Tag Archives: British History

Review- Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe

I received and advanced review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books.

My Review:
AkenfieldThis book is a history of the British village of Akenfield in Suffolk, England as told through the stories and narratives of its own citizens.  Blythe interviewed 49 different people from all types of social backgrounds and occupations and recorded their words for this social history.   In 1967, the year in which the villagers are interviewed, the way of life in this small village is changing from one of manual labor to mechanization. Each person from Akenfield that is interviewed by the author highlights different aspects of his or her life in a forthright, honest and stream-of-consciousness narrative.  Blythe groups the book into twenty different sections of the people, some of which include “God,” “The Craftsmen,” “The School,” and “The Law.”

One group in the book that made a particular impression on me were the craftsmen such as the wheelwright, the  blacksmith and the thatcher.  It would seem that with the invention of cars that there would no longer be a need for such talents because of the shrinking reliance on horses and wagons for transportation.  It was inspiring that these hardworking men decide to change with the times and find other uses for their crafts.  The blacksmith, Francis Lambert age twenty-five, is a very talented craftsman and now that there are no longer horses to shoe in order to sustain his business he has diversified by making weather-vanes, gates and fire-screens.  Francis is so talented that he is even sent to Germany to represent England at an international craft festival.  Francis loves his job which is evident by the fact that he usually puts in sixty hours of work per week and he takes a great deal of pride in his masterpieces.

As one would expect, hopes of escaping the village are expressed from some of the residents, but for the most part they seem content to stay in their small part of England.  Several of them mention that their families have resided within the boundaries of Akenfield for generations.  But there are also a fair number of voices we hear from people who, even though that have lived in Akenfield for many years, will always be considered “outsiders” because they were born elsewhere.  Hugh Hambling age thirty who is a schoolmaster tells us that he was born on Norfolk.  He and his wife move to Akenfield when he was twenty because he found a charming cottage that the newly married couple could afford.  Hugh feels that the villagers are very private people and although he tries to engage them in discussions, he only ever is able to talk to them about cursory things like football or the weather.

In the section on the school, Blythe includes the administrative records from the teachers and headmasters which date back to 1875.  One problem, in particular, that teachers have to deal with is poor attendance by the children of farm owners.  There are certain times of the year when even the young ones are needed to be out in the fields helping with the crop and later when a truancy law is passed these guidelines for school attendance are still not enforced.  Outbreaks of health issues such as ringworm, diphtheria and scarlet fever are also recorded and must have certainly worsened the poor attendance issues.

Many of the details that the residents of Akenfield provide are like no other that one would find in any ordinary history book.  The orchard worker, for instance, gives us a detailed accounts of different apples that are best grown in the English climate and what the prime picking time is for each breed.  The thatcher provides a lengthy description of the best way to thatch a roof and which are the best materials to use.  I found the section on the bell-ringers particularly fascinating; these young men are in a way considered talented musicians and go around to village and neighborhood churches in order to practice their craft of bell-ringing.  I had no idea before reading this history that there is such a fine art form to the ringing of church bells.

This is a charming, interesting, candid glimpse into the pulse and essence of an English village in the middle of the 20th century.  If you have any interest in British history, oral history or social history then this latest edition to the New York Review of Books classic titles is a must read.

About The Author:
Ronald Blythe is an English writer, essayist and editor, best known for his work Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969), an account of agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s. He writes a long-running and considerably praised weekly column in the Church Times entitled Word from Wormingford.



Filed under British Literature, Classics, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction

Review: Boswell’s Enlightenment by Robert Zaretsky

My Review:

Boswell's EnlightenmentThe 10th Laird of Auchinleck is best known for his comprehensive biography of Samuel Johnson; but James Boswell was an important and interesting figure in his own right.  This book is essentially an account of how Boswell becomes The Boswell we are more familiar with–the writer, the biographer, the lawyer.  This book reveals to us a Boswell who thought deeply about religion, the afterlife and the immortality of the soul and who sought out the greatest thinkers of his days and questioned them relentlessly about these topics.  Zaretsky’s brief biography is an account of Boswell’s Grand Tour of Europe from 1763-1765 as he interviews great men in an attempt to probe the depths of his own soul.

