20th October 1995 at 01:00
It's strange to realise now that when William Morris died in October 1896,aged 62, the obituaries spoke of him as "the poet". Indeed an Icelandic newspaper (Morris had travelled frequently to the Nordic countries in search of the ancient sagas) referred to him fondly as "one of the most famous poets in England". He was reputed to be able to write 1,000 lines of verse in a day; and he left behind him 24 published volumes of poetry, Icelandic sagas, utopian fantasies, science fiction and his own inimitable brand of magic realism. Little, if any, mention was made of the wallpapers,stained glass and socialist ideas by which we know him today.

Fiona MacCarthy's prize-winning study William Morris: A Life for our Time (Faber #163;12.99) seeks to rediscover this remarkable character, described by the late historian E P Thompson as "one of those men whom history will never overtake". Here we have Morris researching his own methods to dye cloth so that his designs could be mass-produced; standing on a soap-box in Hyde Park; and writing frankly about his sexual feelings.

Also outed in true 1990s style is another great man of history. Christopher Hibbert's Nelson: A Personal History (Penguin #163;8.99) details both the infamous affair with Lady Hamilton - "I can neither Eat or Sleep for thinking of you my dearest love, I never touch even pudding" - and the excitement of the battle scenes. Yes, he did say "Kiss me, Hardy"; and yes, he was a weakling who at the end of a long voyage would often struggle off the ship wasted and exhausted. But he had huge charisma and valour which inspired his crews to great feats.

In the 30-odd years since Christopher Hill published his seminal studies of Puritan England, Society amp; Puritanism in PreRevolutionary England and Puritanism amp; Revolution, he has himself become a great man of history, changing the way we look at the past. Now reissued by Secker amp; Warburg (#163;14. 99 each), they are as invigorating a read as they must have been when they first appeared, for Hill has the ability both to look at events through a microscope and to remember the wider world. So he takes us out of the Palace of Westminster and away from the debates about religion and introduces us to characters like the "mad hatter" of Chesham, Roger Crab, a 17th Century vegetarian and zealot for the cause of Parliament.

What is exciting about the work of historians such as Hill is that it has shown us what "ordinary life" was like for the hay makers, tanners and journeymen apprentices - even for the dairy maids and wives. In Women in England 1500-1760: A Social History (Weidenfeld amp; Nicolson #163;12.99), Anne Laurence avoids the trap of entangling herself in gender debates and has instead come up with a an immensely readable portrait of a woman's lot before industrialisation. Along the way she has unearthed all kinds of titbits of information, such as that abortion did not become a criminal offence until 1803, that suicides were common in this period (stress is not a modern phenomenon), and that it was not unusual for a woman to take over her husband's business after his death even if this meant, as for Lady Henrietta Maria Davenant (who died in 1691), being in charge of a company of actors.

We're back among Puritans with The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America (W W Norton #163;8.95). Joy Day Buel and Richard Buel Jr have pieced together the diaries of Mary Fish Silliman - born in Connecticut in 1736 to a descendant of the Pilgrim Fathers and Puritan preacher. She died in 1818 having lived through three husbands and the revolt of the colonies against Britain. We see the emergence of the modern United States from small rural communities to the busy mercantile life of New Haven and Boston.

A rather different kind of life is portrayed in The Nielsen Companion, edited by Mina Miller (Faber #163;25). The Danish composer (1865-1931) is back in vogue after years of being considered "homespun" and provincial.This collection of essays by scholars is both a musicologist's delight - with in-depth analyses of the symphonies and chamber music - and an intriguing glimpse of one of the first composers to be influenced by the gramophone and wireless.

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