Royal Web, by Ladislas Farago and Andrew Sinclair

August 16, 2010 at 15:38 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century) (, , , , , )

10/10

An excellent book, and almost without room for improvement. Farago and Sinclair have here an absolute gem, in a collated and sensible collection of the correspondences of the elder and younger Victorias. As long as these resources exist, they are a treasure trove in themselves, but the responsible and dilligent effort of these authors spins the mass of material into a complex and comprehensive history that gives a precious overview of the birth of the German Reich, an intimate portrait (it might be said caricatured by the petulance of the princess) of the enigmatic and darkly-brooding Bismarck, and a thorough examination of the Crown Prince and Princess, and of the intra-family relationships of the great European dynasty of the Saxe-Coburg-Gothe.

It might be open to question whether there is much of a “Royal Web” involved here. Surely a title “The Life and Letters of Princess Victoria” would have been more honest, if less exciting. Whether or not there is much of a “spy hole” nestled against the heart of Germany, or indeed if Victoria’s letters to her mother might comprise part of an “intelligence network” is a little dubious, but outside the rather sensationalised dust jacket blurb both Farago and Sinclair treat their subject professionally and with a view to integrity and fairness. It is touching, for instance, that Sinclair acknowledges Farago’s immense contribution (Farago died shortly before publication); it is impressive that a letter from a Hessian scion disagreeing boldly with the conclusions presented in the book is included in print.

If the subject of this history had been dealt with in any great depth, it would be a triumph of revisionism. As it is, this book uncovers new and earth-shattering information not formerly in accessible condition in the public domain, and opens up an invaluable window on nineteenth century politics. Any serious historian of the period must read this.

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1453, by Robert Crowley

August 6, 2010 at 16:14 (Book Reviews, Byzantium, Highly Rated Books, Historical) (, , , , )

8/10

A very beautifully told history, Crowley’s weakness is in occasionally forgetting that he is writing a religious and military account of a battle, and not an historical novel. One might readily salute his ability to bring the principal figures to startlingly lifelike dimensions, and  his runaway narratives are immensely enjoyavle, though not always appropriate to a serious history. Admittedly, they are inspired to some degree by the equally excitable accounts of Kritovoulos and other contemporary historians. It is a weakness, but a tolerable weakness, and Crowley is a skilled enough writer to carry it off admirably.

His sources are at first glance a right royal mess, and he does not really footnote at all, but it seems like he has been quite meticulous at arranging his material and plotting a middle-of-the-road course that nonetheless reflects rather badly on the Turks. His ample explanations of the modern attitudes of the western democracies and even the Muslim powers are deeply interesting if a little journalistic, and he is enough of an historian to give plenty of background to the fall of Constantinople (though the title is no misnomer, and he spends most of his time purely on the siege). Altogether a brief but brave and well-written account of an historical tragedy, and one of the most significant events of the last millennium.

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