Book Review: Emily Brand’s The Fall of The House of Byron

The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England:  Amazon.co.uk: Brand, Emily: 9781473664302: Books

Emily Brand’s latest about the ancestors of the infamous Romantic poet is wonderfully researched and sometimes riveting, if not always totally engaging.

Edition Published By: John Murray Press, 2020

Probably nobody reading this blog will need an introduction to George, 6th Lord Byron. Like many of the Romantic poets, he’s a ‘love him or loathe him’ character whose resonance on the page might well be overshadowed by his infamy in life.

In The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England, historian Emily Brand maps the origins of his contrary condition, by examining his ancestors throughout the 1700s. As it turns out, the malaise and melodrama his poetry is renowned for was pretty much heredity.

After 3 years and a frankly astonishing amount of research – and this book really is fabulously thorough – the tome lands on our laps. But is it as scandalous and deliciously riveting as its title suggests? For me, the answer is sometimes.

How Dramatic Is Georgian High Society?

Beginning with an introduction to Newstead Abbey – which became arguably the greatest, saddest metaphor for the whole Byron dynasty – Brand writes with real vigour. She rolls through a cast of indulgent characters, all with something to lose or gain from the estate and its happenings.

She creates here something which permeates periodically throughout the book; a sense of doomed murkiness and foreboding shadows, itchy paranoia and whispers of violence. All those senses are certainly relevant at various points throughout the Byron story.

Newstead Abbey – aka the Byron estate – today. Image Credit: alan feebery Flickr.

For all her nuance, she can mediate the most outrageous moments with her own kind of tickling coarseness. When writing about Lord Byron in the chapter Folly Castle, she notes:

‘He receives word that a scornful former lover has decided not just to kiss and tell, but to f**k and publish’.

But often, the scandal and downfall promised in the title feel as though they’re a long time coming. Brand often spends a long time focussing on the characters’ esteemed military careers, or fairly innocuous everyday observations.

She sometimes writes those occurrences with gripping drama, especially in the chapter about John Byron, or ‘Foul Weather Jack’. But essentially, there’s a lot of padding around the dramatic moments, so how gripping you find large parts of the book will depend on your appetite for Georgian high society.

Amplifying Women’s Voices

In much of her work, Brand’s emphasis is on relaying women’s perceptions and perspectives in an era of strict misogyny.

While there’s not much here that suggests anything other than the typical patriarchal cruelty of wider society, Brand expertly accounts for the female members of the Byron household, either through her own characterful descriptions:

‘She indulges her melancholy ideas and inevitable tears, knowing they go unobserved in the dim light’.

Or through diary cuttings from both the protagonists and the circles they moved in.

She devotes plenty of time to Isabella Byron, identifying her place and presence in that world resplendently. As the book goes on, Isabella essentially becomes the dynasty’s great tragic figure, her eventually morose life the product of some terrible decisions but also of the ‘wolves at the door’; the mob mentally of the sneering Georgian upper classes and their insatiable appetite for gossip. Indeed, when she died in 1795:

‘Her demise elicited no fanfare, going unreported for two weeks…’

Emily Brand delivers a snapshot of Isabella Byron’s personality and life.

Brand does relay strength, both emotional and intellectual, in pretty much all of the Byron women too. It’d be nigh-on-impossible not to have sympathy for the canny Catherine Gordon, who fights on amidst the poisonous pull of the detestable ‘mad’ Jack Byron.

But any major confrontations by Brand towards women in society and sexism at the time come fairly few and far between.

It’s Not All About Him

Anyone coming to this book thinking it mostly about Lord Byron the 6th himself might be disappointed; it’s not really about him. But it is, in part, about how much he embraced his family’s ruin, in both his work and life.

If you’re as interested in Georgian England as Brand is, then you’re likely to love this. But the stories don’t feel vastly different from those you might find elsewhere, other than in the Byronic element.

You can buy The Fall Of The House Of Byron here.

BOOK REVIEW: Simon Schama’s A History Of Britain Volume II

A History of Britain - Volume 2: The British Wars 1603-1776: Amazon.co.uk:  Schama, Simon: 9781847920133: Books

In his second volume of the history of Britain, Simon Schama proves himself way ahead of the early-noughties curve and presents a thorough dissection of modern(ish) British politics

Edition Published By: The Bodley Head, 2009

Regular readers of the blog will remember I reviewed the first volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain a few weeks ago. In it, the legendary art historian leans on his effortlessly poetic tendencies to deliver a fulsome, zinging reading of early and medieval British civilisation.

In Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775, his emphasis is more on an era that built the foundations of so much of modern Britain. It makes for slightly dryer, date-heavy reading. But Schama’s thorough understanding of the magnitude of this period and forward-thinking sensitivities make it just as intriguing.

