Gift Ideas for History Lovers: My Top 5 History Reads of the Year

It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding

Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.

The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper

This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis

Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.

3 Year Anniversary and Jane Austen’s Bath

This week marked the three anniversary of the blog. I would just to take the chance to thank all the followers, readers and supporters over those three years. It honestly means a lot that people read and love the content I produce. Whilst this is a hobby, history, and sharing it with others, is my passion. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the stories I write about for many more years to come.

I have some podcast contributions coming up over the next few months, which I can’t wait to share with you. They will focus on my research into the life of Anthony Woodville, which if you’re a regular follower of the blog, you’ll know I’ve been doing for many years now. It’s very exciting and I’m just glad to share his life with people as he is definitely an underrated figure of the Wars of the Roses.

Last week I went on my first holiday since the pandemic started. We went to the lovely Georgian city of Bath. I last went for a long weekend in the summer of 2019, so it was good to spend a bit more time there to explore the area more. The oldest surviving outdoor swimming pool in the UK, Cleveland Pools, is also in Bath. If you would like to learn more, feel free to read a previous post I did on the swimming pool by clicking here.

Bath is famous for it’s surviving Georgian architecture, as well as being the home of Jane Austen for many years after her father retired from his role as Rector of Steventon in 1801. She is the main reason for our trip. We had tickets to take part in the promenade, just one of many events of the Jane Austen Festival. We were due to go last year, but like many other things, it was cancelled. I can tell you though, it was well worth the wait and all the preparation! My sister sewed both of our costumes, other than a velvet jacket I wore. Her effort truly paid off and I think she did amazingly. The route we took was around an hour’s walk from the Holbourne Museum, which doubles as Lady Danbury’s house in Bridgerton, to the Parade Gardens, which over look the River Avon.

Just some of the participants of the promenade, Author’s own image

There were around 300 or more people all in Regency/Late Georgian costume and it was certainly a fantastic sight to see! I would totally recommend visiting Bath during the Jane Austen Festival, which takes place for 10 days, starting from the second weekend in September. If participating isn’t your thing, I would certainly recommend lining the parade route for a look. As many people I know have said, it was like looking at a period drama. We’re hoping to return next year and take part again, also hopefully joining in with the Country Ball where you can participate in some Regency dancing. If Jane Austen is someone you are interested in, I wrote a short post about the significance her writing brought to wounded and fighting soldiers during World War One. If you would like to learn more, please click here.

The last part of my trip I would like to mention is our visit to the village of Lacock. Lacock is a National Trust village that still looks much as it would have done around 300 years ago or more. It’s looked after by the National Trust, but people still live in it. However, it’s most famous for appearing in many period dramas. My favourite ones that have been filmed here are Downton Abbey and Cranford. Most importantly, it played the part of Meryton in Colin Firth adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Lacock Abbey on the edge of the village was once the home of the Fox Talbot family. Henry Fox Talbot was one of the pioneers of photography. He created the earliest surviving photonegative in 1835.

Jennifer Ehle and Adrian Lukis as Elizabeth Bennet and George Wickham in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The village shown as Meryton is Lacock in Wiltshire

To learn more about the Jane Austen Festival and Lacock Village and Abbey, please click the following links:

Lacock Village and Abbey

Jane Austen Festival

Jane Austen During World War One

Jane Austen is one of Britain’s most well-known and best loved authors. Alongside Dickens, she is definitely my favourite author. There is something happy and uplifting about her novels. It also helps that you can find lots of other things to fill your Austen need. You can so easily find sequels, academic articles, merchandise, virtually anything related to Austen or her novels. Admittedly this ‘Austenmania’ started in the 1990s with a number of TV and film adaptations, with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice being the one that comes to mind the most. However, this type of fame has been hard come by and the beginnings of it certainly didn’t come into force until the late nineteenth century.

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Engraving of a young Jane Austen based on a sketch by Cassandra Austen from James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoirs, Wikimedia Commons

The term ‘Janeite’ that is usually given to Jane Austen fans was only invented in 1894 by George Saintsbury, a writer and literary historian.[1] Whilst this was nearly 80 years after the author’s death, this was mainly due to her unpopularity in the Victorian period. To the Victorians, Jane Austen’s novels didn’t conform to their ideals as her heroines were “ungenteel” and they often made fun of the clergy.[2] It was only after the publishing of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s biography of his little known aunt in 1870 that her image began to change to a domestic woman, reflecting Victorian expectations of femininity.[3] Whilst this helped to increase Jane’s popularity, it was only seen in a select group of people. The types of people known to be Janeites at this time were mainly men, which is surprising as contemporary society views Austen’s fans as largely women. These men were largely publishers, professors, novelists and other literati, including Montague Summers (novelist and clergyman), R. W. Chapman (editor of Jane Austen’s works) and E. M. Forster.[4] The status of these admirers meant that they flaunted the idea that they were part of a select cult who viewed her works as miracles that were above that of authors who others read.[5]

With the outbreak of the First World War, ideas on reading began to change. The National Home Reading Union’s Annual General Meeting just three months after the start of the war invited Michael Sadler, a recognised educationalist at the time to be a guest speaker. In his speech he suggested that reading was needed to keep “minds fresh and sane” and that reading “good fiction” would do this.[6] This appeal applied to those at home and on the front lines. The speech was then published and distributed to many soldiers’ camps to know this also applied to them.[7]

