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review 2019-09-14 21:46
Informative, entertaining, inspiring, and part of an important series.
A History of Women's Lives in Eastbourne - Tina Brown

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

This book is one of a series about Women’s Lives, and I recommend you check Pen & Sword’s website if you are interested in a particular city or area, as a large number of books have already been published and you’re likely to find a relevant one (or one might be on the making). I had been intrigued by the collection for a while and finally requested this one because my first job as a junior doctor was in Eastbourne, East Sussex, in the South East of England, I remained in the area for quite a few years and although I visited museums and talked to people about the place, I didn’t learn much about the role of local women and their lives in the past.

Eastbourne felt quite different to what I was used to when I first move there, with its gentile atmosphere, the seafront, the fancy (if somewhat old-fashioned) hotels, the Victorian pier, and the natural beauty of the Downs and Beachy Head. As the author explains in the description, the book centres on the lives of women from 1850 to 1950, and it also offers a brief but useful background into the history of the period. Although this will not cover new ground for history experts, it will help casual readers place the lives of these local women in context, and it contains gems specific to the local history and to the women´s social history, and it also incorporates previously unpublished personal accounts and those narrated by relatives and friends of women who had lived in the area.

The book is divided into an introduction, seven chapters, a brief bibliography (a good starting point but not too lengthy or detailed), a section of acknowledgments, and an index. The book also includes pictures and illustrations, some belonging to the personal archives of some of the women mentioned, and also postcards and landscapes of the area. I highlighted many details I found interesting as I read it, and I thought I’d share some of those to give you an idea of the kinds of things you might find in this book (and probably others in the series). Chapter One, Education and Professional Life includes, like other chapters, brief biographies of some local women (either women born in Eastbourne or who lived there for significant periods of time), such as Emily Phipps, who studied for the bar and later moved into teaching. She was said to live by this saying: ‘If you make yourself a doormat, do not be surprised if people tread on you’, and Rosalie Harvey, a medical missionary worker, who helped over 1500 sick people, many children and babies, and animals.

Chapter 2, Working Life, included a mention of the life of female smugglers in Eastbourne, the way the people from town helped families affected by WWI, and the touching story of a woman whose biological father was a Canadian soldier in WWII whom she never got to meet, who considered herself lucky because her mother’s husband (who was also a soldier and away for most of the war) accepted her as if she were his own child, and in fact she never discovered she wasn’t his until she was 22.  One of the biographies included in this chapter is that of writer and journalist Angela Carter, who was born in Eastbourne.

Chapter 3, Family Life: ‘Home Sweet Home’, highlights how society’s rules and political laws curtailed women’s freedom in all aspects of life, even when it came to dress and fashion. Getting a divorce was very difficult for women, even after changes in the law in the late 1850s and in the 1920s.  Having recently read a book about Lady Astor and her penchant for fashion, I found out in this chapter that Queen Victoria wore a headdress made of bird feathers in 1851 and that sprung a fashion (and resulted in the deaths of a very large number of birds). Reading about the change brought to the lives of women by a minor invention, such as the electric iron, made me reflect upon how hard tasks that might seem easy now were for our ancestors. This chapter also includes imaginative and resourceful war-time recipes, and it mentions the good reputation of Eastbourne schools and, in particular, Eastbourne College (a wonderful building I lived quite close to for a while).

Chapter 4, Quality of Life, talks about the changes brought by the NHS, efforts in welfare, and reforms to the workhouse, and the important role women played in those.

Chapter 5, Social Life, is one of my favourites, and includes some gems, such as the fact that nearby, in Bexhill-on-Sea (where I also worked) in 1901, male and female bathers were allowed to mix in the same beach for the first time. The chapter talks in detail about the Eastbourne Pier (I only knew some details of its history and had heard about the controversy caused by its recent refurbishment, but I haven’t seen it since, so I dare not comment); it also mentions the well-known female tennis tournament at Devonshire Park, and I was very taken by the brief biography of Emily Mary Shackleton, who moved to Eastbourne, and when her famous husband died during one of his expeditions, was left to fend for herself with a considerable debt to settle. She worked tirelessly for the Red Cross and became divisional commissioner for the Girl Guides of Eastbourne. The Luxor cinema was before my time, but from the description I would love to have seen it, and it had a Compton Organ, a fantastic instrument I was lucky to get to hear at the Penistone Paramount (don’t miss it if you are anywhere near).

Chapter 6, Political Life, places an emphasis on the local suffragist movement and some of the women who took part, including some of their heart wrenching accounts of being imprisoned and going on hunger strike, the way the attempts at reforming gender discriminatory laws were received, the first women mayors of the area, and such puzzling things as the fact that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children wasn’t formed until 1891, almost seventy years after the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Chapter 7, Spiritual and Religious Life, talks not only about the churches in Eastbourne, how new denominations became more popular as time passed, and also how the churches started organising social events, clubs and activities for all ages. This chapter also includes mentions of three ghosts: the redoubt fortress one, the one at Devonshire Park Theatre, and two nurse ghosts at the All Saints Hospital. I have heard about some of them, and considering the author has written books on that topic, I would take it in good authority.

