The Civil War, Amanda Foreman, Oxford, Nudity and Large Families

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The above video is an interview with Amanda Foreman who has written a fascinating study of Great Britain and the Civil War, A World on Fire, a book that I have been reading lately.  It is a comprehensive history, 958 pages in length, fully sourced and end noted, not only looking at the diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, but also examining individual Brits who fought on both sides of the War, and studying the travails of British war correspondents who covered the War for British papers.  If the British Empire had entered the War on the side of the Confederacy it is hard to see how the Union would have prevailed, and Great Britain came within inches of doing so during the furor over the Trent affair, the Union seizure of Confederate diplomats Mason and Sliddel from the British mail ship Trent, in 1861.  Foreman masterfully retells this tale, and explains why the Brits ultimately did not intervene throughout the War.   Her tome is one of the more original books on the Civil War that I have read in many a year and very well written.

Whenever I come across a book that I enjoy by an author I am not familiar with, sooner or later I will research the background of the author.  For most historians it is usually dry stuff:  where they attended college, which historians they studied under, academic positions they have held and a list of the books they have written.  The ink stained wretches who serve Clio, the Muse of History, may write about exciting events, but they usually live fairly dull and colorless lives themselves, a historian like Winston Churchill being very much the exception.  Well, I quickly learned that there is very little dull about Ms. Foreman!

Born in 1968 she is a daughter of the late Carl Foreman, a former Commie who was blacklisted in the Fifties.  He was also a screenwriter of genius, producing the script for High Noon.  Foreman embraced Communism, which he later renounced, while studying at my Alma Mater, the University of Illinois. (Well, living among the corn fields at Urbana can do strange things to college students unused to bucolic Central Illinois.!)    After he was blacklisted he moved to England where he enjoyed great success with such films as The Guns of Navarrone and Young Winston, becoming a Commander of the British Empire.  He also married, for the second time, and had two children, Jonathan and Amanda Foreman.  Jonathan Foreman has achieved fame in Britain  as  a war journalist in Iraq, being embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, and helped found, and writes for, StandPoint , a center-right journal of opinion in Britain that celebrates Western Civilization.  (I wonder what Carl would think?)

Ms. Foreman was educated at a boarding school in England, although she lived with her father in California prior to his death in 1984 of brain cancer.  She attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and then Columbia.  She earned a Phd in history at Oxford, writing her doctoral dissertation on Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, 1757-1807.  In 1998 she published her doctoral dissertation.  Normally such books fall stillborn from the press, and are usually read only by professors, people who are paid to read them, and students, people who are forced to read them.  Not so this book, which, while a superb history of the Duchess and her era, was written in a lively style by Ms. Foreman, who obviously had inherited a full measure of the dramatic skills of her father.  The book rapidly became a best seller, and was made into a play and a movie.  Not the usual fate for a doctoral dissertation.

This was all a heady experience for an author who had just entered her thirties, and perhaps that is why she decided to pose nude for the British magazine Tatler in 1999 in an article on Famous People Under Forty.  (No, I am not going to post the picture!  This is The American Catholic.  Google it yourself!)  The image is strictly PG or PG-13, as she is standing behind copies of her book on the Duchess and clutching other copies to her bosom.  Perhaps it is because I am getting old (Really, you do not all have to nod so readily!), but I find the image rather humorous than erotic, although I can understand how a lonely male bibliophile who hasn’t had a date since the first Clinton administration might view things differently.  Fortunately, this concept of historians appearing nude in pictures hasn’t  spread, because most historians, male and female, definitely serve the general good by staying firmly clothed.  Her rapid rise to fame, and her disrobing, have earned her a fair number of detractors in the British historical establishment, something she takes in stride.

So here we have Amanda Foreman at 31, an acclaimed author living a bohemian life style, when suddenly love entered her life in the form of Jonathan Barton, a banker, whom she married.  (Yeah, I really wonder what Carl would have thought of that!)  Then they began to have kids, lots of kids, five at the present count.  I have no idea what the politics of Ms. Foreman are, but in 2007 she wrote a defense of large families which would not be out of place as a post here at The American Catholic.  She begins as follows:

My drawing room contains a beautiful photo of a naked woman posing behind a huge column of books.  Blonde, slim and immaculately groomed, she’s looking at the camera with a smile on her face that says: “I’ve got the world at my feet.”  I look at that photo now and I laugh. Was that woman really me? After three children – and with twins arriving in June – there’s no way I would dare strike that same pose now. My hair may still be blonde but by the time I’ve bathed three children and brushed three sets of teeth, personal grooming is really the last thing on my mind.  But there’s another much more fundamental difference. Back then with my book top of the bestseller charts, courted by editors and TV companies, I thought I had it all. Certainly, that’s what everyone told me. Now I know that it’s impossible to have it all. Instead I’ve got what I really want – a wonderful happy marriage and five children.

After a stirring defense of large families which would elicit cheers from orthodox Catholics everywhere she ends with this:

Most people think we’re utterly crazy to have such a huge family. And strangers invariably regard us as freaks. We took the children to a restaurant recently. When the waiter realised we didn’t just have three children (taking up every single high chair in the entire restaurant) but I was actually pregnant, he shot me the most pitying glance.

