Patricia Brent, Spinster – Herbert Jenkins (1918)


Published in 1918 by his own publishing company, Herbert Jenkins’s novel, Patricia Brent, Spinster, was a pretty fast read once it got going. It’s a plot that’s been well used before: an unmarried young woman (about early 20’s) lives in a boarding house with the usual cast of misanthropes and narrow-minded “paying guests” having to eat a rotating menu that never changes (similar to many of their own lives, it seems). Small talk and gossip rule the day, and so young Patricia Brent decides that she can’t take the monotony any more and invents a fiancé for herself.

As the story continues, Brent leaves the boarding house for dinner with her “fiancé” at a well known restaurant in London without having the faintest idea of how this will turn out in the end. Fortune smiles on her, and she meets a young army officer who, serendipitously, is also dining alone and willing to play along with her plan. Days and weeks go by and the fake fiancé really ends up falling in love with her, except she decides that she can’t have someone actually fall in love with her and rejects him, despite all his intentions otherwise.

His family become involved, his sister comes up with a strategy to make Patricia become more attracted to her brother (the fiancé) and so it goes. It was an ok read, but Patricia was pretty unreasonable in how she acts with the friendly fake fiancé and rejects him for little reason apart from he likes her (which wasn’t in the plan).

It’s a caper novel, which worked for the most part, although at times, I rolled my eyes at the female protagonist’s immature behavior. However, this was written back in 1918 and it’s pretty true to the times for some people (regardless of gender), I would think. Author Jenkins also owned the publishing company who first started to publish all the P. G. Wodehouse spoofs so I don’t think this volume was intended to be deep and meaningful.

It was not a bad read, by any means, but it was somewhat more superficial than I had thought it was going to be.

The Thirty Nine Steps – John Buchan (1915)


This was a pick from the library shelves for my monthly book review column and was classified as Young Adult. However, I would argue that this rather wild adventure story would tick all the boxes for a good read for adults as well. It’s not a deadly serious novel and some of the events that happen are remarkably coinkidink, but it was still a good read that had an exciting narrative.

The Thirty Nine Steps is the first of a shortish series of espionage and cloak-and-dagger type of action from the eyes of protagonist Richard Hanney. (Hanney is like an early James Bond type hero, except less s*x and fewer gadgets.) It is a very fast read and I found it difficult to put down, so I thoroughly enjoyed it once I had stopped trying to make it believable. (Again, the adventures Harry has are ridiculous, but it’s a great read.)

“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had three months in the Old Country and was fed up with it.” (Chapter One.)

The narrative begins with Hanney complaining about how dull life was now that he had arrived from South Africa and was living in London. In fact, he was so bored that if nothing happened soon (no job, I see), he was going to move back to then-Rhodesia.

That evening as he was relaxing in his flat, a neighbor knocked on the door and asked for his help in stopping an anarchist plot by evil German spies to destabilize Europe and assassinate the Greek premier of the time when he visited UK. After proving that the story is real, the neighbor is found dead with a knife in his chest, and Hanney takes up the cause, going on the run as a fugitive to avoid being caught by the Germans (called Black Stone) and at first, the English law enforcement who were chasing him as a suspect in murder.

Lots of adventures on trains, in stolen cars, living as a fugitive and a life on the run, Hanney’s story is full of phrases like “Tally ho!”, things being “beastly”, “ripping good chaps”, and “being haled from the other room” to “sup on biscuits”. (The writing reminded me of Enid Blyton’s tales except with grown-ups and guns.)

It’s all a bit much if you read this with a serious mindset, but once I realized that it was a caper-type story, it was really good.

One not so good point was that it is a reflection of the times, and has quite a lot of negative stereotypes and descriptions of minority groups. It’s difficult to get past that sometimes but this stopped after the first few chapters so I kept reading. (There was a lot in the first third of the novel, but once adventures start, the story stops doing that. And, as mentioned, it was a reflection of the times which doesn’t make it right, but it is what it is.) This prejudicial writing is strange as well when you learn about Buchan’s political beliefs as he was a multicultural supporter in numerous ways.

