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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Fun and World War Two history books don’t always go together.  Happily, in Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson they do.  Olson, always an entertaining writer with a talent for unearthing entertaining tidbits, has written widely about the war before, including books on Polish airmen, Churchill’s ascent to power, and American support for the war (prior to their belated joining).  Now, I think she has found her most interesting subject to date: the contributions made (and too often overlooked) by occupied countries to the war effort.

Olson focuses on the countries with, from early in the war, London-based governments in exile.  These countries are (in order of Nazi occupation): Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France.  While much has been written about Poland, France, and, to some extent, the Netherlands, it’s wonderful to see some of the smaller countries examined in detail and to have the focus shifted to not just what was done to them and for them but by them.

Olson begins the books with stories of escape, telling how governments and monarchs fled as the Nazis poured into their countries.  It is stirring stuff and I was in tears multiple times in just the first 50 pages of the book over the angst of patriotic King Haakon of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands who hated leaving behind their people, knowing how they would suffer.   Queen Wilhelmina had to be tricked into leaving the Netherlands, so determined was she to stay.  I don’t envy the men who were tasked with that job.  After all, she is the woman of whom Winston Churchill remarked “the only man on earth I fear is Queen Wilhelmina!”  She sounds deeply formidable and exactly the right woman for the time.  But while she may have struck fear into Churchill’s heart, she loved and was equally loved by her people: whenever a Dutch citizen escaped to England, she insisted on meeting them and often invited them to have tea at her home.  And her people at home did what they could to reach out to her, too.  When John Hackett, a British parachutist who had been captured after the Battle of Arnhem but was rescued by the Dutch resistance (a story told in beautiful detail in his memoir, I Was a Stranger, and recounted here by Olson), escaped and returned to Britain, he brought with him a letter for the queen from the three elderly Dutch women who had risked their lives to shelter him.

Both those monarchs and their governments were welcomed to London; other heads of government fared less well.  Edvard Beneš, who had been Prime Minster of Czechoslovakia until he was forced to resign after the British-signed Munich Agreement, had been living in exile since the Nazis invaded his country in 1938 and quickly established a London-based government in exile.  However, it took until 1941 for the UK to recognize the government.  And as for Charles de Gaulle, one of the most entertaining things about this deeply entertaining book may be the many references I group under the title “Everyone hates de Gaulle” – a rich and fruitful vein.  My favourite, and too good not to share, was: “His unofficial motto, in the words of one observer, was ‘Extreme weakness requires extreme intransigence.’”  De Gaulle grew into his role and proved useful eventually but was never well-liked.

The tangible contributions made by each of these occupied countries varied.  The Norwegians had been able to get most of their fleet to Britain and it was these ships – more than 1,000 – that helped ferry food across the Atlantic to keep Britain fed.  The Czechs, whose military strongholds had been taken over by the Nazis in 1938, had little to contribute but 5,000 servicemen did manage to escape, first to Poland, then to France, and finally, after it too fell, to Britain.  Along the way they joined almost 30,000 Polish servicemen.  Seasoned after fighting in Poland and France, and significantly older than the new British recruits, it was the Polish airmen who would soon become the toast of London after their spectacular performance during the Battle of Britain:

…it was the Poles, with their hand kissing and penchant for sending flowers, who won the greatest reputations as gallants.  John Colville, one of Churchill’s private secretaries, once asked a woman friend, the daughter of an earl, what it was like to serve as a WAAF driver for Polish officers.  ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘I have to say “Yes, sir” all day, and “No, sir,” all night.’  The head of a British girls’ school made headlines when she admonished the graduating class about the pitfalls of life in the outside world, ending her speech with ‘And remember, keep away from gin and Polish airmen.’

What emerges strongly is the incredible contributions made by the Poles.  Anyone who has read about the Battle for Britain or codebreaking is probably already aware of the vital role Poles played in these areas but Olson goes deeper and her discussion of the value of the vast and trustworthy Polish intelligence service is excellent.  Intelligence had been one of the country’s priorities prior to the war – a history of being fought over between Germany and Russia had taught them the importance of knowing their enemies’ plans.  An estimated 16,000 Poles were involved in intelligence gathering in occupied Poland and, in addition to that, more were active outside of their country as well, sending information to London from: Austria, Germany, France, Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Balkans and North Africa.  And as Poles, classed as sub-humans by the Nazis, were sent to work as slave labour in the Reich, they sent intelligence reports from the factories there as well, giving the Allies valuable information about munitions production.

