In THE WORLD WE HAVE LOST (Scribner’s, $5.95), the British historian PETER LASLETT examines English life in the seventeenth century as it is revealed by contemporary parish records. Mr. Laslett is a founder and director of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, a title that pretty well indicates the direction of this particular book. The study is full of statistical information about births, legitimate or not, marriages, occupations, and deaths among the otherwise voiceless and unrecorded lower classes of the preindustrial age. Mr. Laslett considers the facts he has unearthed to be surprising, and constantly deploys them against what he assumes to be the reader’s preconceived and contrary ideas of seventeenth-century society. The reader who has no idea of life among the poor and near-poor of those times may marvel at Mr. Laslett’s belligerency, and any reader is entitled to deplore his habit of repeating his title four times in two pages. Since the information Mr. Laslett has assembled primarily concerns people of no influence or authority, it does not serve well as support for his suggestion that there was no class opposition involved in the English Civil War, which he interprets as a quarrel about methods of government among the members of the proportionately very small segment of the population entitled to govern at all. The theory itself is not implausible. Trouble arises, I suspect, from the incorrigibly loose meaning of the word “class,” which the author does little to tighten.
THEO ARONSON, who recently wrote an amusing history of the Buonaparte tribe, has tackled the Spanish Bourbons in ROYAL VENDETTA (Bobbs-Merrill, $7.50). The quarrel Mr. Aronson chronicles began in 1829, when a King of Spain died and the crown passed to his daughter despite Salic law and the outcries of the King’s brother Carlos. Bourbon descendants battled over the succession throughout the nineteenth century (Joseph Conrad, as a romantic adolescent greenhorn, did a bit of Carlist gunrunning), with serious expenditure of blood and money, but in retrospect the affair looks like a distinctly funny family row, and it is this aspect of the Carlist wars that dominates Royal Vendetta.
BEGGARS ON HORSEBACK (Atlantic—Little, Brown, $5.95) is a first novel by JAMES MOSSMAN, who once worked in the British Foreign Service and recalls it as an inept institution. His book describes a revolution in an Arab oil kingdom, and its first purpose, deftly achieved, is simply to make the reader laugh. Beneath the comic surface, Mr. Mossman argues the necessity for intelligent dishonesty in the exercise of political power, and proves his case with cynical joy.
The late MARI SANDOZ’S last book is a reconstruction of THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN (Lippincott, $4.50). Her known Indian sympathies guarantee that she wasted no tears on George Armstrong Custer, one of our seedier heroes by anybody’s standards. Mari Sandoz studied him, however, and concluded, from Indian tradition and Custer’s political meddling before he went West on campaign — he so annoyed Grant that he was nearly prevented from going at all — that he had dreams of being nominated at the Democratic presidential convention, meeting at the time in St. Louis, provided he could send in word of an impressive victory. Custer as President is a slapstick notion, but Custer wouldn’t have thought so, and such an ambition does account for the massacre on the Little Bighorn, a disaster that reflected no credit on anybody, including the too numerous Sioux.
MILTON ESTEROW’S THE ART STEALERS (Macmillan, $5.95) inevitably retells the familiar story of the disappearance of the Mona Lisa, but it also describes a number of art thefts less well known because the objects or their owners were less distinguished. One of Mr. Esterow’s better tales, in fact, begins with the theft of some relatively worthless religious paintings and proceeds to a court battle between a bevy of art experts, who disagreed with each other, and a defense lawyer, who asked, “Is that an accurate representation of the descent of the Holy Ghost?” The prosecution at once objected “unless Mr. Gladstone is prepared to produce an eyewitness.”