Thursday, 29 August 2013

Castles, Customs and Kings

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that The White Rajah and Cawnpore had both been featured in 'English Epochs'. This is a blog covering much of British history and books written about it. 

The blog owner is Debra Brown, an American author with a passion for British (or she keeps insisting "English") history. She has just (together with M M Bennetts) edited a chunky book, Castles, Customs and Kings which will be published by Madison Street Publishing next month. As she was kind enough to draw my books to the attention of her blog readers, I'm returning the favour.

Castles, Customs and Kings is not a book to be read from cover-to-cover: the paper version comes in at about 500 pages. In any case, it's an anthology, rather than a single narrative. An impressive array of historical novelists have each contributed a short chapter on some aspect of British history that interests them. Obviously, most have chosen to write about the eras that they cover in their novels and a certain amount of more or less blatant plugging rears its ugly head.

As with all anthologies, there are significant differences in quality and style between the different chapters. However, the editors have done a good job of making sure that all of them pass muster. There are some contradictions between different authors discussing the same period. However, history is not an exact science, and I appreciated seeing the way in which different commentators came to different conclusions. Some chapters carried more authority than others and this is reflected in the fact that some produce bibliographic references and others do not.

I was surprised at the distinctly 'old-fashioned' feel of much of it. It reminded me of history is that I read as a child – books which were quaintly out of date even then. This is history as Michael Gove would have it. There is some social history, but generally the writers concentrate on battles and Kings and the doings of the rich and famous. I found the approach charming and reassuring. In the end, most people are more interested in the steps of the dances in the Regency period than they are in the detail of a skivvy's timetable. As an author who is unashamedly old-fashioned in my approach to historical writing, I rather enjoyed it. It did tell me things I didn't know and sparked an interest in some people and places I hadn't heard of before, but it is in no way a textbook. It's an amusing trot through British history and excellent bedtime reading, but don't expect it to help your children with their school exams.

Many of the authors seem to write historical romances and it is a book which will appeal particularly strongly to readers of this genre who want a little more history and a little less fiction. For me, it was literary comfort food – a recollection of childhood, warm and satisfying, if a little on the sweet side.

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