Book Review: A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

A History of Britain in 21 Women Front Cover

A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray

Jenni Murray. A History of Britain in 21 Women. London: Oneworld, 2016. RRP £9.99 paperback.

A few weeks before Christmas, I was browsing a bookshop when I noticed the vibrant cover of A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray. I was sorely tempted, but, remembering my overflowing bookshelves and the growing piles of books at the bottom of my bed, I restrained myself. I put the book on my Christmas list instead, so I at least didn’t have myself to blame when my piles of books grew a little bit taller. I am very glad that I was given the book; it is a thoroughly enjoyable read that has left me more determined than ever not to allow misogyny to hold me back.

The twenty-one women in this book rose above the low expectations of their gender and defied anyone who insisted ‘a girl can’t do that.’ Slowly, slowly, over the centuries, they changed the gender landscape for those of us who came after.

Murray, 2016; p.4

As the name implies, A History of Britain in 21 Women profiles 21 women from British history. Each chapter is about 15 pages long, and details the women’s biography, their achievements, and their impact on society, politics, and culture. The selection is historically comprehensive, beginning in the first century with Boadicea, and ending in the modern day with Nicola Sturgeon. Inevitably, many women are left out, but Murray is careful to justify her choices, explaining why the 21 she chose resonate with her personally.

The book is more personal than I was expecting. It does have the subtitle A Personal Selection, but this is only mentioned in the front matter, not on the title. After initially being unsure about this, I came to enjoy Murray’s short personal reflections and anecdotes. I was particularly charmed by a conversation she describes having with one of her sons when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

Beyond being thrown at first by the tone of the book, I can find very little to criticise in A History of Britain in 21 Women. Each chapter is self-contained, so it feels almost like a collection of short stories, but I wasn’t put off if I read several chapters in one sitting, as I often am with similarly structured books. Each chapter is accompanied by a portrait by Peter Locke, the style of which suits the book’s message really well. Locke’s sketches don’t feel idealised or ‘touched up,’ the women in the sketches feel…real; they look like they’ve lived. It’s quite hard to put my finger on it, but I like them.

It is the women themselves, their lives, actions, experiences, and attitudes that are the real stars of this book. Some of them are familiar–such as Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, and Margaret Thatcher–whilst others are less well-known–like Aphra Behn, Mary Somerville, Gwen John. But they are all remarkable. Every one exelled in the field they chose, whether it be medicine, art, politics, or science, often despite massive obstacles and prejudice. They are inspirational.

I was given A History of Britain in 21 Women as a Christmas present, and I do think it makes a wonderful gift, even for those who aren’t avid readers. It’s especially good for those who need a reminder of just how much it can be possible to achieve.

Book Review: The English Rebel- One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties

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The English Rebel by David Horspool.

David Horspool. The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties. London: Penguin, 2010. RRP £12.99 paperback.

I have read several books about the history of protest in London, but I recently realised that I haven’t read much about the national history of protest. The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties is a good place to start for anyone interested in how dissent has shaped the history of England. It is well-written, well-paced, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

David Horspool sets out to disprove the stereotype that the English are peaceful and submissive by demonstrating that “from Cornwall to Norfolk, from Sussex to Northumbria, England is crisscrossed with the ghosts of rebels marching, meeting, and fighting” (p xvi). The book is arranged chronologically, starting with opposition to the Norman invasion in 1066. Contrary to popular belief, the English did not just roll over and submit after the Battle of Hastings. Horspool then traces the history of rebellion in England featuring well known examples, such as the Peasant’s Revolt (1381) and the English Civil Wars (1642-51), as well as more obscure events, such as the Revolt of the Earls in 1075 and an uprising in Norfolk led by Robert Kett in 1549. I don’t pretend to know everything about the history of protest (far from it!), but I have been studying it for more than four years now, and there was quite a bit in there that was new to me.

The English rebel may only rarely be a triumphant or even a particularly likeable character. But he and she are as much a part of the fabric of English history as the monarchs, law-makers and political leaders they defied. They serve as inspiration, as warning, and sometimes simply as example.

