Review: Emigrants by James Evans

Otto von Bismarck was once asked to identify the pre-eminent fact in modern world history. That America spoke English, he replied. In Emigrants, James Evans attempts to explain how and why that happened.

For much of the 17th century, England was something of a failed state. In mid-century it collapsed into a brutal and protracted civil war, but extensive persecution of religious minorities was rife throughout. Widespread enclosures drove people off the land. Prices rose. Wages fell in real terms. Harvest after harvest failed. Famine and plague killed thousands. Begging children were so numerous they were like “the lice of Egypt”, it was said.

It is hardly surprising then that people looked for deliverance from what looked, to a religious-minded people, very much like the wrath of God.

But America? At the beginning of the century it was a far from obvious choice. Sir Walter Ralegh had tried and failed to establish a colony in the 1580s. Jamestown in Virginia was founded in 1607, largely in the illusory belief that gold would be found nearby. Further north, in Newfoundland, settlement began in 1610, primarily to support the extensive fisheries offshore.

This did not sound like the promised land, but it is a measure of England’s failure that it seemed like such to so many people. Close to 400,000 emigrated over the course of the century, roughly half of them to North America, out of a total population of some 5.5million.

We think of the early colonists, especially in New England, as Puritans and many of them were. But they came seeking the freedom to be themselves, not to allow others a similar freedom; Evans reminds us that the Puritans were hanging Quakers in Boston in the 1660s.

During the Interregnum, however, many disillusioned royalists came here too, and in particular to Virginia where the governor, William Berkeley, was loyal to the Stuart cause. It took four ships from by Cromwell to dislodge him.

Between the English settlements in Virginia and New England lay New Amsterdam, Dutch in theory but even in its earliest days a melting pot. By the 1640s, although there were just 500 people in the settlement, they spoke more than 20 different languages. Its leader, Peter Stuyvesant was more clear sighted than most – or perhaps merely more cynical. He dismissed those who sought “an imaginary liberty in a new and, as some pretend, a free country” with contempt.

But still they came. In the case of New Amsterdam, the principal economic draw was beaver pelt. Thanks to changing fashions in Europe, four beaver skins could buy enough grain to feed a family for a year. And it wasn’t just their fur that was in demand: eating their tails was said to help men maintain an erection. “If some of our ladies knew the benefit thereof,” one colonist wrote, “they would desire to have ships sent to trade for the tail alone.”

Many who came were far from the pioneers we imagine them to be. Soon, the slave trade would fulfil the need for cheap labour, but for much of the 17th century indenture that answered that want. The starving and desperate of England sold themselves to the colonies for fixed terms – usually five years for an adult – in exchange for the promise of land and a house thereafter. Nearly half of the 200,000 who sailed to North America were indentured. But fewer than one in ten of them lived to claim their reward.

Some 8,500 poor children were simply taken from the London streets between 1619 and 1625. Often parents never knew what happened. Poignant letters home from one such boy, Richard Frethorne, form one of the more moving passages in the book.

The attrition rates for all were extraordinary, however. Often, 50% of those onboard died before they even made shore. Likewise almost half of those who reached America were dead within a few years of arrival; in some areas, the death rate was as high as 80%. Virginia was particularly deadly.
Why did so many English men and women emigrate? The same reasons people emigrate now: freedom from persecution; freedom from poverty; political exile; religious liberty; the pursuit of wealth.

But Evans’ book is eloquent testimony to the fact that the commodity America has always traded in, above all others, is hope.

This review first appeared in the Financial Times.

Review: So High A Blood by Morgan Ring

So High A Blood explores in detail the life of Margaret, Countess of Lennox, a Tudor princess without whom, perhaps, there would have been no Stewart succession and no subsequent union between England and Scotland.

Born in 1515, Margaret was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII, by her second husband Archibald Douglass, the Earl of Lennox. Her life in many echoes that of her cousins, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The stain of bastardy hung over her birth, owing to the complex legal status of her parents marriage, and she was herself at times close to the English succession under both Henry VIII and Mary. She was reported to believe her own claim to throne stronger than Elizabeth’s, comments which helped earned her a spell in prison when Elizabeth came to hear of them.