Zaretsky first describes Boswell’s Calvinist roots which laid the foundation for his struggle with religion, worship and the immortality of the soul.  Boswell was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland where his parents were very traditional followers of this Christian sect which believed in a harsh and vengeful God.  The long Sundays spent in devotion to such an ever-watchful deity had a lasting influence on Boswell’s psyche.  When he graduates from university and his father expects him to study law, Boswell wants first to travel around Europe and have conversations with the world’s leading Enlightenment thinkers.  Boswell actively pursues and interrogates the likes of Johnson, Rosseau, Voltaire, Wilke and Paoli.

There are some interesting themes that Zaretsky notes about Boswell’s life during this period, the most important of which is his constant battle with melancholy.  When Boswell meets Johnson in London, the two men bond over their respective bouts of depression.  Boswell is constantly plagued by a type of pensive sadness concerning his life and the course which it ought to take.  During these low periods he indulges in two forms of “medication”: drinking and sex.  The self-medication and depression become a cyclical pattern because the more depressed he feels the more he drinks and has sex; after a night of extreme debauchery Boswell has feelings of dread and guilt which further launch him into a depression.  Zaretsky points out that even much later in life, when he is settled down with a wonderful wife and five children he continues to wrestle with these demons.

The most entertaining encounters that Boswell has during his travels are with Rosseau and Voltaire.  At this point, both writers are carrying out reclusive lives as feeble, crusty old men when Boswell overtakes them.  And overtakes them he does as he shows up on both men’s doorsteps and insinuates himself into their homes.  He questions both men about religion, life, and most importantly the immortality of the soul.  Zaretsky provides us with a general overview of Rosseau’s and Voltaire’s important ideas and how these ideas have an impact on young Boswell.  Rosseau is a bit more affable with Boswell and is entertained by Boswell’s gregarious and affable personality.  But neither philosopher is able to give Boswell satisfactory answers about the role of God in this life or what will happen to his soul in the next.

Boswell then moves on to Italy and eventually Corsica where he meets two very different types of men. John Wilkes, the libertine politician, is a free-spirited thinker who embraces life for all it is worth; he, too, loves to drink and whore around but he is unapologetic about his behavior.  Wilkes dismisses Boswell’s questions about religion and mortality and tells Boswell to stop being so serious and to embrace life.  While Boswell is with Wilkes he lets loose with wild abandon as his days and nights are taken up with talking to his friend, drinking and sexual promiscuity.

Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always well-written, Boswell’s Enlightenment has given me a much greater appreciation for Johnson’s biographer. Boswell is plagued with self-doubt and depression yet through all of his low points he continues to contemplate the importance of this life and his possible annihilation in the next.  This book covers only a brief span in Boswell’s life, but I enjoyed it so much that I purchased a copy of Boswell’s diaries so I can learn more about this fascinating, Scottish laird.

About The Author:

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French History at the University of Houston.



Filed under History, Nonfiction

Review: In These Times – Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 by Jenny Uglow

I received an advanced review copy of this book from the publisher.

My Review:
In These TimesUglow’s book is a comprehensive social history of Britain during the period of the Napoleonic Wars.  She makes extensive use of letters, journals and diaries from different social strata; we are given a first hand account of life in early 19th century Britian from clergymen, farmers, bankers, soldiers, mill owners and aristocratic women.  The only class from which we do not directly hear are obviously the illiterate poor.  But that is not to say she excludes them entirely; we are given descriptions about workhouses, wandering homeless and bread shortages from the diaries of the middle and upper  classes.

We do learn about the famous players in the wars like Pitt, Nelson, King George III, Wellington and Napoleon himself.  But they are not the focus of this history.  One will not find military battles, biographies of famous generals or copies of treaties in this book.  But the reader will discover how the daily lives and routines of British citizens were affected by this prolonged and costly war.

