The vague impression I gained from my school English history syllabus was that the 18th century was the one when nothing happened. It was that yawning gap between the political and religious battles of the 17th century and the social upheavals of the Industrial Revolution. John Brewer's The Pleasures of the Imagination. English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (HarperCollins, Pounds 19.99) is the latest in a number of much-praised historical studies to argue that, on the contrary, many important things did happen in the 18th century.
Where Linda Colley's Britons looked at nationhood, Brewer examines in absorbing, rich detail the birth of a public culture, with its widely diffused tastes and fashions.
Well illustrated with paintings and engravings, it highlights the exciting modernity of the period, particularly as reflected in the buzzing cultural life of London. Brewer puts his case for the importance of the 18th century with elegance and clarity.
Charles James Fox, the subject of an excellent biography by Oxford historian L G Mitchell (Penguin, Pounds 8.99), is a fascinating figure who straddled two worlds. His highly personal, aristocratic politics and rakish disregard for public opinion sat strangely with his occasional enthusiasm for the French Revolution and democratic reform. Although the embodiment of Whiggism, he was far from being one of those desiccated Gladstonian types from the Victorian era. One comes away from this erudite,witty examination of his life seduced by the chutzpah of the man.
A character of great charm but prodigious appetites, today's tabloids would certainly have adored him.
The stage upon which Fox spent his political life was the House of Commons, and another great parliamentarian performer is the subject of a recently reissued biography. John Grigg's Lloyd George, The Young Lloyd George (HarperCollins, Pounds 12.99), first published in 1973, is admiring while never descending into hagiography.
He defends George against some of the more ad hominem attacks, for example that he grossly mistreated his first wife, Margaret, but also highlights the hypocrisy of some of his rhetoric. Noting the disparity between George's own later financial shenanigans and his pursuit of Joseph Chamberlain in the 1890s and 1900s, Grigg writes aptly: "The detailed, cold-blooded indictment, brilliantly though he conceived and executed it, would have come better from another man."
Two very different approaches to biography are found in my final selections. Robert U Akeret is someone who, professionally, has been exposed to intense snapshots of people's inner lives. In The Man Who Loved a Polar Bear and Other Psychotherapist's Tales (Penguin, Pounds 7.99) he follows up these snapshots, sometimes 20 or 30 years after the individuals came to him at a time of crisis. The result, apart from being yet another entry in the competition for Popular Psychology Book with The Longest and Wackiest Title, is an interesting if somewhat breathlessly written illustration of the problems we get into if we start prescribing to others how they should be happy, or even if happy is what they should be.
Jack Cardiff's Magic Hour (Faber, Pounds 9.99), by contrast, positively brims with happiness. Cardiff is one of the leading cameramen in the history of cinema, and his autobiography is full of rough-and-ready excitement. Entertaining anecdotes include a wide-eyed description of Marlene Dietrich cavorting naked in the bath before a studio-full of technicians.