Category Archives: history

Hot Spiced Wine: Reading For the Winter

One of my friends from college days just posted an image on Instagram of what she’s doing now that she’s on semester break (she’s an English/writing professor now). It was a still life of romantic Christmas stories, spiced Glögg, and cute mug in front of a Christmas tree. She’s the type of person who finds joy in simple pleasures, who’s enthusiastic about life and invests herself fully in the projects she takes on — even if that project is just relaxation.

I’m not yet on vacation; as a freelancer, I’m never really on vacation because I’ll take work when I get it. Hence, I spent our summer vacation editing and when we had guests, I found myself formatting. Have computer, will travel. That being said, I’m still on a school schedule due to my after-school tutoring and, of course, my own children. Winter vacation is just around the corner for me, too! I realized I had already started my own version of winter spiced wine by the books I was obsessively downloading on my Kindle. Comfort books. Not necessarily Christmas or winter related, but still my own version of crack: history, biography, and autobiography.

Most history books I pick by subject rather than author, with the exception of Liza Picard’s books. I love her writing. She has four books out that I know of: Restoration London, Dr. Johnson’s London, Elizabeth’s London, and Victorian London. Somehow, I’d skipped Restoration London. This is one of my favorite points of history. The restoration of the British crown. The plague. The Great Fire. The explosion of developments in science and literature. Dr. Johnson’s London is the long tail of this Enlightenment period of British history; I have that book in print and have read it dozens of times. In the interest of interconnectedness, the professor I mentioned above studied the Long British Enlightenment with me in our heady college days. We were hooked by the hundred of years or so that make up this moment in history.

But why are Liza Picard’s books so engaging to me? She says it best in her foreword:

I have a practical mind. I have always been interested in how people lived. The practical details are rarely covered in social history books [she’s right about this, though it’s not 100%]…

I am not a historian. I am a lawyer. I have a liking for primary evidence — not what someone wrote long afterwards, or what someone has concluded from a selection of documents that I have not seen, but what someone said who was there at the time. This has led me down interesting detours, while I reinvented the wheel, and read as many contemporary documents as I could find.

In other words, she’s writing history the way I would if I took up that occupation: as the end result of uncountable hours worth of detours while immersed in primary documents — and all to discover those fine details of how people actually lived. And it’s not just the practical details that you get from primary documents. You get a view into the minds of history’s greatest thinkers, unfiltered by scholars who have to write the edgiest or most unique take on them in journals published by universities. Scholars have an unfortunate need to be yet more subversive than the last one was. This is no doubt the scholarly version of click-bait or sensationalist headlines, but with a lot more polysyllabic words.

Being that I have only so many primary documents at my disposal, Liza Picard is a good second-best. Of course, she’s going to put her own spin on things. As she noted herself: she’s practical. And more than that, she’s a lawyer by trade. Lawyers are trained to couch their language in a particularly convincing fashion, to make their case, in other words. I’m okay with it, despite that reading her books is like crack to me and I have no natural defenses against a divers look at infectious diseases during the last great bout of plague.

All told, she provides a wealth of information and anecdota in her books. This one is heavily filtered through the diaries of Samuel Pepys, which I haven’t read in a long time. I’m already feeling warmer and cozier, despite the freezing fog blanketing the world today, and the lack of any actual hot spiced wine, I’m sorry to say.

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Agatha Christie: Undeniably Human

Agatha_Christie_as_a_child_No_1

Dogs are wise. They crawl away into a quiet corner and lick their wounds and do not rejoin the world until they are whole once more.–Agatha Christie

I’ve been reading Agatha Christie books all my life, it seems. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, nor when my life wasn’t shadowed by the drama of murder. Later, as a young adult who preferred biographies to mysteries, I discovered Dame Agatha’s autobiography and read it cover to cover multiple times. In all my years of reading bios or autobios, none have compared to hers.

428px-David_SuchetLast week, as I was miserable and attempting to retreat to lick my wounds from life’s disappointments, I went on a documentary marathon. I’m addicted to documentaries, quite possibly for the same reasons I’m addicted to biographies. As it went, one theme of documentary led to another theme, and then another, until I found myself watching an Agatha Christie documentary hosted by David Suchet, otherwise known to many of us as the incarnation of Hercule Poirot.

Although the documentary offered me little more than I learned from reading her autobiography, it was extraordinarily poignant, as her life was viewed through the eyes of a man whose career became intertwined with the author’s mental world. David Suchet and Hercule Poirot are practically synonymous to fans, even though Suchet clearly deserves to be a man of his own right–an actual human being outside the persona of a fussy detective with a carefully attended to and glossy mustache. In fact, having just quickly read Suchet’s Wiki page, I learned that he was a man who grew up with no religious faith, but who became a Christian after having read Roman’s 8 while staying in a hotel. The famous chapter begins this way: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

It’s a passage that bears repeating again and again. The world is a difficult place. It’s a difficult place for us ordinary and unsuccessful folk, as well as for successful writers and actors. None of can avoid the pain of living. Returning to the initial Christie quote for a moment, I can’t help but think that’s exactly what the author did during her scandalous and mysterious ten day disappearance. It’s impossible to read about her life without that particular mystery rearing its ugly head, most likely because it won’t ever be completely solved. Agatha Christie didn’t want it to be solved. Perhaps she was ashamed of having caused an uproar, of having inspired 15,000 of her countrymen to search for her. But I find it likely, whatever the case may be, that she disappeared from her life because she needed to lick her wounds. Her mother had just died, and while she was grieving, her husband had ditched her for a younger woman. So she slipped away and checked into a hotel under an anonymous name and remained there until she was discovered.

She hated the press after all of it–she couldn’t understand why so many people hounded her and hunted her down like she was the prize in a fox hunt. That she left England via the Orient Express soon after doesn’t surprise me. It spoke of her need, not only to lick her wounds, but to escape from a toxic environment where a person couldn’t be left alone–where a person was condemned by the most disinterested parties. Of course, the press condemned her. She was a famous mystery author. Creating her own mystery was good for sales. But it wasn’t good for her, this thoroughly human woman, who needed no further condemnation.

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