His take on the Germans is also not positive, but if you look at that time in history when it was written, it’s more understandable. (England was in the horrors of World War I, just had the Boer Wars, and numerous other conflicts. Germany had sunk a battleship off Dorset coast killing more than 500 crew, and Zeppelins had quite bombed Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn… It was a time of destabilization which was reflected in the plot.)

Hmm. Points to ponder.

Once Hanney reaches Scotland, he is chased by aeroplanes, by cars, by opposing spies and dogs. He has to fend for himself, and it’s all pretty clichéd but the writing kept me going. Buchan had a lot of exposure to life on the Scottish moors, and this was obvious when I read his descriptions of the glens and muirs and fells etc. I just fell into the world of the highlands and it was such fun.

There was also quite a bit of dialect which was challenging in a good way. To set the stage, Hannery has come across an isolated road mender in the Highlands and is asking for a favor. This is what the roadmender replies:

“You’re the billy…It’ll be easy enearch managed. I’ve finished that bing of stanes, so you needna chap on my mair this forenoon. Just take the barry, and wheel enough metal frae yon quarry doon the road to make anither bing the morn…”

(And it wasn’t all like this – just bits and pieces. If it had been all like that, I’m not sure I could have made it to the end!)

I’m not usually a spy novel reader for the most part, but I loved this. Not only was the adventure fun, but Buchan’s writing was impressive as well and he utilized his large vocabulary. Shelved as a YA novel, I think that strong young readers could pick up the meaning of these words from context clues, but not sure that a more impatient or less confident reader would do the same. So long as that didn’t bog you down, the story itself was just plain exciting and fun. It’s also good for grown-ups too. 🙂

I’m definitely going to read more about Hanney. It’s not a deep and meaningful read, but it’s fast-paced and it’s fun.

As an aside: Buchan was nominated for Governor General of Canada in 1935 and received the title of 1st Baron Tweedsmuir (great name for a mostly Scottish guy). He was one of the first Governors to be appointed once Canada had passed the 1931’s the Statute of Westminster. (A Governor General of Canada is the federal viceregal representative of the Canadian monarch (who is Queen Elizabeth II). The commission is normally about five years or so, and it’s now traditional to switch between anglophone and francophone incumbents.) Buchan seemed to do a good job, with a heavy emphasis on literacy, multicultural causes, and other causes. Also had a pretty natty outfit (see below for details).


The Great Filth: Disease, Death and the Victorian Life – Stephen Halliday (2009)


” The greatest achievements of the Victorian era was…to accept that national and local government had a responsibility for the health, education and welfare of citizens, as well as for defense against foreign invasion and domestic justice…”

As you may already know, I am a Fangirl of Victorian social history, and so this was quite a good read. I especially enjoyed and appreciated the slightly different slant that Halliday used here – instead of most of it being about doctors, this covers a lot of the public health improvements in London (and elsewhere) were due to the diligent efforts of civil engineers and architects, as well as mathematicians and others.

pumpThis title covers both the famous and infamous of Victorian medicine – the discovery of the infected well water during an epidemic (Snow et al.), the acceptance and training of midwives, the realization of good hygiene between doctor and patient, the glacial acceptance of germ theory as opposed to the miasma theory – the topics were really interesting to me (especially when considered in the light of our recent visit to the Hunterian Museum in London ).