The problem then became how intelligence was used.  The chilling incompetence of British intelligence during the war is a story I have come across many times before but is always horrifying.  The way agents were run in occupied countries can only be called reckless and the siloing of information was ridiculous, with SOE running each nation’s network independently – of both other departments and the nations’ exiled governments.  The Poles, thank god, along with the Czechs were the only exceptions and were allowed to:

Operate their own training establishments, codes, ciphers, and radio networks without MI6 control, with the proviso that they pass on all intelligence relevant to the Allied war effort.

The Poles and the Czechs were often parcelled together in the minds of their British hosts, despite having very little in common.  (By the way, Olson’s frequent reference to them as “eastern European nations” is the only thing that jarred me in this book.  Once and for all everyone: they are in central Europe.  If in doubt, look at the goddamn map.  End rant.)  More importantly, they each KNEW they had nothing in common with their neighbour:

The romantic, emotional Poles tended to disparage the Czechs for what they perceived as their neighbours’ dullness and industriousness.  “The Czechs seem to the Poles solid, heavy people, much like liver dumplings,” A.J. Liebling noted in the New Yorker in 1942.  For their part, the Czechs regarded the Poles as arrogant, foolhardy, autocratic, and suicidally reckless.

The “sober, sensible, middle-class” Czechs viewed themselves as “focused on hard work” and, unlike their Polish neighbours, “shied away from flashy heroics.”  Poles, on the other hand, were “polar opposites…hotheaded and rebellious by temperament, they repeatedly rose up, particularly against the Russians and just as repeatedly were crushed.”

What they did have in common was the complete irrelevance of their futures to the Western allied powers.  Russia, who absorbed a shocking 95% of the total wartime casualties suffered by the Big Three (UK, USA, and Russia), needed to be appeased.  Churchill, to his credit, did feel some guilt at signing Poland over to Russia – Roosevelt felt none.  The Czechs, who had never had any ties to Russia but were afraid of being handed over in the same way as the Poles, tried to make a deal of their own, which backfired spectacularly even before the war was done:

Acting more like conquerors than liberators, [the Russians] treated the Czechs, their supposed friends and allies, in much the same ruthless manner they were now treating the citizens of the collapsed Third Reich.  Eyewitness accounts reported widespread rape and drunkenness, wholesale looting, and wanton destruction of property.

Beneš was never forgiven by his people for making that deal, but it is difficult to see any better outcome.  Although the Allies benefited hugely from the contributions of the central European countries, they never learned to value or respect them.  Britain, always suspicious of Europeans, remained so even as those Europeans did all they could to win the war.  Field Marshal Montgomery, hero of North Africa and the man in charge of all land forces on D-Day, exemplified the typical disinterest of his nation:

Montgomery, whose command included thousands of European troops, was particularly noted for his lack of knowledge of and regard for them.  Once, during a visit to a Polish division in his army, he asked its commander whether Poles spoke to one another in Russian or German.  He was stunned to learn they had their own language.

What Olson does so well here is manage to illustrate how difficult it was for the British hosts to imagine, nevermind respond to, the challenges facing occupied Europe.  In the occupied countries, people were murdered and starved, millions were left homeless, infrastructure was destroyed, and all sense of individualism, the ability to chose your future was taken away.  In Britain (and even more so in Allied countries outside of Europe), it was a mildly dangerous but primarily thrilling event taking place at some distance:

To the Europeans, World War II was a cataclysm that must never happen again.  To the British, who had suffered neither invasion nor occupation, it was one of the proudest periods of their country’s history – a “moment of national reconciliation and rallying together, rather than a corrosive rent in the fabric of state and nation.”

In too many history books (and especially novels), this is still the case.  Olson lays bare the incompetence and xenophobia that greeted the leaders of the occupied nations in London, shows how they were ignored and distrusted despite their contributions, and, ultimately, forgotten in favour a narrative that focused on the official Allied saviours and conveniently swept aside those allies (Poland, in particular) sacrificed for “the greater good”.  But she manages to make it wonderfully enjoyable along the way, a true accomplishment and tribute to the men and women whose achievements should be remembered.

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The receipt in my copy of The Marches by Rory Stewart reminds me that I bought it a year ago today.  It took me almost a year (a very strange and hectic year in my defense) to read it but one year from purchase to reading is hardly my worst record.  I had been looking forward to this book for a long time (it was announced years ago but the publication date kept getting pushed back and back and back – I can understand why, having read it) and wanted to have the time to savour it.  It was completely worth waiting for.

