A Brief Historical Detour… (plus the I-word again!)


A Very Short History of the French Revolution by William Doyle

Yes, I *know* I’m meant to be reading “Crime and Punishment” – and I am getting on really well with it, loving it very much and the end is in sight – but sometimes the book itch gets you and you get distracted, and that’s what’s happened to me here…

You might have noticed that I’ve been a bit absorbed with documentaries and utopias/dystopias and iconoclasm and all that sort of stuff recently at the Ramblings; and although many of my non-fiction interests lean in the direction of Russian history and particularly the Revolution, I have also been drawn towards the French Revolution in all its bloody glory. It’s a subject about which I have a fairly sketchy knowledge (taken no doubt from “A Tale of Two Cities” and watching programmes about the Romantics) and I rather felt that if I was planning to explore it further, particularly the iconoclasm involved, I needed to have a little more of a factual background. Reading “War and Peace” prodded me a bit more in that direction, too, as of course Napoleon is a main player, and so I thought I’d cast around for a good book to widen my knowledge.

That turned out to be a fairly alarming bit of searching and surfing, as a quick look in local bookshops and then online revealed that there is a positive plethora of works about the French Rev, covering umpteen different aspects and viewpoints, and frankly I was a bit over-faced. In the end I decided to plump for something I thought might give me the overview I needed, and that was the OUP’s “A Very Short Introduction….”

And yes it’s short and yes it’s an introduction, so it really was the ideal read to whet my appetite on the subject. In a series of chapters with titles such as ‘Why It Happened’ and What It Started’, Doyle looks at the situation in France pre-revolution and outlines the circumstances that led to the breakdown of the old order in the country, followed by years of war and conflict, and eventually ending up with Napoleon and “War and Peace”! Where this book succeeds, obviously, is in giving a concise overview of what caused the French revolution, what happened and what the consequences were. The conflict was a huge one, the first really modern challenge to the old feudal ways of life, and it gave hope to those who were looking for a rational society, not based on religion or privilege. Many intellectuals were caught up in the turmoil, and as Doyle notes, Wordsworth wrote:

“Not in Utopia, subterranean fields
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us…”

As Doyle goes on to opine, “If the mighty French monarchy, the nobility, and the feudal law from which it justifies its pre-eminence, not to mention the Catholic Church itself, could be challenged and rejected on grounds of rationality, utility and humanity, then nothing was beyond challenge. Dreams of all sorts were achievable.”

Yet the aspirations of the revolutionaries had their flaws: despite the presence of women on the frontline of the fighting, there was nothing in the proposed new laws and constitution to improve their position; and the same applied for those trapped in slavery. However, the revolution *did* change the world quite profoundly, as Doyle reminds us:

“Quite literally, nothing was any longer sacred. All power, all authority, all institutions were now provisional, valid only so long as they could be justified in terms of rationality and utility. In this sense, the French Revolution really did represent the triumph of the Enlightenment, and ushered in the mental world in which we still live.”

One of the most thought-provoking chapters was the final one, in which Doyle explored in depth his view of the legacy of the Revolution, and the changing perceptions of its influence as the world alters around us. Like so much of history, there are shifting interpretations depending on where and when you are at the time you consider it….

For a relative newbie like me, the book filled in plenty of gaps and gave me plenty to think about, but I confess I did come away feeling I wanted more. Doyle is reasonably even-handed in his discussion of the issues although he does lapse a little in his discussion of the legacy; I prefer objectivity in a historian as frankly I get fed up of reading right-wing reworkings of past events. However, because of the necessary brevity of the book I never felt I got to know the personalities of the main movers and shakers, or got the feeling of living through cataclysmic events (which they certainly were). Names like Marat, Danton and particularly Robespierre came across as almost incidental, which is not how I perceive them.

