How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman was one of the gifts I received at my babyshower. The idea was to help me through those last few weeks of pregnancy without getting bored. However, since I had just moved house and had lots of stuff to organise before Pim’s arrival (we literally fixed the central heating 2 days before labour — which was a good thing because I had an unexpected home delivery), I never got around to any of these gifts. With just a few weeks of maternity leave left (and as I am writing this, only 3 more days *sniff*), I decided to finally read Goodman’s book.

How To Be a Victorian – Ruth Goodman // Penguin Books, 2014

In How To Be a Victorian Ruth Goodman describes the lives of people living during the Victorian era, for both rich and poor, man and woman, for those born in 1837 as well as 1901. She does so by progressing through what a day would have looked like, beginning with the moment people got out of bed and touched the cold bedroom floor with their feet, until the end of the day where she provides a glimpse of what happened “behind the bedroom door” — as the last chapter is called.

 Goodman’s book was the perfect read to hail the end of my maternity leave with. From the very outset, she reminded me what it is that I love about studying history, and what it is I wish I could accomplish:

I want to explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history, a history from the inside out: one that celebrates the ordinary an charts the lives of the common man, woman and child as they interact with the practicalities of their world. I want to look into the minds of our ancestors and witness their hopes, fears and assumptions, no matter how apparently minor. In short, I am in search of a history of those things that make up the day-to-day reality of life. What was it really like to be alive in a different time and place? [*]

She does so by paying particular, but not exclusive, attention to material history, discussing the objects and clothes people used in detail. Because Goodman has made, worn, and used many of these objects she can reflect on things that would not have crossed my mind in first instance. For example, I never realised to what extent the heaviness of clothing, the different skirts or corsets, etcetera, affected every movement.

I enjoyed How To Be a Victorian for two reasons. First, because it provides such a readable and accessible history of the Victorian period. I liked the approach of looking at the Victorian era by going through the motions of a typical day for various groups of people living during Victoria’s reign. Goodman does a good job of providing in-depth detail while still engaging the reader’s interest. Of course there were subjects that I personally found more interesting than others, but I was never bored. And like Tea by the Nursery Fire, I wanted to remain in Goodman’s world to learn more about the things she explored in her volume.

Second, I enjoyed it from a more professional standpoint, as Goodman made me contemplate the various angles historians can take, and particularly what approaches I might want to use (if I had the time) in my own research.

There are, however, two points of criticism I also want to raise here. There is the minor fact that I would have liked to see footnotes from time to time, as I like to explore “further reading” through things that pique my interest in a current book. Or, if not footnotes, I would have liked a “further reading” section at the end of the book. Recommendations by authors you enjoy in non-fiction is something I always appreciate.

As for topics covered in the book, I found How To Be a Victorian lacked an in-depth reflection on Empire. As I am beginning to understand more and more from my reading on missions and Empire, colonial rule was not invisible in daily life, particularly in the Victorian era. I think Goodman mentions it once, but the topic remains on the sidelines. You could say her focus is definitely on the United Kingdom and not its colonies, and we cannot blame her for that, however, I would have appreciated a little more acknowledgement of the extensive entanglement of some of the things she discusses. And there were at least a few opportunities for her to do so. At the same time I admit this experienced gap might be due to my own particular interest in this subject. Goodman does manage to combine “macro history” with the “micro history” of every day life for a number of subjects extremely well, but it does remain contained to what happened in the British isles.

Despite these drawbacks, I definitely recommend How To Be a Victorian, and I am extremely pleased that I received it as a gift and that I managed to read it before work-related craziness takes over again.

After reading How To Be a Victorian, I am going to raise the same question as I did upon finishing Tea By the Nursery Fire: What books about this subject (being the Victorian era and/or daily life in historical settings) would you recommend?

[*] of course Goodman is aware of the fact that we can only ever try to approach “what is was really like” and that sources are selective.

Library Loot: A Visit to my Local Library

Visiting my local library has been on my to do list ever since moving. I figured maternity leave would be the perfect time to explore. However, I only found time for it last week, two weeks before maternity leave ends.