Horspool, 2010; p. xxiii

In his Introduction, Horspool is very clear about the parameters of The English Rebel. He defines a rebel as a political opponent who risks their life or their liberty. Their opposition does not have to be aimed at government or the state, nor does it have to be violent or left-wing. The decision to focus only on England was also a deliberate one; Horspool argued that rebellions in a British or imperial context tend to have different objectives from English ones. It can be easy to criticise a project for leaving things out (I see it quite often in academia), and by explaining his decisions about what to include, Horspool fends off such criticism before its even made.

Rebels are drawn towards centres of power so the content of the book is inevitably skewed towards London and the south east, but Horspool does his best to balance it out. My biggest complaint about The English Rebel is a pet hate of mine–putting all the images together in the middle, then not mentioning them in the main text, so they feel rather detached and unnecessary. This is only a minor gripe however.

The English Rebel is an engaging read, which I would highly recommend for those with a general interest in history, as well as those with a more specific interest in protest and dissent. Horspool makes a convincing case that the English are much more rebellious than the stereotypes make out. I’ve always seen myself as British rather than English, but I feel just a bit more proud of my Anglo-Saxon heritage after reading The English Rebel.

Book Review: The Leveller Revolution- Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650

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The Leveller Revolution by John Rees.

John Rees. The Reveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650. London: Verso, 2016. £25.

John Rees co-authored one of my favourite books, A People’s History of London. As such, I was really looking forward to the publication of The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650, and I had high expectations. Whilst it doesn’t quite live up to A People’s History of London, it is a very good book.

The Leveller Revolution is derived from Rees’ doctoral research. As such it is thoroughly researched, as evidenced by the detailed content and and considered analysis. The book is not just a narrative of the rise and fall of the Levellers as a political force, it is also an intervention in the scholarly debate on the nature and significance of the Levellers. Rees argues that whilst other groups used similar organisational and campaigning tactics, no one else used them as consistently and to such effect as the Levellers. He also argues that the Levellers were the only group to focus on popular politics and mobilisation, as opposed to social and political elites.

I have tried to…examine the Levellers as a political movement integrating activists from different constituencies, and creating still broader alliances with other political currents, for the joint pursuance of revolutionary ends.

(Rees, The Leveller Revolution, p. xx)

The Leveller Revolution has multiple strengths. Rees’ arguments are persuasive; he makes a strong case that the Leveller organisation emerged out of pre-existing radical networks consisting of individuals who already had extensive experience of activism. Rees argues that London was significant to the development of the Levellers, but the book is not London-centric; many of the examples Rees uses to demonstrate his arguments come from elsewhere in the country. In addition, whenever there is historical doubt (e.g. over the authorship of a pamphlet, or exactly who was present at a particular event), Rees is open about that uncertainty, then justifies his own opinion. I always appreciate it when authors who are willing to acknowledge these kind of metholodogical subtleties.

Unfortunately, I often struggled to keep track of the book’s narrative, and I think there are 2 reasons for this. The first is that there were a large number of individuals involved in the radical networks around the time of the English Civil Wars, many of whom had quite similar names. As such, I found it difficult to remember who was who. Whilst there is little Rees could have done about the number of individuals involved and their names, a dramatis personae might have been helpful. The second reason for my confusion is, I think, that Rees assumes that the reader has a confident knowledge of the chronology of the Civil Wars. The book refers to events or battles by name only, making it hard to follow the narrative if you do not know when they took place or what happened. I did study the period as part of an A-level in Early Modern History, but that was almost a decade ago, and my knowledge is a bit rusty. If you are not familiar with the period, then I suggest reading The Leveller Revolution in conjunction with another book that details the key events of that time (I would recommend A Brief History of The English Civil Wars: Roundheads, Cavaliers and the Execution of the King by John Miller).

The Leveller Revolution is a thoroughly-researched, well-argued book. Whilst I found it less approachable than A People’s History of London, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has a interest in the English Civil Wars, or the history of protest and dissent.