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Top 10 books about tumultuous times | Books


There’s nothing like a crisis of survival to show people’s true natures. Though I’ve written a good deal about tumultuous times, both fiction (English Passengers) and non-fiction (Rome: a History in Seven Sackings), I can’t say I’m too interested in the tumult itself. I’m more interested in the decisions people make during such crises – how they ride the wave.

My new novel, Pilgrims, is set in the late 1280s, shortly after one episode of shameful English national wickedness – the annexation of the Principality of Gwynedd, north Wales – and just before another (no spoilers). The story follows a group of British pilgrims walking to Rome, each seeking their own different kind of redemption, and shows how they navigate the – to our eyes – bizarre values of their age.

Here are 10 great portrayals of similarly extreme moments in history.

Peasant life … where physical and moral perils abound.

Peasant life … where physical and moral perils abound. Photograph: North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy

1. The Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in Thirteenth Century France by Mary C Mansfield
Pilgrims was partly inspired by this work by a great scholar, who died sadly young and never lived to see it published. Mansfield reveals France at this time (and England wasn’t too different) as a land of hyper morality. Married couples feared for their souls if they’d had sex on the wrong day of the week. Clerics faced down troublesome non-churchmen by forcing them to publicly confess their sins before their whole community, to pray all night in church in their underclothes – and sometimes to go on pilgrimages.

2. The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England by Barbara Hanawalt
Medieval English village life was largely a blank until Hanawalt had the great idea of reconstructing lives through coroners’ inquests. The result is a rich portrait of a whole world. Hanawalt’s villagers are more sophisticated than one might expect. They had a strong sense of community and also legality. Mostly they come across as level-headed but a little drunken (not everything’s changed in seven centuries). Yet death lurked everywhere. Rivers and village wells were perilous and harvest fields were the worst spots for murder.

Winston Churchill and his wife inspect bomb-damage in London during the Blitz, 1940.

Winston Churchill and his wife inspect bomb-damage in London during the Blitz, 1940. Photograph: JA Hampton/Getty Images

3. Five Days in London, May 1940 by John Lukacs
As the British army retreated to Dunkirk, newly appointed prime minister Winston Churchill debated with his war cabinet – most of all with his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, and foreign minister Lord Halifax – as to what to do: fight on or make peace with Hitler? Lukacs’s riveting account pulls the rug on a great misconception (shamefully repeated in the film Darkest Hour) and details how, at this crucial moment, Chamberlain used his considerable authority to support Churchill against Halifax to prevent a peace deal with the Nazis.

4. Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and His Italian Ambassador by Catherine Fletcher
Fletcher’s fine non-fiction account looks at England’s ambassador in Rome, Gregorio Casali: a shrewd, loyal servant with an impossible task. He had to assist Henry in his project to divorce Catherine of Aragon, at the very moment in 1527 when an army belonging to Charles V, Catherine’s nephew, was sacking Rome. Fletcher provides wonderful details: who knew that one English proposal was that the pope give his blessing to Henry being married to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn at the same time? Her book is a useful reminder that the future of nations can change forever with little more than the flip of a coin.

5. Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini
Cellini, who lived during the same tumultuous days recounted by Fletcher, produced this outrageously self-aggrandising work. By his own account, Cellini is always the bravest of fighters and wins battles single-handedly; he’s the most admired of artists (to be fair he was a highly talented sculptor) and he avenges himself on every enemy. In this wonderful if highly unreliable portrait of his age, Cellini’s dishonesty is so robust that it’s hard not to like the man.

6. Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Families Under Fascism by Alexander Stille
Stille takes us into another dangerous time in Italy: the 1930s and 40s. The individuals whose lives he narrates are finely varied. Some were jailed for their staunch antifascism, others were stalwart supporters of the regime and could not believe – until it was too late – that they would not be safe. The book has a rich humanity, and there’s a beautiful moment when an imprisoned antifascist is advised by her jailers as to which of her antifascist suitors she should marry. She followed their suggestion and never looked back.

Ireland’s war of independence … captured by Manchester Guardian photographer Walter Doughty.

Ireland’s war of independence … captured by Manchester Guardian photographer Walter Doughty. Photograph: Walter Doughty/The Newsroom

7. Troubles by JG Farrell
Farrell’s novel looks at a group of Anglo-Irish Protestants, who are holed up in a vast, deteriorating hotel as the Irish struggle for independence erupts around them. The book, which is richly funny, has an unreal quality, yet it retains a quiet truth. While some characters respond to the crisis with fury and evil, the protagonist, shell-shocked Major Brendan Archer, is a conflicted bystander, uneasily loyal to an indefensible cause.

8. The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius
This Roman historian, who lived during the reigns of some of the emperors he describes, recounts a different kind of peril: paranoid and murderous rulers. It served Suetonius to describe his subjects as blackly as possible and no doubt at times he exaggerates, yet he has a wonderful eye for scandalous detail. The book was a major source for Robert Graves’s fine Claudius novels, yet Graves couldn’t use the most entertaining life of them all, who ruled after Claudius’s death: the singing emperor Nero. Imagine a piss-poor contestant for Britain’s Got Talent wielding supreme power. Suetonius recounts how Nero imported whole audiences from Alexandria because they applauded more enthusiastically, and locked them into stadiums when he sang, so even women in labour could not leave.

9. The Fall of the Roman Empire: a New History by Peter Heather
This is scholarly historical writing at its best. The book’s subject is vast – the slow and convoluted collapse of a whole world – yet it is recounted and analysed with great clarity, and has a wonderful ability to move from the grand picture to the very precise detail. It’s also very exciting.

Battle lines … Vasily Grossman covers the Red Army’s advance in Schwerin, Germany, 1945.

Battle lines … Vasily Grossman covers the Red Army’s advance in Schwerin, Germany, 1945. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

10. Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
Surely the ultimate read on tumultuous times: Grossman’s characters find themselves in Soviet gulags, Nazi death camps, the notorious Lubyanka KGB jail in Moscow and in every corner of the Battle of Stalingrad, which Grossman witnessed first-hand as a Soviet war reporter. The novel, which savages the Soviet system, was itself subjected to the turbulence of history. After Grossman presented it for publication, it was stopped by the KGB, who said it could not be published for another two centuries. It reached the west after nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov smuggled out a second copy the authorities did not know existed. As Grossman acknowledged, the novel could have done with a polish – and he would have given it one if he hadn’t been arrested – yet it is an astonishing achievement.


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