December 21st, 2008


December Books 7) If I Had Been...

7) If I Had Been...: Ten Historical Fantasies, edited by Daniel Snowman

I had read this years ago, but only remembered this after the rather silly ending of the last essay (set in 1982, with ex-President Allende inviting retired General Pinochet for a cup of tea). These ten alternate history essays were written in 1979. I think I bought the book for Owen Dudley Edwards' take on Gladstone in 1880, killing Irish Home Rule by enacting land reforms (which I don't see as very likely; the Home Rule genie was already out of the bottle by then).

There are two rather interesting essays exploring the potential for preventing the American War of Independence, one looking at how British policy might have been improved, the other imagining Benjamin Franklin facing down his own hard-liners and making peace in 1775. Both of these take as an important element the British decision to keep Canada rather than Guadeloupe in the 1762 peace negotiations. The arguments are 1) (counterfactual) that a continuing French presence to the north would have incentivised the British colonies of the eastern seaboard to stay in line with London, and 2) (factual) that the details of working out British administration in the newly acquired territory were destabilising further south. The two essays differ on the ultimate settlement - one has Britain and America continuing to be linked in union, the other imagines a more peaceful path to independence à la Canada in real life. But it is a successfully thought-provoking exercise.

Not so sure about the rest. We have four essays on regimes that might have survived if more statesmanship and shrewdness had been shown by their leaders - the French Empire in 1870, Kerensky in 1917, Dubcek in 1968 and as noted above Allende in 1972-3. These are interesting analyses of fatal mistakes made by rulers (admittedly in difficult circumstances) but not real alternative histories. Two others take the premise of German reunification in 1952, and the sparing of the life of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico in 1867, and fail to make either really interesting in terms of their consequences. I think the Maximilian question genuinely is a boring one, but more could have been done with Adenauer. Of course, that's easier to say now that German reunification has actually happened; when these essays were written in 1979 it was still unimaginable, though in fact only ten years away.

The most audacious of the essays is by Louis Allen, imagining that General Tojo called off the attack on the US planned for late 1941 and satisfied himself with the Dutch East Indies; and then joined with the Germans to defeat Russia; only in turn to be defeated when the Germans turned on them with American help. Tojo develops nuclear weapons and destroys San Francisco and Los Angeles, but still loses the war. I'm not particularly well versed in the history of the Pacific theatre, but it was an interesting read.

December Books 8) The Cecils

8) The Cecils: Privilege and power behind the throne, by David Loades

Further to my secondary research on the Elizabethan period, here is a biography of William and Robert Cecil, respectively Lord Burghley and Earl of Salisbury, who were the chief ministers of Elizabeth I and James I, and established stability while overseeing England's first ever peaceful transition between reigning dynasties.

The Cecils, like the Tudors, were minor Welsh-speaking gentry who moved to England and made good. Loades asserts that they shared with the Tudors a sympathy for the urban middle classes rather than the House of Lords. It's an interesting assertion, but unfortunarely he doesn't source it and the evidence he provides isn't terribly substantial. But it is worth bearing in mind as we read about the Queen and her leading counsellor that they were indeed dynastic parvenus, whose ancestors were not aristocrats.

We get a very good picture of Cecil as super-efficient administrator and courtier, playing the game and playing it well. Loades is vigorously revisionist in places: he detects no long-standing rivalry between Cecil and Dudley once it became clear that the Queen was not going to marry the latter, and goes out of his way to rehabilitate the reputation of Thomas, William's first son and Robert's elder brother. (Which inclines me to take his assertion about the Tudors' social instincts more seriously.)

I was already pretty familiar with the general outline of the history from other recent reading, but Loades added some interesting extra details - notably on the astonishing career of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose catastrophic failure as a ruler resulted in her becoming one of William Cecil's more burdensome dossiers. Frankly if her story were written as a novel it would be difficult to believe. Another topic that was new to me was the weird political and economic consequences of the state's support of piracy against Spain.

Ireland, once again, features only as an occasional source of backgroud trouble, and then the scene of the disastrous end of Essex's career, which I now realise was probably the biggest impact Ireland had on English politics between 1399 (the fall of Richard II) and 1641 (the Phelim O'Neill rising and massacres). No particular quotes from or about William Cecil's Irish friend Nicholas White, but I was able to fill in one gap: White is said to have been a tutor in Cecil's household in the 1550s. This must presumably have been to the older son, Thomas, who was born in 1542 (the next child, Anne, was not born until 1556 - she grew up to disastrously marry the Earl of Oxford, who didn't write the works of Shakespeare); Thomas was sent to Camnridge in 1558 and then to the Continent in 1561. Robert was not born until 1562, by which time White was launched into his Irish political career.

Anyway, good solid stuff.

jekesta's year-end meme

jekesta has, in her unmistakeable way, pulled together some good year-end questions which I much prefer to that long 30-question one that floats around.

1. My top five books that I have read this year that I hadn't read before already
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2. These are my least favourite books of the year
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3. These are the top five things I have watched this year that I have loved this year
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4. The top five films I loved this year
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5. These are my five posts that have had most comments this year but aren't filtered
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6. The beginning of the months meme
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