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review 2018-04-07 14:16
A fascinating look into the past and a great source for writers and social history researchers
Elegant Etiquette in the Nineteenth Century - James Mallory

Thanks to Alex and the rest of the team at Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I am a big fan of Pen & Sword books and I have learned a lot on a variety of subjects thanks to their great selection, but I must admit to having a soft spot for social history. Although I love history books and have recently become keen on historical fiction, I think that social history helps us get a better sense of what life was like in the past, not only for the kings, aristocrats, and powerful people but also for the rest of the population. The everyday life of going around one’s usual business, talking to people, working, rarely makes it into the big books, but it is what life is truly about. And those are the details that bring the past to life. As I have mentioned in previous reviews, these books are also great to provide background to writers, filmmakers, and, in general, artists looking to create works set in a particular time in history, as it helps them gain a better understanding of what it would have been like to live then.

This particular volume is a delight. I have read a number of novels set in the era and watched uncountable movies and television series that take place in the XIX century as well, and although I thought I was familiar with the customs, social rules and mores of the time, I was surprised by how truly complicated following proper etiquette was. As the author often explains, rules were not set in stone and they changed throughout the century. What was a must at the beginning of the XIX century would have been out of fashion by the end, and rules were open to interpretation, as sometimes different sources offered completely different advice. Should you eat fish with a fork and bread, two forks, or a fork and a fish knife (the answer depends on at what point of the XIX century we were eating it)? Would it have been proper for you to introduce people you knew, or even greet people you met in the streets even if you had been introduced? What was the best time to go for a walk or to visit your acquaintances? What did it truly mean if somebody was ‘not at home’?

Such topics and many more are discussed in this short volume, and it makes for fascinating reading. The author is skilled at summarising the rules from a large variety of sources (there is a detailed bibliography at the end and footnotes to check where each point can be expanded on), and also at providing practical examples that help clarify matters like how would you address somebody you are introduced to, or in which order would guest enter the dining room. Her turn of phrase is particularly apt, as her own explanations and the quotes and references to texts blend seamlessly, and she manages to write clearly and engagingly in beautiful prose.

The tone of the book is light and there are funny moments, but there are also reminders of how different things were for those who had more serious concerns than following the rules of etiquette. The book includes 11 chapters that deal in a variety of topics, from rank, precedence and title, to what was considered good company, paying calls, dining, ballroom behaviour, conversation, and correspondence, how to treat the service, courtship, and it also offers hints for ladies and gentlemen. The book (I had access to the paperback copy but I know the pictures are available in the digital version as well) contains a number of plates that help illustrate the proper dress etiquette throughout the century for different occasions and there are also pictures of some of the fashion accessories of the period.

I had to share a couple of examples from the book, so you can get a feeling for the writing style and the type of advice it contains:

If a lady or gentleman was plagued by a person saluting them in the street who they did not like, who they did not want to call upon, and who they thought was taking a gross impertinence continually bowing to them, it was still better for the afflicted lady or gentleman to return the recognition. (For some reason, this brought to my mind the nodding bulldogs that used to grace the back windows of cars).

Talking about men’s fashion, the book has this to say:

Similarly, a gentleman would have been restrained in his use of personal ornamentation. After all, a gentleman was a gentleman, not a magpie hankering after shiny trinkets.

Although some of the rules contained in this book might seem too fussy and silly nowadays, there are some about listening to people and being respectful towards others, no matter what their social circumstances (in fact, being more polite and generous the more difficult things are for them) that will make readers nostalgic for those more gentile and kinder times. There are always things we can learn from the past and it is important to learn and remember.

Another great little volume from Pen & Sword and one that I particularly recommend to anybody interested in XIX century history, novels, movies set in the period, and to writers and creators looking for inspiration or researching that era. It is also a fun read for people that study social history or are interested in the origins of some of our customs and on how these have changed. Unmissable.

 

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review 2018-03-08 14:42
Brief biographies of fascinating women, ideal to dip in and be inspired to learn more.
Bad Girls from History: Wicked or Misunderstood? - Dee Gordon

Thanks to Alex and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Although totally unplanned, I find myself writing this review on the International Women’s Day 2018. One can’t help but wonder about the title of the book, not so much the wicked or misunderstood part (some definitely seem to fall into one of the two categories, while many share characteristics of both, although that depends on the point of view), but the Bad Girls. In my opinion, it makes perfect sense for the argument of the book, as the expression bad woman has a certain meaning and connotations attached to it (very moralistic and misogynistic), while perhaps bad girl allows for a more playful and varied reading. And it has nothing to do with age (the catalogue of historical figures examined by the author includes a large number of women who died quite young, but there are others who lived to ripe old ages as well). It is, ultimately, a matter of self-definition. But I digress.