The book is subtitled “A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland” and is based on Stewart’s walks through the borderlands – first along Hadrian’s Wall and then from Stewart’s home in Cumbria to his father’s home in Crieff, Scotland.  Only 44 years old, Stewart has already led a fascinating life and walked through some precarious places.  Currently an MP, he has been: a lieutenant in the Black Watch, private tutor to Prince William and Prince Harry, a diplomat serving in Indonesia and Montenegro, a deputy governor in two coalition-held provinces in southern Iraq, the founder of a NGO in Afghanistan, and a professor at Harvard.  He also, in 2002, found time to walk across Afghanistan (among other places) and wrote a fascinating book about it (The Places in Between).

I picked this up because I was feeling the urge to encounter someone out of the ordinary – both eccentric and a bit old-fashioned (at least in their ideas of duty and service), which I knew Stewart to be.  What I didn’t realise is that there was someone who fit that description even better than Stewart: his father, Brian, who is the most perfectly eccentric person I have come across in years.  And he is the heart of the book.  What starts as a journey to understand, in advance of the Scottish independence vote, the differences between the people on either side of the border becomes a tribute to the life of Brian Stewart, proud Scotsman and lifelong British public servant.

We meet Brian in book’s opening paragraph, immediately discovering he is a very involved older father (he was in his fifties when Stewart, the first child of Brian’s second marriage, was born) and a rather unique one:

I was five years old and it was just before six in the morning.  I walked into my parents’ room and poked the shape on the right-hand side of the bed.  My father’s head emerged.  He rolled himself upright, retied his checked sarong, pushed his white hair flat on his head, and led me back out of the bedroom.  Once we had dressed, we marched to Hyde Park for fencing practice.  Then we marched back to the house and laid out toy soldiers on the floor to re-enact the battle of Waterloo.

Throughout the book, Brian is a huge part of both Stewart’s daily life (in the average month he would write his son emails totaling 40,000 words and they check in by phone regularly during his walks) and his memories.  A former soldier, diplomat and British Secret Intelligence Service officer (the second-most senior one, in fact) who invariably called his son ‘darling’, Brian had much practical advice for Stewart when he was establishing his own diplomatic career and working in places (like Indonesia) well known to his father.  The casual helicopter parent of today had nothing on Brian Stewart.  My favourite anecdotes were the ones describing how Brian descended on his son’s new postings and, with characteristic energy and focus, immediately started in on projects:

When I left the Foreign Office to set up a charity in Afghanistan, he was eighty-four.  This time it was nine months before he came to visit me.  When he did, he flew through the night to Kabul, came straight up to our office, laid out his sketchpad and began designing a formal Persian garden.  An hour later he began an essay title ‘You know more Persian than you think.’  By supper he was standing in the kitchen, training the cooks.

How terrifying and how absolutely wonderful.  And how excellent that his son appreciates the father he has and the legacy Brian has given him: “not some philosophical or political vision, but playfulness and a delight in action.”

But the book is not entirely about Brian (though his spirit dominates).  It is also about Stewart’s inquiries into the identity of those who live along the border and what that may tell us about the future of both Scotland and England – a debate that is particularly relevant to him, as a Scotsman who lives in England and has, like his father, devoted a good portion of his life to public service.

He begins by walking along Hadrian’s Wall, more a border of imagination than reality, reflecting on the Roman occupation.  He does a superb job of making that strange place of uncertain purpose come alive, a place where foods imported from across the empire were eaten by soldiers, merchants, and slaves from Syria and North Africa and a dozen other places.  And he marvels at how it all disappeared – of how little remained in Britain after the Romans left.  For him, the parallels with the collation occupation of Afghanistan are clear and fascinating:

…while archaeologists seemed to want to insist there was a rational, practical purpose to the wall, which could be read from its architectural design, I sensed absurdity.  The wall was cripplingly expensive to build and maintain.  It failed to prevent incursions from the north, that devastated the economy and society of southern Britain.  Over the course of the occupation, tens of thousands of Romans and hundreds of thousands of Britons were killed and indigenous cultures were smashed forever.  And in the end nothing sustainable was left behind when the Romans departed.

Later, as he walks north to his father’s Scottish home, he considers the artifice of local “heritage” and identity.  The border should an “irrelevance” but as long as the people on either side think of themselves as different they remain different.  In what was once a Welsh kingdom, then the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, he now finds three distinct “countries”: the area north of the Scottish border, the area south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the area between the two.  His observations are excellent and this entire section is just a superb piece of travel writing.  In particular, his comments on how southern Scotland has co-opted highland culture, embracing traditions (Gaelic, tartan, etc.) that have no ties at all to the region, are especially interesting.

