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review 2017-11-24 21:55
A great resource for writers of historical fiction, historians, and people who love social history and the Victorian period.
Life on the Victorian Stage: Theatrical Gossip - Nell Darby

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

If you have been following my reviews for some time, you will be aware that I have read a number of the historical books published by Pen & Sword. I tend to be more interested in social history and how historical changes affected the lives of those who don’t always figure in the big History treatises. Being a lover of plays and a kin theatregoer, I was very curious about this book. Yes, theatre gossip was intriguing, but getting a sense of what life on the Victorian stage must have been like was my main interest. Although sometimes we discover that life has changed dramatically in a reasonably short period of times, some things do not seem to change much. And human curiosity and the love of gossip are among those things. If Victorians had no access to social media, there were plenty of newspapers and periodicals to keep them entertained, and actors were as much a subject of interest then as they are now.

The author does not follow a narrative or chooses a few big cases in this book, but rather illustrates the sheer amount of theatrical news that occupied the Victorian press of the time, not only in London but also in the provinces. As communications improved, newspapers even started featuring stories about actors in America (either natives or British authors touring there) and although sometimes the features lacked in detail (in some cases a suicide or a death would not feature the name of those involved) they were always after items that would attract the public’s attention. Darby divides the book into three parts: Part 1 deals with the business side of things (including such matters as licenses, libel, bankruptcy, breach of contract…), Part 2 looks at criminal lives (from blackmail and assault to prostitution and murder), and Part 3 delves into the personal lives of the actors (what we would probably consider gossip proper, although not all of it is gossip. The chapter on death and disaster deals with serious matter and also makes us look at security measures and disasters in theatres, bigamy seems to have been much more common than it is today, and personally I was fascinated by the chapter on breaches of promise, as I had not realise that there were laws that offered more protection to women in those circumstances than I would have expected).  Each chapter shares both, examples of standard cases of what would usually find its way into the newspapers (brief pieces with hardly any detail) and it dedicates more space to others that were better known, but no single case gets all the limelight. In many ways, this book is like a sampler, where people interested in the subject can learn more and be pointed in the right direction to research further.

The author’s style of writing is direct, and mostly allows the sources to do the talking. She provides sufficient background (on legal matters, the nature of performances, technical issues…) for readers to appreciate the items she discusses, and also some reflections on her own take on the materials. She notes how some periodicals, like The Era, were in a double-bind of sorts, as they tried hard to defend the profession of acting on the stage (that had a pretty bad reputation, especially in the case of women), insisting that actors were honourable and true professionals, whilst at the same time featured “sensational” news to attract readers. Although these days respectability is not a concept many people are worried about, it is true that the press has a hard time trying to reconcile the ideal of protectors of the truth, whilst fighting to keep the attention of the public by any means necessary. Is it possible to keep the moral high ground whilst publishing gossip and innuendo?

Although this is not, perhaps, a book for the general reading public, as I read I kept thinking about how useful this book would be to writers of historical fiction interested in the period (and not only for those considering using a theatrical background in their story but also for those thinking about the press of the time and even society at large) and to historians. Darby provides end notes full of details, both of the sources of her research and also of further information available. Although she mostly uses newspapers, she digs on the archives to confirm details such as names (as many actors and actresses used stage names and some of those were fairly popular) and discovers that Mark Twain wasn’t the only one whose death had been grossly exaggerated (deaths, marriages… were often misreported). The paperback also contains pictures that allow us to put faces to some of the names and help transport us to the era.

In sum, this is a book that will greatly assist writers, historians, and people passionate about the Victorian era and the history of the stage in the UK. It is a good starting point for those who want a general view of the topic and/or are looking for inspiration for their next story or research project. And if you just want to confirm that people’s love for gossip about the stars has not changed over the years, this is your book.

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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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text 2017-09-28 22:13
Which to choose?
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist--the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England - Daniel Pool
How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life - Ruth Goodman

In my ongoing effort to pare down my shelves, I've decided to confront what has been the glaring coexistence of two books on my shelf: Daniel Pool's What Jane Austen Ate, What Charles Dickens Knew and Ruth Goodman's How to be a Victorian. Both are similar, yet they may not be similar enough

 

Pool's book has been taking space on my shelf for over two decades. His goal in writing it was to explain Victorian life as it's represented in its most enduring cultural artifacts: the many novels of its age. Have you ever been confused by various English legal courts chronicled in Dickens's novels, or the different types of servants mentioned in Trollope's works? If so, then this is an ideal book to have.

 

Goodman's book is more recent. and her approach is different. in it, she dissects Victorian life by describing its daily routines, from sunup until bedtime. This is not just the product of documentary research, though, as Goodman adopts an archaeological approach by describing her firsthand observations of the physical objects (such as clothing) and other artifacts now preserved in museums and other collections. It's not always an idea approach, but in the case of this book it works well.

 

As you can see there is considerable overlap between the two books, yet at the same time the differences are not so great as to easily justify getting rid of both. So I'm trying to decide what to do. Do I get rid of one of them? If so, which one? Any suggestions you might have, especially if you've read one or both of these books, would be greatly appreciated.

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review 2017-07-27 02:19
PRETTY JANE AND THE VIPER OF KIDBROOKE LANE: a TRUE STORY OF VICTORIAN LAW AND DISORDER by Paul Thomas Murphy
Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The First Unsolved Murder of the Victorian Age - Paul Thomas Murphy

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  Jane Clouson is found on Kidbrooke Lane dying after a vicious beating. She is taken to the hospital where she later dies. The police now have to find the murderer. As they look at her short life and listen to what her friends have to say they believe they have found their murderer and arrest him. Next comes the court of law and the court of public opinion.

This is interesting. Mr. Murphy uses modern forensic techniques to review the case and show who the murderer is. Unfortunately, forensic science was just beginning in 1871 and what we know now is not what they knew then. Because of technicalities and a "judge" who had made up his mind, this case seems like a travesty of justice. I liked how each person is followed through the book. I also liked the synopsis of how modern forensics would prove who the murderer is as well as how the police put their case together. I like the history

 

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review 2017-06-01 06:19
Podcast #50 is up!
Radicalism and Reputation: The Career of Bronterre O'Brien - Michael J. Turner

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Michael J. Turner ot his new biography of James Bronterre O'Brien, the 19th English radical writer who was a key figure in the Chartist movement. Enjoy!

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