It wasn’t only her alleged bastardy that stood in Margaret’s way. She remained a devout Catholic, and she was both English and Scottish, to the discomfort of all, it seems. Margaret was born in England while her mother was in temporary exile and would spend most of her life here. However, her estates were largely in Scotland – even if she wasn’t always able to assert her ownership of them, or of their revenues. As such, she was uniquely ill-positioned to manipulate events in either country to her advantage.

That did not stop her trying, however. What she couldn’t achieve for herself, she aimed to do for her children. Of the eight she gave birth to, only two survived to adulthood. One of those, Henry, Lord Darnley, was murdered aged 21, less than two years into his marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots. Margaret had connived to bring the two together – which Elizabeth saw as part of a plot to overthrow her and had Margaret committed to the Tower as a result – and, you could argue, her work was ultimately vindicated: it was Darnley’s brief marriage to Mary that produced James I of England.

Morgan Ring has written an absorbing account of Margaret’s life, and has found a fresh angle from which to view the Tudor court, which is no mean feat. If at times Margaret herself seems to fade from the scene as tumultuous events at both courts take centre stage, that is perhaps only fitting for a woman who had to fight all her life for what she believed to be her due.

This review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.

 

The Kiso Road (for William Scott Wilson)

I
Kiso: clear as a bell among the mountains.
Write me, the river says,
Witness the road beside me.

II
The clouds are still tonight.
The sky is smoke-blackened
But the fires here are cold.
The children grow and leave
And do not come back
Time claims the haiku
The rain on the water

The temple floor is charmed though:
Each step across it
Stirs another nightingale to song

At dawn, an old dog fox breaks
The hermetic line of the field
Holding in his mouth
A stone of nothingness
To lay at the shrine

He sniffs the violet air
As if to confirm a thought.
Go and come back, the fox says,
Watching where you slide the day open.

III.
Write me, the forest says,
Cypress, pine and cedar,
As if the road were blocks of ink
The mist a white brush wet with the river
And the air were paper
Partitioning you from the dead

The road asks for nothing
Remembering the curve of your life
As trees remember the shape of the rocks and stones.
The fields are damp with story.
Metaphor drips from autumn’s leaves.

Go and come back, the poets say.
Bridges burn by torchlight;
The barriers are where we meet
Shuffled together on our different travels
Lives and languages weaving together
Like the long dry grass of a sparrow’s nest
Or a ball of cedar hanging in the street at night

IV
Rest your feet, traveller,
Watch the swallow’s flight through the mountains

Go and come back, your book says:
What was first a gateway has become
A meeting place among us.

 

Note: I don’t usually post my poems here, but given this one’s provenance, I thought it more fitting than most.

One of the best things about being a writer is how generous and supportive other writers can be – both those you come to know personally and those who you have never met.

Just before Christmas, the author and translator William Scott Wilson got in touch with me on social media with some very kind words of praise for my book, Impossible Journeys. He also sent me, by way of a thank you, his own recent book, Walking the Kiso Road, an account of his travels on the ancient Japanese thoroughfare.

Walking the Kiso Road – and William’s generosity – was the inspiration for this poem. I recommend the book highly. It’s a beautiful, subtle, meditative journey through Japanese landscape, culture, history and myth and William makes the best of literary companions: erudite, passionate, self-effacing and insightful. I was going to review it, but this wanted to be written instead.

Books are many things, but they are also where many of us meet to share a little of ourselves, sometimes unexpectedly. They surprise things from us, including friendship.

Between fact and fiction

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of History Today.

What does it mean to write history today? What claims can historians make about their work? These are just two of the questions that sprang to mind after listening to Niall Ferguson tussle with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley on Radio 4’s Start the Week in October.

