History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

10 November 2008

Simon Schama

Have you ever had a crush on a professor simply basted on how smart and savvy they were? I have a couple of these “brain crushes” as my friends and I call them. The first is Simon Schama. He’s English, and currently he’s a history professor at Columbia.

My introduction to Schama came via the BBC’s amazing A History of Britain. First I watched it, all the while lulled by that amazing voice. Then I read it, struggling to curl with the multiple over-sized volumes. Schama’s insights into what can be deadly dull and dry topics were riveting in both forms. He quickly went from flavor du jour to comfort food status.

Then came his book Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. As I had just begun research into the history of free blacks in England and France, the appearance of this book was eerily timely. Schama brought an entire forgotten episode of American history to light.

Recently, on BBC America, I’ve discovered his series about art: Simon Schama's Power of Art. The episode on Bernini entranced me. I’ve watched it over a dozen times. The one on Jacques-Louis David enraged me. Ruining my enjoyment of his art.

If you haven’t yet read or watched anything by this very talented historian, I can only recommend that you do so as quickly as NetFlix or Amazon can assist you.

Do any of you have “go to” historians whose every tome must be purchased and read over and over again?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carolly Erickson's books, particularly Our Tempestuous Day and To the Scaffold about Marie Antoinette, Theo Aronson, and all of Antonia Fraser's books are must haves for me, as well as her daughter Flora's books. And I just discovered Stella Tillyard's books after seeing Aristocrats.

5:06 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I "discovered" Schama on PBS -- one of his art history programs; I don't even recall which artist it focused on, but I found him to be very engaging. I'm an art history geek so I'd watch just about anything, though. I have yet to read his books, so now I have something to look forward to, when I can snag the time.

I'm always intrigued, especially as I'm writing some nonfiction as well as fiction these days, about the way historians and academics present the material. If I recall correctly, Schama certainly has an opinion on the subjects he covers, as do many of his historian colleagues. Some go so far as to have an agenda, which I find incredibly problematic as I try to distill facts for my own research and avoid what is clearly a given writer's opinion, preferring to form my own from the facts I've distilled. I have disagreed considerably with the take that some of the more "agendist" historians foist on unsuspecting readers and viewers. This sort of presentation can be fascinating but not always helpful, as it gives the impression that it's the only "take" on the events.

Although the agendists can be intriguing, for my purposes as a writer I prefer to just get the facts and events presented in an engaging manner. I've found several historians such as Antonia Fraser and her daughter Flora, who manage to succeed in doing this.

5:16 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Kalen! I hadn't thought about it much, but I tend to read history books by topic, more than author. My college advsior, Paul Seaver, definitely shaped my thinking as historian, but his specialty is the 17th century, not the Regency. I do consciously think about where the author is coming from--I don't necessarily mind that the author has an agenda (most author's personal takes seep in to their writing, consciously or unconsciously, if nothing else in what they include and leave out), but I like to be aware of it.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I've recently fallen for Greg King. I read his previous releases on the court of Nicholas II and Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee year, but when I devoured his latest, on Gilded Age New York, it was official.

Other historians I am fond of: Christopher Hibbert, Henry Louis Gates Jr, John Julius Norwich, Mark Girouard, Christopher Sykes, Marian Fowler, and Nigel Nicolson. But I have a particular liking for Hollywood historians like Donald Spoto, Peter Bogdanovich, or David Stenn.

4:05 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Schama is on my list as of today. Thanks Kalen!

Most of David Carradine's books grace my shelves. No doubt every one of Leslie Carroll's books will find there way to my library since I loved her first venture into historical non-fiction --both voice and content of ROYAL AFFAIRS.

I do totally understand the "brain crush" concept -- in the middle of one right now.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Awww, shucks, Mary. I'm (well, Leslie is) blushing. You've made our day.

Evangeline, David Stenn is a distant cousin of mine! I met him only once, when he was in NYC working on an ill-fated TV series. But his biography of Clara Bow (which I read before I met him and discovered we were related) is luminous.

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Evangeline. I'm with you on Greg King. I just read the first chapter of his book on Mrs. Astor on line, and now I have to buy it. I also like Marian Fowler's book, and one of my favorite's that I read again and again is To Marry an English Lord. Also JB Priestly's The Prince of Pleasure and The Edwardians.

4:50 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Crushes on quiet, droll, brainy guys c'est moi; the pattern no doubt imprinted upon me early by knowing how my mom adored my dad the mathematician.

The hero of The Edge of Impropriety is a scholar and estwhile Mediterranean adventurer.

As for can't-miss historians, I've read a lot of Robert Darnton's stuff on the French revolution and William St. Clair on the romantic era in England.

I'm also a big fan of historians of literature -- Raymond Williams, Northrop Frye. Franco Moretti of the Stanford Novel Project.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Of course it's not all guys. I'm a major fangirl of biographers Claire Tomalin and Jenny Uglow and classicist Mary Beard.

And I'll admit to having taken guilty pleasure in having used (for background on the Elgin Marbles in Edge) a book by the hyper-opinionated, ultra-snarky, ridiculously brilliant Christopher Hitchens.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Hoydens, you've been receiving some love from me over at: http://keirasoleore.blogspot.com/2008/11/love-in-romancebloglandia.html

9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooh, Pam, I love Clare Tomalin too. I used her book as a source when I wrote about Ellen Tiernan. What book did you use by Hitchens regarding the Elgin Marbles?

5:13 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey all, sorry I was MIA. Went out of town and things got a little hinky with my internet. *sigh* I have a couple of other historican crushes that I'll be blabbing about in future posts . . .

8:24 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Elizabeth, the Hitchens book (his first, my husband tells me) is called Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles

10:57 PM  

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