up with current beliefs. Catherine’s actions were not always ones that we would agree with, but Massie leaves it to readers to decide, without attempting to influence them. I found this quite valuable.

A riveting biography, Catherine the Great is a complete picture of the last, and greatest, female monarch of Russia. For anyone who enjoys history, this book would be an exceptional choice.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, Faramerz Dabhoiwala

the origins of sexThe western world, particularly England where this book focuses, hasn’t always been as free in its sexual attitudes as it is now; indeed, for most of recorded history, all of the world has been more or less the same as the Taliban is now, with little concept of individual sexual freedoms or privacy. Adulterers, homosexuals, and prostitutes are among those who were deeply stigmatized as there was no real conception of individual privacy or the idea that your sexual history might be only your own business.

When did this change? Beginning in the late 17th and moving into the 18th century, a series of fundamental shifts happened in the understanding of privacy, sexuality, and even celebrity that resulted in concrete changes to the way people in Europe viewed their lives and those of the people around them. Dabhoiwala tracks this cultural shift, which has echoes running straight to the modern day, through its origins in a variety of different spheres to understand how and why it happened and how the attitudes creates are actually still being rewritten into the present day.

I found much of this book to be absolutely fascinating. The Enlightenment isn’t really my period of particular interest, so I knew very little about this subject. Coming into it from a medieval background, though, with a comprehensive knowledge of medieval attitudes towards sexuality and an idea of what happened in the Renaissance, I could recognize easily that this was actually a very significant shift. While medieval people weren’t necessarily as brutal or as hard on women as we necessarily think, that doesn’t mean that their society was particularly free. Sexuality outside marriage – sometimes even inside marriage – was routinely targeted as something to avoid wherever possible.

I also liked the approach that the author took here. Rather than strictly chronologically laying out exactly what was happening, he instead takes several themes and explores those and how each of them changed understanding in its own particular way. A chronological approach could have easily gotten confused; separating out particular themes and segments of history, like the rise of sexual celebrity with Charles II’s numerous mistresses, helped give the book focus and lend weight to the author’s arguments.

One section I particularly liked was the emphasis on the change in attitudes towards prostitution. Prostitutes were reviled in the period before this one, often viewed as tempting men into adultery and causing them to sin with their alluring ways. By the eighteenth century, the pendulum swung completely the other way, and prostitutes were viewed with extreme pity as fallen women who had fallen into impossible circumstances. The Victorians created workhouses where these women were rescued from their immoral lives, given religious training and isolated from all aspects of their former lives, and essentially forced to work for their upkeep. While this approach worked for some, with women emerging into the Victorian version of success with marriage and children, it failed monumentally for others, and the success rate really wasn’t high – nor did these workhouses make much money.

A truly fascinating look into a society that radically changed the way people thought, The Origins of Sex is a work of history that is well worth your time.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: Map of a Nation, Rachel Hewitt

map of a nationIf you’re hiking somewhere in the UK and you’ve bought a map, you’re probably holding a little piece of the Ordnance Survey in your hands. The governmental organization responsible for mapping the nation, the Ordnance Survey faced a difficult road in its early years to successfully covering the entirety of the UK, including England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, maps were inaccurate, expensive, and incomplete, leaving travellers in most of the world unsure about the shape of the space in which they lived. The Ordnance Survey was created for the military, but it quickly became something that ordinary people eagerly followed as the outlines of their world were defined correctly for the first time. In this book, Rachel Hewitt traces the origins of the Survey through to the completion of the “First Series” of maps, where the entirety of Great Britain and Ireland was completely mapped in detail for the first time.

I don’t really know all that much about the Ordnance Survey, except for the fact that most maps seem to come from them, but I was very intrigued by the prospect of the origins of accurate map-making. Another little niche part of history that I know nothing about? Please, tell me more. Hewitt, in great detail, does exactly that, creating a readable early “biography” of an institution, peopled with many intelligent characters and full of descriptions about just how maps were created several hundred years ago.

I will completely at first admit that I didn’t actually come away from this book understanding precisely how maps are made, although I do have a greater knowledge than I did before. The geometry just baffled me; it’s been over ten years since I studied actual geometry and more than eight since I did any sort of mathematical subject, so I would suggest you hold this against me, not the book. I sort of understood the process of making triangles out of the land based on visible landmarks to check accuracy and map everything in between, but if I was ever asked to do such a thing, I’m pretty sure no maps of the world would have existed before satellites. There is enough of this sort of thing here to slow the book down occasionally, but I wouldn’t let it put you off.