In the end, Stewart’s journey comes to an end and the book comes to its inevitable conclusion: Brian’s death at age 94.  From the structure of the book, from the importance of Brian’s presence throughout, it was clear that this was a tribute to him as much as it was an exploration of a specific region.  It would have been an excellent and fascinating book without Brian; with him, it is unforgettable and incredibly moving.

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terms-conditionsEvery December, I attend an Old Girls reunion and Christmas carol service for my old school.  It’s a fun event and I always meet the most interesting women.  There’s the Olympian with stories about her time in Brazil this summer, the children’s book author who I adored growing up, the researchers doing amazing work in their labs, and the retirees who now travel the world after lives spent in law, medicine or academia.  It’s a circle I take for granted much of the time but always appreciate reconnecting with around the holidays.  It is also a chance to cuddle babies of younger alum while eating cookies with the school logo on them – a win-win, really.

This year, the event was the perfect thing to get me in the mood for the newest release from my beloved Slightly Foxed (so popular they are now out of stock and waiting for it to be reprinted): Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, a history of British girls’ boarding schools from 1939 to 1979.  The cut off date is, delightfully, based on when the duvet became popular, ushering in an era of unprecedented comfort.  Maxtone Graham is having none of that: “the years I longed to capture were the last years of the boarding-school Olden Days – the last gasp of the Victorian era, when the comfort and happiness of children were not at the top of the agenda.”  And capture it she does, in vivid, joyful detail.

But first, an aside: how stupid do you have to be not to adopt the duvet until the late 1970s, Britain?  Of all the things you should have picked up on your continental holidays over the previous two hundred years, this would have been a really practical one.

I loved every page of this book but the introduction is particularly dear to my heart, especially when Maxtone Graham describes the prototype founders of girls’ schools:

…girls’ boarding-schools tended to be started, almost by accident, by two unmarried daughters of a widowed Victorian clergyman, who needed to “take in” a few pupils in order to pay the bills.  These sisters were often called Maud or Millicent, women with unflagging energy and small waists, who had a vision of how a girls’ school should be, and who brought their schools into existence through dogged determination, enlisting wealthy professional men (often cousins) to form the necessary company and invest in the enterprise.  These women were driven by zeal for the idea that girls could be properly educated together, as were their brothers.  They thrived on obstacles in their way.  The historians of their schools say things like, “All this might have daunted lesser mortals than the Wingfield-Digbys.”

Delightfully put and full of truth.  My own school’s history tells an almost identical tale.

In chapters ranging from “Choosing a Suitable School” to “Teaching Nuns and Kitchen Nuns” and “Fresh Air and Other Discomforts”, Maxtone Graham looks at the experiences of girls at a wide variety of schools.  Some were miserable, some happy.  Some schools valued education, while at others it seems to have been a foreign concept.  We hear about students who discovered boarding school life had little to do with Mallory Towers and others who excelled and made friends for life.

I loved hearing about the characters of the different schools.  There were so many small, obscure ones, including complete disasters where parents recklessly deposited their daughters without taking the time to discover the headmistress was an alcoholic or that the teaching staff was disappearing, leaving the upper year girls to take over teaching the younger ones.  The overachieving academic schools (school?  This seems to have been a rarity) provide few good anecdotes.  The snobbish schools that had little interest in teaching girls much beyond deportment and how to find a husband, on the other hand, are horrifyingly enjoyable to read about:

Southover was known as “the school where everyone married everyone else’s brothers”; and those brothers would certainly have been members of the landed gentry or above.  If you read the list of pupils’ addresses at the back of the Southover school magazines of those days you find a mouthwatering selection of old rectories, castles, manor houses and farms.  The acceptable home address was: name of large house; village it was quite near; county.  It was not done to live at any kind of obscure urban address, such as 24 Whitfield Road, Haslemere.  Only about one girl in the whole list did live at that kind of address and I pity her, because it stands out.  If you did have an urban address it had to be a London one, and ideally Cadogan, Belgrave or Eaton something.

The Catholic boarding schools appear to have been even more elitist:

Mother Bridget taught Latin to the juniors and she kicked off the first Latin lesson for the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: “Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.”  “Quite a few hands did go up,” remembers Maggie Fergusson, “and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin.”

You do finish the book wondering how the girls at most of these schools managed to make their way in world.  Yes, marriage can keep you out of the workforce you are ill-prepared for (that was the typical solution for the girls from the earlier years covered in the book) but by the 1970s a year at finishing school and then an early marriage weren’t on the cards for most women.  Maxtone Graham talks about their post-school lives with the women and their attitudes are varied.  Some are angry that their schools never even considered the idea their girls would want to go on to university or give them enough education for a practical career while others thought the old ways “made for a better, more stable world than today’s world of career-ambition, with all the anguish, stress and risky postponement of parenthood it can bring.”