Some of the theory behind medicine at that time is startling to the modern eye in places. Not washing one’s hands between patients? Eeuw. There was more than one cholera outbreak during the nineteenth century, one of which occurred in 1832. As medical theory at that time did not conceive of germs being in the water (as opposed to the air)*, the London Board of Health came up with the following recommendations for its citizens to prevent cholera transmission:

* Consumption of large amounts of roast beef (assuming you could afford that)
• Poorer people should eat loads of potatoes and stale bread (the mold was thought to have healing powers)
• Avoid excess fruit and vegetables (obviously not washed and cleaned at this time)
• Finally, use brandy, laudanum, ammonia, sulphuric acid for treatment/prevention and…
• Apply mix of hot bricks and boiling water to the affected areas (Yikes)

When Victorian people became ill, there were very few options with which to treat them regardless of how old you were: “Lying-In” hospitals came to the fore where pregnant women would confine themselves to wait for their oncoming birth. (Thus, the use of the word “confinement” as linked to pregnancy. Just saying anything to do with a bodily function would repel well-bred Victorians for the most part.) In fact, if you were pregnant, you sort of hoped that you wouldn’t be put into one of the maternity hospitals as the mortality rate of both mother and child were significantly higher in them than outside.) Midwives were available, but had no formal training (apart from helping at other births, perhaps), and the doctors were initially opposed to formalizing the midwife profession fearing it would take money from their side of the equation… (The more things change…)

0ld-surgery_1Anesthesia was also quite a new technique, but it also increased the infection rate of the patients involved. Before anesthesia, surgery was very painful but very quick. After using anesthesia, the surgeons could take more time and care to be accurate while wielding a scalpel but the longer exposure of open wounds to the polluted air (and environment) also meant that death rates would increase for a while. Joseph Lister was the guy who helped to introduce the necessary steps in anesthesia and hygiene that would bring this death rate down. (BTW, Queen Victoria was one of the first women in the UK to ask for anesthesia during the births of some of her children. After that, there was a big trend for it, of course, when patients could afford it.)

Joseph Bazelgette, a civil engineer, was instrumental in improving the drainage in London and its surrounding areas, and in fact, when you walk along some of the embankments next to the Thames, you are walking on top of the great Victorian drains that he designed and that made such a big difference to the public’s health at that time.

“…the principal role in preventive medicine was taken, half knowingly by civil engineers…”

So, as mentioned briefly, there was a ton of good info in this book. However… (Now, I realize that this could sound nit-picky, but it still affected my reading experience nevertheless.) Halliday used different references whenever he referred to a male or female person who had played a role in this history. Men were first mentioned with first name/last name format, and then referred after that by last name only.
Women were first mentioned first name/last name format, but then referred to after that by their first names only. (So – Louis Pasteur/Pasteur or Florence Nightingale/Florence.) This irked me quite a lot as I thought it was infantilizing the women and their achievements and I was not happy with that. At first, I thought it was an editing error, but as the read continued, it was clear that it was an editing decision. My, my, my. Published in 2009 so not that old a book, so I am curious why the book was formatted in that manner…

*The word Malaria reflects this miasma theory: “Mal” is “bad” and “aria” is “air”… Fascinating when you think about it (at least to me).

Going Home, Coming Home…

My home town, Bedford, is famous for its suspension bridge and the river.

My home town, Bedford, is famous for its suspension bridge and the river.

Have just returned from a visit (with DH) to England where we walked in some gentle continuous rain, strolled around country lanes, caught up with some friends and family, and am now firmly ensconced back in Texas. I enjoy traveling, and I really like coming home. (I am hopeless at living out of a suitcase, I’m afraid.)

The plane ride out there felt a bit like this (see pic below).

anchovy can(I think the seats were designed for humans who have normal-sized torsos and toddler-length legs.) Luckily, the plane ride passed quite quickly. Still, the first thing that we did when we arrived at my mum’s house was to purchase Economy-Plus seats which made for a much roomier and more comfortable ride back to US. (Recommended for anyone flying United and who has long-ish legs.)

The trip was great and the weather was just what we were looking for: coldish, rainy (some days) and just lovely for us (since we live in a semi-arid climate). We managed to meet up with a few long-time friends (Hi Gaynor and Rozalind!) and have a delicious dinner with our favorite uncle whilst looking out over most of London’s skyline glittering under a night sky.

Cambridge view

Cambridge view

My mum was a lovely host, and kindly transported us to Cambridge where we gawked at the architecture (has it always been this fantastic?), had a cuppa tea at Auntie’s Tea Shop, and, of course, found a great second-hand children’s classic bookshop called The Haunted Bookshop. It’s a tiny place and packed with books, but lots of nostalgic fun for both mum and I as we came across books from long ago.