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John Warwick Brooke, Highland Gas Sentry Reading a Letter from Home, National Library of Scotland

Reading fiction became a part of war life as it was an easy way to distract and provide entertainment but also bolstered patriotic sentiments.[8] The patriotic feeling this brought was by an increased understanding of what British culture was and what was at risk. To some, reading books was just as important as letter writing to loved ones back home as it helped to “overcome perceived boundaries between home and battle fronts” and helped maintain pre-war identities and interests.[9]

For Jane Austen’s novels, they often became a lifeline for fighting soldiers. Siegfried Sassoon was one of many who would have read Austen during his time in the trenches.[10] It’s claimed that Pride and Prejudice was the most read of all books by soldiers during the First World War.[11] There may be some truth in this as Austen and Dickens were the main authors prescribed by doctors to wounded soldiers and those suffering from shell shock.[12] Perhaps these choices were made because by the time of the First World War, Jane Austen had come to represent Englishness that soldiers were fighting for and helped give a nostalgic view that England had remained unchanged from the past which was seen in these Georgian era novels.[13] Unfortunately, those serving in the trenches were living a very different reality of war than George Wickham’s militia regiment. Surely though it would have made some difference of distraction to those who were bored or injured.

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C.E Brock, ‘Love and Eloquence’ from Macmillan’s 1895 edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, British Library

The 6 novels of Jane Austen may have even been read out in groups. Reading in the trenches had to be more informal than people at home as it had to fit around active service.[14] To ensure this happened many charities were set up to send mainly donated books to the front lines. These included the Camp Libraries, Red Cross Library, St John’s War Library Committee and Worker’s Educational Association, who between them sent active and wounded soldiers, as well as prisoners of war.[15] Jane Austen’s books would have been included in these as ensuring that soldiers read good quality fiction was seen as a way of stopping them from seeking unacceptable entertainment elsewhere, particularly in taverns and brothels.[16]

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World War One: Islington Public Library used as a hospital ward. Photograph by Langfier Ltd., 1916. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Regardless of the reasons why Austen was given to soldiers to read, there is no doubting the unity a love of the author can bring, either today or in the past. This was something Rudyard Kipling knew in his story The Janeites he wrote about a group of WW1 soldiers who found solidarity over their love of Jane Austen. The story was published in May 1924 in an international magazine called Storyteller. The men purposefully named a loud gun Lady Catherine de Bugg as a joke about the infamous Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice.[17] The idea for the story came from a visit Kipling took to Bath in 1915 and from his time researching the history of his son John’s regiment, following his death in the First World War.[18] Following his son’s death, Kipling read aloud all of the Austen books to his family, using it as a tool for solace, just as many of the soldiers on the front also did.[19]

Just as we today often read Jane Austen as a source of refuge and distraction from difficult times, so did the soldiers having to endure the hell of the trenches. I only hope that it really did offer the comfort they craved and helped to be a defence against the war environment around them.[20] What is certain is that the popularity of reading books during the First World War had been vital for helping soldiers and civilians alike. By the end of March 1919, Britain had sent 16 million books to the front.[21] The Red Cross alone had sent 2.8 million donated ones and 1.2 brought ones to fill these frontline libraries.[22] Even on the Homefront the amount of patronage for public libraries increased.[23] Jane Austen’s works would have played a part in this. As William Dean Howells notes, Austen “has not yet died” because of her enduring popularity and this is even more the case during WW1 as it helped those in their time of extreme need and possibly even in their own dying moments.[24] No wonder that at the time she was seen as a redemptive figure who was part of England’s bygone glory and a symbol for a soldiers duty to protect it.[25]

[1] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 8.

[2] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2013), pp. 22-23.

[3] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 23.

[4] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, p. 8.

[5] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, pp. 8-9.

[6] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort: The National Home Reading Union During the First World War’, First World War Studies (2015), p. 2.

[7] National Home Reading Union, ‘Work Among the Troops’, HRM, XXVI, no. 4 (Jan 1915) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[8] J. Potter, Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women’s Literary Responses to the Great War, 1914-1918 (2005) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[9]  Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, pp. 9-10

[10] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[11] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[12] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front: Books and Soldiers in the First World War’, Paedagogica Historica (2016), p. 5.

[13] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24; Roper, M., ‘Nostalgia as an Emotional Experience in the Great War’, The Historical Journal, 54.2 (2011), p. 441.

[14] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 10.

[15] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 11.

[16] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front’, p. 5.

[17] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[18] Lewis, L. and Kieffer, G., ‘The Janeites’, http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_janeites1.htm

[19] Lewis, L. and Kieffer, G., ‘The Janeites’, http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_janeites1.htm

[20] Roper, M., ‘Nostalgia as an Emotional Experience in the Great War’, p. 439.

[21] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front’, p. 4.

[22] British Red Cross, What We Did During the War, https://vad.redcross.org.uk/en/What-we-did-during-the-war

[23] A. Ellis, Public Libraries and the First World War (1975) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[24] William Dean Howells cited in Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, p. 8.

[25] Johnson, C. L., ‘Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures’ in Copeland, E. and McMaster, J. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 239.