Ferguson was attempting to clarify the distinction between historians and writers of historical fiction. ‘What happened and how it felt are not separate things’, he said:

Historians are as much concerned with how it felt – the difference is, we are actually basing it on research rather than our imaginations. People who write historical fiction are telling you what it must have felt like. But that’s not what it felt like, because essentially they’re projecting back, in [Jane’s] case early 21st century ideas. 

Ferguson, Harvard’s Laurence A. Tisch professor of history, has long been a proponent of the counterfactual, which – whatever its virtues and vices – is at heart an imaginative project. Indeed, Ferguson edited one of the leading books on the subject, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997).

Yet how do historians justify what they do? Certainly they can no longer pretend to Olympian distance and uninterested authority. We are all a product of the times we live in, fed by the oxygen of our experiences, and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise. We live in a multi-channel, multi-vocal era, which is sceptical of singularity and authority, but paradoxically attracted to narrow certainties and averse to self-doubt. How should historians adapt their practice to reflect these competing tensions? Doubt is central to intellectual enquiry, but by the time a work arrives in print, doubts have usually been effaced. The goal of historical research is to work our way out of doubt towards authority; perhaps work that articulates explicitly that process would better represent to the wider public what historians actually do.

Likewise, do historians challenge themselves enough to find an appropriate form for their ideas? They strive for originality of research and analysis, but how often do they strive for originality or inventiveness of form? The book or long-form essay may still be the best format historians have for sustained and rigorous argument. But do they default to it out of admiration, laziness, or cultural deference? After all, today’s cultural and technological fragmentation and diversity offers enormous opportunities for generically – and therefore intellectually – satisfying creativity to those with the requisite talent, ambition and desire.

To take two examples in different media: Ruth Scurr’s My Own Life (2015) might best be described as an autobiographical biography of John Aubrey, piecing the great antiquarian’s life together out of the voluminous chaos of his published and unpublished writings. Elsewhere, and largely unmarked in the press, BBC television’s Footballers United, an innovative historical drama, recently won a Prix Italia for Best Digital Storytelling. It used its medium to create a touching and thoughtful narrative illuminated by archive materials actually embedded in it. Rather than a drama-documentary, it was a new thing: a documented drama.

To write history is to fill our glass with water from the Thames and claim we have captured the river. This is as true of Jane Smiley as it is of Niall Ferguson, but the author of fiction makes no claim to objective truth or authority and so may be more true to our times.

Certainly, the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is more porous than we like to think. Perhaps an approach to non-fiction historical writing that was more comfortable in acknowledging its subjectivity, its contingency and its intellectual frailties would challenge readers to think more deeply about the nature of history and its place in our culture.

Review: Shakespeare in London by Hannah Crawforth, Sarah Dustagheer and Jennifer Young

Shakespeare in LondonThis review first appeared in the August 2015 issue of History Today.

The world might be forgiven for rolling its eyes at the prospect of another book on Shakespeare. Does Shakespeare in London, the latest addition to the Bloomsbury Arden list,  have anything new to say? The answer is a confident yes.

Shakespeare in London is a short book with big ambitions. It weaves together various narratives – Shakespeare’s London career, a physical journey west to east across early-modern London – with vivid readings of eight plays, each of which is used to explore aspects of London life around the turn of the 17th century. So, for example, the book opens with an account of Titus Andronicus, relating it to the culture of punishment, bloodshed and retribution embodied in the site of Tyburn.

The process is not without its difficulties. Where the Merchant of Venice, say, can be mapped closely onto an examination of the law, or King Lear onto early modern ideas of medicine and madness, the approach taken to Romeo & Juliet – marrying it to the domestic wealth and power evident in the great riverside mansions on the Strand – is more subtle, perhaps even metaphorical.

But on balance the flexibility of that approach is one of the book’s greatest strengths. The fact that the book is a wholly collective effort and each chapter is co-authored by all three authors seems commendably appropriate to the collaborative working practices of the theatre they describe.

Shakespeare is one of the least literal of the early modern playwrights. Whereas the work of Jonson, say, or Middleton gains strength and purpose from its precise and detailed evocation of contemporary London, Shakespeare is characteristically more elusive – evasive, even.

