The Lives of Others

I suspect it’s vicarious in nature, given that my average day is a slightly less adventurous round of feeding, laundry, nappies, pram walks and bouncing up and down my living room, but I just can’t get enough non-fiction at the moment. And specifically non-fiction about people living much riskier and less home-based lives. Or people at the centre of great historical shifts.

First came Catherine Bailey’s Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty. At the centre of the story is the Fitzwilliam family, residents of Wentworth House in Yorkshire for hundreds of years, now teetering on the brink of the century that would bring catastrophic change to their comfortable, well-established way of life.

Surrounding Wentworth – and running like a rich seam through the book itself – are the coal mines belonging to the family and the villages housing the miners that work in the pits. Coal has been their shared livelihood for a long time but at the dawn of the twentieth century it’s about to become a much more emotive, political issue. The aristocratic Fitzwilliams are rich beyond imagining, the very definition of a dynasty, and, with the weight of history on their shoulders, relations between the generations are increasingly coming under strain.

Wentworth is still a privately owned house, only visible from a certain point along the Trans-Pennine Way. It’s hard to comprehend its size – the frontage is almost twice as long as Buckingham Palace. Given the upheaval of the past hundred years it’s likely to be fairly dilapidated at this point but I so wish it were possible to have a sneak peek. I bet it’s still hiding some secrets.

9780141019239I found Catherine Bailey’s first book as gripping as her more recent one The Secret Rooms, which I read early last year. She excels at ‘plotting’ and structure, pacing her narrative so as to embed the necessary hooks that keep you reading when you really should be sleeping. The story of the mining industry and the story of the demise of the Fitzwilliams run side by side (the former really is the story of the latter, certainly in the period covered by the book) but there are also well-crafted portraits of individuals and plenty of first-hand sources to keep the focus on the human impact of the historical events that are playing out. I do like my history books to have that vital personal element. After all, history only acquires meaning in its impact on the people who live through it.

Now I’m eagerly awaiting the next feed as I’m itching to finish up Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. And after that there’s Lynsey Addario’s It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. I’m sure you can see the theme that’s developing, so if anyone’s got any recommendations for books by and/or about remarkable people in challenging worlds do leave a note in the comments!

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