This July 4th spare a thought for the losers of the War of Independence, those Americans who stayed loyal to King and Empire.
They were colonial government officials and aristocratic landowners, lowly tradespeople and farmers, descendants of the Mayflower and recent immigrants, White and Black and Native American, free, indentured, and enslaved. They were the Loyalists, about a third of all Americans, who for a variety of reasons chose the side of the King in what contemporaries called “a bitter civil war.” We catch only brief glimpses of them on the sidelines in the triumphalist histories of the American Revolution, but American historian Maya Jasanoff centers their stories in this first global history of the Loyalist experience from war to exile.
More than just a work of first-class scholarship, Liberty’s Exiles is a deeply moving masterpiece that fulfills the historian’s most challenging ambition: to revivify past experience.
The book is crammed with facts and statistics gleaned from the archives but enlivened by the intimate experiences of individuals, often in their own words.
During the war the colonies established Patriot “committees of safety” that administered loyalty oaths. Those who refused to swear could be jailed and their property confiscated. They were often subjected to mob violence, torture, and tar and feathering. Loyalists went into hiding or, as the war went on, sought refuge in the British held cities of New York, Savannah, and Charleston.
Note to my American readers: If the word estate makes you think of a grand English country house be advised. In England council house developments, the equivalent of American public housing, are called estates.
In 1955 when I was seven years old we moved into a brand new house on Marks Gate Estate outside London in Essex. We were a family of five, my parents, my grandmother, my sister and I. Because my mother was pregnant with a third child we were moved up the waiting list for a council house. The wait was long. My parents had been on the list since shortly after I was born.
I remember the excitement of that day. The estate still had the raw appearance of a building site, our road not yet paved. The back garden was a patch of dirt, graced only with a washing line. My sister and I ran through the empty rooms. The front door led into a narrow entry hall with a small storage room at the back. Off the hall in front was a kitchen with an eating area and in back a living room with fireplace. Outside the kitchen door was a covered space for dustbins and coal storage. Upstairs the bare board floors were stained in places where it looked like the builders had mixed their materials. There were three bedrooms, one not much bigger than today’s closets, a lavatory, and a bathroom with something known as an airing cupboard where the hot water heater sat. By today’s standards it was a tiny house for a growing family but to us it seemed a mansion. It was one of over a million council homes built in Britain between 1945 and the late 1950’s.
A recent online discussion in a group for Brits living in America concerned how our accents evolve over time. It reminded me of an embarrassing incident from my first weeks in America. This piece was first published in The Dabbler in November 2012.
Americans still hear my English accent, but in England people think I’m an American. In truth my accent must be hovering somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic after so many years immersion in the American dialect. It takes a long time for an accent to change. I still say “ban-ah-na” and “tom-ah-to” much to my grandsons’ amusement. But after being put in charge of library work schedules years ago I did quickly change over to saying “skedule.” I had to say the word so many times in the course of a day that “shedule” just began to sound pretentious to my own ears. As a new supervisor there was no advantage in conforming to the stereotype of a haughty, condescending Brit. But for the most part accents change unconsciously and imperceptibly like rocks polished to smoothness over millennia of tumbling in a riverbed. You land on a foreign shore speaking precise, clipped BBC English and then journey back years later to find yourself taken for a foreigner in your own hometown.
On My Bookshelf I find a volume perfect for Women’s History Month, the story of medieval women songwriters whose words sound as fresh as if they were written today.
The troubadour is a familiar figure in Medieval history, a singer of songs of unrequited love for a beautiful and virtuous lady. But women troubadours? They were virtually forgotten until Meg Bogin published this study in 1976, the first since a German monograph in 1888. The book includes translations of the 23 songs that survive by 20 women. These voices from almost a thousand years ago are remarkably fresh and intimate, giving us a rare window into the lives of women in an age dominated by men.
As a child I pored over the books on ancient Egypt in my father’s bookcase, fascinated by the tombs and treasures and the daring exploits of famous archaeologists. I dreamed of becoming an archaeologist myself one day, until I realized it involved spending a lot of time exposed to relentless sun in very hot places with hoards of nasty insects. I never could stand summer heat, even the 70 degrees that counted as a heat wave in England in those days. After a school field trip to a Roman dig near Colchester left me limp from heat exhaustion and covered in bug bites, I had to admit I was hardly cut out for the rigors of digging up ancient Egypt. Fortunately there is plenty of reading to satisfy an armchair archaeologist like me. Here are some of my favorite novels with an archaeological theme.