It is a charming, completely bonkers world and, for the most part, I am delighted it is gone.  British schools aren’t particularly spectacular these days (see recent PISA scores), but at least there is an attempt to educate everyone in basic subjects to a certain level.  It is horrifying to think how some of these schools would have performed in this era of standardised testing.  The ability to remain ignorant has been severely curtailed and thank goodness for that.

However, as Maxtone Graham concludes, academic achievement isn’t the only thing that matters and the boarding schools of old had their virtues:

There was an innocence about these establishments.  They were not all about self-advancement or money-making.  They were run on a shoestring by women with high moral standards who needed to make ends meet and did so by taking in girls and forming their characters.  As much by accident as design, these girls emerged into adulthood with sources of inner strength and resolve that (often literally) can’t be measured by exam results.  The worst of the hopelessness has gone, but so have the best of the eccentricity and the most well-meaning of the amateurishness.

I’m not entirely sure I agree, being torn between my love of eccentrics and my bone-deep belief in the importance of academic achievement.  But what I am not torn over is my love for this book.  It bubbles over with humour and warmth and made for one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.  Male or female, Old Girl/Boy or not, this is a book everyone can – and should! – enjoy.

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the-romanovsI started reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore yesterday afternoon and it is, as every single reviewer assured me, wonderful.  But, like all things Romanov-related, it is also rather overwhelming:

The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambitions, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughters; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state.  Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.

The sheer level of violence is extraordinary and the drama of the dynasty is completely absorbing.  I fell into the book for a few hours and emerged able to think of nothing else but the blood-thirsty early Romanovs and their supporters.

n33964With impalements by the dozen fresh in my mind, I decided something a little – a lot – gentler was needed before bed.  I wanted something that was all the things the Romanovs were not: peaceful, good-humoured and non-homicidal.  But I wasn’t quite ready to leave Russia so I turned to that most comforting of authors, Eva Ibbotson, and her first adult novel, A Countess Below Stairs.  Its fairy-tale like beginning was the perfect antidote:

In the fabled, glittering world that was St. Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.

It was back to The Romanovs this morning but, I suspect, it will be back to Ibbotson tonight.  A perfect balance.

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Perfect Wives in Ideal HomesI read a few really excellent books right at the end of 2015, the most enjoyable of which was Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson. Nicholson writes social histories that focus on British women and in previous books she’s looked at surplus women following the First World War (Singled Out) and women’s lives during and immediately after the Second World War (Millions Like Us). Here, she has moved on to the 1950s.

For thousands of young women […] in the early 1950s, the dreams of education, career, achievement and fulfillment were within reach. The war had exploded the inequality myth. The doors were opening. But for too many, their own ignorance, fears, confining desires and expectations were bred-in-the-bone.

To tell her story, Nicholson draws on an amazing variety of first-hand accounts from:

  • a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret
  • a Jamaican immigrant
  • a beauty queen
  • a working class girl who studied at Cambridge
  • an Irish nurse
  • a miner’s wife
  • a young policewoman
  • a rock n’roll-loving Teddy girl
  • several educated but desperately isolated suburban housewives
  • and many more

Through these women and their experience, Nicholson marks the mood of the decade. She looks at the fields now open to women (all of them, basically, though women were only being paid 59% of what men received in the same roles) versus the conditioning in popular media that reminded them femininity was the most important thing. Graceful secretary, desirable air hostess, and glamorous model were presented as much more appropriate ambitions than a career as a lawyer, doctor, or politician. And, most important of all, work must come second to husband, home and children.

However, that wasn’t really the reality. “In the post-war world, there was little – except a residual belief in her own incapacity – to stop a young woman from training to become an architect, a biologist, or a lawyer. The opportunities were there.” In 1951, nearly 85% of women between the ages of 14 and 25 were working. By the end of the decade, it wasn’t just single women who were working: in 1961, 30% of married women under 30 and 36% of married women between the ages of 35 and 45 worked (up from 25% in 1951).

Nicholson chooses to focus on specific women’s experiences. This is very compelling from a story-telling perspective though I did miss having a historical or geographical context. And while Nicholson pays particular attention to women of the working class, we don’t hear much from the upper middle class – the women who followed their fathers and brothers into professions, becoming doctors and lawyers.