This book shares a collection of brief biographies (the vast majority are under a couple of pages long), of women, organised in a number of chapters that group women in several categories (although some overlap and the author has to make a choice as to which group a particular figure belongs to). These chapters are: 1) Courtesans and Mistresses; 2) Madams, Prostitutes, and Adulterers; 3) Serial Killers; 4) ‘One-Off’ Killers; 5) Gangsters, Thieves and Con-Artists; 6) The Rebel Collection – Pirates, Witches, Megalomaniacs, Exhibitionists. The book also contains a brief bibliography (I guess otherwise a second volume would have been necessary just to include all the sources), and there are pictures of the women (portraits, photographs, illustrations), and also documents, newspaper cuttings, letters…

Although I was familiar with quite a few of the women featured (in the case of Mata Hari, for example, I had read a book about her not long ago, although in many others I still discovered things I didn’t know) there were also quite a number that I had heard the names of but didn’t know much about, and others that were completely new to me. I have no doubt that most people reading this book will think about other women they would have added to the collection, but I would say all of the women included deserve to be there. This is not a judgment of character though, as that is not what this book is about. The author’s style is engaging and, despite the briefness of the vignettes, she manages to make these women compelling (and horrifying in some cases), and she is at pains to try and paint as balanced a picture as possible, rather than just present them according to the prevalent morality of their time. Reality and legend are sometimes difficult to tell apart, but the author, tries (and at times acknowledges defeat and provides the most interesting versions of a woman’s story available).  

Among the many women in the book, I was particularly intrigued by Jane Digby (1807-1881), a lover of travel and an adventurer who also had a talent for choosing interesting men, Enriqueta Martí (1868-1913), who lived in Barcelona and who, according to recent research might not have been guilty of the horrific crimes she was accused of (I won’t talk about it in detail, but let’s say that, if it was true, she was not called The Vampire of Barcelona for nothing), Princess Caraboo (aka Mary Baker: 1791-1864), who knew how to come up with a good story, or Georgia Tann (1891-1950), that I felt intrigued by when I read that Joan Crawford (who has featured in one of my recent reads) had been one of her clients. But there are many others, and of course, this is a book that will inspire readers to do further research and look into the lives of some of these women (or even write about them).

The women in each chapter are organised in alphabetical order, and that means we jump from historical period to historical period, backward and forward, but there is enough information to allow us to get a sense of how society saw these women and how class, patronage, social status, money… influenced the way they were treated. There are personal comments by the author, but she is non-judgemental and it is impossible to read this book, especially some of the chapters, without thinking about the lot of women, about how times have changed (but not as much as we would like to think, as evidenced by recent developments and campaigns), and about how behaviours that from a modern perspective might show strength of character, intelligence, and independence, at the time could condemn a woman in the eyes of society, ruining her reputation and/or destroying her life.

A book to dip in to learn about social history and the role of women, and also one that will inspire readers to read more about some of these women (and others) that, for better or worse, have left a mark. A great starting point for further research into the topic, and a book that will make us reflect about the role of women then and now.

 

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review 2017-10-24 22:28
A sobering picture of the Victorian era and a must read for those interested in social history
Childhood and Death in Victorian England - Sarah Seaton

Thanks to Alex from Pen & Sword for providing me with a review paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

After working as a forensic psychiatrist for a number of years, I guess death and what brings it about is something I’ve given a fair amount of thought to. I have always been more interested in social history, and the everyday lives of people in other historical periods than I am about battles, war, etc. (I am intrigued by some of the people who get to make the decisions and fight in the battles, but not so much by the actual specifics). Old records being what they are, the adage about the two things that are certain in life, death and taxes, comes to mind. And although the subject of the book might appear particularly morbid, examining death records and other information about the deaths, in particular of children, tells us a great deal about what society was like at the time. Because what more important for the future of a nation than its children?

I live in quite an old village and one can find gravestones from three or four centuries back and I could not help but notice that many of those buried in the Victorian period were babies and very young children. Sometimes there were families who lost quite a number of children in quick succession. And although I had read about poor sanitation, deaths at birth, and illnesses of the period, and I knew that life for poor children was harder at the time, I had never spent much time reading about it. When I saw this book I felt perhaps it was time I did.

In the introduction, the author explains that she had a similar experience to mine. While researching newspapers and archives for another book, she came across many items about dead children and thought they deserved to have their stories told.

Although the book is respectful and tries to bring to light what the conditions were like, the nature of the material can make for a hard reading. I won’t go into details, but if you are very sensitive you might want to look away now or stop reading.

Seaton divides her book into five chapters.

