Books for Christmas: the history buff

• Dec 16, 2018 •

This year, how about you get the history buff in your family something other than a mighty tome about a world war?

A groundbreaking account of what it was like to live in a Victorian body, a laugh-out-loud portrait of our most talked-about royal and two Man Booker Prize-winning masterpieces should more than please a history nerd of any age.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2009.

England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor.

Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.

From one of our finest living writers, ‘Wolf Hall’ is that very rare thing: a truly great English novel, one that explores the intersection of individual psychology and wider politics. With a vast array of characters, and richly overflowing with incident, it peels back history to show us Tudor England as a half-made society, moulding itself with great passion, suffering and courage.

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2012. With this historic win, Hilary Mantel becomes the first British author and the first woman to be awarded two Man Booker Prizes.

By 1535 Thomas Cromwell is Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes having risen with those of Anne Boleyn, the king’s new wife. But Anne has failed to give the king an heir, and Cromwell watches as Henry falls for plain Jane Seymour. Cromwell must find a solution that will satisfy Henry, safeguard the nation and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge unscathed from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.

An astounding literary accomplishment, this is the story of this most terrifying moment of history, by one of our greatest living novelists.

Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes

Why did the great philosophical novelist George Eliot feel so self-conscious that her right hand was larger than her left?

Exactly what made Darwin grow that iconic beard in 1862, a good five years after his contemporaries had all retired their razors?

Who knew Queen Victoria had a personal hygiene problem as a young woman and the crisis that followed led to a hurried commitment to marry Albert?

What did John Sell Cotman, a handsome drawing room operator who painted some of the most exquisite watercolours the world has ever seen, feel about marrying a woman whose big nose made smart people snigger?

How did a working-class child called Fanny Adams disintegrate into pieces in 1867 before being reassembled into a popular joke, one we still reference today, but would stop, appalled, if we knew its origins?

Kathryn Hughes follows a thickened index finger or deep baritone voice into the realms of social history, medical discourse, aesthetic practise and religious observance – its language is one of admiring glances, cruel sniggers, an implacably turned back. The result is an eye-opening, deeply intelligent, groundbreaking account that brings the Victorians back to life and helps us understand how they lived their lives.

Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown

She made John Lennon blush and Marlon Brando clam up. She cold-shouldered Princess Diana and humiliated Elizabeth Taylor. Jack Nicholson offered her cocaine and Pablo Picasso lusted over her. To her friends Princess Margaret was witty and regal, to her enemies, she was rude and demanding. Ma’am Darling looks at her from many angles, creating a kaleidoscopic biography, and a witty meditation on fame and art, snobbery and deference, bohemia and high society.

‘A masterpiece’ Mail on Sunday

‘I honked so loudly the man sitting next to me dropped his sandwich’ Observer

Looking for more gift inspo? Check out our guides for DadsSistersliterary lovers, the forever travelling friend and the deep thinkers in your life.

Subscribe to the 4th Estate podcast.

Comments are closed.