The Union

In March 2021, it’s in no way unfeasible that the United Kingdom may not be a thing for much longer. Independence movements in Scotland and Wales now seem to have the strongest grips on their respective populaces than at any point during my lifetime.

It’s incredibly pertinent then, that in The British Wars, Schama spends so much time considering the Union in the 17th century. Alarmingly, that prophetic sense he showed in the first volume feels even more forthright here:

‘‘The obsession with ‘union’ and ‘uniformity’ that consumed both James and Charles I turned out to guarantee hatred and schism’.

But instead of extensively focusing on the mainstream, ‘classic’ stories that we’ve all heard a thousand times, he focuses on how relations between Scotland and England were a crucial catalyst for the Civil War, or political engineering by players largely side-lined by the usual narrative.

That does mean that a genuine and deep interest in this era is probably a requirement. But if you have that interest then Schama paints a fascinating fresco.

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s Independence-favouring Scottish National Party. Image Credit: Scottish Government Flickr.

Modernity And Revision

The main focus of Volume II is how these two centuries set the ball rolling for everything to take off in future Britain, for good or ill. For example, Schama showcases this as the first golden era for propaganda and the printed press, both often used nefariously.

There are also reappraisals of various figures – particularly the likes of Oliver Cromwell and several major colonial players in later chapters – who really have no business being considered game-changing heroes. There’s a quote about Cromwell in the chapter ‘Looking for Leviathan’ that’s likely to ignite fuses on either side of the political divide in 2021, describing Cromwell’s statue outside the House of Commons as ‘a joke in questionable taste’.

Oliver Cromwell’s infamous statue outside the House of Commons in London. Image Credit: UK Parliament Flickr.

The Trouble with Colonialism

Where Schama really drives the nail regarding revisionism is in the final chapter, ‘The Wrong Empire’. It’s here that he describes the Transatlantic slave trade in suitably depressing detail and offers a proverbial middle finger to anybody who might try and claim it as innocuous.

And he makes up the shortfall in lyricism with strident, righteous opinions:

‘The idea that an empire so noisily advertised as an empire of free Britons should depend on the most brutal coercion of enslaved Africans is not just an academic paradox. It was the condition of the empire’s success, its original sin; a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away.’

A statue of Queen Victoria, who presided over the British Empire, outside Windsor Castle. Image Credit: SouthEastern Star Flickr.

Whilst it’s arguable that, despite his efforts, Schama never really goes far enough to condemn Empire, he goes further than most would’ve done in the early noughties. It’s still uncommon to find passages like the following in books by white historians today:

‘Beyond the opportunism of personal plunder lay a much deeper question and one that the British Empire would face time and time again in its march across the globe. Was its military power to be used to strengthen or to weaken the native government they claimed to be ‘assisting’?’

And you get the sense that Schama, like me and many others, believes that time has proven it to be unwaveringly the latter.

The same belittlement that ran through Imperialist attitudes then still exists in the way many Westerners feel about Africa & Asia today. And if Schama’s endeavour here isn’t to expose that full-on, then he at least asks plenty of questions to that end.

You can buy A History Of Britain Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775 here.

BOOK REVIEW: Simon Schama’s A History of Britain Vol. 1: At The Edge Of The World?

Image result for a history of britain: at the edge of the world?

The first volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain is a poetic, dramatic and page-turning revitalisation of early medieval Britain’s royal grandeur

Edition: 2009, The Bodley Head

At this point, fellow history buffs will need no introduction to Simon Schama. British-born but long-time professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, New York, he’s been gracing my TV screen for as long as I can remember.

Little did I know that his early-00’s BBC documentary series was also fleshed out in three books. It was his latest documentary series, The Romantics And Us, that spurned me to get my hands on any literature he’d written. So now that I’m here – and given the entirely necessary reappraisal and uprooting of much of British history within the last 12 months – how does A History of Britain: At The Edge Of The World? Stand up in 2021?

Well, it does and it doesn’t. On the one hand, it’s an immensely readable, poetic and entertaining thing. Schama doesn’t cover any massive new ground, nor does he pretend to. His remit and refreshing eye is contained in his lyrical writing, bringing the full peacock-ish sense of Elizabethan splendour, or the gruelling Machiavellian antics of Anglo-Saxon Britain, to zesty life.

Schama in 2009. Image credit: Monica Flickr.

Royal Grandeur

Whereas most of Schama’s focus is on the royal court, with all its scheming backstabbers and political intrigue, there are ruminations on feudal normality; how the people endured after the coronation of William the Conqueror, for example, or the helplessness of the periodic plagues that ransacked Plantagenet & Tudor Europe.

