Book reviews: Edith Cavell | The Victoria and Albert Museum | Landfalls

Edith Cavell by Diana Souhami (Quercus, £25) ****

An unassuming nurse from Norfolk, Edith Cavell worked away for years in a Brussels hospital attaining the sort of heroism usually characterised as "unsung". Greatness was thrust upon her with the advent of the First World War. Her work with escaping British soldiers was humanitarian first, patriotic a distant second, but in Germany's eyes it made her a traitor and a spy. Her execution in 1915 may or may not have been a crime, but it was most certainly a mistake. Diana Souhami's biography offers a refreshingly three-dimensional portrait of a strikingly single-minded woman.

The Victoria and Albert Museum

by Lucy Trench

(V&A, 20) ****

What can you say of an art museum that gives equal billing to Kylie's hotpants and Hans Holbein? That has salt-cellars, spacehoppers and 1,637 teapots? One thing's clear from Lucy Trench's lively and beautifully illustrated history: it's been consistent in its eclecticism from the start. At this time of crumbling quangos, it's fascinating to find that the V&A grew out of a government initiative – and when Britain was the most drivingly entrepreneurial. In 1836, a Commons committee expressed concern that the world's leading manufacturing nation wasn't going to keep its edge over continental competitors unless it could increase the appeal of the goods it made. The V&A was founded the following year. Far from being in opposition, "use" and "ornament" were just two sides of the same coin – just as "popular" and "high" art were. Some Victorian values would bear rediscovering.

Landfalls

by Tim Mackintosh-Smith (John Murray, 25) *****

Does travel broaden the mind – or contract the world? Ibn Battutah's cranium contained 2.5 million square miles' worth of material. The Tangiers traveller journeyed 75,000 miles, and the 14th-century scene he describes tilts our Atlantic-centred world on its axis, extending from the Swahili coast, to Sri Lanka and the Maldives; from Andalusia to Quangzhou – perhaps even Beijing. Yet, with the Middle East on the map and India and China on the rise, it seems less alien than might have been expected. Or, rather, as Tim Mackintosh-Smith shows in this captivating conclusion to a trilogy retracing Ibn Battutah's travels, it's alien – but in a way with which we can somehow feel at home.

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