Two reviews of non-fiction books by yours truly are included in this month’s Historical Novels Review, a publication of the Historical Novel Society. One is The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, the other is Churchill’s First War by Con Coughlin. I enjoyed them both for different reasons.
THE SECRET ROOMS – A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret
Catherine Bailey, the author of The Secret Rooms, went to Belvoir Castle on the Rutland family estate to “research a book about this small corner of England in the years of the First World War.” Immediately struck by an air of secrecy shrouding the castle, she instead plunged into detective work to solve a mystery involving one of England’s richest families.
Over the centuries, Belvoir had become a repository for the nation’s most important documents “stamped with the seals and signatures of every monarch since William the Conqueror.” John Henry Montagu Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland, had been a dedicated steward of these documents so Bailey finds it particularly puzzling to find significant gaps in the family’s carefully catalogued personal documents; gaps no one can explain.
The Secret Rooms reads like a novel with exciting twists and turns and carefully doled out clues. Characters come alive: John’s manipulative mother and domineering father; Charlie, the uncle who looked after John for much of his life; Diana, John’s sister, a renowned and high-spirited beauty; and John himself. The result is narrative non-fiction that grips a reader’s attention, while at the same time providing a meticulously researched perspective on British high society and historical events from the 1880s to WWI.
What many people know about Winston Churchill centers on his stirring leadership during WWII as Britain’s Prime Minister. In Churchill’s First War, Con Coughlin gives us a young Churchill, a man of aristocratic upbringing whose father left the family impoverished and with a “somewhat tarnished reputation”.
After successfully graduating from Sandhurst, Winston sets out to gain “personal and political advancement”. His objective is to distinguish himself in battle. With ongoing struggles on the North-West Frontier, India is the logical choice and Winston pulls many strings to secure himself a role with the Malakand Field Force.
As Coughlin relates Churchill’s military exploits, he provides great insights into Britain’s colonial past and its troublesome relationship with the Afghan tribes, notably the Pashtuns. He then enriches the story by drawing parallels to recent events involving Britain, the US and other NATO countries in Afghanistan. Churchill’s experiences “gave him a deep awareness of the human cost of conflict.” During WWI and WWII, he remained “in close contact with soldiers fighting on the front line to make sure he kept its horror clear before his eyes.”
Churchill’s First War is a deeply researched novel. Weaving narrative with quoted materials from an extensive collection of books, articles, journals and letters, Con Coughlin explains the failures of the campaigns to quell the Afghans in the late 19th and early 21st centuries.
These two books illustrate that reading non-fiction can be just as engrossing as fiction!