Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Paper Chase: The Printer, The Spymaster & the Hunt for the Rebel Pamphleteers by Joseph Hone

The cover of The Paper Chase features an image of a woman in an elegant dress with a black hood and a black vizard mask covering her face. Manuscript pages and ink blots are scattered over the central image.
Image Description: The cover of The Paper Chase features an image of a woman in an elegant dress with a black hood and a black vizard mask covering her face. Manuscript pages and ink blots are scattered over the central image.

In the summer of 1705, a masked woman knocked on the door of David Edwards’s London workshop. She did not leave her name, only a package and a coded means of identifying her courier.

Edwards was a Welsh printer working in the dark confines of Nevill’s Alley, outside the city walls. The package was an illegal, anonymous pamphlet: The Memorial of the Church of England. The argument it proposed threatened to topple the government, but sedition sold well in the coffeehouses of Fleet Street and the woman promised protection. Edwards swiftly set about printing and surreptitiously distributing the pamphlet.

Parliament was soon in turmoil and government minister Robert Harley launched a hunt for all those involved. When Edwards was nowhere to be found, his wife was imprisoned and the pamphlet was burnt in his place. The printer was not the only villain, though, and Harley had to find the unknown writers who wished to bring the government down.

The intricacies of eighteenth-century printing might not, on the surface of it, sound like the most thrilling of topics but, as Dr Joseph Hone proves in The Paper Chase, publications that came out of the printer’s workshops had the potential to send men to the gallows, bring down governments, alter national policy, impact on the course of a war, and to threaten the security of the nation’s most revered institutions.

The Paper Chase follows the hunt for one particular anonymous pamphlet: a polemic entitled The Memorial of the Church of England. Printed by David Edwards – a Welsh printer with Jacobite sympathies and an established ‘radical’ press in Nevill’s Alley – the pamphlet was a High Church attack on the Godolphin administration and its policy of ‘moderation’. It implied that, by tolerating and working with Protestant dissenters, Queen Anne’s government – and, by implication, Anne herself – were not acting in the best interests of the Church of England.

The pamphlet, unsurprisingly, caused an outcry: Queen Anne was deeply upset by it, Parliament was outraged and, from the spires of Oxford to the streets of London, people were talking about the Memorial and trying to work out who its anonymous author(s) might be. Chief amongst these people was Robert Harley. A natural politician and prominent proponent of moderation, Harley started following the paper trail that led out of Nevill’s Alley, coaxing out the book’s secret’s and untangling the web of connections that would see his fate entwined with that of David Edwards in unexpected ways.

Given that my PhD is in eighteenth-century literature, many of the political intrigues and prominent figures in The Paper Chase were familiar to me. The politics of the period – especially in the earlier part of the century – are endlessly fascinating but, without a crash course in its terminology and structures (Whig, Tory, Churchmen, Toleration, Moderation etc), it can be overwhelmingly confusing for the general reader. It is to Hone’s credit, therefore, that he conveys a complex political environment – one that encompasses religious, political, and literary figures and factions – in a succinct yet through manner, guiding the reader into the knotty world of Harley, the Memorial, and the tangled connections that existed between press and Parliament.

Written with an academic’s eye for detail and told with vigour, The Paper Chase offers a blend of scholarship and detection that is sure to appeal to fans of narrative non-fiction in the vein of Kate Summerscale. That said, The Paper Chase is, in essence, a book about printing and pamphleteering: readers heading into it expecting a detective-style chase across London will be left sorely disappointed. Harley’s investigation into the Memorial was painstaking and thorough and the book follows the fates and fortunes of its central protagonists over several years. Whilst it has its thrilling moments – including night time raids on coffee houses and the hunt for a mysterious masked woman – the pleasure of The Paper Chase is in Hone’s gradual untangling of connections and his patient explanations of the wider implications of seemingly minor events.

Offering an insight into a period of history that remains under-represented in the arena of ‘popular’ print, The Paper Chase is an insightful and immersive tale of eighteenth-century politics and printing that is perfectly pitched for both general and academic readers alike. Combining scholarly precision with an engaging and accessible style, it’s a highly recommended read for fans of unusual mysteries, narrative non-fiction, and all things bookish.

The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone is published by Vintage and is now available in paperback from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. I also purchased a paperback copy from Berts Books, which came beautifully wrapped with a very pretty ribbon!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

THREE MINI REVIEWS: Brilliant Non-Fiction Books

It’s getting to that time of year when I look back and realise how many brilliant books I’ve read but not yet got around to reviewing. So for today’s post, I want to play catch-up and tell you about three brilliant non-fiction titles that I’ve read and enjoyed in 2021.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

The Greek myths are one of the most important cultural foundation-stones of the modern world.