What she does do wonderfully is allow the women to tell their own stories. I particularly enjoyed the chapters which look at the pressure to be constantly attractive and appear pure, but also sexually alluring. A confusing enough mix which, when coupled with poor sexual education, lead to a predictable number of shotgun weddings or quiet adoptions.

We hear much about the two famous Margarets: Princess Margaret and Margaret Thatcher. Nicholson contrasts them throughout the book and it is an effective pairing: one the beautiful, feminine storybook princess whose purity and perfection, at least in the 1950s, was the pride of the nation, the other a brilliant, ambitious career woman, ready to take advantage of every opportunity available to her and brutally pilloried for it (though that would come later, once she achieved success).

Like most enjoyable reading experiences, I have my quibbles with Nicholson’s presentation of facts. Throughout the book, she treats certain topics as though they are relics of the past, specific to the 1950s, when if fact they persisted long past that decade. She treats the opposition to Princess Margaret’s relationship with Townsend as something specific to her time and gender. Given that her uncle and nephew faced similar pressure when they fell in love with unsuitable partners, there is a strong argument to be made that it is more a hazard of position than anything else. Also, bizarrely, she throws in an off-handed comment about how the women of the WI were “starting to look beyond poultry-keeping and meal preparation.” The WI started off in the 19th Century, enraged by high infant mortality rates and determined to educate and mobilize woman to combat issues such as poor hygiene, a lack of family planning, and alcohol abuse. If anything, it has become dulled and sanitized since then with its jam-making and hymn singing.

There are some disappointing anti-male comments scatted through the book (references to the walls built by men to keep women out of professions, etc). Apparently, it is natural for women to be conditioned to accept stereotypical gender roles but men have no such excuse. And they certainly do not get any credit when they did encourage women to enter the workforce and join professions, though Nicholson does acknowledge that the walls no longer existed in any meaningful way.

Overall, it is a very fascinating book and great fun to read. I added so many of Nicholson’s source books to my own to-be-read list and can’t wait to learn more about some of the fascinating women introduced to me here.

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The Fishing FleetI love to read histories and memoirs about life in British India so as soon I as heard that The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy was coming out, I rushed to place a library hold.  And as soon as it arrived at my library branch, I picked it up and read it.  I thought a book about the women who went husband-hunting in the Raj by de Courcy, whose previous books I had enjoyed so much, would be a delightful one to spend an afternoon with.  And in many ways it was.  It just wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped it would be.

De Courcy looks at the women who went to India looking for husbands during the time of the British Raj, from the mid-19th Century to 1947.  She does an excellent job of explaining why they were needed and what motivated them to come but fails to provide any real detail on how the women experienced and (hopefully) adjusted to life there.  The book is a composite of intriguing accounts culled from the letters, diaries, and memoirs of the women of the Fishing Fleet but there is very little attempt to tie the different accounts together.  Individually they were fascinating.  Combined they were a bit of a mess, albeit a well-written and, with a number of photographs included, well-illustrated one.

De Courcy’s explanations of the norms of Anglo-Indian society were useful, though (like most topics in this book) much more ably covered in Margaret MacMillan’s superlative Women of the Raj.  She points out that most British men in India were there in service to some master or another – government or military – and were not generally allowed to marry until they were around thirty, by which point they were in a hurry to find a mate after years of loneliness.  She reminds readers that the British in India were decidedly middle-class (the wealthy having no need to make their fortunes in India and the poor serving no purpose in a land where servants were easy to come by) and that social conventions were rigidly observed and generally more strict that at “Home”.  She does do a particularly excellent job of describing the bureaucratic process by which Indian wives and mixed-race children were, over some years, stigmatized (having been the norm through the 17th and 18th Centuries), thereby guiding British men to seek British wives.  And she also very ably explains why British women would risk coming all the way to India in order to find a spouse.  Middle-class men left Britain to make their fortunes in the outposts of the empire but, in doing so, left a female population sadly short of potential husbands.  In Victorian England, when marriage was the most desirable ambition for a woman, this created a problem:

From 1851 to 1911 approximately one in three of all women aged twenty-five to thirty-five was unmarried; and between fifteen and 19 per cent of women aged thirty-five to forty-five were unmarried. 

The focus is on the hunt for a husband rather than the marriage that follows and for me that was the main problem with this book.  Girl arrives off ship, finds herself with a three-to-one male-female ratio and, generally without too much fuss, finds herself besieged by suitors.  It all happened very quickly:

Getting engaged in the Raj was sometimes a bit like speed dating.  Often, minds were made up and a lifelong commitment to another human being promised after only a few meetings and without the aphrodisiac bait of great wealth, a large and splendid estate, or huge personal prestige to account for such rapidity.

