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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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text 2016-11-22 12:00
Top Ten Tuesday: National Nightmare Edition
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
Bitch Planet Volume 1 - Kelly Sue DeConnick,Robert Wilson IV,Valentine De Landro
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America - George Packer
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities - Rebecca Solnit
On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (Maryland Paperback Bookshelf) - H. L. Mencken
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America - Nancy Isenberg
Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In - Bernie Sanders
A Social History of the Third Reich - Richard Grunberger
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Ann Druyan,Carl Sagan
Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History - Tananarive Due,Sofia Samatar,Ken Liu,Victor LaValle,Nnedi Okorafor,Sabrina Vourvoulias,Thoraiya Dyer,Rose Fox,Daniel José Older,Julie Dillon

I've been gone for a bit.

 

I’ve decided to go political right out of the gate. I suppose this is an odd note to start on as a “revival” of my blog after months away, and yet it is quite fitting given how I am feeling these days. Books are inherently political, if only because they reflect facets of our culture back to us, so it makes sense that I should find meaning in my blogging by looking in a political direction.

 

Typically, I would grab my Top Ten Tuesday topic from its originators, The Broke and the Bookish. Considering what is on my mind lately—non-stop—I felt instead like I would share a partial list of what I have read/intend to read as I come to grips with the election and figure out exactly how I want to tackle the aftermath. I, like many people blindsided by this travesty, have resolved to become more politically active and much more aware. This requires not just action, but knowledge and perspective, and I think that is something these books can offer in a time of need. This list could easily be hundreds of titles long but we have to start somewhere and ten is as good a number as any.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This will be a re-read for me and it couldn’t be more appropriate. And before you scoff about exaggeration, just remember the percentage of the evangelical vote that brought us where we are today.

 

Bitch Planet series by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. Needed for much the same reason as Handmaid. Also, because it will make me righteously angry and I need that right now.

 

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer. Who hurt you, America??

 

Hope in the Darkness by Rebecca Solnit. Just about anything by Solnit could fit here, but some readings by people I admire have pushed this one to the top of the list. We could all use a reminder that hope is hard but necessary and despair is not an option.

 

On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe by H.L. Mencken. While Mencken had some problematic views on women (he was writing 100 years ago), just about any of his political writings are extremely prescient. He saw this coming and we still didn’t listen.

 

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. What is it about the history of poverty and the wealth gap in the US that prompts people to vote against their own self-interest or scapegoat others? Is it just a lack of education or is it much more? And is class even the motivating factor people are claiming, or is it simply about culture? I’m hoping this book can shed some light on these questions.

 

Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders. I’m a Bernie Babe, can’t be helped.

 

A Social History of the Third Reich by Richard Grunberger. While there are any number of books on the Third Reich, I feel it is most important to begin by understanding the everyday people that contributed (purposefully or not) to its rise and normalization. And this is not just alarmism; the parallels are disturbing even from the vaguest distance.

 

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. Living in a post-truth world is going to do a number on science.

 

Any and every contemporary sci-fi short story collection I can get my hands on. I have

faith that these stories, told by diverse voices, will give me perspective beyond the headlines and history. In the right hands, speculative fiction gets to the heart of everything that troubles us as a people and gives us alternative visions of the future.

 

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review 2016-03-09 09:15
Snow White Red-Handed - Never Again
Snow White Red-Handed (A Fairy Tale Fatal Mystery) - Maia Chance

Warning: gif has strong language

(spoiler show)

 

Next!

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