 
Did I care? Of course not. Strangely, the more children I’ve had, the more relaxed I’ve become. I know I probably don’t do anything to the level I should but being a good enough mum is absolutely fine.

 
Meanwhile my next book is still progressing slowly. I have written 250,000 words and hope it will be ready for publication in late 2008.
Until then I will be busy enjoying every moment of my children’s lives. Today, as every day, Jonathan and I woke the children at 7am. There were excited squeals as they rushed into our bedroom and we all piled into bed together for a cuddle and a chat. It’s become our routine – and the most glorious moment in my day.
 It may be chaotic and noisy but I wouldn’t swop it for an orderly breakfast with two children for the world.

 

Go here to read the brilliant rest.

This is one of the very few times in my life when I have found the author of a good book that I am reading more fascinating than the book.  I look forward to future works of history that Ms. Foreman may write, especially if these are about our Civil War, but I am also intrigued by her ongoing life, as she seems to have a quality that is sorely lacking in our time:  an appreciation for what is truly important.
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14 Responses to The Civil War, Amanda Foreman, Oxford, Nudity and Large Families

  • Yeesh, I was reading this article about her:

    http://www.docstoc.com/docs/86445129/Amanda-Foreman-The-queen-of-historical-biography

    (Because, yes, curiosity demanded that I look up that picture.) Her husband went through treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma a couple years ago. He’s in remission now, but that’s nasty stuff. (My father managed seven years, with one long and one short remission in there.) With five very young children, they could definitely use our prayers.

    Sounds like a fascinating book.

  • Dale Price says:

    And she does all of this in *Manhattan.* I love the city, but I can’t imagine a more daunting place to try to raise a large family. I’ll go ahead and say it–Superwife and Supermom.

  • John Nolan says:

    Thanks, Don, I shall read this at the earliest opportunity. When I read history as an undergraduate 40 years ago women on the course outnumbered men by two to one, and yet women academic historians are still very much in the minority; female historical writers seem more drawn to biography. From the evidence of the video clips I would certainly go out of my way to hear her lecture.

    BTW, I know that Oxford D.Phils often preferred the style ‘Mr’ to ‘Dr’ (as do surgeons, even if they have doctorates) but I’m not sure about Ms. – might be confused with the abbreviation for manuscript.

  • Since she kept her own name John, I assumed that Ms. Foreman would have preferred Ms. which of course might be mistaken on my part. I was aware of the Oxford custom of eschewing doctor for “phony docs”, but even if I hadn’t I would not have used the title in a fairly light-hearted post like this. American attorneys, like their Brit counterparts, do not claim the title of doctor, although German attorneys are always referred to as Herr Doktor. American “phony docs” outside of the academic setting tend to be cautious about using the title since Americans in common usage assume that a Doctor is an MD, a vet, a dentist or a chiropractor. Perhaps Dr. Paul Zummo could enlighten us further as to the etiquette of American “phony doc” usage.

  • John Nolan says:

    Don, the ‘phony docs’ are surely physicians who only have a bachelor’s degree and for whom ‘doctor’ is a courtesy title. Consultant surgeons are still Mr or Mrs although some dentists have recently started using Dr presumably imitating continental or US practice. Vets are Mr or Mrs. Those with doctorates in non-medical disciplines certainly use them; the Abp of Canterbury is Dr Williams.

    Sadly, I no longer receive formal correspondence addressed to J Nolan Esq. as computers can’t cope with it.

  • Donna V. says:

    When I saw the headline of this post this morning, my first thought was “Civil War…Amanda Foreman (who is she?)…Oxford…nudity…large families…OK, I can’t process this yet, it’s too early and I haven’t had my coffee.”

    I’m glad I came back tonight to read the post. What a fascinating family! As Dale noted, yet another addition for the Amazon wish list. Thanks, Donald!

  • Dan says:

    What astonishes me is that she came from the family of Carl Foreman of all people, who was not, in my opinion, a writer of “genius” but competent nonetheless. Mr Foreman was also a bit of a royal pain on a movie set, with an autocratic style that did not endear him to his fellow workers. Oddly, none of these traits seem to be plaguing Miss Foreman.

    I will read her book. It sounds fascinating.

    And, oh, by the way, if I may say this: please don’t ever forget we are in a war of words, and that means me must never concede to the enemy one single inch of gorund in that war. So avoid using their “Ms” appellation (a meaningless one if ever there was one). “Miss” is the proper term when in doubt, whether the woman is married or not. If you know her to be married it is proper to use her married name, of course. Another war-word is “gay”, so please don’t ever use that perfectly innocent word to describe buggery. The War of the Words is much more important than perhaps you think it is.

  • “And, oh, by the way, if I may say this: please don’t ever forget we are in a war of words, and that means me must never concede to the enemy one single inch of ground in that war.”

    That is your war Dan, not mine. In business usage Ms. is handy when you do not know whether a female is married or unmarried. When a woman chooses to keep her maiden name I assume that she wishes to be addressed by Ms. unless she indicates otherwise.

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