Category Archives: Books

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.

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?

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?

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – Leslye Walton // Walker Books, October 2014 // Review copy kindly provided by the publisher

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender combines a number of things that appeal to me: a beautiful cover (though that might be a shallow reason), an interesting title (same), a multigenerational story that for once is told from the perspective of one person, and most of all it being the story about a girl with wings, it made me think of Eep by Joke van Leeuwen which I read and enjoyed two years ago. I was curious how this very different book would compare, because in some ways it does tackle the same themes of difference and love — themes that cannot help but be interesting, right?

To many, I was myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale. Some considered me a monster, a mutation. To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel. To my mother, I was everything. To my father, nothing at all. To my grandmother, I was a daily reminder of loves long lost. But I knew the truth—deep down, I always did.

I was just a girl.

Ava Lavender is born with the wings of a bird. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender traces the story of her grandmother and mother, as well as her extended family, as Ava tries to understand what makes her who she is. Love plays a key role in that history: familial, unrequited, long ignored, returned, and any other form of it.

Maybe it was because I had only recently finished The House of the Spirits by Allende, but Walton’s book reminded me a little of that: it shares the multigenerational storyline, the influence of magical realism as both deal with the intervening and lasting force of people who have died, and the engaging and sometimes poetic style. Mind you, I am not saying Walton writes like Allende (or that that is a bad or a good thing). It is just that I found both books to offer a very engaging style that draws you in right away. And in contrast with Allende’s book, my attention didn’t wane after the 100 page mark. Instead, it increased. Where at first I had to get used to Walton’s occasional use of repetition of certain phrasings throughout chapters, wondering if it didn’t feel awkward at times, I began to appreciate it more as it started to feel like a fitting portrayal of the echoes along generations from time to time. The book itself, the story, but also the style, drew me in along the way, and by the end I was loath to put it down at the end of a nursing session or because other work needed to be done.

Besides all the reasons I noted earlier on why Ava Lavender appealed to me from the start, upon finishing I can say that it has other things going for it as well: the worldbuilding, the characters (particularly Ava, Henry, Cardigan, and Rowe), the narration, and definitely the way in which the “weird” and otherworldly is portrayed as part of everyday life, or in a sense, really is regular like everything else. The only drawback for me? The very last pages had me a little confused. It certainly has that kind of ending where I am not sure what I am supposed to think. But in a way that fits the book perfectly as well?

Perhaps I appreciate the book more now that I sit down to write this post. Returning to the first words of the book, quoted above, upon having finished it, it is lovely to see the story comes full circle — or to see that a very brief version of it is actually told in that first paragraph. That may make it seem rather too simple or stylised, but instead I think it is quite an accomplishment to have such an image reverberate throughout the book — lovely, really, as is the whole of Ava Lavender‘s story.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

I have quite a number of books by Isabel Allende on my shelves. Most of them unread. I do not know why, but I always feel a little hesitant to pick them up. Am I intimidated? Or am I scared I might not like them as much as I expect to? I think it is a mixture of the two. When I read Island Beneath the Sea, the first and only book by Allende I had read until last month, I vowed I would get over those feelings and finally dedicate some reading time to her work. Because I did really like the story and the themes it explored. Despite this vow, it took me quite some time to pick up another one of her novels, this time her classic The House of the Spirits.

It was Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe event that finally gave me the push to give this one a go. I never even thought of Allende as an author nor about this title as a book that might count towards a challenge to read more diversely, but yay for her including it on a list of suggested titles and for me realising I actually owned a few of her suggestions and that now might be the time to start reading them. Sadly, I only made it through one book due to the time restraints of giving birth and taking care of a small baby, but at least I read one book, right?

The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende // Vintage, 2011 // First published in English in 1985

The House of the Spirits is a family saga situated in an unnamed South American country which can easily be identified as Chile. The story concentrates on three generations, but mostly on the first and third in the form of Clara and Esteban Trueba, and Alba Trueba. Intermixed with the narrative of the personal lives of the Trueba family are elements of the supernatural (the magical realism component of Allende’s work), the social and the political. It also carries an undertone of gender criticism, though not always as explicit as I might have liked as I will explain below.

There is something about Allende’s style that appeals to me. I flew through the first 100 pages of this book. I found her prose very convincing and I immediately felt part of the world of the Trueba family. I had fully expected to continue reading the other 400 pages in the same vein. However, something made me slow down. And while, in the end I continue to feel that Allende’s worldbuilding and narrative is very convincing and I can still vividly imagine her characters a week after finishing the book, I cannot say I feel head over heels in love with this book, as I expected from those first pages.

The main thing holding me back from a declaration of outright love is the gender angle that I briefly mentioned before. I should add that this is more a matter of personal taste than me finding fault with Allende’s argument or gender perspective in the book.

Allende definitely argues for a less normative and patriarchical society in her book, which I think is illustrated by the fact that the book begins with Clara and not with Esteban, and that it is the women who take the lead even if Esteban is the narrator for much of the story. Yet, because Esteban is the narrator for part of the story, I felt uncomfortable with some scenes. It is an accomplishment that Allende manages to write from the perspective of many characters and not apologize for any of their feelings or deeds, and part of me appreciates that. Another part of me couldn’t help but feel incredibly uncomfortable with the many rape scenes and Esteban’s overbearing and masculine-centred behaviour. It just.. made my skin crawl at times. Particularly because Esteban’s character didn’t even bat an eye. True, Allende makes up for these scenes by drawing such wonderful women in Clara, Blanca and Alba, but I could never quite shake this discomfort at the character of Esteban, or maybe the masculine society as a whole. Is Allende’s protrayal of this realistic? Possibly, or even probably. Does she hint at acknowledging the discomfort this portrayal might make the reader feel? I think so. She also hints at disagreement with it. And yet… part of me wishes for more, or perhaps a little less of the brutality, or perhaps simply less details. Or maybe to have Clara do more than hint at her knowledge of Esteban’s former behaviour, or be more outspoken about it from the outset. I don’t know.

In short, I both admire and hesitate over Allende’s ability to draw such a realistic brutal history that is cushioned and mirrored in the personal entanglements of a family, but I also shrank back from the sharp edges of it. Are they there by necessity? Very probably. And therefore I feel I have no right to complain. But these sharp edges.. they made me uncomfortable nonetheless.

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A More Diverse Universe is a blogging event hosted by Aarti over at her blog BookLust in a effort to promote reading diversely, providing insight into the fact that reading diversily does not require you to change your taste in reading, only to search more actively for diverse books within your favourite genre(s). For more information and other reviews, please visit this dedicated post on Aarti’s blog or follow the hashtag #Diversiverse on twitter.