I liked this biography of Marx (from about twenty year ago, but hardly out of date). Rather pleasantly, it doesn’t feel particularly ideologically driven. Wheen is more interested in Marx as a human and conjures up both his boisterous, argumentative side and his (surprisingly) gentle side. Family life plays a huge role here, and it helps to bring out the personal edge to his professional interactions. The politics and philosophy is covered too, but it’s not heavy going – there’s also an eye on keeping the book readable.
There have been more than a few previous Marx biographies (not that I’ve read them) and Wheen seems particularly pleased when he gets a change to offer a different interpretation of some aspect of the story. The two that stand out are Frederick Demuth, who Wheen places as Marx’s illegitimate son, and the interactions between Marx and Charles Darwin. Despite his faults, it’s hard to read the book and not end up with sympathy for Marx and his personal struggles (although the Telegraph seems to have).
The quote on the front of the book says “If you only have time to read one book on the great man, you should make it this one”. I wouldn’t entirely agree with that. David Horspool’s book is largely a critical review of the myths and legends about King Alfred. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of Alfred’s life; there’s none of the the colour and myths and grandeur with which he often appears – but it is none the worse for it.
The real historical evidence and the growth of the legend are covered, and with some wit. There’s a memorable phrase where Horspool describes the Victorian ideal of Alfred as a “Anglo Saxon head boy king”. There is great detail on contemporary sources like Bishop Asser; on Matthew Parker, the Tudor archbishop who used the myth to boost the newly independent Church of England; and on later romantic portrayals in painting and theatre, all the way up to Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom and the 1969 epic film starring David Hemmings, Michael York and Ian McKellan.
Continue reading Alfred The Great by David Horspool
This “biography” of John Hawkwood by Frances Stonor Saunders is a great read. Released by Faber & Faber in 2005, the book presents itself as the story of an English mercenary who made his name fighting first in the Hundred Years War, and then in medieval Italy. Actual biographical details of the famous mercenary may be short on the ground but it turns out these aren’t really necessary, Saunders gives a wonderful description of the mercenary life among the warring states of Fourteenth Century Italy.
Continue reading Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman
A Plain Blunt Man
I’ve decided to give a short review of Mark Antony, A Plain Blunt Man by Paolo de Ruggiero, released last year by Pen & Sword. I’m a bit wary of doing this as I have no history qualifications whatsoever, but the author of this book is (according to his bio in the book jacket) a business executive at a multi national corporation, rather than an academic, so I feel like I may as well have a go. While not an academic, de Ruggiero says he did grow up in Rome in a family of academics and has been passionate about Roman history all his life. For better or worse that passion definitely shows throughout the book.
Continue reading Mark Antony: A Plain Blunt Man