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Britain’s Second Most Famous Nurse

Susan Pedersen: Edith Cavell, 14 April 2011

Edith Cavell 
by Diana Souhami.
Quercus, 417 pp., £25, September 2010, 978 1 84916 359 0
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... Nurses are tough subjects for biography. Their ethos of compassion and, sometimes, self-sacrifice can lead to hagiography or – when times change – invite satire. It’s hard to forget Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale, her health broken by her exertions in the Crimea, issuing breathless directives on sanitary reform to the secretary of war, Sidney Herbert, and harrying him into an early grave ...

Destined to Disappear

Susan Pedersen: ‘Race Studies’, 20 October 2016

White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations 
by Robert Vitalis.
Cornell, 272 pp., $29.95, November 2015, 978 0 8014 5397 7
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... Robert Vitalis​ tells a great story about how he came to write this book. Some years ago, sitting in the Clark University library avoiding grading his students’ final exams, he pulled an old history of the university off the shelf. Clark played a key role in the birth of the field of international relations in the two decades before the First World War, he read, especially by founding and supporting one of the new discipline’s flagship journals, the Journal of Race Development ...

One-Man Ministry

Susan Pedersen: Welfare States, 8 February 2018

Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State 
by Chris Renwick.
Allen Lane, 323 pp., £20, September 2017, 978 0 241 18668 8
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... If I were asked​ to name the man who did most to shape the welfare state in modern Britain, I just might give the palm to Sir Alfred Watson. He would be an unconventional choice. Short, bald, unassuming, more at home with numbers than people, Watson is well and truly forgotten. But he had strong views on how social services should develop and be funded, and first as a kind of roving adviser to the committees that set up national insurance schemes before the First World War, and then as government actuary with an office in the Treasury from 1917, he took a red pen to anything that smacked of profligacy or radicalism ...

Sam, Caroline, Janet, Stella, Len, Helen and Bob

Susan Pedersen: Mass Observation, 21 September 2017

Seven Lives from Mass Observation: Britain in the Late 20th Century 
by James Hinton.
Oxford, 207 pp., £25, October 2016, 978 0 19 878713 6
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... Mass Observation​ was the brainchild of the charismatic ornithologist turned anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the Marxist poet Charles Madge and (briefly) the experimental filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. It attempted to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ by ‘observing’ ordinary Britons as they went about their ordinary lives – and by enlisting those same people as diarists and commentators ...

A Knife to the Heart

Susan Pedersen: Did the Suffragettes succeed?, 30 August 2018

Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes 
by Diane Atkinson.
Bloomsbury, 670 pp., £30, February 2018, 978 1 4088 4404 5
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Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote 
by Jane Robinson.
Doubleday, 374 pp., £20, January 2018, 978 0 85752 391 4
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... The​ wars and revolutions that took place a century ago were so vastly consequential for peoples and nations that historians have had to deal with centenaries queued up like planes coming into Heathrow: 1914, the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme, the Balfour Declaration, the Bolshevik Revolution, not to mention the Armistice, the Treaty of Versailles and the Spanish flu epidemic still circling overhead ...

Shock Cities

Susan Pedersen: The Fate of Social Democracy, 2 January 2020

Thatcher’s Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town 
by Guy Ortolano.
Cambridge, 301 pp., £29.99, June 2019, 978 1 108 48266 0
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Me, Me, Me? The Search for Community in Postwar England 
by Jon Lawrence.
Oxford, 327 pp., £25, June 2019, 978 0 19 877953 7
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... These​ two books will be read, inevitably, as studies of neoliberalism, a world order – and a word – that has snuck up on us in the last few decades. I say ‘snuck up’ for a reason. I remember the 1980s, when our antagonists were identifiable and embodied: the one with the handbag, the one with the cowboy hat, and then their grey successors ...

Ruin it your own way

Susan Pedersen, 4 June 2020

Tastes of Honey: The Making of Shelagh Delaney and a Cultural Revolution 
by Selina Todd.
Chatto, 304 pp., £18.99, August 2019, 978 1 78474 082 5
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A Taste of Honey 
by Shelagh Delaney.
Methuen, 112 pp., £14.44, November 2019, 978 1 350 13495 9
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... When​ Shelagh Delaney, all of 19, started writing A Taste of Honey, it had only two characters: Jo, the 15-year-old Salford school-leaver whose choices and chances structure the story, and her forty-year-old often skint but always cadging mother, Helen. Other characters were added later. Peter, the louche businessman with a ‘wallet full of reasons’ to lure Helen offstage and into a brief marriage for the play’s middle sections ...