To me, what would be fascinating is to know what happens after those hasty marriages.  How did the new brides adjust to their husbands and their new, frequently remote, surroundings?  There are two chapters near the end devoted to “The First Home” and “Up Country” by they are brief and not particularly informative.  Most of the accounts de Courcy shares end with the engagement or the marriage, the “happy ending”.  (Only in one case are we told that the marriage was unhappy.)

Everything is dealt with very quickly and with very little depth.  Chapters are short and jump from one topic to another, sometimes interspersed with a chapter devoted to one or another of the women.  The topics are interesting but with chapters that never exceed twenty pages de Courcy never has the room to expand on any descriptions or themes.  If possible, she used too many examples and never has time between different women’s stories to build up a detailed portrait of their experiences or to reflect on their significance to the country.  When de Courcy poses that question in the epilogue, asking “Did the Fishing Fleet girls have any real influence on the conduct of affairs in this vast country…?” it was a shock to me since nowhere in the book had she spent time reflecting on that.  Everything felt just a little too shallow.

It is a fun book to read because of the specific stories de Courcy shares from the women who went “fishing” but I think it could have been so much better

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I picked up Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright (with Bill Woodward) excited but with really no idea of what I was getting into.  I had expected a sort of memoir (the subtitle is “A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948”) but the book is actually a history with personal elements, not just of the very fascinating years from 1937 to 1948 but of all the years leading up to the war.  This is the introduction to Czech history that I have spent so many years searching for and it is frankly marvellous.

Albright begins the book by offering a brief outline of Czech history prior to the nineteenth century before starting to focus in on the modern circumstances that shaped the country she was born into.  Like all Czechs, she is very proud of her nation’s past achievements, concerned that foreigners might not be aware of them (or, worse, might attribute them to the country’s larger neighbours), and enjoys educating the reader:

By 1900, 80 per cent of the [Austro-Hungarian] empire’s industrial production was based in the historic Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia.  The literacy rate was 96 percent, twice that of Hungary and higher, even, that the German.  The economy was expanding more rapidly than that of England or France.  The Czechs were leaders in rail service, coal mining, iron and steel production, chemicals, paper, textiles, glass, armaments, and industrial machinery.  Guided by the motto “In work and knowledge is our salvation”, they developed novel techniques for processing ham and fermenting beer, made a popular liquor from beets, invented a convenient way to market sugar (in cubes), introduced the assembly-line production of shoes, and were among the first to install electric rails and trams.

This is the kind of trivia most Czechs love to bestow on the uneducated masses (which is of course why I have quoted it here – I understand my duty as a half-Czech).  It is part of the national identity, the off-told tale of the industrious, cultured, democratic nation subdued by its larger brutish neighbours.  Albright makes no attempt to appear as an unbiased historian.  She talks about writing her PhD dissertation and being challenged by her professors for her idealised view of her homeland:

Over time, I became conditioned to think of my homeland as exceptional, a country filled with humane and democratic people who had struggled constantly to survive despite foreign oppression.  The nation’s finest moments had been marked by a willingness to defend itself against more powerful foes; the saddest by a failure to fight back when betrayed by supposed allies and friends.  Its purest expression could be found in the period between the two world wars, when the Czechoslovak Republic served as a model of twentieth-century democracy within an otherwise dismal Europe.

Clearly, Albright has learned more about the nuances of human behaviour since then and some of the most interesting portions of the book deal with the moral dilemmas faced during and after the war, but, in her heart, it seems Albright still believes in the popular, idealised vision of the shining Czech democracy, never more perfect or pure than under its first leader, T.G. Masaryk.  And how easy it is to romanticise those brief years of democracy, from 1918 to 1938!  What could be more dramatic than the way it was brought to an end with the Munich Conference, when the Czechs were betrayed by their allies?  No one forgets Munich.  Albright’s family (her maiden name was Korbel) spent the war in London but just because they found shelter in the UK that did not mean that anything was forgiven:

Even with Churchill now in the prime minister’s chair, the legacy of Chamberlain and appeasement was not forgotten.  My father told a story about that period.  He had been on a bus and tripped over an Englishman’s foot.  Instead of apologizing, he said, ‘I am not sorry, that is for Munich.’  Then there was the immigrants’ ironic prayer: ‘Please, O God, give the British all the strength they will need to withstand the beating they deserve.’

