Yet another great biography of a great man that I have read in the past few weeks. There must be something in the water that encourages authors to turn these out!
This a very readable and informative biography of someone who is possibly not as well known or appreciated as perhaps he should be as he was directly and indirectly responsible for much of the Europe we see today, so his legacy truly lives on. The fact that he is probably best known as an ancestor of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana does him a great disservice as his life story is so remarkable that in the hands of such an experienced and skillful biographer as Mr Holmes it fairly leaps from the page, and makes this book, (cliche alert!) a real page turner...sorry but it's true. Although the author's expertise is towards military history, he does touch on the importance of his personal relationships and political machinations that went on around him, but not in as great depth. Hibbert's book "The Marlboroughs" which has more detail on his relationship with his wife Sarah and her equally remarkable story is probably as good a book as any for that.
By all accounts Marlborough should be held in as high esteem as Nelson and Wellington in the English/British psyche, and this book goes a good way to supporting that thesis.
It's always nice to see another talented historian breaking into the mainstream with a first-class biography for the general reader. Although Holmes is a military historian--and it shows--this isn't a book for anoraks. The earlier sections of the book explain a lot about the financial and political minefields trodden by men and women of property. This is a great help in understanding how Churchill--whose father was on the wrong side in the civil war, and emerged almost destitute--schemed, fought and slept his way to a Dukedom (and even a German Principality). The portrait that emerges is, on the whole, quite sympathetic. The comments of his subordinates weigh very heavily on the positive side, and if his loyalty to James, William and Anne was less than absolute, he never deserted his allies Godolphin, Cadogan or Prince Eugene. He was clearly besotted with his appalling wife, who was finally more of a hindrance than a help to him, and his behaviour towards her was entirely honourable.
Holmes does a very skillful job of weaving narrative, comment and well-chosen contemporary quotations. Churchill/Marlborough was unquestionably a genius, combining the political skills to keep his disparate alliance together, and military skills that were more than equal to the finest that France had to offer. We should never forget that the French were, at the time, the unquestioned masters in all things military, and that their population was about three times that of Britain's.
As a biography, this book can perhaps be excused for its very sketchy coverage of the Spanish theatre of war; after all, the war was fought to keep a Bourbon off the Spanish throne. Nor is there any comment to help us understand how Britain managed to finance its wars--the key issue which relatively few historians seem to understand. Nonetheless, Holmes is to be congratulated for a spendid achievement; like all good historians, he has read deeply enough from original documents to have an instinctive understanding of how people thought and why they acted as they did, and to interpret these in a generous, but by no means credulous, spirit.
on 5 May 2009
Marlborough, England's Fragile Genius by Richard Holmes is a very good book about arguably Britian's finest general. It is a well-written book with a good pace and a clear narrative which makes it a very enjoyable read. Although as you would expect the military exploits of Marlborough are the dominant part of the book it is not wholly about his career on the battlefield. Indeed it also deals with his private and political career and is actually an interesting account of the wider time period of the Civil War to the Hanoverian succession. The only slight flaw is I believe the opening chapter which sets the scene and in my opinion is a little too long and detailed for its purpose. Overall though it is a very enjoyable read and a very good book.
on 6 July 2008
A fine overview of the life of Marlborough with some interesting details and fascinating insights. This may not be the definitive book on Marlborough (I think that honour still lays with Churchill's 3 volume history of his illustrious ancestor) but it would serve as a useful companion to the Churchill series giving some much needed balance to Churchill's occasionally one sided view.
The book has a minor but niggling weakness in that the title, 'England's Fragile Genius' seems to have little connection with the contents. It mentions his headaches and various illnesses but he doesn't seem to be portrayed as particularly fragile.
The major strength of this book is Holmes descriptive capabilities. I've previously read descriptions of the Battle of Sedgemoor and been quite baffled but Richard Holmes made it quite clear what the movements of troops meant to the outcome of the battle and gave some indication as to where mistakes were made and how each side capitalised on the mistakes or misfortune of the other.
A fine book - a good overview and a sound objective analysis of the life of the first Duke of Marlborough.
on 1 January 2015
I can watch Richard Holmes on the TV but I found this book quite a slog to get through. I wish I wasn't saying that because I do read a lot of history books and wanted to enjoy this more. I do find some history books are so full of life and stories that they read like a fast paced novel but this wasn't one of those... I did learn a lot though and in a year or so may pick it up. I sometimes find a second reading really helps as a reminder and chance to embed.
on 9 January 2012
John Churchill, later the Duke of Marlborough, is considered by many as England's greatest general and yet he is not a widely known figure and positively dwarfed in the amount of literature written about him when compared to Wellington. Therefore it's great to see a new biography of the man.
This is a slightly salacious account of John Churchill from his father's tough times through the English Civil war through his early years of a largely minor noble to his late blossoming and campaigns in the Wars of Spanish Succession. The sources used are broad and there is a determination to bring you into the atmosphere of courtly life with all its duels, liaisons and intrigues. It's here that the book falls short. The author is really trying to make the topic immediate and vivid but because there are so many Lord this and Earls that (quite often with their future or previous titles in brackets) that it bogs the story telling down. Other writers have solved this problem by stating that they would use the title the person was best known as and this allows the narrative to move along. Add to that a tiny font and what should be light reading is surprisingly hard work.
Richard Holmes loves a good battle so here I thought I would be safe but again I feel a lot of the politics and social intrigues get in the way of his usually thrilling and accurate accounts of the turn of events on the battlefield. It could be because he is aware that this is a biography of a man rather than the discussion of a war that there's a need to keep bringing other points in during the action, but you're likely to buy this book because Marlborough was a general so you'd probably prefer a bit more on the fighting and little less on Jacobite correspondence.