The authors both capture and, in some ways, mirror that trait: reflecting on Shakespeare’s writing at the Globe they self-consciously echo their own description of early-modern London as being always and never the same.

The society revealed here, whether focusing on religion or scientific experimentation or economics, is one undergoing a seismic collision of values. Innovation is competing with tradition; modernity with the memorially fixed. This is, of course, as true of the material city, in which the great monastic houses had been repurposed into mansions – as well as the odd theatre or two – if not torn down all together, as it is of the multitude of ideas the city contains.

The book is clearly aimed at a general audience and, as such, benefits greatly from the bold decision to dispense with the compulsive hat-tipping and knee-bending to the vast array of literary critics that so bedevils much contemporary academic writing. That is not to say that the text is unacademic – the ideas and insights of others are scrupulously noted where relevant and there is an excellent selection of further reading and works cited at the end. But the writers’ decision has freed them to create a more allusive, thought-provoking and approachable work that should be required reading for any undergraduate student of early-modern English literature.

Shakespeare in London offers useful insights into Shakespeare’s work and his working practices. But it is also a wonderful, wide-ranging introduction to the richness and complexity of late-Elizabethan and early-Jacobean society. It would be instructive reading for anyone, including young historians, although its play-by-play structure might sadly alienate those outside the silo of English studies who are less engaged by the literary culture.

 

Review: The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

the-black-prince-of-florenceThis review first appeared in the Financial Times on April 29, 2016

Alessandro de’ Medici reigned from 1532 to 1537 as the first duke of one of Italy’s greatest city-states. Yet just as he lived in obscurity until his teens in the late 1520s, he has largely been returned to that obscurity by historians ever since.

Why then, asks Catherine Fletcher, has her subject been so ill-served by posterity? He was by all accounts intelligent and charming, and a great patron of the arts; Vasari was a life-long friend. If he was also ruthless and decadent, those qualities hardly make him unique among Renaissance Italian princes. And while it is true that Alessandro was illegitimate, so was his patron, Guilio de’ Medici — who rose to become Pope Clement VII in 1523 — and his chief rival and cousin, Ippolito de’ Medici.

What role, then, does the colour of his skin play in all this? Certainly, racist pseudoscience served to demean Alessandro in the Victorian era, with one 1875 study describing him as having “all the known features of the delinquent amoral constitutional type: proud, arrogant, selfish, sensual . . . a born criminal”.

The irony, as Fletcher shows in The Black Prince of Florence, is that these kind of pejorative racial distinctions are distinctly modern categories of thought. Alessandro’s father was Lorenzo de’ Medici, the duke of Urbino. His mother, Simunetta, was most likely a servant or slave of the Medici family with a partly African ancestry. Although after his death he was given the descriptive sobriquet Alessandro il Moro, no one seems to have thought the complexion of his skin worth disparaging while he was alive — and enemies were not in short supply, not least within his own family.

In fact, Alessandro’s illegitimacy seems to have been a far more potent issue for contemporaries — and for the duke himself. Alessandro would rule on an inheritance dispute that revolved around the birth of a nephew out of wedlock: “For all that he’s a bastard,” he asked the respondent, “is he not made of flesh, and born of a man and woman like you? . . . Does he not have soul and body like all those legitimately born?”

It is his illegitimacy that accounts for the obscurity of his upbringing, then, and familial necessity that accounts for his dazzlingly swift rise to power. Alessandro’s father died in 1519, which made Alessandro’s older cousin Ippolito the focus of the family’s political aspirations in Florence. But when Clement VII suffered a life-threatening illness in the late 1520s, he made Ippolito a cardinal to ensure the family retained its firm grip on the church. Ippolito never forgave him — or Alessandro, who was next in line.

Indeed, Ippolito never stopped scheming to seize Florence for himself, and his complicity in a plot against Alessandro led to his own assassination in 1535, almost certainly on Alessandro’s orders; Fletcher’s more-or-less verbatim account of the assassin’s interrogation and torture makes one of the more astonishing setpieces in the book.