Another memorable visit was to Cambridge’s American war cemetery which was very moving and a complete contrast to the higgledy-piggedly layout of your more typical English graveyard. It also happened to be Remembrance Sunday in UK which made it all the more special as poppy wreaths had been laid to commemorate the men who had died in war (mostly WWI, it seemed). It was a very poignant experience to see the hundreds of white markers and see the names of all who had died, including those whose bodies were never found. Definitely makes one think about the futility of war.

What was also special was how widespread the appreciation of the veterans’ sacrifices was across the communities, and how the day is taken seriously. (Poppies serve as a symbol of those who have died in action and are worn on your clothing in memory.) (I think this is a big contrast to Veteran’s Day in the US which seems to be mostly an excuse for retail sales. Perhaps the reality of war is closer for English people as the island is only a few miles from France and it was a real-life concern that England could be invaded?) Whatever the reason, thanks to the vets who served to protect country!

Poppy Day is held on November 11 each year in remembrance of those who died in service during wars.

Poppy Day is held on November 11 each year in remembrance of those who died in service during wars.

London was a bit overwhelming. Walking around, I kept remembering the old Grace Jones song which has a line which says “tourists limping home having bitten off more than they could chew”… You definitely need a plan if you visit. We visited Trafalgar Square and the fantastic (and free!) National Portrait Gallery. It has been a long time since I’ve been in an established art museum, and this was really enjoyable. (It did remind me of the character Mrs. Bridges (by Evan Connell) when she visited one of the Parisian art museums and saw the original Mona Lisa for the first time…)

Then we went and had a sit-down and a lengthy browse at the Waterstone’s on Piccadilly (which is the largest bookshop in Europe – you know I couldn’t resist that.) Had a fun time browsing through the thousands and thousands of books and only bought one. (Kudos to me, I think.) By then, we were knackered and it was time to visit my uncle who lives in the Barbican area (very arty) and to drink champagne and eat great food looking over the city lights.

A visit to the Shard was on the books as well (thanks to mum), and this was super. It’s one of the highest and newest buildings in London (and Europe) and we were lucky to have a clear day with no rain, mist or low-hanging clouds so the views were spectacular.

Looking up at the Shard.

Looking up at the Shard.

And then came the piece de resistance – I finally found the Hunterian Museum, a collection of historical medical artifacts from the Royal College of Surgeons going back in time as far as the Egyptian mummies. I am very interested in medical things for various reasons, and have been longing to visit this place for years. It’s rather hard to find though, and so it had turned into my own personal White Whale for the last few trips to London. It’s an amazing journey through time and features medical-related items ranging from dissected pregnant sparrows to skeletons and ulcerated stomach linings, and it’s all done in such a good presentation. After looking at some of the older surgical instruments and seeing how they were used, I became very grateful that I have benefited from modern medicine! (Early peoples used pointed rocks for rudimentary brain surgery with no pain management – ouch.)

Most of the museum’s collection came from Sir John Hunter who was one of England’s Victorian surgeons (thus the name Hunterian Museum) and it was excellently curated. So – although this place may have been hard to find, it was well worth it and I recommend it if you have even the slightest interest in historical medicine.

And then fish (or, in my case, sausage in batter) and chips with my bro and his family made the day complete.

And, of course, I managed to let a few books squeak through in my suitcase, but those, my friends, are for another post.

Chips - the national food.

Chips – the national food.

Smart Women are Trouble…


I attended Bedford High School in Bedford, BEDS, England from when I was 6 until I was 18. (Different from U.S. high schools.) It was founded in 1883 as an all-girls school – typical Victorian, but now has merged with another school and moved. Building is still there though.