A good revision of an important man who deserves this level of attention but neither the finest biography of a general nor Richard Holmes's best.
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on 24 April 2012
Well, the search for the definitive biography of Marlborough continues.
This isn't an altogether bad book - it is interesting, but its faults outweigh its virtues and after a bit I wondered if it was actually cobbled together from a series of lectures?
The author's chummy digressions into modern life: Princess Diana, the quality of soles served at Wiltons, seemed more suited to the lecture hall than a serious book, as did painful phrases like the facetious "glad tidings" (here = bad news), or "easing his belly" (???).
Nor did it help that from the very start the author failed surely the first test of a historian: simple accuracy in names: Isabella Grafton was not Duchess in her own right (she was Countess of Arlington), for Lord Stratford read Strafford, and so on. This might seem a quibble, but if you can't even be bothered to check and get the names right, what else must the reader be prepared to accept as inaccurate. It seriously undermines the author's credibility.
And worst of all, the battle map indices were incomprehensible, and in no way illuminated by the very poor photographs of modern roadways!
Enough said. I enjoyed the read and learned a lot about a lot, but at the end I still could not understand why he stuck with that shrew of a wife, Sarah. But then Wellington stuck with Kitty although she was a liability so maybe it was something in the water. We have it on fairly good authority that Wellington was not totally faithful to his wife and it is suspected that Marlborough also was not, but this side of his character is never really explored. Maybe this is because Richard Holmes is more comfortable with the military machinations than the civil conflicts. A lot more on some of the fascinating characters who move in and out of the book would also have been interesting. Marlborough was operating in a European theatre with an allied army, but we never got to know the other allied commanders well, or the Bavarians who joined forces with the French. On the oter hand the pressures on Louis and his relationships with his ministers of war and his marshals were fairly well handled. On the whole I enjoyed the book and devoured it because there are so few really good biographies of great Englishmen.
on 17 October 2011
It is evident that Marlborough was a fascinating character, and that he lived in interesting times (himself materially contributing to that interestingness). The real question is, does Richard Holmes' biography stand out, and if so, positively or negatively?
I think Holmes has done a stirling job. His book is much more balanced, than, say, Charles Spencer's 'Blenheim' (the latter book has a much better pace though...). Holmes has seriously studied his subject. His conclusion that Marlborough's accomplishments far outweighed his failings is supported well. Probably a different interpretation would be possible based on the same sources. Holmes has clearly taken a liking to his subject; when Marlborough is thrifty, Holmes defends him by pointing out the traumatic poverty he experienced in his young years; when Marlborough is treacherous (dealing directly with Jacobites) he is excused on the ground that the times were so unstable one almost had to hedge one's bets; when Marlborough is shamelessly corrupt, well, didn't everyone in high places steal money from the government.
The point is that this book is really thorough. A typical example is that Holmes is one of the very few writers on the War of the Spanish Succession who actually understands the Dutch contribution; rather than just complaining about stand-in-the-way whining deputees of the States-General, he explains that they had much more to lose (the existence of their country) than Marlborough (just his career), that the Dutch paid for most of the war, provided most soldiers, and suffered most casualties (e.g. Malplaquet was really a Dutch bloodbath) - only to find themselves left in the lurch at the end when the Brits bailed out (which incidentally was not Marlborough's fault). Holmes really deserves credit for this thoroughness and even-handedness.
In conclusion, anyone who really wants to know what Marlborough & his time was all about & is willing to spend a few hours reading, should buy this book. Those who want more 'bang' for their 'time buck' have an excellent alternative in Spencer's Blenheim.
on 26 March 2011
I really wanted to like this book - yet I didn't, which is a real shame. There is no doubting the dedication & scholarly approach, depth of study & research towards the mercurial Duke of Marlborough (DOM) in Richard Holmes book. But that can't disguise the fact that it is not an easy nor a fluid read. In fact I found it often dull & a bit of a chore.
For such an exciting period in English & European history I thought I would be charging through the book, enthralled to the tale, alas no. Holmes deals competently with the back drop of the formative part of DOM's life. The Civil War, the Republic under Cromwell, The Restoration, The Glorious Revolution - are all as primers, nicely handled. His first chapter on life in England is far too long. Still here with domestic English history he is on firm footing. It is when the narrative transfers to the War of Spanish Succession I started to find real fault with the book.
For a start, the chapters are far too long: from 50 - 80 pages. We are introduced to a flurry of individuals, many without a decent mini biography to enhance our understanding of them, so remain lifeless & never really become animated. The narrative becomes quite myopic - centring entirely on DOM's environs largely ignoring what was going on in other European theatres of war - especially Spain. Not enough detail was given to understanding why the English continued with this costly war. Yet too much extracts of often superfluous correspondence is carried on. I felt a more judicious Editors eye should have trimmed this down.
Holmes is a military historian & it shows, he writes effortlessly regarding military life. But I was disappointed with his handling of battle sequences & sieges. Frank McLynn's "1759", Roger Crowley's "Empires of the Sea", Antony Beevor's "Berlin/Stalingrad" are all superior in the bloody "war-is-hell" you can smell the cordite of the battle field. More battlefield maps would have helped. I found the battle sequences often hard to follow & clinical in their execution.
DOM's relationship (often detrimental) in tolerating his harridan of a wife Sarah is never really understood. His sheer avarice towards money is underscored and...and...and...
Essentially the book is too long, dry & insulated. At least 100 pages could be shorn off to make a tighter, more fluid, lucid, entertaining & still historically worthy book.
Mr Holmes is a fine scholar & I'm sure a true old school gentleman & I thank him for his contribution.