What I personally found far more interesting were the people that Hewitt profiles, especially the earliest ones and those who successfully run the Ordnance Survey from its inception on to the conclusion of the book. Their efforts and seeming belief in their hard work was admirable, and I was left with a distinct sense of awe at the actual enormity of the task they were trying to accomplish. There is a fantastic reminder that all of these men (because of course the project was exclusively run by men, unfortunately) were really just people on page 225 of my edition. As a reward for working diligently over four months’ surveying in Scotland, the men are treated to an enormous plum pudding, nearly 100 lbs of it, for which they conscripted many spare pots and pans and bits of cloth, and all took turns watching it boil so it didn’t burn.

The sections I also really liked had to do with place names, or toponymy. Coming up with accurate place names, especially as detailed here in Wales and Ireland, was a severe problem. The mainly English surveyors struggled to understand what people were calling their towns, much less how to spell it, and in Ireland the surveyors met with some reticence on behalf of the Irish (for which no one can blame them). The early Welsh maps were riddled with inaccuracies and the system used to determine place names had to be revised several times – in Ireland, eventually a separate team of all Irishmen was hired just to work out what the accurate names of places were.

In all, I found Map of a Nation to be a completely fascinating piece of history on a subject I really did know absolutely nothing about. I also trusted it more as it originated as a PhD thesis and the huge number of notes and works cited led me to believe that the author knew exactly where she was coming from. At the end, the author has bolded her works cited to indicate which books are most appropriate for further reading, a nice touch which has inspired me to see if I can get my hands on any of her copious recommendations. Those who aren’t particularly used to reading history might find it a bit dry and hard to get through, especially during the parts describing how the map-making happened, but it’s an endeavor that is well worth it.

All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

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Review: Wedlock, Wendy Moore

wedlockOne of the richest heiresses in eighteenth century Georgian Britain, Mary Eleanor Bowes had every reason to expect a glowing future. Educated beyond her female peers, indulged by her father, and pampered with every possible luxury, the young heiress satisfied her taste for literary and botanical endeavours, but at the same time was a very poor judge of men. When Andrew Robinson Stoney, a handsome Irish soldier, was gravely injured in a duel for her honour, she married him almost immediately, told that he had only days to live. To her surprise, he recovered within hours of their marriage and proceeded to wreak a brutal reign of terror on her life, beating, kidnapping, and imprisoning her and any other females who fell too closely within his grasp.

But Mary Eleanor wouldn’t endure his tyranny forever, and her fight back, for herself and her children, resulted in hope for all abused wives throughout Britain.

What a fascinating book. This popular history, which reads almost like a novel at times, traces the fall of an incredibly rich and privileged woman due to a couple of bad, life-changing decisions, and is a fascinating look at how a single man could ruin the lives of everyone around him. Stoney wasn’t even born particularly highly, but by simply using his attractiveness and ability to lie guilelessly, he managed to bag himself not one but two heiresses. By the standards of their day, his treatment was judged out of the ordinary, but both of his wives had very little power to free themselves from his clutches.

Mary Eleanor Bowes herself was a very compelling character and I felt for her very strongly throughout the course of the book. She was spoiled when young, and did obviously have bad judgement and suffered from a lack of maturity despite her rather more advanced book learning, but none of that meant that she deserved to be so ill-treated. I found all of the struggles she went through to finally free herself to be enlightening – married women under 18th century law genuinely had zero rights. She no longer owned any of the property her father had bestowed on her, as her new husband forced her to renounce her prenuptial contract keeping her own income and properties, and was kept a virtual prisoner by servants hired by her husband. She had nothing, not even her children most of the time.

Her fight to regain those rights is engaging and heartening, as it must have been for any of the women of her time following the case. It made me very glad that I wasn’t born in the eighteenth century, and that so many women before me fought for our gender, as I hope we continue to do so. Indeed, Moore lists when women gained some of the rights Mary Eleanor deserves, and some of them are depressingly recent, which only underscores the fact that there is still so much ground we need to gain.

A peek into the real-life trauma of a disastrous eighteenth century marriage, Mary Eleanor’s fight for her life and family in Wedlock makes for fascinating reading, even as it reminds us of how much women have fought for their rights over the past couple of hundred years.

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