Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England – Amanda Vickery

Seeing as I happen to be addicted to domestic and social history, I was happy when this title arrived at the library. I am more of a Victorian person than Georgian, but seeing as they are quite close together (history-wise), I picked this up to learn more details about life in England. I am really interested in this type of history and am looking forward to going to Bedford (UK) in October to see some of these items and actually appreciate them.

This was a fascinating look at domestic life for (mostly) English women from various walks of life, ranging from servants to struggling spinsters to the more wealthy wife in her stately home. This volume is much more than just a detailed description of every-day life; it also goes into such weighty issues such as the concept of privacy (and how that evolved over time and affected architecture and furniture design…) and the varying gender roles that changed over time. This is quite an academic work in many ways – Vickery is a history professor at Queen Mary, University of London – but this is not a heavy tedious treatise. With a good sense of humor, Vickery covers topics ranging from the study of who in the family bought what when (domestic accounting) to how they spent their time in the evenings.

The range of primary and secondary sources that were used is quite astounding, ranging from grocery receipts to reports from the Old Bailey, personal diaries to letters and newspapers. Along with this is a lengthy bibliography at the back which was a pleasure to peruse and add more titles to the list. It also reminded me (vaguely) of Bill Bryson’s book about the history of his house.

The book itself was also a pleasure to handle with glossy pages, sharp reproductions of the photographs, and a nice font. (And you know how I like a nice font…!)  Congrats to the publishers for making that so.

Although not an expert on Georgian times, I really enjoyed this look “behind the scenes” on the different social levels at this period of history. Vickery has done an excellent job of compiling vast amounts of disparate information and weaving it together into a coherent whole and making it readable as well.

I will be searching out her other work (“The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England”) and crossing my fingers that PBS will bring the three-part BBC2 TV series called “At Home with the Georgians” to Texas.

Fair Stood the Wind For France – H.E. Bates

A shortish (but slow-reading) novel about a downed RAF pilot and his crew during WWII and what happens when their plane crashes in Occupied France. This is really a book to savor, as opposed to whip through, as the descriptions are dense and the action spread out. There is a lot of description (which I think Bates excels at): of nature, of people’s appearances and characters, of the world around them.

The downed pilot, John Franklin, and his crew, find an isolated farmhouse and stay there whilst injuries are healed, developing friendships with the farmer and his family while also being acutely aware of the danger they are putting the civilians in through them giving them shelter. Franklin ends up having to stay longer than the rest of his crew, and falls in love with the farmer’s daughter, and together, they travel across Occupied France hoping to escape undetected through Marseilles.

However, Bates is so effective at throwing unexpected obstacles in the way of the travelers, and of unpredictable events that the story, although not that action-oriented, is still breath-takingly exciting at times. And the end of the book is in the same vein in that it is open-ended. Do the young couple make it England safely? Very little about the plot is predictable (which I adore) so this was really a good read.

This was a book to read carefully and in non-intrusive surroundings (quiet etc.). I am not a reader who can read effectively with a lot of noise or distractions around, but if you should find yourself with some quiet time, you would do well to immerse yourself in this.

I have heard that some find this novel a bit dated (and yes, it is true to its time), but a good story is a good story, I think. And this one worked for me.

Reading this reminded me of other British authors who excel at description: Laurel Lee, Flora Thompson, E. M. Delafield et al. The actual stories themselves are not that exciting, but the descriptions of the people and the surroundings take them to another level.

The author was born and grew up in Northamptonshire, a hop, skip and a jump away from where I grew up, and he stayed in that area for most of his life. Bates was commissioned into the RAF during WWII specifically to write short stories about the people who were fighting the war (more than just the facts and figures), and his stories were originally published in a column in a newspaper; Fair Stood the Wind For France was his first financial success.

Will be on the lookout for more Bates in the future.