Stories of gods and monsters are the mainstay of epic poetry and Greek tragedy, from Homer to Virgil to from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides. And still, today, a wealth of novels, plays and films draw their inspiration from stories first told almost three thousand years ago. But modern tellers of Greek myth have usually been men, and have routinely shown little interest in telling women’s stories.

Now, in Pandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes – broadcaster, writer and passionate classicist – redresses this imbalance. Taking Greek creation myths as her starting point and then retelling the four great mythic sagas: the Trojan War, the Royal House of Thebes, Jason and the Argonauts, Heracles, she puts the female characters on equal footing with their menfolk. The result is a vivid and powerful account of the deeds – and misdeeds – of Hera, Aphrodite, Athene and Circe. And away from the goddesses of Mount Olympus it is Helen, Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Antigone and Medea who sing from these pages, not Paris, Agamemnon, Orestes or Jason.

I’ve been a fan of Natalie Haynes’ fiction ever since her debut novel, The Amber Fury, and have also greatly enjoyed her amusingly informative podcast, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myth utilises both Natalie’s extensive knowledge of classical myth, legend, and literature with her ready wit to look beneath the surface of what we know – or often assume – about the women of Greek mythology. Was Pandora really to blame for the release of all the evils of the world? And did she even have a box from which to release them? Was Medea really the evil mother of legend? Did Helen of Troy really choose to leave her husband and run away to Troy with Paris?

The answers to these questions, as Haynes ably demonstrates in this lively and knowledgeable book, are far more complicated than popular culture might lead us to believe. Indeed, many of these women whose stories we think we know so well have been, Hayne argues, viciously maligned by – you guessed it – predominantly male writers in the ages since.

Thoroughly researched but told in with humour and insight, Pandora’s Jar is a fascinating foray into Greek mythology, a call to arms for the reconsideration of maligned women in mythology, and a timely reminder of the importance of female voices in classical literature.

Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials by Professor Alice Roberts

This book is about belonging: about walking in ancient places, in the footsteps of the ancestors. It’s about reaching back in time, to find ourselves, and our place in the world.

We often think of Britain springing from nowhere with the arrival of the Romans. But in Ancestors, pre-eminent archaeologist, broadcaster and academic Professor Alice Roberts explores what we can learn about the very earliest Britons – from their burial sites. Although we have very little evidence of what life was like in prehistorical times, here their stories are told through the bones and funerary offerings left behind, preserved in the ground for thousands of years.

Told through seven fascinating burial sites, this groundbreaking prehistory of Britain teaches us more about ourselves and our history: how people came and went; how we came to be on this island.

I love history but my own studies have been woefully lacking on anything that can be classed as ‘prehistory’. As a kid, I always preferred knights in shining armour to dinosaurs and ‘cavemen’ and, as I’ve got older, the closest I’ve got to studying early civilisations is watching Ice Age.

Professor Alice Roberts’s fascinating book Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials changed all that, however. Combining archaeology, anthropology and, scientific enquiry into early DNA, Roberts tells the story of the earliest ages of humankind through seven remarkable prehistoric burials. What emerges is a picture of surprisingly complex – and deeply human – societies that reacted to changing food sources, social patterns, weather conditions, and climate.

Each chapter focuses on a specific burial – from the famous Amesbury Archer to the Paviland ‘Red Lady’ (who might, it turns out, not be a lady at all) – and examines not only what these burials might tell us about pre-historic Britain and its people, but also how scientific enquiry and excavation techniques have developed to allow us greater insight into these early peoples and their societies. As with Haynes, Roberts busts more than a few myths about pre-history during the course of her book and explains with ease the often complex science behind various theories and reasonings.

An informative yet accessible guide to a fascinating period of history through the examination of bones, pots, early weapons, and fragmentary remains, Ancestors made for a riveting read.

Ask a Historian: 50 Surprising Answers to Things You Always Wanted to Know by Greg Jenner

Why is Italy called Italy? How old is curry? Which people from history would best pull off a casino heist? Who was the richest person of all time? When was the first Monday? What were history’s weirdest medical procedures that actually worked? How much horse manure was splattered on the streets of Tudor London? How fast was the medieval Chinese postal system? What did the Flintstones get right about the Stone Age? Who gets to name historical eras, and what will ours be called in 100 years’ time? How do we know how people sounded in the past? How old is sign language?

In Ask a Historian the author, BBC podcaster, and public historian Greg Jenner provides answers to things you always wondered about, but didn’t know who to ask. Responding to 50 genuine questions from the public, Greg whisks you off on an entertaining tour through the ages, revealing the best and most surprising stories, facts, and historical characters from the past. Bouncing through a wide range of subjects – from ancient jokebooks, African empires, and bizarre tales of medicinal cannibalism, to the invention of meringues, mirrors, and menstrual pads – Ask A Historian spans the Stone Age to the Swinging Sixties, and offers up a deliciously amusing and informative smorgasbord of historical curiosities, devoured one morsel at a time.