But largely, this is a book about grandeur, and how ultimately hubris has constantly determined the fate of our rulers. So far, so medieval Britain, you might think.

But where Schama really reigns supreme is in his characterisations. His reappraisal of Anne Boleyn as a chief architect in the seemingly permanent cultural Reformation is brilliantly realised. As much as he draws on Thomas Cromwell’s ruthlessness in bringing about her demise (‘pure devilry’, as he calls it), he draws out her political nuance:

‘It’s not only reasonable but essential to come back to Anne Boleyn as both the occasion and the cause of this extraordinary change in direction’.

Anne Boleyn, capable of much more than history often remembers. Image credit: Loz Pycock Flickr.

He does the same for Thomas Becket, who we ‘rightly’ think of as a stuffy religious zealot, but:

‘the truth is he was a real Londoner, with an instinctive flair for the things that Londoners have always cared most about: display and costume; the getting and spending of money; theatre, private and public; and (even though his stomach was delicate) fine food and drink. He was street smart and book smart. He was, from the get-go, a Player.’

What can we learn from it?

For all his poeticisms, there isn’t much in the way of prophetic nuance here. But it’s not a book that forgets that the modern world exists, and Schama finds parallels that were as relevant in 2000 as they are today.

He distils and summarises the lingering impact of nationalism in a brief half paragraph:

‘Nationalism, we are trained to assume, is a modern invention. But then what do we make of these utterances with their passionate attachment to territory and local memory? They document, unmistakably, if not nationalism, then at least ‘nativism’, a politics of birthplace, of land and language. After these voices were heard, Britain would never be the same again’.

Elizabeth I. Image credit: Francisco Anzola Flickr.

And as he navigates the tumultuous relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, he exposes how the former’s body and politics became commodified by the men surrounding her, but also how she was far from bendable to their whims. One glaring caveat is that there’s no mention of the early slave trade, which seems even more odd in today, especially given Schama’s political sensibilities.

Studious readers of medieval history might not learn much from A History of Britain: At The Edge Of The World? But if you’re looking for an antidote to the usually pretty dry storytelling of much history writing, then this is no bad place to start.

You can buy A History of Britain Volume One: At the Edge of the World? here.

BOOK REVIEW: Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Black Tudors: The Untold Story: Amazon.co.uk: Kaufmann, Miranda:  9781786071842: Books

Miranda Kaufmann’s exploration of African presences in Tudor/Stuart Britain is an evergreen, educational powerhouse

Originally publication: Oneworld Publications, 2017

We all know that 2020 was a seismic year for race relations. The murder of George Floyd by a policeman in the US sent decades-old discussions into fever pitch. In the UK, it was the Brexit vote that triggered a rise in hate-crime and xenophobic sentiment. That’s something that Miranda Kaufmann touches on late-on in Black Tudors: The Untold Story:

‘As debate about immigration becomes ever more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled with immigrants’.

And throughout the preceding pages, she expertly exposes and navigates the huge but unsung contribution African immigrants made to British society throughout the late Tudor/early Stuart periods. She focuses on 10 characters who moved through the echelons of English life, whether that be in royal courts, circumnavigating the globe with Sir Francis Drake or weaving silk in Southwark.

She turns her thorough research into fluid prose and often hits on imagery so vivid that you can almost smell the places coming off the pages. The way she writes about prostitution in Westminster, or dairy producing in Gloucestershire, for example, showcase the kind of connectivity you’d expect from classicist fiction.

Miranda Kaufmann recounting the research behind Black Tudors, the book and her reasons for writing it.

And whilst some of the stories – like that of Edward Swarthye, the first black man to whip a white man on British soil – lead us to ‘question whether the development of racial slavery in the English colonies was inevitable’, she’s not afraid to shy away from the injustices faced by many of Swarthye’s counterparts, especially women. She does this in pleasingly acerbic, on-the-nose fashion too, like in the chapter about the Westminster-based Anne Cobbie:

‘Few women voluntarily chose prostitution as a career. Many recounted that they had been tricked into it by ‘fair words and great promises’. Some had received guarantees of marriage that proved as worthless as the men who gave them once the deed was done’.

The overwhelming feeling you might come away from Black Tudors: The Untold Story is one of exasperation that you weren’t taught this previously. Part of that may be to do with the fact that much of the ground-breaking research – in which Kaufmann has been involved since the early 00’s – wasn’t widespread until recently. And while the documentation on many of these figures remains scanty, this book is as much about our education as it is reclaiming their stories.

Its impact since publication in 2017 has been massive. But its message will continue to be important until sections of society are willing to become less ignorant about our collective past, and how much we owe to those from other cultures.

You can purchase Black Tudors: The Untold Story here.