1. Mary Bennett: The Ilberts in India. Deceptively introduced as a family history – it’s about Mary’s grandfather going out to Bengal as chief legal officer in the Indian government – this modest book has considerable depth and complexity, describing the history and politics of this part of India in the second half of the nineteenth century, as well as what it was like for a government official and his family to live there. It is so succinct and densely argued that one feels it could be repeatedly read so as to pick up on additional layers of meaning.
2. Penelope Fitzgerald: The Knox Brothers. A unique work of biography, written with Fitzgerald’s insight, brevity and wit – and exact feel for what can be left unsaid. Clearly a labour of love, it still had me laughing out loud on the second reading, and would bear many more.
3. Frances Partridge’s Diaries. Covering the majority of the 20th century, these diaries are written with wit, wisdom and a very exact and delicate feel for language. Above all, they convey the attitude to life, friends and family of a woman of rare intellect, integrity and humanity.
4. Wilfred Thesiger: The Marsh Arabs. This might be classed as ‘travel’ or ‘anthropology’, but I think it belongs with history for its detailed and fascinating picture of a culture and way of life which have now gone forever. It is beautifully written and deeply humane.
5. Cao Xue Qin: The Story of the Stone. A 17th century Chinese novel, which paints a detailed and unforgettable picture of life especially among aristocratic families of the time. It covers (in five volumes) their beliefs, cultural and other pursuits, careers, material possessions and above all the role of women – an avowed object of the male author.
6. Henry Osborne Taylor: The Medieval Mind. This is a study of medieval religious beliefs in Western Europe, and made me aware, as an undergraduate, of the enticing inner logic of Roman Catholicism at that time, and some of the fascinating personalities who expounded it. I have kept it by me, thinking I will almost certainly read it again.
7. E P Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class. A revelation to me as to many others of what can be done with detailed, painstaking research and analysis. A long, satisfying book which will certainly repay re-reading.
8. William Dalrymple: City of Djinns. Much of the long history of Delhi is packed into this highly readable and often amusing book, which made me feel at home in Delhi, and which I enjoyed just as much the second time round.