This is another post that has been months and months in the making – as you’ll be able to tell if you look at my Goodreads. This started as a non-fiction roundup, but there have been a lot of non-fiction Books of the Week during the Quarantimes, so it evolved into a specifically historical non-fiction post which has taken me (even) longer to pull together than I originally thought. But as always, I got there in the end, even if I’m publishing this after I’m fully vaccinated when I started writing it when a vaccine for Covid-19 was still in the early stages of research.
Alexandria by Edmund Richardson*
The Alexandria of the title is the city that was “discovered” in the 1830s in Afghanistan, by Charles Masson. Masson was a deserter turned pilgrim turned spy turned many other things who roamed parts of Asia that very few Westerners had visited at the time. I read this before the current situation in Afghanistan deteriorated so far (although by this point it’s more of a complete collapse) and it was already somwhat poignant when talking about Bamiyan Buddhas, but I can only imagine that it will be heart-breaking at this point. It is a fascinating story and impeccably researched but sometimes a little dense. And with so many name changes it’s sometimes hard to keep track of what’s going on with whom. A new area of history for me – in geographical terms, but not in terms of the East India Company and its machinations.
The Fall of the House of Byron by Emily Brand*
If you’ve only heard of the poet, there’s a lot you’re missing out on about the Byron family – and this book sets out to change that. I had come across Admiral Byron before – but only in passing in history lectures. But it turns out there’s a scandalous sister and a profligate baron who fought in a duel. I enjoyed this, and it’s clearly very well researched, but I found it sometimes quite hard to keep track of the large cast of characters (who often share names) and I found the jumps forward and backwards a little confusing – but that may just be the way that it was formatted in the advance e-copy I had. But if you like histories of aristocratic families, this is worth your while – there is so much going on here in so few generations. And if you’re interested in the poet, then this has valuable insight into his family and backstory – although not a huge amount about him.
Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things by Robin Muir
Regular readers will know that I have a fascination for the interwar period – a lot of the fiction that I love was written then, or is set then and I also read a lot of non-fiction and biography from that period. One of the things that I had been really looking forward to doing last spring/early summer was going to the Cecil Beaton exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. But sadly it was open less than a week before the first lockdown happened. So instead I treated myself (and it was a treat because art books are proper expensive – all those photos) to the book of the exhibition – and it’s so good. It’s got all the pictures that you would expect – and along with writing about Beaton himself, his portraits are accompanied by one or two page biographies of the people they feature. If you like the period, all the notables are here, it’s very dip in and out-able (ideal in these crazy times) and as an added bonus, it’s got a huge bibliography in the back to give you ideas about what to read next on anyone who particularly interests you.
The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore
One last bonus book – bonus because I still haven’t finished it because this is a really long read and a bit gruesome so needs to be read in sensible chunks! This is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s group biography of the Romanov dynasty. For a lot of people, all they might know about them is the story of the death of Nicholas II and his family in the Russian Revolution but the family had ruled over Russia from the early seventeenth century. I did half of it while running (or what passes for a run with me) because hearing about all the awful ways people got killed made me run faster. But after a couple of generations of people with the same names it started to get a bit hard to keep track of who was who, so I got hold of the ebook and have carried on with that.