Sam Willis and James Daybell, Histories of the Unexpected: how everything has a history

Atlantic Books, 2018, 465pp., ISBN: 9781786494122, (h/bk), AUS$39.99

Histories of the Unexpected: how everything has a history, by British celebrity historians Sam Willis and James Daybell, is based on their popular podcast of the same name (which you can find here).

Willis and Daybell have joined forces to follow through on some of our best-known historical themes in search of some very strange connections. The authors outline their intentions upfront: they want to tackle the easily recognised from “the Tudors, to the Second World War, from the Roman empire to the Victorians, but they want their readers to think about history as we know it ‘via entirely unexpected subjects’ (p. 1).

The book is a terrific survey of the essential, the everyday and the quirky. Written in an informal and highly-engaging style, this is a book for everyone. There is a chapter on needlework connecting histories of abandoned children, racism and murder (pp. 118-29), one on hair connecting histories of memory, love and Arctic exploration pp. (183-94) and one on cats connecting many stories about an animal that is, today, for many a little friend (pp. 332-44). History is not always pleasant or polite. Indeed, in many instances, history reveals deliberate cruelty and gross violence. As engaging as these authors are, there is still much in this volume that is traumatic. Humans have done, and continue to do, dreadful things to each other and to our environment. As Willis and Daybell are happy to frolic through the centuries, they are not afraid to draw our attention to more serious episodes of continuing relevance.

This book is beautifully laid out and includes a bibliography and an index, for those who have had their curiosity piqued rather than fully satisfied and want to know more. There are some lovely illustrations supplementing the text and detailed picture credits list these works, easily facilitating additional research.

Histories of the Unexpected is like a bowl of lollies. You can gorge yourself in just a few sessions or have it, just sitting there, to dip into every now and then. The outcomes of these histories—gloves, clocks, boxes and much more—are all very familiar. But the curious details of these historical narratives are quite surprising and so make this book a very informative read. There are some serious messages but it’s also great fun.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, November 2018

Visit the publisher’s website here.

Share This