The Glory and the Sorrow: A Parisian and His World in the Age of the French Revolution by Timothy Tackett
Oxford University Press, 232pp, £18.99
Adrien Colson was a Parisian lawyer who lived through the waning ancien régime and the most turbulent years of the French Revolution. He would have disappeared from history were it not for the 1,000 letters he sent to a friend in central France. In them he gave eyewitness testimony of the revolution as it caught flame in ways neither he nor his neighbours on the shabby Rue des Arcis could have predicted. Timothy Tackett deftly uses the correspondence to create a vivid picture of Colson and his thrilling, terrifying times: his book stands in the tradition of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou.
Colson is revealed as representative of the masses – a man caught up in events, in thrall to rumour and the bewildering speed of events. He went, like so many Frenchmen, from respect for the king to admiration for Robespierre to apprehension as to where it was all heading. He reported on the storming of the Bastille and the royal family’s flight to Varennes, and maintained his Catholic faith even when it was proscribed. What a shame he died in 1797, before the Napoleonic adventure unfolded.
By Michael Prodger
It’s the Leader, Stupid: Changemakers in Modern Politics by Andrew Adonis
Amazon, 313pp, £10
In a letter written towards the end of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” The historian turned Labour politician Andrew Adonis believes this is nonsense. Lincoln had the power to avert civil war when he entered office in March 1861, Adonis argues, but he chose instead to defend Fort Sumter in the Deep South and thus provoke war with the Confederacy.
This case study forms part of a breezy collection of profiles of major political figures ranging from the former foreign secretary Ernest Bevin to the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (Europe’s Hillary Clinton, according to Adonis). Running through them is the idea that leadership is the decisive factor in politics – a thinly veiled rendition of Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory. But Adonis’s loose mix of portraits assumes rather than argues for Carlyle’s maxim that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”. In doing so, Adonis neglects the social and economic currents so central to the lives of his cast.
By Freddie Hayward
East Side Voices: Essays Celebrating East and Southeast Asian Identity in Britain Edited by Helena Lee
Sceptre, 224pp, £14.99
This illuminating essay collection is the book form of a project conceived after the racial stereotyping in Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood led Helena Lee to despair at the lack of meaningful representation of east and south-east Asians in the media. As Lee, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, notes in her searing introduction, this has become even more relevant now: police estimate there were three times as many racially motivated hate crimes in London towards people of east and south-east Asian heritage during spring 2020 compared with the same period of 2019.
Contributions to the collection are wide-ranging in form and scope but always affecting, and come from writers including the poet Mary Jean Chan, the journalist Zing Tsjeng and the actor Gemma Chan. Most poignant is the Chinese-Malaysian novelist Tash Aw’s understanding of the British interest in genealogy as a method of reinforcing “attachments” to Britain. “As we face greater pressures to identify with one clan,” he posits, “it feels more powerful to insist on the difficult pluralities of our existence than to deny them.”
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Violeta by Isabel Allende
Bloomsbury, 336pp, £16.99
For the past 40 years the Chilean-American novelist Isabel Allende has drawn readers into her richly imagined narratives, often inspired by her own history or that of South America. In her latest work, Violeta, she revisits themes of exile and displacement, which she has experienced in her own life: in 1973 a coup against Salvador Allende, her father’s cousin and the elected president of Chile, forced her to flee to Venezuela.
We meet Violeta in 1920 when she is born to the aristocratic Del Valle family just as the Spanish influenza pandemic reaches South America. Her fortunes, however, quickly change with the death of her father, whose legacy of scandal and debt forces Violeta into exile in the countryside. As Violeta matures, we witness her tenacity in reinventing her life, and so transcending her circumstances – becoming a wife, then a mistress, a businesswoman and, eventually, the matriarch of her family. With her customary vibrant and compelling prose, Allende’s Violeta is a moving exploration of both the pain and the freedom of being an outsider.
By Christiana Bishop
This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party