I enjoyed the combination of general history with local events, the biographies of the local women, and, especially, the personal accounts of women who had lived in Eastbourne at the time and shared their experiences (or those passed on by their relatives) with the author. As I have said before, those are the kinds of details that help history come to life and make us understand what a period was truly like, not for politicians and royals, but for the people in the street.

As this is the first book I read in the series, I cannot compare it to others, and I know each one of the volumes is written by a local historian, so their approaches might be quite different. Mine was an early review copy, and I’m sure there will have been changes in the final version, but my only recommendation, based on the copy I had access to, would be to ensure that the biographies are clearly marked as separate from the rest of the text (by using a different type of letter or by encasing them in a box, for example), as currently they are interspersed with the rest of the content of the chapter, and it is not always easy to tell where one finishes and the other one starts again. Some of the topics overlap with each other and that makes the chapters perfect for reading independently, although it results in similar content being mentioned in several chapters when the book is read in one go, but I did not find this a major problem.

I enjoyed this book, which is informative, entertaining, and inspiring, and includes enough information about the general and social history of the period to be suitable for any readers, even those who don’t generally read history. At the same time it contains a wealth of information on the local history of women in Eastbourne, which will satisfy those trying to get a picture of the era, be it for personal interest, research, or as part of an ongoing project (Writers, I’m looking at you). I recommend this title to anybody interested in any of those aspects, and I will be checking other titles in the series.

  

 

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review 2019-06-12 17:16
You should read this
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper - Hallie Rubenhold

When this book first came out, I put it on the “wait until paperback” list.  Then the news about Rubenhold being trolled arrived. She was even compared to David Irving.  Surely, I thought, this can not be simply because she is a woman and argues that not all the victim were prostitutes.  Surely, it can’t be that.  It seemed worse than when a certain mystery author claimed to have solved the case.  Surely, if the reaction Rubenhold’s book is worse than reaction to that one by Ripperologists, there must be something wrong with it.

 

                Well, no.  There isn’t.  Quite frankly, the reaction that Rubenhold has received from some quarters because of her book because just shows how misogynist and sexist people are.  The mystery author deserved the criticism for her book was an example of how not to research.  Rubenhold’s The Five, however, is an example of what good research does.  Rubenhold’s book should be required reading for anyone remotely interested in the Ripper or in Victorian London as well as those interested in Women’s Studies.

 

                The most shocking thing about the book isn’t the thesis, which Rubenhold proves to an academic standard but simply that a historian hasn’t done this before.  This isn’t intended as a slight to Rubenhold, but more at Ripperologists.  Rubenhold basically puts the women in historical context. In some ways, this book made me think of Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife, where history is used to challenge the traditional view of Anne Hathaway as a manipulative shrew.  There is an important difference, however, Rubenhold is more conservative in her conclusions than Greer.  Greer relied on guesswork and deduction in some places (her most far reaching was having Anne be partially responsible for the first printing of the Works).  Rubenhold’s conclusions are back up by data and hard facts.  When she supposes, it is a minor way and the supposition is clear.

 

                Elizabeth Stride, Mary Ann Nicols, Mary Jane Kelly, Catherine Eddowes, Annie Chapman.

 

                Those are the victims.  And Rubenhold is correct. The murderer is remembered, dare we say celebrated, more than his victims.  To be fair, this isn’t just true about Jack the Ripper.  How many of us can name a victim of Charles Manson outside of Tate?  Perhaps, in remembering the name of the murderer as opposed to the murdered not only is it one name to remember in many cases, but the actor is the reason.  This in addition to the status of the victims as well.  There is a reason why we know the name Sharon Tate as oppose to Rosemary LaBianca. 

 

                Rubenhold traces the lives of the women as much as she is able to.  The London and because of Stride, the Sweden, she presents is familiar to any reader of say Charles Dickens, Arnold, Judith Flanders, or social history.  If you have any detailed societal history, the facts are not surprising or shocking.  Or quite frankly, something you should be debating.  What Rubenhold does is takes those societal facts and the known facts about the victims and presents the victims as people.

 

                Some of the women were mothers.  Most of the women had people who loved them.  Who were mourned.  All were products of a cultural that did not value women in the same way it valued men.  Something that Rubenhold points out, and notes its long shadow.  Rubenhold’s mention of the Brock Turner case is a perfect example of how far we haven’t come.  We judge victims on worthiness.  Take for instance, the Grim Sleeper case in California.  If those victims had more money, had been white, would the case have gone unnoticed for so long?  Rubenhold also addresses how prostitution was defined and how women of different ages coped with being on the street.  Think about it – today, do we think every homeless woman is a prostitute?  I don’t think so.  So why should we think the same about women back then.

 

                Rubenhold doesn’t present the women as saints, but more of products of an environment.  It shows the effect of poverty and limited options.  And this is something that still affects and effects today.