Chapter one: Industrial Mishaps and Misdemeanours, brings home how hard life what for poor children, especially (but not only) orphans, children who ended up in the workhouse, and who were working from as young as four. And we’re not talking about easy jobs. They went to sea, working in fishing boats (yes, many drowned or were severely abused, beaten up and killed), the mines (opening and closing air shaft for hours on end, and quite a few died when there was flooding, some not far from where I live), textile factories (crushed by the machines), chimney sweeps (yes, no Mary Poppins romanticism here. Small kids could go up the chimneys easily and sometimes burn inside too)… The author notes that the laws changed, first increasing the age at what children were allowed to start working (the Ten Hour Bill in 1832 stated that no child under 9 could work and those under 18 should not work for longer than 10 hours per day and only 8 on Saturdays), and later insisting that all children should have access to education, and that helped avoid the worse of the abuse (that was not considered abuse at the time).

Chapter two: Accidents. It is strange to read this chapter and imagine a time when mothers might go out or go to work and leave their children under the care of another child, only a few years older than his or her charges, when children would play in a room with a live fire and no protection (there are a large number of deaths by fire), or would go out and play by a river and drown, or be run over.

Chapter three: Poverty, Paupers and Health, centres on matters of health, illnesses, poor diets, and also the fact that many illegitimate children were sent away to women who usually would take many children for money, feed them little or nothing, and keep what were called ‘baby farms’. At the time it was common to give children laudanum if they felt unwell, and many of them died of opium overdoses. As the author notes, while nowadays there are many services and programmes offering information and help to new mothers on how to bring up a child, and there is support in place, charities, welfare services, doctors and midwives who offer practical advice and support, that was not the case at the time, and even children from well-off families could die in circumstances that seem incredible to us now.

Chapter four: Manslaughter, Murder and Circumstantial Evidence, is a particularly hard one to read. The author notes that some of these crimes remind us that some things don’t change much and there are incidents that are remarkably similar to recent ones, but the chapter includes from murders where the criminal was clearly mentally disturbed, to others that caused outrage for their cruelty. At that point in history the police were becoming a better organised and official body and they were starting to use techniques that would allow them to trace evidence and use it to catch the criminals (newspapers used to wrap body parts with names or addresses on it feature prominently). This is a horrific chapter, but one that would be of interest to mystery writers considering setting their novels in this historical period.

 Chapter five: Newborn and Early Infant Deaths. Many of these are the result of illegitimate births, with young mothers who usually had hidden their pregnancy and at the moment of birth got desperate, out of options and with no support. But there are also cases of women who offered their services ‘adopting’ children only to neglect them or actively kill them. It is of note that although newborn and infant deaths were very high at the time, very few of these were reported as homicides.

The author concludes that although at the beginning she talks about modern children having little freedom compared to their Victorian counterparts, we must acknowledge that the circumstances have changed for the better and now society puts a lot of emphasis on protecting children. There is the welfare state, better transportation, many of the illnesses that decimated children have disappeared or can be cured…  (Of course, the book looks at the subject in Victorian England, and the comparisons are to current circumstances in the UK. We all know not all societies are respectful of children’s lives even today).

This is a hard book to read. It does paint a sobering picture of the Victorian era, as it centres mostly on those whose stories were not important enough to make it into the big chronicles and the Historic books in capital letters. The author uses newspaper articles to illustrate the specific cases she chooses, but also archival materials. The book offers detailed accounts of the events, and reflects the opinion of the time, leaving most of the personal comments or interpretations to the beginning or end of the chapters, although she mostly lets the facts speak for themselves. We read witness testimonies, coroner’s reports, inquests, all fairly objectively reported, but the nature of the material makes it poignant.

The paperback version contains pictures, mostly illustrations from newspapers, but also photographs of the period and some modern ones of some of the locations, in black and white.

This is a well-researched book that would be of interest to people researching the social history of the Victorian period, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of children, to writers looking for background on the period, but it is not a light read or a standard history book of the era. It goes to show that truth can, and it often is, more terrifying than fiction.

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review 2017-08-05 02:40
A woman's worth..
The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: A Social History - Elizabeth Norton

Take a step into the lives of Tudor women. From Elizabeth of York to Elizabeth I, this book dives into the lives of not only the nobility, but some of the more notable names of the day. 

Most women were seen as quiet and "homemakers" some women in the Tudor ages made a name for themselves. Nuns, queens, and members of the working class, all of them had one thing in common.. they were women trying to survive in a male dominated world. They were not written into history of their own accord, but we can learn quite a bit about them from some of the surviving documents of the time, and through the lives of their husbands (of course). While some male figures, such as Henry VIII thrust many women into the spot light that might have had their names lost to time, there are others that made a splash into the spotlight owing to some very daring behavior. Anne Askew, Elizabeth Barton, Jane Dormer, and Cecily Burbage are just a few that are named in this commentary. 

