It's a tricky time for everyone at the moment - and as a book fan it's hard to ignore quite how much Covid-19 has thrown the publishing world into disarray - publishing dates are being postponed, many independent bookshops have closed completely during this time, and a lot of people, myself included, struggled to concentrate on reading in this time of immense change and uncertainty. But, things are going to continue as they are for quite some time, and now my mental state has just about adjusted to our "new normal", I wanted to take a look at a book that came out on the 19th of March - so pretty much as all of this kicked off. It's a brilliant read that deserves to be shared - so let me tell you a little bit about it.
Celebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, appears hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise. Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy, or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend - the list of stars whose careers burned bright, long before the Age of Television, is extensive and thrillingly varied.
Greg Jenner is a historian, broadcaster, author, and an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he does occasional teaching. I've been listening to Greg Jenner for a while now, as his BBC Comedy podcast "You're Dead to Me" has proved hugely eye-opening and exciting both for history buffs like me, and for friends who perhaps haven't been so keen on history in the past. The podcast allows anyone to discover fascinating facts about historical figures - but the way it's set up means that those who maybe got put off history after a bored teacher repeated dates to them ad infinitum, will hopefully have a new interest sparked by the compelling way in which the tales are told.
Telling people's stories in a compelling fashion is clearly something that Jenner excels at - and in Dead Famous he's able to combine an overarcing study of the way celebrity has grown and changed over the centuries, with intimate glimpses into the lives of those who have been raised up and celebrated for a huge variety of reasons - both good and bad.
Jenner is the historical consultant to the brilliant Horrible Histories tv show, and it's clear that he has a telent for comedy as well as history, with witty asides peppered throughout the book. It works well - this is clearly a hugely well researched piece of work, but the warmth and humour ensures that it doesn't read like a dry textbook - it has a clear focus, and the compellingly human lives that Jenner resurrects on these pages ensure that it's a page turner - he skillfully weaves fascinating facts throughout every single page, leaving me with a long sheet of people I'm keen to do more research on.
Books that combine history with humour can, in my experience, occasionally err on the side of cruelty - poking fun at the figures they reference in order to entertain readers. That certainly isn't the case here - Jenner allows fact to speak for itself with little room for harsh judgements - and that ensures that Dead Famous is a compelling piece of social history that educates just as much as it entertains - it's one of the best history books I've read in some time.
If it sounds like your cup of tea, - grab a copy where you can, and check out "You're Dead to Me" whereever you get your podcasts. The author has also just started a history podcast called Homeschool History that aims to get children interested in history during this rather difficult time - if you're in the UK it should be available on the BBC Sounds App.
Suzanne Spaak was born into an affluent Belgian Catholic family and married into the country's leading political dynasty. Her brother-in-law was the prime minister and her husband Claude was a playwright and patron of the painter Rene Magritte. In occupied Paris she mingled with the cultural elite including Colette and Jean Cocteau. But Suzanne was living a double life. Her friendship with a Polish Jewish refugee led her to her life's purpose. When France fell and the Nazis occupied Paris, she joined the Resistance. She used her fortune and social status to enlist allies among wealthy Parisians and Church groups. Under the eyes of the Gestapo, Suzanne and women from the Jewish and Christian resistance groups 'kidnapped' hundreds of Jewish children to save them from the gas chambers.
I love to hear tales about the French Resistance - I find them endlessly fascinating. Whilst here in Britain we were determinedly fighting a war against the Germans, they never landed on our shores in any number - whereas just a few miles away across the channel, parts of France were under occupation from the Nazi soldiers. The fact that a resistance existed shows the sheer bravery of the French people - teaming together to save innocents who the Nazi party had deemed suitable for the death camps. They risked their lives, yes - but also those of their families, friends and societies around them in order to help people and bring an end to the oppression that the war brought.
Suzanne Spaak was part of that Resistance, but she's a woman who's name has, until now, mainly been lost to the depths of history. She's a fascinating subject for a biography - going from a life of glamour and luxury through to entering a life of danger, not only joining a resistance organisation, but personally harboring children in her own home. It's a story that takes a turn to dark routes full of betrayal and danger - and Suzanne is a strong and vital voice at the centre of her own narrative. Anne Nelson bring Suzanne's life and the lives around her to life with a breathtaking vividness - she's clearly done huge amounts of research in order to bring this tale to the page, and it serves as an incredible tribute to the life of a woman who was complicated, intriguing, and utterly inspirational - an it's wonderful to see her life recreated in such a readable and interesting manner as has been done in "Codename Suzette". Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
In the mid seventeenth century, England was divided by war and bloodshed. Torn apart by rival factions, father opposed son and brother met brother on the battlefield. But while civil war raged on cobbled streets and green fields, inside the home domestic life continued as it always had done. For Ann Fanshawe and her children it meant a life of insecurity and constant jeopardy as she and her husband, a Royalist diplomat, dedicated their lives to the restoration of the Stuart monarchy.
In this uncertain world, Ann's 'receipt book' was a treasured and entirely feminine response to the upheavals of war. These books were a feature of women's lives during this period, when there were few doctors to be found, and were full of life-saving medical knowledge that had been gleaned from mothers and friends. Remarkably, Ann's morocco-bound book full of scraps of ink-stained paper has survived to this day.
Lucy Moore is a historian, educated in Britain and the United States, with a degree in history from Edinburgh University. She's got a long and varied bibliography as a writer - including a rather fantastic history of the Roaring Twenties. In "Lady Fanshawe's Receipt Book" she moves onto the fascinating world of Civil War England - with Lady Fanshawe's writings providing a brilliantly insightful glimpse into one of the most turbulent times in British History.
Lady Ann Harrison was born in 1625, and was an intelligent child, loving French, needlework and riding. Born to a Royalist family, she married her second cousin, Richard Fanshawe, in 1644. They were a Royalist family - loyally supporting the King in a period where a Civil War resulted in the execution of a King and a state of Interregnum. Fanshawe is best known for writing a Memoir - full of recollections of life with her husband, and an intriguing record of what I find a particularly fascinating time in British History.
Lucy Moore has chosen not to focus solely on the memoir though, and instead has accessed Lady Fanshawe's Receipt Book for a far more intimate and immediate glimpse into the life of an intelligent, passionate and driven woman. Combining the two sources, Moore brings Fanshawe to startling life - with the personal nature of Fanshawe's writings enabling Moore to broadcast her voice loudly into the 21st Century - with the reader being allowed a glimpse into Fanshawe's friends, family, loves, and losses. I've recently become hugely interested by the English Civil War - a period of time that I often find rather overlooked, despite the way it shaped world history for ever. The fact that Lucy Moore chooses to focus on a woman in this period makes it doubly interesting - the drive of this woman to support her family and husband despite it threatening both her life and those of her children is quite remarkable, and the remarkable lengths that Lady Fanshawe went to in order to maintain a level of normality and domesticity for her family in a time that was both hugely turbulent and incredibly dangerous for the family. A remarkable woman brought to dazzling life by Lucy Moore - "Lady Fanshawe's Receipt Book" is a read that will transport the reader to a very different time indeed - but place them in the company of a woman whose strength, intelligence and drive will provide a very safe pair of hand for the reader indeed. Many thanks to the publisher for the copy.