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Volume 63 Issue 5 May 2013

Roger Hudson looks at an episode that inspired one of the greatest films ever made.

Richard Weight reassesses Quentin Bell’s 1951 article on the morality of fashion, which anticipated the enormous social and stylistic changes of the 1960s.

In the latest of his occasional surveys of historical fiction, Jerome de Groot casts a critical eye on the often disparaged genre of romance.

A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.

The French chanteur was born on May 18th, 1913.

The great Confederate commander was fatally wounded at Chancellorsville on May 2nd, 1863.

The ruthless archbishop died on May 15th, AD 913.

Bayreuth has much for which to thank Richard Wagner, but the determination of a Prussian princess to create something out of her dull and provincial 18th-century marriage helped make the city the place it is today, says Adrian Mourby.

Mihir Bose recalls a classic case highlighting the problems with Britain’s antiquated libel laws.

In the 1800s Rome became a microcosm for great power rivalries. E.L. Devlin describes a case of ambassadorial privilege that caused controversy between the papacy and the king of France.

The Whig interpretation of the past is a moral fable more akin to theology than history, argues Tim Stanley.

Britain’s loss of Singapore in February 1942 was a terrible blow. But Japan failed to make the most of its prize, says Malcolm Murfett.

We should resist using ‘medieval’ as another word for backward. The 15th century, in particular, was a time of remarkable progress and enlightenment.

Of humble origins, Rodrigo Calderón became a key figure at the court of Philip III of Spain. Notorious in life, he gained dignity and immortality in death, as Santiago Martínez Hernández explains.

Trade was the impetus for early contacts between Russia and England, though each country had its own view of how the relationship should function. Helen Szamuely examines the first two centuries of Russian embassies to London.

Few foresaw the horror of the First World War. The financier Jan Bloch did and in 1901 he outlined his vision to Britain’s military establishment.

The earliest explorers to uncover the ancient Maya civilisation in Central America could not believe that it owed its creation to the indigenous population, whom they saw as incapable savages. Nigel Richardson explains how this view changed.

Britain’s involvement in the Middle East between the wars proved a rich seam for authors of adventure stories. Michael Paris shows how these, in turn, helped to reinforce the imperial mission.

The indiscriminate use of ‘Nazi’ to describe anything to do with German institutions and policies during Hitler’s dictatorship creates a false historical understanding, says Richard Overy.

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Ealing Revisited
Edited by Mark Duguid, Lee Freeman, Keith M. Johnston and Melanie Williams
BFI/Palgrave Macmillan  304pp  £65 / £18.99

‘A surprise every tenth page, a shock every twentieth’ was how the detective novelist Margery Allingham described her father’s methodology as a serial writer for the ha’penny magazines from the 1880s to the 1930s. The comment was not a put down but a matter-of-fact assessment of the formulaic but nonetheless rich plotting and characterisation that underpinned Allingham’s position as one of the most successful and prolific writers of his generation.

‘That man of Wonders’ was how a contemporary typically described Valentine Greatrakes, whose spectacular cures, first in the West Midlands and then in London early in 1666, created a sensation.

Thirty years ago it was usual in academic circles to hold that teaching or writing world history was out of the question because it could not be done in accordance with the high scholarly standards that History had aspired to and largely attained since the age of Ranke and Stubbs in the second half of the 19th century. In that argument the clincher was invariably that we did not know what sources there were and couldn’t read them if we did. Now we have grasped that there is no alternative.

The Battle of Hastings is the most famous military encounter in English history. This is partly because of the seismic social change that followed William the Conqueror’s decisive victory over his English rival, Harold Godwineson, on October 14th, 1066. It is also because of the quality of the original source material, notably the Bayeux Tapestry. What other medieval battle can we teach to schoolchildren using contemporary pictures?

This revelatory book illustrates the extent to which some of the greatest historical figures in European culture were appropriated by the Nazi propaganda machine with the objective of bringing a veneer of intellectual credibility and respectability to the ideology that underpinned the Third Reich.

A recent documentary about the English Civil Wars posed a seemingly straightforward question: Roundhead or Cavalier – which one are you? This captures the popular memory of 1640s’ England as a nation ‘by the sword divided’ into two rival and polarised sides locked in political and military conflict. In reality the situation was rather different, with many people attempting to remain neutral and some local communities raising arms against both royalist and parliamentarian forces.

Family secrets governed my thoughts and speech as a child growing up in Berkshire in the 1940s and 1950s. ‘Keep it in the family’ applied equally to the secret stash of sweets, in spite of ration books, and to the mysterious early ‘marriage’ of one of my maternal aunts, which precipitated her even more mysterious ‘nervous breakdown’. Children in postwar Britain ‘held their tongues’ about these and other shameful family secrets, which – if known – would damage the family’s reputation. Adoption, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy were whispered; homosexuality and incest never mentioned.

The period of Nelson and Napoleon has been so thoroughly researched and written about that it is hard to believe there is anything more to discover. However, the naval historian Sam Willis recently came across a volume of original documents in the British Library that shine a fresh light on the famous sea battles of the era and the men who fought them. Quite by chance Willis ordered a document and had delivered to his desk a massive volume containing the original dispatches sent by British commanding officers to the secretary of the Admiralty.

William Dalrymple has developed a pattern of writing narrative history, always including the discovery of previously untapped sources, told in engaging travellers’ tales. This is refined in his most recent books – The Last Mughal and now Return of a King – to sources that come from the other side in a conflict against the British.