Bouchardon’s statue of Louis XV – which suffered a little at the hands of the Parisians…


From what I’ve been picking up lately, it seems there are many differing readings of the French Rev, much as there are of the Russian one, and it can often be your political sympathies which decide how you interpret. For example, getting back to the vexing subject of iconoclasm, Doyle opts to use the word ‘vandal’ when describing the destruction of statues and churches which took place, wholesale, throughout the conflict; the word was resurrected from its ancient use specifically to be coined as a term to describe mob action in France. However, an alternative and intriguing reading’s been put forward (most persuasively by Dr. Richard Clay, as far as I’ve seen) which argues that the statues and religious symbols were perceived as instruments of control by the French people and as such had to be removed to demonstrate that they meant business in their demands for a fairer government. We look at these works in a completely different way with the benefit of hindsight and our modern views on art, but the iconoclasm undertaken by the mob was not just random destruction by a bunch of savages. The revolutionaries, who were in the main ordinary people, didn’t perceive the artworks as aesthetic objects but as symbols of power which had to go.

I’m getting a little off-topic here (because I’m supposed to be reviewing a book, not discussing iconoclasm!) and certainly “A Very Short…” does do what it says on the tin – I did end it feeling that I knew the facts of the French Revolution, which was the intention. So my first proper look at what really could be regarded as the events that created much of the modern world was a fascinating one, aided and abetted by this readable little book. I hadn’t realised quite how radical and wide-ranging the changes the Revolution brought actually were: from the dissolution of the monarchies and the monasteries, dechristianisation, the granting of religious freedom, the crippling of the power of the Catholic Church, the removal of tithes, the crushing of the feudal system – this really was a dramatic and profoundly changing series of events. I’m now very keen to explore more on this subject, and Doyle lists a number of suggested further books in the back, but I still find myself flummoxed by the range of works available – does anyone have any good suggestions of books to move onto next that go into a little more detail and depth on the French Rev?

And in the meantime – onward and upward with “Crime and Punishment”! :))


In a weird case of serendipity, I discovered after scheduling this post that the “Tearing Up History” documentary featuring Richard Clay’s arguments was being repeated last night, so there’s an ideal chance for anyone interested in the iconoclastic element to check it out, as it’s currently on the iPlayer here. (*whispers* if you can’t get the iPlayer, look here…..)



Documentaries – A Coda…. :(


“Russia 2017: Countdown to Revolution” on BBC 2…. I.Am.Not.A.Happy.Bunny….

Loved the concept – a mixture of historians and commentators set against some reconstructions of events, but the execution was completely off, as far as I was concerned.


  • I didn’t like any of the actors portraying the three main protagonists, which may sound superficial but if they’re going to be giving a decent rendition of important historical figures they should be convincing. They weren’t. Frankly, the communist cooking sketch from Rutland Weekend TV had better acting (and was funnier…)
  • The acted sequences were pretty over-dramatised and over the top, to the point of caricature – come on, chaps, this was BBC2 not Channel 5 so credit your audience with a little intelligence…
  • I felt that Stalin’s role in the revolution was a tad overplayed (although I *was* happy that Trotsky got due credit).
  • The historians and commentators – ah yes, this was where things fell apart for me. I got remarkably vexed about the lack of balance in the programme with right-wingers like Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag Montefiore being given much more air time than China Mieville and Tariq Ali. The latter two came across much more rationally and reasonably than Figes in particular, who was pretty worked up. I ended up getting very worked up myself and shouting at the TV, which rather upset OH…
  • Martin Amis – why was he there? (apart from the fact he wrote a book called “Koba the Dread” about Stalin, with whom he has a problem). Another wasted potentially erudite commentator.
  • Efforts to ramp up the tension by making the programme into a dramatic countdown to the actual October revolution just added to the sense of attempted style over content; hard facts were sacrificed for sensationalism; and what was one of the cataclysmic events of the 20th century was actually undersold.

I was disappointed and angry; the latter mostly because of the bias, and the former because the opportunity for a sensible programme on the Revolution was lost. Mieville and Ali were so underused and yet their contributions were for me the most interesting. The whole thing came across as a comic-book style rendering of Big Events, and probably not aimed at someone who’s been reading about the RR since their early teens – I did find myself wondering what the casual viewer would have made of the show…

Obviously, one failed documentary doesn’t spoil the rest I’ve been watching, and there are a shed-load of Radio 4 programmes I can explore this week covering the subject (though I’m a little nervous about the bias I may find). Alas, it’ll have to be back to books – off to the Verso website to check out the books by Mieville and Ali … :((

A bit of an epiphany


In my spare time (what spare time, you might ask) when I’m not reading or wasting precious moments watching YouTube, I have an extreme fondness for BBC documentaries – BBC4 usually, but sometimes those on BBC2 and even BBC1 as well. And I have to say that I’ve been rather well-served over recent months.