Uglow’s chapters are organized by themes and topics that occupied British citizens at home while soldiers were elsewhere in the world fighting the French.  At the beginning of the war, fear of invasion is a constant threat.  In order to make themselves feel more secure, local towns formed their own militia and proudly did drill practices in case the enemy ever landed on their shores.  We hear from coopers, bankers, shoemakers, farmers and men from all walks of life who were eagerly getting ready to defend their own borders from the likes of the French.

The themes of many of the chapters are related to money and economics.  Banking, bread prices, the running of mills and the national debt were all affected by the wartime economy.  Thousands of soldiers had to be given uniforms, shoes, and weapons.  The government had to pay for all of these supplies so taxes were constantly being raised.  The farmers felt a great impact from the demand placed on them for supplying food to the army and navy.  Farmer Randall Burroughes reports in his journal that he is dedicating the use of more and more land for planting oats and wheat.

The greatest strength of this book is Uglow’s extensive use of diaries, letters and journal entries that are woven throughout her narrative.  William Harness, who is serving in the British navy, writes longingly to his wife and children whom he is away from for extended periods of time.  He laments missing his children growing up and sharing in their childhood milestones.  Bessy, his wife, writes him back tenderly with news of home and their blossoming brood of children.

Randall Burroughes, a tough but fair old farmer, keeps a detailed journal which catalogs weather patterns, crop rotations, farm workers, and soil conditions.  He is the perfect example to remind the reader that, despite the fact that a global war is raging against the French, ordinary people are still farming their land, attending balls, gossiping and going to church.

In the Autumn of 1813, Uglow describes Napoleon’s defeat through the diary of John Oakes: “two Great Battles…at which The French and her Allies were totallyl routed, 30,000 taken Prisoner and 35,000 Killed & Sick taken. Bonaparte made his Escape wh. a party of Cavalry to Erfurt.”  Political and military events are recorded in the diaries of British citizens alongside weather reports, births, deaths and other family news.

This book also gave me a better appreciation for some of my favorite books that are set in the 19th century.  The chapter on “British Tars” chronicles in great detail the fear of the press gangs as they lurked around the British seaside looking for able bodied men to kidnap and force into naval service.  This reminded me of the vivid scenes in Gaskell’s Silvia’s Lovers in which one of characters is taken off by a press gang and not heard from again for years.  The discussions of the superior British navy and the opportunity for men to advance and get rich from prize money reminded me of Captain Wentworth in Austen’s Persuasion.  In the chapters about the brief pause in the war, the Peace of Amiens, Uglow describes the extended travel vacations that were enjoyed by the aristocracy; in the summertime a favorite destination was the Lakes region of Britain which, of course, reminds us of Lizzie’s journey with her aunt and uncle through this part of the country and her accidental meeting with Darcy.

Some of the transitions between topics in different chapters were rather abrupt.  A few times I became very interested in a particular story and the author would abruptly move on to another topic.  For example, the chapter “Going to the Show,” which describes the elaborate celebrations for the Jubilee of King George III and the types of theatrical events staged during the war, ends with an odd and out of place description of Napoleon’s separation from Josephine.

Overall, this is a comprehensive tome that will be appreciated by a wide variety of readers.  Those who take pleasure in British history, and social history in particular, will revel in the extensive use of primary source letters and journals.  Those who are fans of Austen, Burney and Gaskell will enjoy learning more about the time period in which their favorite books are set.  And finally, those who enjoy a well-written, thoroughly researched and interesting history will not want to miss reading IN THESE TIMES.

About The Author:
UglowJennifer Sheila Uglow OBE (née Crowther, born 1947) is a British biographer, critic and publisher. The editorial director of Chatto & Windus, she has written critically acclaimed biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell, William Hogarth, Thomas Bewick and the Lunar Society, among others, and has also compiled a women’s biographical dictionary.





Filed under History, Nonfiction