This non fiction book of Mums was entirely engrossing taken in what I like to call ‘One Chapter Chunks with a Cup of Tea’, alternating with a re reading of the fictional ‘Cold Mountain’ by Charles Frazier set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. An interesting coincidence (find my review of Cold Mountain here, massive thumbs up).
The two conflicts were only around two hundred years apart, possibly eight or nine, or maybe ten given the average age at the time, generations, and there were certainly sufficient American citizens of British descent who must have had ‘clan’ memories of the English Civil War. However these were obviously insufficient to stop them repeating the error. Surely the greatest gift knowledge of our human history has, ie education, is to enable us to learn from our mistakes. And yet there are ‘civil’ conflicts ongoing around the planet as I write; the current Myanmar conflict possibly the longest currently running having started seriously in 1948. Here’s a Wikipedia link..it’s alarming reading.
Let’s take a moment to consider the definitions of the word ‘civil’. It can mean either ‘relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns, as distinct from military or ecclesiastical matters’, or ‘courteous and polite’. (Oxford Dictionary). I’m not sure either applies in this case, certainly not the latter.
Defined as ‘a war between citizens of the same country’, civil war must truly be the most awful of conflicts, pitting brother against brother (or sister obviously), friend against friend, town against town and so on. And while the American Civil War was basically a political war, the English Civil War also involved religion which unfortunately to this day is able to precipitate extremism far more than most things… including civil war in our own time in places like Afghanistan and Somalia. Enough said save that I should disclose in the interests of transparency that my lifelong interest in history is possibly the main reason I personally choose to eschew organised religion, although I try hard to live by the basic tenets held in common by them all – be kind, be respectful, work hard, live an honest life, cherish your family and friends. Don’t despise or denounce anyone for not being the same as you, please. I like to think we are all trying to live our best life.
I actually read this book over the end of October/early November last year but life as always has been busy and I’m only now starting to revisit the notes I made while reading this and several other books in order to be able to gift them forward.
This is non fiction, but it is just as capable as a novel of immersing one in a story through the dialogue between characters, since they are the voices of people who lived through the Civil War, truly one of the most brutal and bitter chapters in the history of England. Bear in mind that there was no social welfare. The majority of English people of that time, the peasants, survived on an extremely precarious financial basis where the loss of a horse, or a years harvest because the men were off fighting, or the death of a son of working age, could mean ruin for a family. Not just the humiliation of having to seek support, but literally, death.
For a précis of the book, I really cannot improve upon the back cover –
‘Almost a quarter of a million lives were lost as King and Parliament battled for their religious and political ideals in the English Civil War. England was divided, with Cavaliers and Roundheads engaged in bitter struggles from Preston to Lostwithiel, Pembroke to York. It was a time of enormous upheaval with armies on the march, villages decimated and great dynasties destroyed. The Civil War sees a King executed, the beginnings of sectarian divisions in Ireland, savage clan warfare in Scotland and the roots of English Socialism.
Tristram Hunt brings out the voices of the Civil War generation. Those who lost sons, those who witnessed massacres, those who fought for an ideal. Here we see their motivations, fears and sheer misery as the horror of war sinks in. From Cromwell’s letters to the memoirs of a Roundhead wife to the journal of a Cavalier officer, the Civil War is brought to life in all its terrible but fascinating glory’.
I find upon reading what I have written so far that much of it is quite personal, although it was clearly provoked by reading this book. The words ‘At First Hand’ is what did it. Reading the letters exchanged between lifelong friends as they prepared to face one another on the field of battle (Bath, the Battle of Lansdowne Hill) almost brought me to tears at times – in my family, we have a little joke built upon an extremely inquisitive nephew who’s watchword as a child was ‘But WHY?’. And that is what this book makes one ask. Repeatedly.
As always, I’d love to gift this, Mum’s copy, forward, especially to someone who has the same interest in history as Mum and I. She read it in April 2004. I really can’t keep all Mums books although I’d like to, and I know she would be tickled pink to think her treasured library was now pretty much global – I think the only continent I have not posted one of her books to is Antarctica. (What’s going on down there guys! Don’t you need any more books?!)
Read by my beloved Mum in April 2004, by me late October/early November 2021. ‘The Lord hath done such things among us as have not been known in the world these thousand years’ – Oliver Cromwell, 27 January 1654.
By the way. The Blue Lace Agate bookmark thong seen in the main picture is one of the newest additions to my Etsy shop which began in order to fund this project and ended up becoming a Real Job… you can find it and many more in our Etsy shop!