The Discovery of France

Graham Robb (Picador, 2008)

Recommended by Andrew Hodgson 

Robb offers a magnificent description of France as a massive patchwork of places. The ‘discovery’ is both the author’s uncovering of the intricate jumble of tribes, tongues, and traditions that make up France’s history, and the country’s attempt to forge a unified identity from them. The book is written with an ironic care for the way the spirit of place shapes and finds expression in the everyday existence of its people. One of the most attractive passages involves Robb pausing over the ‘large and luckless’ contingent of ordinary lives strung out among the nation’s gradual incline to modernity, who spent the best part of their years ‘cocooned in idleness’ from the gloom and cold of winter, attempting to make life as uncomplicated as possible.

Storied Ground: Landscape and the Shaping of English National Identity

Paul Readman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)

Recommended by Catriona Paton

Storied Ground - Paul ReadmanFrom the cliffs of Dover to the industrial city of Manchester, Readman highlights the significance of connections between landscape and heritage in the construction of a modern, popular form of English national identity. This work explores how landscapes are ‘storied’ with countless human histories and memories bound up with place. Through the history, literature and art of the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, Storied Ground traces a varied and widespread engagement with landscapes in English culture. Expanding a marginal, conservative and anti-modern understanding of rural Englishness, Readman demonstrates how a ‘topography’ of English national identity accommodated industrial landscapes and diverse political perspectives in a rapidly urbanising and democratising modern Britain.