As with Haynes’s work, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Greg Jenner’s previous books, as well as his fantastic podcast You’re Dead to Me. Ask a Historian is another triumphant mix of interesting yet esoteric history, cheerfully irreverent storytelling, and bum jokes.

I listened to the audiobook of this one – read by Jenner himself and featuring some additional content – and it was an absolute hoot. Not only did I learn a lot but I also laughed out loud on more than one occasion. It’s also an audiobook I can see me re-listening to – always a bonus in my book!

Given the nature of the book – 50 questions that bounce across ages and continents – Ask a Historian made the perfect read to listen to whilst out for a walk or commuting to work. The book would also be a perfect read for dipping into and out of alongside other reading – and would make a great gift for a history-loving friend or relative this festive season.

So those are three brilliant non-fiction titles I’ve read in 2021 and wanted to share with you. Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or intend to pick any of them up!

If you do decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!! Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

Dead FamousCelebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, strikes us as hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise.

Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy; or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend; or Edmund Kean, the dazzling Shakespearean actor whose monstrous ego and terrible alcoholism saw him nearly murdered by his own audience – the list of stars whose careers burned bright before the Age of Television is extensive and thrillingly varied.

In this ambitious history, that spans the Bronze Age to the coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Greg Jenner assembles a vibrant cast of over 125 actors, singers, dancers, sportspeople, freaks, demigods, ruffians, and more, in search of celebrity’s historical roots. He reveals why celebrity burst into life in the early eighteenth century, how it differs to ancient ideas of fame, the techniques through which it was acquired, how it was maintained, the effect it had on public tastes, and the psychological burden stardom could place on those in the glaring limelight.

You may recognise Greg Jenner as the host of BBC comedy podcast You’re Dead To Me!, or as the public historian whose work behind the scenes on the series Horrible Histories has been part of making history fun, interesting, and accessible for children and adults alike. If you don’t, I highly recommend hunting down both (the podcast is a delightful mix of the fascinating and the obscure, whilst Horrible Histories is an absolute riot to watch – I can highly recommend the ‘Kings and Queens’ song).

Dead Famous or, to give it its full title, Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen is not Jenner’s first foray into authorship. His previous book, A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Ordinary Life, From Stone Age to Phone Age was a wide-ranging and fascinating look at the history of the everyday. Dead Famous is a little narrower in its scope, zoning in on the history of ‘Celebrity’ which, as Jenner explains, is still a relatively new field of historical enquiry. Indeed the field is so new that it’s still debating exactly what ‘Celebrity’ entails, let alone when it came into being. Jenner, therefore, spends an early chapter considering the various definitions of the term before moving on to consider when ‘Celebrity’ culture really began.

Whilst the book’s subtitle is billed as covering ‘Bronze Age to Silver Screen’, the majority of the content focuses on the period from around 1750 – 1950. This, as Jenner explains, his because his definition of the ‘Celebrity’ places the start of the phenomenon (as we know it today) firmly in the 1700s. However, he does make the occasional foray back to earlier centuries, and even to the Ancient World, to consider individuals who benefited from both fame and renown. Considering the differences between the famous, the infamous, the renowned, and the celebrity is, in itself, a fascinating topic – and that’s before Jenner even starts on the tales of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century publicity-seeking celebs, scandalous money-making schemes, and crazed fans.

As a scholar of the long eighteenth-century (the period from 1660 – 1820, because us eighteenth-century scholars like to steal a bit of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries for kicks), I was particularly interested to discover how early stars of the London stage such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons curated and managed their own image, and was fascinated to learn that so many of the facets of celebrity that we consider to be ‘modern’ – such as product endorsements, celebrity souvenirs, and appearance fees – originated in the very early days of celebrity and fan culture.

In addition to be extremely interesting, Dead Famous is also wildly funny. Jenner has a real gift for a wry turn of phrase and had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. His witty style makes his topic instantly accessible without sacrificing any of the scholarly rigour or intelligence required to consider such a vast topic at length. Dead Famous is clearly extensively researched but it wears that research lightly, each fact and anecdote recounted with a richness and a relish that makes for extremely enjoyable reading.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely LOVED Dead Famous. To be fair, a book combining humour, history, sociology and the eighteenth-century was always going to be reading-catnip for me. But I genuinely think a lot of other readers will love this too. If you have even a passing interest in celebrity or fan culture, or have ever been gripped by news from your latest fandom or the gossip columns of magazines, Dead Famous is packed to brimming with facts that are sure to fascinate and amuse in equal measure.

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner is published by W&N and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

And don’t forget that, whilst high street bookshops might be closed at the moment, many of your local indies are still delivering – personal favourites include Booka Bookshop and The Big Green Bookshop!