While men are calmed, women are excited by the education they receive… the woman of our modern civilization becomes the bundle of nerves which she is – almost incapable of reasoning under the tyranny of paramount emotions; some are wholly incapable of becoming the mothers of rightly organized children… For patience, for reliability, for real judgment in carrying out directions, for self-control, give me the little woman who has not been “educated” too much…

Dr. Charles Fayette Taylor, physician, 1876.

The Card – Arnold Bennett (1910)

The Card - BennettSubtitle: A Story of an Adventure in the Five Towns.

This novel has a similar feel to the humor of Jane Austen – class-based, omniscient POV, wicked humor etc. Denry Machin, the protagonist, aims to be “the Card,” which is (in this context) another name for the man about town and sort of ‘Big Man on Campus” idea despite being a lower class and thus socially challenged…

(His name comes up as his mother called him Edward Henry which then devolved into Denry….)

Starting with his early days as a young student, he found himself to be clever and willing to take advantage of any situations which could help him, and it’s this willingness (and his slightly “flexible” ethical attitude) which moves him up the financial and social ladder of this industrial northern town. He’s not an evil man – just a bit ethically “gray”, very ambitious and quick to grasp the lay of a situation.

Denry Machin, son of washerwoman and an apprentice clerk to a local businessman, illicitly puts his name on the invitation list to the ball of the new mayoress, and this was just the beginning of his climb up the social ladder. Bennett describes him thus:

“The thrill of being magnificent seized him, and he was drenched in a vast desire to be truly magnificent himself. He dreamt of magnificence and boot-brushes kept sticking out of this dream like black mud out of snow …”

And when he is at this big ball, the social event of the season, trying to fit in with toffs who were there, this is how he was thinking:

“Then he went downstairs again, idly; gorgeously feigning that he spent six evenings a week in ascending and descending monumental staircases, appropriately clad. He was determined to be as sublime as anyone… There was a stir in the corridor, and the sublimest consented to be excited.”

Denry has high social aims and although not devious, somehow ends up climbing the social ladder through odd means and coincidences. He is exceedingly impulsive trying to impress people (and successfully for the most part). In one situation, Denys offers to buy a house from a local woman from whom he is collecting rents but has no money. By doing so, he puts himself into a financial crisis, and immediately knows that he has got carried away with things. However, he couldn’t help himself:

But, as always when he did something crucial, spectacular, and effective, the deed had seemed to be done by a mysterious power within him, over which he had no control”

 And yet somehow, it seemed to work out one way or another in Denry’s favor as the plot continues. This is a light-hearted read with little serious social commentary, and it doesn’t try to be anything else. It takes Denry from the modest clerkship of a local businessman to the vaulted expensive hotels of Switzerland in a way that is quite believable and also unpredictable. As the other townspeople say in the novel, “What has Machin done now?” and it’s the same for the reader as you follow Denry’s meteoric rise. However, it’s not without incident and it’s not without mistakes, and yet somehow, Denry ends up landing on his feet.

If you’re after a fun read, then this would be a good fit. It’s quite short, it’s well written, and it’s humorous.   Wiki says that there is a 1952 movie of this book (U.S. title The Promoter) with Petula Clark and Alec Guinness which could be quite fun to compare.



Of Studies – Francis Bacon (1597)

Cover of Bacon's essaysOne in a long series of very short essays (is there a name for a short essay like “novella” for novel?), Francis Bacon was a politician during the sixteenth century in England, and although he himself was not above scandal, he did have some good points about being a good person/leading a good life in his numerous essays.

This particular short essay discusses studies and learning: who should do it, how they should do it, and what they should do with the end results. It’s all very down-to-earth and pragmatic about it, and there is a lot with which I agree and that just makes sense.

It’s not the easiest essay to read, but it is packed with points with which I just nodded my head and said “yup” to. I’m not sure why he wrote this huge series of short essays or who his audience was.   They were initially packaged into a series of ten and published in 1597, but then revised about ten years later.

He was also a strong writer, and although doesn’t seem to have a big fan of paragraphs, he did make good use of parallel sentence construction to emphasize a point (see below).

