Review: Written in History, Simon Sebag Montefiore

Rating: 2 out of 5

This didn’t rise to my expectations. Mr Montefiore’s attempts to categorize letters into specific topics failed as often as they succeeded while in many cases the letters themselves took a step back compared to the author’s introduction to the writer and their times.

Nevertheless, there is some value here. The letters, often, do illustrate some previously hidden layer of the characters who are mentioned. This is perhaps most evident when Oliver Cromwell’s letter to the parents of a dead soldier is included. Also, while I was slightly surprised by the spread, both in time and space, of the letters and their writers, more time and effort could have been spent on this.

The categorization, meanwhile, did mean that some people cropped up with a few letters in separate sections, but there was no coherent story—though the author never claims to want to build that, only to illustrate a little bit more of who some people in history were. Also, Mr Montefiore’s expertise with Russia and the Romanovs is demonstrated by the numerous selections from those courts while many other nations are entirely disregarded.

It also happens quite often that the author introduces a two- or three-paragraph text by three pages of descriptive notes on who the original letter writer was. While this builds necessary context, it’s also bit dull. A better premise could have been created by sticking to a theme between specific people, so that the description could have been unique to it with the letters expanding on what happened.

Overall, I liked the idea more than the result. There is some good stuff in this, but I found it rather tedious going overall.

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