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson
Anglo-Saxons past and present are the subject of this satirical novel. Gerald Middleton is a historian past his prime when he is invited to edit a journal on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, a topic that brings up a pivotal event from his youth. In a golden summer when he fell in love with the delectable Dollie he was present at an excavation that unearthed a pagan phallic idol in the tomb of a 7th century Christian bishop. But Gerald knows this was a fake and who was responsible for planting it. His dilemma sets off a rollicking portrait of 1950’s England with a Dickensian caste of characters including Gerald’s eccentric wife Inga, a posse of squabbling historians, and working class chancers no longer willing to stay in their place in the post-war world. A television mini-series based on the book can be seen on Acorn TV.
In the second half of 2021 I read even more books than from January to June. Though I won’t give a number. I don’t count because for me it’s not a competition or a goal to check off. I find the comments on Facebook reading group pages very dispiriting as people stress over meeting reading goals. As if we didn’t have enough to stress about in 2021! I’m like Thomas Jefferson, “I cannot live without books.” More time for reading opened up as my grandsons went back to real school in September and I no longer had to supervise virtual learning. Much as I enjoy spending time with the boys I can tell you that this was not quality time!
I read books old and new, highbrow and lowbrow, but all well-written. I have no patience for poorly written books however much they may be hyped in the media. I threw aside one book that sounded promising, a World War II spy story, because in the first paragraph a character gave a “lop-sided grin.” I assure you no such tired cliches appear in my favorite books.
In this edition of On My Bookshelf I rediscover a history lesson.
This little paperback was published by Pelican Books, an imprint founded by Penguin Books in 1937 to offer intellectual nonfiction to ordinary people for “no more than the price of a packet of cigarettes.” The books were very popular in the postwar period, The Guardian calling them an “informal university for ’50s Britons.” My copy of What is History? by E. H. Carr was published in 1965 and shows its age. The pages are not so much yellowed as nicotine colored but the spine has held up. When I open it, for the first time in decades, I see a dedication written inside. A friend gave it to me for Christmas in 1965. She signed it with her schoolgirl nickname which I will refrain from sharing with the world to preserve her dignity. She is one of the few friends from that long ago time I am still in touch with.
What led me back to this book after so long? I remembered it and thought it might shed light on the current controversy over the teaching of history, particularly the history of slavery and race in America. I was not disappointed. This is one of the first relevant quotes I came across:
“There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.
One autumn afternoon many years ago I stood on the Plains of Abraham high above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. It remains one of the most memorable scenic views of my life along with the Grand Canyon and the English Lake District seen from the top of Helvellyn. Fierce winds flattened the grass, dark storm clouds threatened above, and the gleaming silver ribbon of the St. Lawrence far below made for a dramatic scene. In fact the sky reminded me of about the only thing I knew at the time about the history of this place, Benjamin West’s famous painting of the death of General James Wolfe. For it was here on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that a decisive battle was fought in the great struggle for domination of North America. The name conjures a battle scene of Biblical proportions, a recent book on the subject is titled Armageddon, but the bleak windswept plain came by its name in a more prosaic way. The farmer who owned the land was named Abraham.
The humble dinner fork an instrument of the devil? Surely not! Yes, the fork has quite a notorious history. As soon as the new-fangled eating implement was introduced to Europeans by a Byzantine princess it became the focus of clerical ire. When Maria Argyropoulina arrived in Venice in 1004 to marry the son of the Doge she carried with her a case of golden forks to use at the wedding feast. Cleric Peter Damien, a future saint, witnessed the shocking scene:
Such was the luxury of her habits…[that] she deigned not to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry it to her mouth. God in his wisdom has provided people with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them while eating.
His opinion was confirmed a few years later when the unfortunate woman died of the plague, surely God’s punishment for her vanity he declared. The fact that sinful courtesans were known to eat sweets with a fork was even more reason to ban their use.