Alessandro would ultimately be murdered by another cousin, Lorenzino, for reasons that remain unclear. It seems unlikely that Lorenzino, regarded by some contemporaries as little more than Alessandro’s pimp, acted on principle; nevertheless, the lurid allegations of despotism and tyranny used to justify the murder have tainted Alessandro’s name ever since.

Fletcher’s first book, The Divorce of Henry VIII (2012), was a study of Vatican intrigue that demonstrated her ability to use rarely accessed Italian archives to create a gripping and original account of a well-worn subject. Here she has used the same skills to even greater effect, creating a compelling portrait of a forgotten man — himself both brutal and brutalised — once at the very heart of the Renaissance world order. Her narrative follows the extraordinary arc of Alessandro’s life closely, but also uses it to illuminate the bloody opulence of Renaissance Italian politics in all its squalid, operatic glory.

If we think of the Renaissance courts constructed by the Medici as simply corrupt or venal, however, we are missing the point. They merely commoditised power — and sex and art and information and all things besides, but above all power — to an exquisite degree. The Medicis knew the price of everything, but they knew its value too, right down to the last drop of blood.

The What’s A Book Worth Campaign

As anyone who is following me on Twitter will likely know, I have just started a social media campaign called #WhatsABookWorth.

I had the idea at a forum called Did Anybody Ask The Author?, run by author and life-coach John-Paul Flintoff. The event was a day-long brainstorming session involving some thirty authors and publishers which explored ways to improve the business of publishing for authors.

I imagine we all went into it with particular bugbears. Mine is around the perceived value of books. Or rather, the gap between what we as readers know to be the immeasurable human value of books to us, and their “real” monetary value in the marketplace.

Part of this is the downward pressure on book prices from Amazon, a company which funds its low prices through tax avoidance, business practices that come close to extortion, and the willingness of Wall Street to allow it access to finance without the irksome necessity of delivering profits.

Plus, of course, as an aspiring publisher and the key driver of the e-book economy, Amazon has a vested interest in destroying the economic viability of the book trade.

Publishers have played their part too. In fact, the ongoing betrayal of the high-street retail book trade by the publishing industry is one of the more shocking and depressing parts of the affair.

But, more generally, publishing has proven itself unwilling or unable to say anything of any meaning with regard to the price and value of the things they produce.

The reality is that a book represents extraordinary value – and extraordinary value for money. You can buy a book for around the same as a couple of cups of Starbucks, or a couple of drinks, a couple of magazines, a couple of Big Mac meals, and so on, and so on.

For the cost of a disposable moment a book gives you something that will live with you forever.

In marketing parlance, books are the ultimate low-cost premium product. But who ever says that?

For publishers, pretty much all marketing is trade marketing. Money is only directed at driving sales for a particular product – the new Harper Lee, for example – not to support the category itself.

Which wouldn’t matter if the ecosystem of the category wasn’t being eaten away from inside and out.

So, to return to where I began, I was talking about all of this with John-Paul and Dan Kieran of Unbound, who was also at the event. Dan was talking about how much his life had been changed by reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and we agreed we should all talk more about the capacity of a book to influence and change and inhabit our lives.

Hence this campaign. You can read about it here, and join in here on Facebook and here on Twitter.

I simply cannot imagine my life without books – fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose. Characters, events, places, turns of phrase – real or imagined – people my own experience and imagination so thoroughly that to erase them would be to black out the sun.

The words of men and women I will never meet – long-dead and living – evoke and articulate my own joys and sorrows, losses and loves, with a sharpness that is so human and alive the recognition and sense of fellow-feeling that comes from acknowledging that fact is vivid to the point of pain.

A book is a conversation with the author, with the past, with the present, with oneself. We walk among the words and they walk among us, in us and between us.

A book is a magical thing. We fail to treasure and celebrate them at our peril.

If you’re reading this, you probably agree. Come and join us.

 

NB It is perfectly true that the same problems currently bedevil other kinds of art – most obviously music. If anyone wanted to start a #WhatsASongWorth campaign, say, they would have my blessing and support!