{book + tv} the beauty, the sorrow & the abbey


The British television series Downton Abbey peaks all sorts of interests in its viewer-ship. I, for one, am obsessed with the costuming. And then there are the sets. I have also, like many others, taken an interest in the variety of perspectives woven into the show. Not only the ones between and within the classes, but of this latest turn in season 2: of World War I.

At the end of last year I received an ARC for Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow (as translated by Peter Graves, Knopf 2011), I’ve yet to properly finish it and write a review worthy of it; yet I can confidently recommend it just the same. Englund’s rarefied approach to non-fictional historical texts is a refreshing one. He has taken recorded history/primary sources via journals, letters, photographs, etc. and pieced them into a chronological narrative. His sources are diversified so as to cover the personal experiences from as many perspectives as Englund could manage. He is deft in introducing and following a large cast.

A highly original and revelatory narrative history of World War I that brings into focus its least examined, most stirring component: the experience of the average man or woman.

To create this intimate picture of what war was really like, Peter Englund draws from the diaries, journals, and letters of twenty individuals. They hail from Belgium and Denmark, Austria and Hungary, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and Venezuela. Some fight on the Western Front, others in the Alps or Mesopotamia; some never see a battlefield. There is a twelve-year-old German schoolgirl, an English nurse in the Russian army, a French civil servant, an American woman married to a Polish aristocrat—all of whom will be united by their involvement, witting or otherwise, in The Great, and terrible, War.

A brilliant mosaic of perspectives, the narrative reads with a depth of feeling and an evocation of time and place we might expect of a novel, and allows these twenty men and women to speak for not only themselves, but also for all of those who were in some way shaped by the war, yet whose voices remain unheard. –publisher’s comments.

The author himself is not without a voice. He shapes the narratives into an accessible translation of personhood, time, and place. Englund returns the voices from the past into flesh, capturing personality, individual voice.

People behave in unanticipated ways; there is as much base behavior as heroism. Mr. Englund discussed the soldiers who actively tried to catch a venereal disease from prostitutes as a way to evade service at the front. “The most grotesque expression of this can be seen in the trade of gonococcal pus, which soldiers buy and smear into their genitals in the hope of ending up in hospital,” he writes. “Those who are really desperate rub it into their eyes, which often results in lifelong blindness.”–Dwight Garner *

The imagery culled from the front, no wonder these men’s desperate aversion. The juxtapositions (like base/brave) ground the experience of The Beauty and the Sorrow.

Englund quotes directly from his sources in an elegant fashion. He also provides footnotes with contextual information, interesting facts. They enter/read like a person following along with you who is familiar with the greater scope of the events and can interject historical perspective; he explains who particular figures are; makes asides, etc.

One of the things I find remarkably vivid is how no one could really understand what was going on and how it came to be so. Some had ideas, of course. The explanations and motivations vary. And then it is the war, no mistake, and what next? What now? Englund haunts the text with pervasive themes/emotions: fear, confusion, courage, bigotry, helplessness, awe… The chaos and coincidence are breath-taking. Englund provide context, and you may draw from your own history lessons, but none of it lessens the effect of each individuals own limited perspective. The war becomes a human story–the day-to-day, and less a fascination with political maneuvers, propaganda, battle myth, and statistics (although such fascination is involved).

The transition from the old ways of doing war and the new are remarked with some humor and horror. The assinine blundering at great cost to the common people. The criticisms are unmistakable. Englund comes across as one who aligns himself less with the writers of history and more with those who actually suffered it. This and the voices of the individual men and women and children are incredibly compelling.

If you’ve an interest in World War I, avid or no, The Beauty and the Sorrow is one you’ll enjoy. I think you’ll find it an interesting companion piece to Downton Abbey.

*Dwight Garner has written a brilliant The New York Times review of this book, “Mass Slaughter on a Personal Level” (Nov. 2011), please read it and continue to seriously consider adding this book to your lists.

Ian Thomas’ review, “The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War, by Peter Englund”, for The Guardian (Nov. 2011)

another review by me likely to come, after I reach that ending Garner promises.


{image: 1– Carnival Films Production filming Downton Abbey, in the foreground:Thomas (Rob James-Collier), 2– Hardcover, Knopf 2011}

8 Comments Add yours

  1. ibeeeg says:

    TV viewing greatly eludes me, but Downtown Abbey is definitely one of those shows that I most terribly do want to watch. On my list with shows such as Dr. Who, Torchwood (need to finish this one still), Merlin, and Firefly.

    I love historical fiction, as you probably know, and besides the 1700’s (specifically around the Revolutionary War period), I am inclined towards WWII and then WWI. This means, I am highly intrigued by The Beauty and the Sorrow. Especially since you find his approach to historical text as refreshing. This sounds good, and most assuredly sounds like a book for me. Not only that, it seems like a book that I should own in order to give myself the luxury of reading through it a bit at a time or even yet, to go back to various parts of interest.

    Onto my TBR list it goes. And actually, I do think I will go ahead and browse through Amazon and place it on my wishlist of books to buy.

    1. L says:

      I can send you my (somewhat beat-up) ARC, if you want. W/ the zine?–I should be done with it by then–early May? I can check back with you closer to time.

      1. ibeeeg says:

        Thanks for the offer. I just saw that my library has it, so I placed it on hold. If it is a book that should be a keeper, like I think it will be, then I will definitely need to purchase for my shelves. If your ARC is not something you want to keep, then yes please do send it my way and May would be fine.

        Elliana loves history like I do, WWII being her thing, so I am thinking a book such as this one would be good for her in the future too. You think?

        1. L says:

          in the future future, yeah, likely. it is a good mix of journal and academic (via footnotes, timelines); a good blur of fiction/non-. one of the 20 is a 12-year-old german girl; but I think she would have held off a bit on knowing what war is like on such an intimate level; because Englund does draw it down to raw and personal levels.

          1. ibeeeg says:

            Yes, I was thinking in the future…not at her age currently. Good to know your thoughts, thanks. Also good to know that Englund does bring the history down to personal levels.

  2. Kailana says:

    I really need to get around to Downton Abbey. I watched the first couple episodes, but making an effort to watch things doesn’t happen like it should.

  3. L says:

    yeah, we cue things up fairly randomly: I do, anyway. the past few nights the screen has been dedicated to mariokart on the wii.

  4. Suey says:

    That sounds like quite the interesting book. I too am suddenly fascinated by things that look and feel like Downton Abbey. This picture, though, makes me want to say “BOO Thomas!”

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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