This was an interesting read, and one that I enjoyed. While most of the names were familiar through other readings, there were a few that I had not heard much on before. This read is worth the time that it takes to get through it.

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review 2017-07-29 09:35
Oh, I like to be beside the seaside. And I love this book!
The British Seaside (Images Of The Past) - Luci Gosling

My thanks to Pen & Sword for offering me a copy of this book that I freely (and gladly) chose to review.

I discovered Pen & Sword thanks to a writer I had met through blogging and I am regularly kept informed of their new books through their catalogues. Although I don’t have the time to read as many of them as I would like, when I saw this one, I could not resist.

I am not British but I have lived in the UK for almost twenty-five years now. As luck would have it, my first job in the UK was in Eastbourne, and I spent quite a few years in that part of the UK (working in Eastbourne, Hastings, and later studying at Sussex University and living in Brighton for a while). Although my experiences of the British seaside are fairly recent in comparison to the pictures in this book, I am fascinated by the peculiarities of the British seaside. And, over the years, I have listened to many conversations and stories of childhood holidays and memories of happy times spent at a seaside resort or other.  When I saw this book I thought it would be fun, and a perfect way to put images to the stories I had heard and to learn new ones.

Lucinda Gosling, the author, works for the Mary Evans Picture Library (check their website here) and she has done a fantastic job of curating a great variety of images, ranging from personal photographs to postcards and advertisements, from the very late XIX century to the 1960s and 70s. They are mostly in black and white (although there are the odd colour picture and some old hand-coloured ones, some in wonderful sepia, and some colour illustrations) and they go from the funny amateur pic  taken at an amusement fair to some truly beautiful professional pictures (like some by Roger Mayne or Shirley Baker).

There is little text, other than an introduction to each part of the book, which is divided thematically into six chapters, and brief notes to identify the pictures (and on some occasions, to add a bit of background).  Although concise, the writing is excellent, as it manages to be informative, entertaining, and at times truly humorous. There is a great picture of a man (probably in his early forties, in my opinion pretty formally dressed, although he’s not wearing a jacket, so it’s probably rather informal for the period, as it is dated 1911). The description of the picture is as follows:

A relaxed looking chap sitting outside a tent at the Lucas Holiday Camp in Norbreck, Blackpool, 1911. The camp was a ‘summer holiday camp for young men’ and the location of the holidays taken by the wholesome-sounding ‘Health and Strength League’. It was described as ‘a camp for young men of good moral character who are willing to observe a few simple rules necessary for good order’. (p. 102) Your guess is as good as mine. ;)

The chapters cover: the beach (the increase in popularity of first, sea water, later swimming, and even later, sunbathing and tanning), entertainment (once you had all these people there, you had to keep them entertained, and although some of those complexes have disappeared, we still have Blackpool!), crowds and solitude (the touristic and less touristic places), travel and accommodation (once the railway made travelling easier, people flocked to the coast, but there had always been ways to get there, and people who saw an opportunity to set up bed and breakfast, and, of course, the wonderful Victorian hotels that grace many seaside towns), piers & promenades (I love piers and it was sad to read about how many have disappeared, but a joy to recover pictures of some of  them and learn more about their architects), and water (with its fascinating images of the Victorian bathing machines, and the fabulous changes in swimwear).

I am not sure what I could highlight, as I adored (adore, and I’m keeping it for life if I can) this book from beginning to end. I love the pictures of the early seaside tourists, dressed to the nines because it was a day out and you were supposed to wear your best clothes. There is a fabulous pic of a lady riding a tricycle from 1886 (I think it’s the oldest picture in the book), I love the pics of young children, especially those wearing knitted swimming suits. There is also a very touching picture of two young girls holding hands and looking towards the beach, blocked by barb wire during World War II. There are some fabulous images of incredible rides (I’m sure Health and Safety would have a fit), some fascinating pics of beauty contests (oh, how much those vintage swimming suits would fetch today), and much to make think those interested in social history.

I’ve been carrying the book with me and pestering everybody I’ve met, showing them some of my favourite pictures. I even talked about it on the radio programme I host (I know, I know, pictures on the radio…) at a local radio station. Who would I recommend it to? Everybody! For some, it will bring memories, either of things they’ve experienced, or of things they’ve been told, and will help them tell their stories. For others, it will be a compelling slice of social history. If you like the seaside, you must check it out. If you’re interested in social history, you must check it out. If you love pictures and postcards, check it out. If you are intrigued by changes in fashion, transport, entertainment… check it out. If you love donkeys, check it out. Last but not least, if you want me to shut up about it, check it out.

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