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History Books By Women: Eight Of The Best From 2016

28/12/2016 11:36

It came as something of a revelation this November that the majority of recommendations in the media's annual roundup of the best history books of 2016 were written by men. In response, Twitter was flooded with the names of inspiring female historians, past and present, under the hashtag #HistoryBooksbyWomen. 2016 has seen a plethora of publications by talented women so, to redress the balance somewhat, here are my top picks of the year:

Lauren Johnson's accomplished debut "So Great a Prince: England in 1509" (The History Press, 178185985X) delves into the cultural, social, religious and political aspects of the first year of Henry VIII's reign. Often remembered as an obese despot, this Henry is a fresh-faced Prince in a pre-Reformation world, where Johnson charts the hand over of power from father to son in illuminating detail and inviting prose.

A single year also provides the narrative framework for Helen Rappaport's most recent offering, except this is 1917. "Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, 1917" (Hutchinson, 0091958954) employs a vivid and varied range of characters, all foreign visitors to the city, as witnesses to the unfolding events that prefaced the revolution. By selecting a narrow focus of place and time, Rappaport is able to dig deep into the fabric and detail of life in the city to create a captivating story that was difficult to put down.

By way of something completely different, Lucinda Hawksley's "Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper and Arsenic in the Victorian Home" (Thames and Hudson, 0500518386) is a lavish and beautiful production. Alongside 275 coloured prints of the most sumptuous wallpapers of the day, all containing arsenic, the book explores the history of its use and the resulting controversy. It's a poignant book, exposing the fragility of a world that was slowly poisoning itself with the refinement of its aesthetic taste.

It is always difficult to select certain figures over others to promote as culturally significant. However, Jenni Murray's eclectic choice in "A History of Britain in 21 Women: A Personal Selection" (Oneworld, 1780749902) needs little justification. Starting with Boudicca and concluding with Nicola Sturgeon, Murray traces an alternative narrative of national history by way of authors Aphra Behn and Jane Austen, artist Gwen John and inventor Ada Lovelace, to the women who carved a path in modern politics; Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher. The book contains many surprises along the way as it delineates an alternative construction of English womanhood.

Historian Elizabeth Norton has also focused on the biography of womanhood as a collective, in "The Lives of Tudor Women." (Heads of Zeus, 1784081752) Gathering the experiences of individuals from all walks of life between the years 1485-1603, Norton has pulled off an ambitious and essential collective study, rich in colour and detail, arranged into seven sections, according to the stages of a woman's life. Her clear prose and meticulous research nudges the reader ever closer to an understanding of that elusive and complex question of femininity that both divided and united women at the time.

Sleep is a topic that has been understandably overlooked by historians. We all do it; surely there's not much to be said about the act of sleeping? Sasha Handley's compelling study "Sleep in Early Modern England" (Yale University Press, 0300220391) proves this to be wrong, and brings the topic to life in accessible and colourful detail. As both a personal and a universal experience, sleep is analysed in terms of the customs and practises of the early modern world, the fabric and textiles, the patterns and health issues, drawing from first-hand material. This is an intimate book, where the voices of dreamers from the past can be heard.

Released to coincide with the anniversary of London's most devastating year, Rebecca Rideal's convincing debut "1666: Plague, War and Hellfire"(John Murray, 1473623537) dives straight into a London on the brink of chaos. Bringing the different regions and characters of the city vividly to life, Rideal balances description with obscure sources to capture the mood of the year. It is terrifying in places, apocalyptic, but also a cathartic and compelling read.

Dynastic histories are very much en vogue at the moment and K.L.Clark's "The Nevilles of Middleham" (The History Press, 0750963654) is a good example of the best way to approach such a complex family, unravelling the different branches of the tree whist foregrounding its most famous figures. Clark's painstaking research has resulted in a narrative which explains the rise of the Neville fortunes beginning with the marriage of John of Gaunt and encompassing a vast cast who were to play critical roles during the Wars of the Roses. This assured and clear dynastic analysis will surely be a foundation stone for future historians.

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