 

                More importantly, Rubenhold presents all this – social history, brief biographies - in a format that is easily approachable and readable.  You don’t have to be a Ripperologist or a history professor to read this novel.  You just have to know how to read.

 

                Two other points – sources are footnoted and documented.  She is nothing like David Irving.

                The most touching part of the book is the appendix where the belongings of the women are listed.

               

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review 2019-05-26 11:26
Fabulous images and an excellent introduction to the topic
Suffragettes - Lauren Willmott

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

This is one of the types of books this publisher excels at. Experts on a topic with good access to images and visual resources create an informative and compelling narrative of a historically important subject or event, combining easy to read accounts with pictures and documents relevant to the matter that help make it more vivid and memorable in our minds.

In this case, the images of The National Archives about the Suffragettes serve to illustrate the story of the movement in the UK. The fact that the author was a records specialist at the National Archives is evident, as she wisely chooses, from what must be a large selection of material, a variety of documents: comic and cartoon images (of the disparaged “new woman”, wearing trousers or bloomers, ignoring her children, and smoking!), pictures of the women involved (including a fascinating one of Evelyn Manesta, or rather two, one showing clearly that she refused to have her picture taken and therefore somebody was holding her from the back, and then the manipulated version of it, where the person behind her had been removed. No Photoshop yet, but photo manipulation even in the early XX century was already in existence), letters from the women complaining about the conditions in prison, or the fact that they were treated like common criminals, a wonderful image of a boycotted census form, from 1911, with a handwritten note (No persons here, only women!), a picture from 4th June 1913, at Epsom, the Derby Races, where we can see Emily Wilding Davison after being trampled by a horse and another picture of her funeral procession, images of the destruction caused when things escalated…

These wonderful —scary, moving, and incredible, at times— images are accompanied by a brief history of the movement for the women’s vote in the UK. The book is short (under 100 pages) and therefore this is not a very detailed account, but as an introduction to the topic it works well, as it includes the antecedents (how married women had been fighting to try to keep their property for decades, and how they became more and more frustrated on seeing how other countries in “the colonies” like New Zealand and Australia passed more advanced legislation an introduced women’s vote before the UK did), the development of the different associations (Manchester and the Pankhurst women play an important role), their initial peaceful tactics, their focus on deeds and increase in the visibility of their actions, imprisonment, hunger strikes, the pause during WWI (which not everybody was in agreement with), and the final achievement of some sort of vote after the war (in 1918, only for women over 30 who were property owners or married to property owners. It would take 10 years to normalise the situation). The summary is well-written and it is fairly comprehensive, considering the length of the book, although it won’t tell experts anything they didn’t already know.

Although the images include the archival reference, I missed a bibliography, a list of illustrations and an index, but otherwise I found the book great for reference, also as a book to complement a collection for those interested in the topic and a good introduction for people looking for an informative and easy to read account.

If readers are interested in knowing more about the Suffragettes and the efforts to achieve women’s vote in the UK, especially in a particular city or region, I recommend checking the publisher’s website, as they are continually updating their collection Struggle and Suffrage in… (which includes already many cities and counties: Manchester, Leeds, Wales…), and they have other books looking at some of the figures involved in the fight as well. I plan on talking about some of those soon.

 

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review 2018-10-15 14:59
A useful introduction, but one lacking in broader analysis
Women and Achievement in Nineteenth-Century Europe - Linda L. Clark

For women living in the West, the nineteenth century was one of considerable achievement. Though most lived lives defined by gender norms enshrined by class and tradition, a determined few sought to breach the barriers before them to gain greater opportunities across a variety of fields. This effort and its accomplishments is the subject of Linda Clark's book. In a series of chapters she surveys women's advancements across professions dominated by men, from the creative fields of art, literature and music to the increasingly professional realms of education, law and medicine. Though their numbers were limited, Clark credits them with making possible the careers of the hundreds, then thousands, of women who followed them in subsequent decades, making possible the opportunities heretofore denied them.

 

Clark's book is an informative account of the campaigns for women's rights at a pivotal point in European history. Her focus is almost exclusively on women at the upper ends of society, which is understandable as they were the ones with the means to wage such efforts. Yet their more clearly delineated lives can hamper her text, as at several points her text becomes little more than a series of biographies of remarkable individuals, with little in  the way of analysis that draws out broader conclusions. This focus on the specific rather than the general extends to her coverage of national restrictions; while an understandable approach, rarely does she break from this to offer any overarching assessment that justifies such a Europe-wide approach. This makes her book a useful introduction, but one that leaves readers to draw their own conclusions as to the broader factors behind the march of women towards greater rights and equality of opportunity in the West.

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url 2018-08-10 14:15
My one hundred fourteenth podcast is up!
Cleopatra's Daughter: And Other Royal Women of the Augustan Era - Duane W. Roller

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Duane W. Roller about his new study of the lives and roles of royal women in the early years of the Roman empire. Enjoy!

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