Another half-term bonus post. As I was dusting my bookshelves the other day, I was looking at my collection of history books. I’m a history graduate and have read a lot of history writing over the years. In fact for portions of my university career I hardly read any fiction because I was so burned out on reading from doing my coursework. These days my reading is mainly fiction, but a lot of it is historical fiction and when I do read non-fiction, a lot of it is historical biography or about history. And although I don’t tend to reread nonfiction, there are a few books that I have kept hold of – and not because I worry that people will judge me based on my bookshelves*. So what have I kept and why?
Elizabeth by David Starkey
This was the big history blockbuster when I was doing A-levels. And as it happens, I was studying Tudor history. This was one of the first really readable “proper” history books I had come across (it was much easier going that GR Elton’s Henry VII which I also had to read) and it and John Guy’s Tudor England formed the basis of a lot of my essays at the time. This is full of research, but wears it lightly – if you want a readble way of fact-checking portrayals of Elizabeth in popular culture (like say the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth films) this will do that for you. I’ve kept reading Starkey since – particularly on Henry VIII and his wives – and have a couple of others around the house, but it’s Elizabeth that I’m sentimentally attached to.
Bright Young People by DJ Taylor
I have an enduring fascination with the inter-war period. I love novels – particularly detective novels – written in that period and set in that period and the actual history and reality of that era fascinates me too. I have a little collection of books about the Roaring Twenties and this is possibly my favourite. It’s the most Britain-centric – which means I can use it to get the background on some of the people who crop up in the novels and similar. It’s also got a very thorough bibiliography and further reading list which I always appreciate and there’s a few books on that list that I still want to read. Also on my shelves (still) are Flappers by Judith Makerell, Anything Goes by Lucy Moore (which is more America-centric), Mad World by Paula Byrne and Queen Bees by Sian Evans. And I’ve got the new Evelyn Waugh biography on the to-read pile too.
An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula
Now bear with me on this one because it’s slightly odd. As a child I was a little bit obsessed with Queen Victoria. Well, quite a lot obsessed. You know how some children are into dinosaurs or trains? That was me and Queen Victoria. I could recite dates, I knew the middle names of all her children, I had it marked on my height chart how tall she was so I knew when I was taller than her and when we visited the Isle of Wight, all I wanted to do was visit Osborne. As an adult this has left me with more knowledge than I care to admit about the genealogy of the royal family, although I did win money by correctly predicting Prince George’s name – and my pick if it had been a girl was Charlotte, so you know, it has some uses. I was also big into pretend games when I was little – but I always pretended to be Princess Victoria, the Princess Royal, not Queen Victoria. Yeah. I know. I was a very strange child. Still I turned out all right really. Anyway, there aren’t many proper biographies of Princess Victoria – who was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II (him of World War One) and who died less than 8 months after her mother – but I picked this up secondhand at university to get my head around who she actually was – rather than the crazy ideas that 8-year-old Verity had – and although she actually had a sad and tragic life in the end, I keep it on the shelf as a reminder of the weirdly obsessed child that I was. Also on the shelves as remnants of that childhood obsession are Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule (about five of Queen Victoria’s Granddaughters), Princesses by Flora Fraser (about George III’s daughters) and Helen Rappaport’s Magnificent Obsession (about Victoria and Albert’s marriage).
*People are welcome to judge me on my bookshelves – if you look at the big downstairs bookshelf you’ll find Georgette Heyer, Dorothy L Sayers, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Laurie Graham, Maya Angelou, Barbara Pym and Ngaio Marsh amongst others. I think that’s a pretty accurate picture of me.