I had seen some of these sayings referred to in various book-related settings before reading this, but didn’t know it was Bacon who was the author. He seems to have been enamored of reading as much as I am…

• STUDIES serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment and disposition of business.


• To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar.


• Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.


• Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

Just a delight to read (and I don’t say that very often about sixteenth century writing!)

Portrait of Bacon

Reading Catch-Up Time…

catch_upSo – it’s time to do a catch-up post to chat a bit about some of the books that I have been reading, but that haven’t quite earned enough cachet to warrant a full post in and of themselves. This is not necessarily a negative thing to say about the books: some books trigger a lot of thought after the read and some don’t. These were in that latter group (generally speaking).

Logavina Street - Barbara DemickLogavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood – Barbara Demick (2012)

Just a good solid non-fiction read from a “boots on the ground” perspective of the genocide that took place in the 1990’s in former Yugoslavia. Not an easy read by any means, but Demick has maintained her authorial distance without giving up her passion about the people and the subject with whom she spent a lot of time. Interesting and hard to believe that the rest of the world took so long to get caught up on what was actually happening to these poor folk at that time.

Aufgust Folly - Angela ThirkellAugust Folly – Angela Thirkell (1936). Another fictional village romp with the inhabitants of Barsetshire. (See post here for more info.)

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?Where’d You Go, Bernadette? – Maria Semple (2012). This was quite a fast read composed in an epistolary style of emails, reports, and journal entries from the PoV of a young woman who is trying to work out why her mother disappeared two days before Christmas. (All a bit weird, but not bad. It also included some good descriptions of Antarctica which was interesting. Nothing too mind-blowing though.)

The Stand-In - Deborah MoggachThe Stand-In – Deborah Moggach (1991).

Was hoping for more brilliance in fiction from Moggach from this read, but this one did not rate as highly as her other works. This is more of a character study with a psychological thriller twist so was very different from my usual choice of reading fare. What I like about Moggach’s work is that you never quite know what you’re going to get from book to book, which is both good and bad. This was ok, but not as enjoyable as some of her other works that I have read.

Upstairs and DownstairsUpstairs and Downstairs – Sarah Warwick (2012).

And speaking of Downton Abbey, I have just picked up a shoddily edited and shoddily compiled tie-in book called “Upstairs and Downstairs: The Illustrated Guide to the Real World of Downton Abbey” by Sarah Warwick. My recommendation if you pick this title up is to put it down. Do not pass Go. Do not pick up $200. Just put it down.

This is such an obvious weak tie-in that has been thrown out to cash in on the Lord and Lady Grantham craze, so poor that I would be embarrassed to have my name as author (if I did). Lots of lovely photos and pictures to look at but marred by such useless captions as “A husband and wife look at the river as it passes by.” What. The. Heck? No citation, no helpful info to identify the pic or its artist or who’s in it. No context. And did I mention the careless editing?….

I think, perhaps, that the publishers are focusing on people who may have only very superficial knowledge of social history at this time, but you know what? Even if these readers read this book, they wouldn’t have learned much more by the end of it. I think I have been spoiled by the skillful writing of Judith Flanders and Amanda Vickery, but apart from the pics in this book, there is very little to recommend this to other readers.

So a mixed bag overall, but mostly good.

Magnificent Obsession– Helen Rappaport (2011)

Rappaport book cover

“For me, life came to an end on 14 December. My life was dependent on his, I had no thoughts except of him, my whole striving was to please him, to be less unworthy of him…”

Queen Victoria, letter to King of Prussia, 4 February 1862.

Subtitle: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy.

A fascinating read about the life of Queen Victoria once she had married Prince Albert and how he affected the UK monarchy after he died, a lot of which I did not know. Rappaport is a Victorian and Russian scholar and so this is a well written historical study, but it’s also very accessible without losing its academic credibility.

vic1As you are probably aware (if you’ve been a reader of my blog for some time), I am somewhat obsessed about Victorian social history, and have not yet delved that deeply into the Royal Family of that time. Growing up in England, I was aware of numerous references to Prince Albert (road names, monuments, halls, etc.) but knew very little about who this Albert was (apart from being linked by marriage to Queen Victoria) so this was a very enlightening read for me.

