A real-life Gone With The Wind

A World On Fire
by Amanda Foreman

When Amanda Foreman’s biography of the Duchess of Devonshire became a bestseller and was made into the film The Duchess, with Keira Knightley, the world was at her feet.

But what would she write next? Speculation among her eager readers included the name of every high-spirited aristocratic woman in history. The success of the book Georgiana, Duchess Of Devonshire, however, was not just down to its gripping romantic story, but also to the originality of Foreman’s approach. Here were the methods of a scholar (she has an Oxford doctorate) used to create a far more exciting narrative than most historical novels.

The book Foreman has chosen to write is A World On Fire. Let me say at once that with this study of the American Civil War, and in particular the British participation, her readers are in for another treat, if quite different from the one they were expecting. The subtitle is An Epic History Of Two Nations Divided, and this extraordinarily rich, racy and poignant study certainly is that. At times I found myself seeing it all in filmic terms, so colourful is the writing, and so much does Foreman concentrate on personalities.

We have the British who fought voluntarily on either side, the British who were forced unwillingly into the American armies, the journalists who covered the hostilities, the diplomats – and all this before you even come to the Americans themselves: the blockaders, the heroines, the generals and, of course, President Abraham Lincoln.

All these characters must first be understood as people, before the whole tapestry of events can be woven: in this sense, the book is like Gone With The Wind but with the true history inserted. But even more importantly, it is a biography of two peoples at an epic moment in their shared history.

Anger, resentment, sympathy, loyalty, all the emotions that characterise Anglo-American relations today, can be traced back to this period.

There are two British men in particular whose experiences run through the book. One is Lord Lyons, the British Minister in Washington during the war. The other is Francis Lawley, correspondent of The Times: a vital role in the British interpretation of the struggle.

These two men differed widely in their approaches to what was happening before them, which reminds us that righteous self-identification with the anti-slavery North is much easier to feel with hindsight. People’s emotions at the time, however, not knowing the end of the story, were far more complicated. It is salutary to realise that even Northern attitudes to the people then known as negroes would shock many liberals today.

One of the many problems Lyons had to deal with was the illegal conscription of British nationals as the war effort on both sides demanded more and more bodies to be sacrificed, regardless of where they had come from. ‘If I have not succeeded as well as I ought,’ wrote Lyons at one point, ‘I have done more than most people, who knew everything about the difficulties, expected.’

Lyons comes across as an honourable if anxiety-ridden man. Lawley on the other hand was strongly pro-Southern throughout the war, so that readers of The Times received a picture of events very different from Lyons’s dispatches home.

Lawley was an observer at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 which ended with the Confederate (Southern) retreat under General Robert E. Lee.

The cannonade, he wrote afterwards, sounded ‘one deep prolonged bellowing roar. A thick canopy of smoke, constantly rent by bright darting flashes of flame, cast its dense pall over the struggling, bleeding thousands who toiled and died in its centre’.

Gettysburg is one of the many closeups of battles in the book, handily accompanied by maps; as Foreman reminds us, it was one of the many battles in history ‘where thousands died contesting a patch of ground’.

Women, too, play a strong part in this story, as of course they always have done in times of war, whether acknowledged or not. Belle Boyd, the Confederate spy and heroine of the Battle of Front Royal, is a personal favourite, perhaps because I detected a hint of Scarlett O’Hara in her determination, when caught in a tight corner, to transform the nearest impressionable male into her rescuer.

This is surely a part for Keira Knightley, but before the film is ever made, here is an iridescent book; vivid like a rainbow but rather more substantial.

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