Albright’s own memories play almost no part in this book.  Born in 1937, she has no memories of Prague before the war (and wouldn’t have, even if she were older, since her family was living in Belgrade where her diplomat father was posted).  The Korbels spent the war in London, where Josef Korbel organized and managed BBC radio broadcasts to the Czech people back home and where he also served under Jan Masaryk in the Czech government in exile.  Albright only recalls details from the last couple of years of the war but she gives a marvellously detailed account using other sources of what was going on both in the Czech community in England and in the occupied Czech lands.  She traces the fate of her family members detained at Terezin and then killed in Poland.  She recounts the Czech resistance’s success and failures, most dramatically the blundered assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.  She looks at the decisions involved towards the end of the war that led to the Russian forces liberating the Czech lands and establishing a foothold in the country.  She talks about the awful expulsions that went on after the war, when a vengeful nation sought to drive out all of its ethnic Germans, regardless of their alliances.  And she gives her own views on the mysterious death of Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk in 1948, officially stated as a suicide at the time by the communist government but ruled as murder in a later investigation after the Velvet Revolution.

The country that existed after 1945 was one that bore very little resemblance to the optimistic, proud nation of only a decade before.  Albright draws on her father’s writings frequently throughout the book but it was his insights into post-war Czechoslovakia that were most interesting.  He was able to understand the complexities and challenges his daughter still struggled with in her twenties, when she was receiving the critique on her starry-eyed dissertation:

In his writings, my father described a country divided among returning exiles from London and Moscow, resistance fighters, ‘sit-it-outers’, ‘comrades’ (who talked the most), and former concentration camp inmates (who said the least).  So much had happened that the sense of national solidarity had all but drained away.  Too many people had grown used to taking orders.  The Czechs who had survived the occupation resented their countrymen who had been ‘safely out of it’ in England.  Many of the exiles who had served under arms questioned the bravery of those who had remained at home.  The gulfs separating these groups, lamented my father, ‘were deep, always emotional, sometimes rational, and rarely bridgeable.’

I found every page of this book fascinating but I was truly delighted by the depth of information Albright provides.  With so much more detail, I was able to better understand some of the episodes from my own family’s history.  For example, my grandmother’s first love had been in the RAF in England during the war.  He came back after but left again in 1947.  Now I know that the Czech and Slovak military was being trained in the style of the Red Army, which meant that those men who had served with the Russian military during the war were given the most prestigious postings while the British-trained men were effectively shunned: “The Communists wanted a monopoly on wartime heroes and so redefined the London-based military as a tool of capitalist oppression.  Within a few years, the majority of the men who had fought so bravely with the RAF were either forced into exile or in jail.”  Albright’s breaking down of the criteria for dispelling ethnic Germans after the war also helped me to understand why some of my family members were exempt while others were not: my great-grandmother, an ethnic German born in Bohemia, was excused because her family had been targeted by the Nazis (her Czech husband had been killed by the Gestapo) but her two sisters, both widows of other ethnic Germans, had no such ‘proof’ of their loyalty and were so forced to reapply for citizenship, which was initially refused.

Focusing on the difficult moral choices during these eventful years, Albright adds a new and more personal dimension to the book.  Her own life story is briefly sketched over the course of the book but it is never the focus.  It is by contemplating the moral dilemmas faced by statesmen and civilians alike that she reveals more of herself to the reader.

What fascinates me – and what serves as a central theme of this book – is why we make the choices we do.  What separates us from the world we have and the kind of ethical universe envisioned by someone like Havel?  What prompts one person to act boldly in a moment of crisis and a second to seek shelter in the crowd?  Why do some people become stronger in the face of adversity while others quickly lose heart?  What separates the bully from the protector?  Is it education, spiritual belief, our parents, our friends, the circumstances of our birth, traumatic events, or more likely some combination that spells the difference?  More succinctly, do our hopes for the future hinge on a desirable unfolding of external events or some mysterious process within?

She asks the reader to ponder the complexities of responsibility and to contemplate his or her own ethical values.  It is not so that the reader can answer ‘correctly’ as to how to behave in a challenging circumstance but so that he or she can better understand the pressures that shape history and judge more fairly even the most disastrous of decisions.

I adored Prague Winter.  There is no other single English-language book out there that provides such a thorough overview and analysis of this period of Czech history and certainly not one that does it in such an engaging and approachable manner.  Trust me, I’ve been looking for over a decade.  I have read everything I could get my hands on, have grilled relatives, have absorbed any information I could find and yet still I only knew a fraction of what Albright includes here.   After I finished reading, I immediately went out and bought a copy for my aunt, who in turn leant it out to a friend as soon as she finished reading.  It is that kind of book.

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