Particular standouts were (and are – some are still ongoing) Richard Clay’s Utopia 3-part series on BBC4; the Alan Yentob BBC1 “Imagine” programme on Margaret Atwood; Simon Reeve’s “Russia” series; Suzy Klein’s BBC4 three-partner on classical music under totalitarian regimes; a sweet little half hour on the same channel covering Philip Larkin‘s sideline as photographer; and a veritable slew of fascinating programmes on poetry that hit the BBC at the beginning of the month.

The epiphany I refer to came during a fascinating look at W.H. Auden‘s work and its continuing resonances in our fractured times. I confess I’ve read very little Auden, so this was a real eye-opener featuring some amazing verse, some lovely comments from other writers (Alan Bennett was a treasure) and powerful reminders of just how relevant and immediate poetry can be.  I found myself responding quite emotionally to some of the work and it sent me off digging in the stacks, because I was sure I had an Auden book somewhere – and fortunately I do!

I think it arrived recently, and I can’t remember what prompted me to order it, but I’m very glad I did. I can see I shall be dipping into this volume and I thought I would share one particular verse that spoke to me (for obvious reasons, most likely…) and it’s called “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

I’d recommend tracking down any of these which are still available on the BBC iPlayer, as they don’t stay there forever. Meanwhile, I’m off to check the TV listings pages; because I find if I’m too tired to read but still want intellectual stimulation, BBC documentaries are just the ticket! 🙂

(And memo to self – you need to read more poetry!!!)


Reading – an update… plus that T-word again….


You might have notice a slight thinning out of reviews recently, and I confess that I’ve slightly been in the doldrums with regards to reading.  Partly I put this down to busyness at work, the change of seasons, the first cold of the winter (and it was a stinker) and tired eyes! But I did approach a revisit to “Crime and Punishment” via the lovely OWC hardback with great anticipation, and was a bit fed up when it went pear-shaped…

I knew I already had two copies of C&P – the original ancient Penguin I read decades ago, translated by David Magarshack, and a more recent Penguin rendered by David McDuff, of which I’d heard good things. I picked up the latter specifically for a re-read, but I couldn’t resist starting the lovely Oxford version, translated by Nicholas Slater Pasternak, and I did indeed get several chapters in…

However, for some reason I found myself struggling to engage. I’m still not sure why, but I ended up putting this version down and picking up the McDuff, and I’m currently sailing through that and absolutely loving it. It obviously has nothing to do with the physical book, because the Oxford is lovely with clear type and nice big white pages; the McDuff Penguin is a larger format and also quite readable but probably less so than the Oxford.

It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why I wasn’t gelling with the Oxford, but the best I can say is that it read too smoothly. I expect to anticipate a kind of nervous energy in Dostoevsky, and I didn’t feel that here. McDuff also translated the version of Brothers Karamazov I read, and I found that version resonated with me too. So obviously, as I’m continuing with the version that speaks to me I shall keep on reading the Penguin McDuff – though having two sets of notes and supporting material to refer to is quite a bonus!

I confess I’m a little disappointed that the Oxford version didn’t work for me, though it will no doubt be ideal for other readers. And I’m keen to read one of these lovely books, so maybe I should step out of Russia for a read soon, and try to read one of Austen’s great works during the centenary year of her death.

“Sense and Sensibility” is one of her titles I know I haven’t read – so perhaps that should be a near-future read. Onward and upward! :))))

Coming soon – the #1968Club!


Yes, those of you who are paying attention will realise that it’s nearly time for another reading club, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and myself! We’ve been gradually making our way through the decades of the 20th century, choosing a year from each one to focus our reading upon, and we’ve reached the 1960s! We’ve also shuffled the dates on by a week, and the club will be taking place from 30th October to 5th November – so do join in.

Lovely graphic designed by Simon! 🙂

The year in question, 1968, was chosen by voting this time, and I was a little uncertain at first what I would find to read from it. I needn’t have worried…

A dig in my stacks revealed that not only had I read a lot of books from that year, I also owned a lot of unread volumes. So the hard part will be deciding what to choose, whether to do lots of re-reading or whether to strike out with volumes entirely new!