Library loot, 6/11/2014. I can’t believe how bad the lighting has been this past week, so excuse the bad picture.

The local library is.. well.. not as big as I am used to, but that was hardly to be expected. I feel it is important to support these smaller branches so I was always going to become a member. They did have the Goldfinch, but that was the most recent book on the English language books shelf. (I did not pick it up because I felt reading it right now would be a bit too ambitious). They do have the possibility of putting any title available in one of the other libraries in the province on hold for free, so after I picked up these books I went home and did just that. As for the Dutch language shelves, there is quite a bit of YA (they had two copies of the Dutch translation of A Monster Calls!!) and I have some exploring left to do of the Children’s and General Fiction section.

As for the books I picked up last Thursday:

The Girl who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen: I had this on loan from the library in my former place of residence a long while back.. I picked it up back then because this is one of those titles that kept being mentioned when I first started blogging. I never got around to it. I wonder if I will this time? Somehow I keep meaning to read this but once I have it at home I lose my excitement?

Gifts by Ursula le Guin: I think I remember Ana mentioning this as the go-to book by Le Guin if you first read her. I have read A Wizard of Earthsea in January before this one, but am very curious about Gifts. Let’s hope it is a good translation.

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett: I have only ever read one of Pratchett’s titles and always mean to read more. I thought this might be a good one to begin with as it is one of his more well known titles? I have Nation (in English, woohoo!) on hold.

Aya : Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet: I came across this title while browsing the YA section. Again, this is one of those “I always mean to read more..” books, this time in the category graphic novels. I had never heard of this one, but it is about a girl who grows up in Yop City, a neighbourhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. This is the first in a series (which my library also owns, I found out at home), so if I like it I might pick up the other titles too.

Have you read any of these titles? Which do you recommend I read first? And did you pick up anything from the library recently?

librarylootbadgeLibrary Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Tea by the Nursery Fire by Noel Streatfeild

Tea by the Nursery Fire - Noel StreatfeildTea by the Nursery Fire by Noel Streatfeild
Virago, 2012
First published 1976

Tea by the Nursery Fire is, as its subtitle says, about “a Children’s Nanny at the Turn of the Century”. The nanny in question, Emily Huckwell, was nanny to Noel Streatfeild’s father. In this book, Streatfeild tells the story of Emily’s life based on “fact and family legend”, as the back cover of the book states (I did count this as nonfiction, but now I wonder, would it be listed as such?)

Emily is born in a village in Sussex in the 1870s. From her birth it is clear that she is to go into service in one of the houses of the gentry. Emily goes into service as a 12-year-old girl, as nursery maid at Ernly house. When she offers to mend the dress of the family’s daughter-in-law and does a good job at that, that daughter-in-law requests that she join her household as under nurse. And so here, as under nurse and later nanny of the Burton household, Emily finds her lifelong occupation in raising the Burton children.

Emily’s story is not necessarily a happy one, and there are many scenes that suggest the sadness she must have felt and the difficulties she had to overcome. Yet, Tea by the Nursery Fire remained a light and quick read (and fascinating at that). Perhaps it is the fact that Streatfeild mostly offers us a peak at nursery life through Emily’s life story, sometimes skipping over feelings that might have been explored more in depth (but possibly were never known or not to be speculated upon within family circles). This may sound like a drawback of the story, but it is not necessarily. Actually, I am quite fascinated by the manner in which Streatfeild balances social history and biography with a novella-like feel.

In the end, I was quite surprised by how much I had come to feel for Emily, even if the book allows for some distance through both its brevity and its style. Moreover, I liked how even though this was definitely Emily’s story, Tea by the Nursery Fire also offers us a glimpse of the lot of her family, other servants at the house, the family of the house, and particularly the children. There is also the strange juxtaposition between Emily’s family and their treatment of children and the Burrow family, where the first are very involved with their children’s upbringing up to some point, while the latter are constantly on the sidelines. Meanwhile, in both cases it seems as if it is Emily as nurse who first experiences and offers love as a central characteristic of childhood.nonfiction november

I think Tea by the Nursery Fire is a lovely book, and a wonderful introduction to some of the time’s general atmosphere as well as the nursery in particular. Before reading this book, I didn’t think the subject would be of particular interest to me, but now, I’d love to read about nurseries in more detail. Any suggestions?

Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

I signed on here to finish my post about Austenland and Midnight in Austenland when I came across Lu’s post about Nonfiction November. Clicking around her site led me to her initial announcement of this themed month. Since my first read of November was actually a nonfiction book, namely Tea by the Nursery Fire, and because in preparation for the end of maternity leave I am currently reading some work related books, I thought this themed month might be just the thing for me. As an incentive to actually get involved I decided to participate in this first of their weekly posts, even though I really do not think there is much to tell about my year in nonfiction thus far.

nonfiction novemberThis week’s themed post is about your year in nonfiction and is hosted by Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness:

What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year?

I had to go back through my goodreads account because I didn’t believe I had read any nonfiction before this month, but I was wrong! Total count of nonfiction titles (apart from the ones I read for work pre-maternity leave, which I never log): 3! That is more than I generally achieve in a year (and yes, this makes me sad). I have enjoyed all three titled, really, for very different reasons: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine because it was the perfect read on gender in so many ways and felt so accurate with respect to frustrations that were work and pregnancy-related; Missionary Families by Emily Manktelow was my “ease back into thinking about work” book and it was wonderful to read so many observations articulated intelligently that have informed my PhD from the outset; and, lastly, Tea by the Nursery Fire by Noel Streatfeild was a lovely book, that almost felt like a novel.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

Actually, I do not think I generally recommend nonfiction. But I do know that I would wish everyone would pick up Delusions of Gender because it would mean a lot less faux arguments every time the word gender or feminism comes up in conversation.

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?

Everything? But I definitely want to read more about feminism and gender, diversity, colonialism and empire, and mission. Or history tackling any or more of these topics. Or biographies/reflections on biographies, also on any of these topics. I do not think I will ever feel as if I have read enough on these things. In a perfect world, I’d also like to read more on world politics and food.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Honestly, I simply hope that I will up my nonfiction reads this year, and hopefully in the years to come. It might be a bit unambitious, but I’d love to read at least 2 more nonfiction titles before the end of 2014.

I am so excited about this month! Even if my participation might be very minimal, I am very glad I came across this event.

DNF: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

how to build a girl

How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran
Harper, September 2014

Review Copy provided by the publisher

Two years ago, I read How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, which left me with mixed feelings. Reading my review now, I feel I am quite mild in my judgement of the book. Or perhaps, I started feeling more uncomfortable with Moran’s vision of feminism as time passed.

Knowing this, you might wonder why I requested a copy of How to Build a Girl when it was offered to me for review. To be honest, in hindsight I ask myself the same question. But I can answer it: Given the fact that I quite enjoyed Moran’s more personal reflections in How to Be a Woman, I thought a novel might suit her better, as it would leave her with more room for anecdotes and less for general ideas on feminism. That being the case, I was likely to enjoy it more.

Now I should state that I think my patience with books is a lot shorter now that I have so few moments a day in which I can read, and that being the case I tend to abandon books more quickly (I usually persevered until the very end), and am irritated a lot easier. The fact that I did not finish a book as such is less strong a judgement than it used to be.

You can probably see it coming from miles off: I did not enjoy How to Build a Girl more. Instead, I was irritated much more quickly, and abandoned the book hardly 40 pages in. The first reason being that instead of the novel format working to the advantage of Moran, it felt like it did not fit the writing at all. From the first I was asking whether the writing should be read as fiction or a form of autobiography. The preface explicitly states it is not – and yet the style seemed to suggest it somehow? Secondly, I just do not seem to share Moran’s sense of humour. Whereas I found her suitably funny in How to Be a Woman, the observations and puns in her text (of which there are a lot) fell entirely flat for me.

And so I gave up. Rather too quickly perhaps? After all, I was just 40 pages in.. Tell me, should I give Moran another go? Or is this simply a case of bad fit between author and me as a reader?