Mothers were different

Susan Pedersen: The Breadwinner Norm, 19 November 2020

Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy 
by Emma Griffin.
Yale, 389 pp., £20, April 2020, 978 0 300 23006 2
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... In​ 1894, Mary Molloy married Jimmy O’Meara, a Liverpool docker. She was 30 and he was 37. Mary may well have fallen in love, but the marriage made economic sense too. Although she had worked since girlhood, she earned only 12 shillings a week – just above the average women’s wage at the turn of the century, but not really enough for her to live comfortably on her own ...

You’re only interested in Hitler, not me

Susan Pedersen: Shirley Williams, 19 December 2013

Shirley Williams: The Biography 
by Mark Peel.
Biteback, 461 pp., £25, September 2013, 978 1 84954 604 1
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... Mark Peel organises his serviceable authorised biography of Shirley Williams around an ostensible conundrum. Why didn’t Williams achieve more politically? Why did the polarising, hectoring Margaret Thatcher, rather than the consensus-seeking, appealing Williams, become Britain’s first woman prime minister? This is a common question. Among left-leaning right-thinking Britons of a certain age, Williams is the embodiment of lost hopes and lost opportunities, a living reminder of a more harmonious Britain that might have been, if … If what? If the times had been less polarising, the parties less bloody-minded, the principal herself more adept? Facing up to that question in her 2009 autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves, Williams concluded that she lacked not only the ruthlessness needed to make it to the top but also the boundless self-confidence and (for much of her career) the supportive spouse that a woman in a man’s world needs ...

I want to love it

Susan Pedersen: What on earth was he doing?, 18 April 2019

Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History 
by Richard J. Evans.
Little, Brown, 800 pp., £35, February 2019, 978 1 4087 0741 8
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... Was​ Eric Hobsbawm interested in himself? Not, I think, so very much. He had a more than healthy ego and enough self-knowledge to admit it, but all his curiosity was turned outward – towards problems, politics, literatures, languages, landscapes. Never without a book, whether bound for a tutorial or the local A&E, for decades he disappeared off for tramping holidays or conferences anywhere from Catalonia to Cuba the moment term ended ...

Worth the Upbringing

Susan Pedersen: Thirsting for the Vote, 4 March 2021

Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel 
by Rachel Holmes.
Bloomsbury, 976 pp., £35, September 2020, 978 1 4088 8041 8
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... On​ 18 June 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst was released from Holloway prison. She was in bad shape. A year earlier the Liberal government had passed the so-called Cat and Mouse Act as a response to the hunger strikes undertaken by militant suffragettes in prison. Under its terms, women could be released when they became dangerously weak (not just from hunger, but also from the travails of force-feeding), and then rearrested, released and rearrested, over and over, until they had served the whole of their sentences ...

Here’s to the high-minded

Stefan Collini, 7 April 1994

After the Victorians: Private Conscience and Public Duty in Modern Britain 
edited by Susan Pedersen and Peter Mandler.
Routledge, 265 pp., £40, February 1994, 0 415 07056 2
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... on this development suggests that this extended historical episode is essentially over. As Susan Pedersen and Peter Mandler emphasise in the introductory essay of After the Victorians, the volume is intended to challenge the once conventional assumption that the early decades of the 20th century saw a decisive break with the values of the ...

Parcelled Out

Ferdinand Mount: The League of Nations, 22 October 2015

The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire 
by Susan Pedersen.
Oxford, 571 pp., £22.99, June 2015, 978 0 19 957048 5
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... the Pax Britannica into a Pax Mundi.’ The British were not alone in feeling like this, for, as Susan Pedersen points out in her magnificent study, the absentees turned the League of Nations into ‘a League of Empires’, its proceedings dominated by Britain and France, but with a hefty input from other colonial powers – Italy, the ...

Associated Prigs

R.W. Johnson: Eleanor Rathbone, 8 July 2004

Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience 
by Susan Pedersen.
Yale, 469 pp., £25, March 2004, 0 300 10245 3
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... When Susan Pedersen writes that Eleanor Rathbone was the most significant woman in British politics in the first half of the 20th century she might have added that another Somerville alumna, Margaret Thatcher, clearly earned that title in the century’s second half. No one can doubt the extent to which Thatcher stamped herself on the 1980s, but the effect of reading this fine biography is to make one wonder, not just why Rathbone is now forgotten but whether she wasn’t Thatcher’s superior in everything but achieving power ...

Where are we now?

LRB Contributors: Responses to the Referendum, 14 July 2016

... Colin Kidd, Ross McKibbin, Philippe Marlière, James Meek, Pankaj Mishra, Jan-Werner Müller, Susan Pedersen, J.G.A. Pocock, Nick Richardson, Nicholas Spice, Wolfgang Streeck, Daniel TrillingDavid RuncimanSo who​ is to blame? Please don’t say the voters: 17,410,742 is an awful lot of people to be wrong on a question of this magnitude. They are ...

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