I hope lots of you will want to join in with us, reading books from 1968, sharing your thoughts on them and passing on recommendations for titles you think are worth tracking down. I’ll do a separate page for the 1968 club with links to all posts, so don’t forget to let me know in the comments what you’re reading and where we can find it – the more, the merrier! Check out Simon’s post  here and happy reading! :))


Poisoning, detecting, Golden Age larking about – and spanking????


The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley

Well… this turned out to be a bit of an odd one! Goes to show, I suppose, that you should never approach a book with expectations or preconceptions. I was inordinately excited to stumble across this Golden Age Roger Sheringham adventure in the charity shop, as Berkeley titles very rarely turn up – so it came off the TBR pile very quickly. However, I have to say that there were elements of the book that made me quite uncomfortable… more of which later on.

I have, of course, read several Berkeley titles and rated them very highly; he’s one of the Golden Age authors regarded as having been very unjustly neglected, and in particular for “The Poisoned Chocolates Case”, which twists the genre quite wonderfully. He also wrote as Francis Iles and produced the lauded “Malice Aforethought”, so I think I had every right to expect high standards. “Wychford” was his second Sheringham title, first published in 1926, and a fascinating, if unusual read.

The book opens with our detective, Roger Sheringham, visiting his old friend Alexander Grierson and his recently-aquired wife Barbara. Sheringham, a best-selling novelist, is presented here as something of a silly-ass detective in the Wimsey mould – I recall him being like that from the later books, though it’s more pronounced in this story. Roger has become fascinated by the Wychford Poisoning Case, which is all over the news, and has strong views. A Mr. Bentley has died from arsenic and his beautiful French widow is suspected by all and likely to be tried and hanged. However, Sheringham has his doubts; the crime seems too obvious, if the murderer *is* Mrs. Bentley then she has made no attempts at concealment, and much of the case rests on circumstantial evidence and blind prejudice.

Fortunately for Roger, his friend Alec (Alex, Alexander, whatever) has cousins living in Wychford, and after a detour to obtain spurious credentials as reporters, the pair head off to investigate. Their hosts, the Purefoys, are an accepting family, allowing the detectives to come and go and cause havoc as much as they like, while interrogating Dr. Purefoy about the actions of various poisons. Roger vamps various locals to try and find out more about the Bentleys; Sheila Purefoy, a very modern ‘flapper’ and the daughter of the family, joins in with the detecting, and Sheringham gets to pontificate about real-life criminals, reasons for killing and the psychology of a crime. There’s a lot of humour, but also in places quite a lot of common sense, and Sheringham (and presumably his creator) is often very realistic about the foibles of human nature.

The plot itself twists and turns nicely, with just about everybody who was in contact with the dead man coming under suspicion. And the resolution, if a little low-key, was unexpected and not something I think I would ever have deduced. Some of the detecting takes place off-camera and is just reported, and there is perhaps the sense that Berkeley was more interested in showing Sheringham propounding his philosophy as opposed to actually doing the legwork – although the scene where he interrogates a suspect after getting him drunk was great fun. But lor’ can that man spout verbiage! Sheringham could talk the hind leg off a donkey, and I found most of his banter very, very funny; however, I can imagine it might irritate some, which could account for his slipping out of favour.

In only his second outing, Sheringham comes across as very assured and a fully formed detecting character. The 1920s saw a slew of crime novels and amateur sleuths, and as the introduction to this volume points out, many of them drew from the character of Philip Trent from E.C. Bentley’s seminal “Trent’s Last Case”. I did wonder, therefore, if the naming of the murdered man and his wife was a little homage! In fact, there is plenty of name-dropping; the book is dedicated to E.M. Delafield, an author well-known to Virago readers, and there is reference also to F. Tennyson Jesse. Real-life cases get a number of mentions, in particular the Thompson/Bywaters case, which inspired the latter author’s “A Pin To See The Peepshow” (one of my favourite Viragos, a really powerful book) and also Delafield’s “Messalina of the Suburbs”. The book is often digressive in a fascinating way, with regular discussion the psychology of murder – not surprising, I suppose, from a work subtitled ‘An Essay in Criminology’!

OK – so having dispensed with the fun of the plot and of following the mystery through to a satisfying end, let’s get on to the oddities…. Firstly, there is Roger Sheringham’s attitude to women. Berkeley allows him a substantial number of pages in the book to state his thoughts about women and they’re not flattering, to say the least, with our protagonist of the opinion that most women have no brains and aren’t worth the time of day. He’s allowed so many pages of such outrageous pontificating about this that I began to think perhaps Berkeley wasn’t serious; and certainly his women characters *do* have quite a lot of variety, from the clingingly vampish Mrs. Saunderson, to the austere Mrs. Allen, the sensible Mrs. Purefoy and her daughter Sheila, who is allowed to display a serious amount of intelligence.

However, talk of Sheila must lead us to the big issue of the book. Sheila is 18 and a modern woman, apt to pose a little and be mouthy. However, when uncle Alec decides she’s getting too full of herself, he holds her down and spanks her – yes, really, and with her parents in complete collusion. This very uncomfortable, bizarre and frankly embarrassing scenario is repeated or threatened at points throughout the book and sits very, very strangely within the story. What *was* the author thinking of? Was this common behaviour in 1926?? And if so, thank goodness for the women’s movement…

I ended the book having really enjoyed the mystery, but was left feeling very unsettled by the attitudes to women. There’s some real inconsistency here – at times, I suspected Berkeley was allowing Sheringham rope to hang himself and letting him protest to much; and certainly Roger does refer to the fact that the love of his life is married to someone else, so there is a tragedy lurking which could account for his bitterness. Berkeley also allows Roger to flirt with Sheila and appear saddened when she finds herself a young admirer, so the temptation to regard the attitudes as either not seriously held, or at least not held by the author, is there, bumped up a little by the inconsistency. Nevertheless, this retrograde aspect of the book *was* unsettling and detracted in places for me, despite the fact that I normally make allowances for the fact that older books display the attitudes of their time. And it wasn’t the spanking per se that bothered me, but the contempt it expressed for women and the attitude that they should jolly well know their place and if they didn’t it was up to a man to put them back in it – that really riled me, to be honest.

However, I do intend to keep reading Berkeley, despite my reservations with this one, because Roger Sheringham is an engaging detective despite his faults, and I like the way that Berkeley plays about with the genre (and so early in its life, too). I’d like to track down his first book, just to get a bit more background about Sheringham and how he sprang into being, so to speak – and it will be interesting to see if there are any dodgy elements in that one too!! =:o


Am I a superficial reader?


Perhaps a frivolous sounding heading for a post, and I don’t think things are entirely superficial on the Ramblings as I do like to read books of substance (balanced with lighter works!) However, the thought occurred to me when I was taking such pleasure recently in some lovely new volumes which had arrived, in the form of the Oxford Classics hardbacks. I’m currently contemplating making my way through the beautiful copy of “Crime and Punishment”, a book I’ve been meaning to revisit for a long time, and indeed I have at least one copy already. Yet it takes the arrival of a shiny new version to make me pick it up again – and I think this is a tendency I’ve noticed before.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been seduced by the new – Alma Classics, for example, often produce glossy new versions of books I already own, and it will frequently be those versions I read, not the ones I already have. And you’ll have noticed that I brought home a very pretty new copy of “Middlemarch” recently, despite already owning one.

So is this superficial? Well, I’m not so sure. Back when I first started seriously reading, I had less money for books and less access to them than I had now, so I would often settle for whichever copy I could get hold of. If it was a second-hand copy, perhaps a little pre-loved, it really didn’t matter as long as I could read it. My eyes were better then, I was younger and reading voraciously anything I could get hold of, and although I loved a beautiful book, I mainly wanted to get at the content.

However, I read differently now I think. For a start, my eyesight has most definitely gone downhill! I don’t have the hours in the day I used to have to read, I struggle holding awkward or fragile books, and I perhaps appreciate a book as an aesthetic object a lot more nowadays. Plus there is the complication that many of my original volumes have deteriorated over the 30 years or so since I got them and I do find that’s starting to detract a little from the reading experience.

So no – on balance, I don’t think I *am* a superficial reader. Even if nowadays I like to read an attractive edition with bigger pages and type, at the end of the day it’s what’s in the book that matters the most. Certainly, “Crime and Punishment” is proving an immersive experience, whichever copy I’m reading (more of that in a later post…) – so bring on the pretty books and let’s have our stories of substance housed in lovely containers! :))))

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