There are monuments to Albert spread out across England and Scotland (and Wales?), and I can only imagine how much money was spent on this years-long project. The Frogmore mausoleum (where Albert was buried) cost thousands of dollars, took years to build and went way over budget. Victoria had her own personal set of keys to this building and would spend time there daily communing with “dear Albert” on the day’s events and decisions.  (See pic below.)

“…[T]urning the performance of grief into her very own personal art form…” , Rappaport describes how Victoria marries Albert quite young, and happily turns over the nuts and bolts of running the throne to her shy but capable husband. It was fascinating to me that Victoria’s advisors allowed this transfer of power to occur, but perhaps it was so incremental and Victoria was so independent that nothing could be done. Not sure….

In the end, Victoria had given so much authority and power to Albert (including all of her self esteem, it seems), that when he died, she just gave up. She refused to complete her duties (apart from minimal letter-signing etc.) and both her and Albert’s Personal Secretaries despaired of her. Due to her removal of herself from public life of any sort and her extreme grief, Victoria almost single-handedly destroyed the monarchy and its reputation.

And yet, at a later point in her long reign, she also bought it back from the brink of destruction. It’s interesting to think what would have happened if she hadn’t got her act together for the last years – the Victorian public were seriously annoyed with her and her withdrawal as it dragged on for decades, and it is quite reasonable to look back at the signs and think that it might have gone against her and turned the UK in a republic.

vic2(Above: Frogmore Mausoleum)

The image of Victoria gradually changes over time as she sticks to her guns: she morphs from being viewed as a stubborn selfish ruler to one who represented solidity, respectability and “a benevolent matriarchal widow”, but it was definitely a struggle to get there from where she was.

She and Albert had nine children, and the elder offspring played an important role in nursing Albert during his fatal illness and then looking after Victoria once he had died. As the years of strict mourning turned into decades for the Court, both Victoria’s family and her advisors were pretty concerned about her lack of involvement in the running of the country – she fled to Osborne House in the Isle of Wight and to her place in Scotland, and it was there in Scotland that she met John Brown, one of the employees of her estate up there. (That’s a whole other story right there…)

To me, it looks like Victoria was pretty controlling (childishly so) throughout her life – her mother was pretty awful to her so there’s probably a lot of issues linked with that. First, Victoria handed over the reins of her throne to Albert and then, when he died, she kept a tight hold on everything (control again) despite remonstrations from Parliament, and only when she had met and was comfortable with Brown, did she relinquish her control of things (or decide to join in again with the Royal duties). She sounds as though she was a real pain, controlling to be controlling, refusing to take advice, and when she did do some work, allowed outside influence to play a major role in her position.

Her own family was not without its problems, with Bertie (Prince of Wales) being a big party guy and womanizer, and the daughters playing a very helpful role but who could not be in line for the throne. (Glad that is different now.)

I was also rather fascinated by the available medical knowledge at the time (which is to say not much), and then also how strictly Victoria embraced the funeral customs of the time. (The sale of black cloth for mourning clothes more or less saved the cloth industry at the time.)

In the palace world, there was a Physician-in-Ordinary (around 1840+) and then her closest doctor, Sir William Withey Gull* (1859) who had the incredible title of Physician-Extraordinary.  Medical knowledge was rather basic back then, and so once someone became seriously ill, it was really luck of the draw as to what happened.

Extra note: QEII does not have a Physician-Extraordinary any more. Instead, she has a doc who is “Physician to the Queen” who is chief officer of the Medical Household of the Royal Household of the Sovereign of the UK. This position was created in 1973, and there are two positions. Traditionally, a senior Royal Navy surgeon accompanies the Queen on her travels abroad.

So – as you can tell, I found this to be a great read and it came with a lengthy bibliography for further reading. (Always a lovely touch, I think. More books!)

And here’s an article from the UK’s Daily Mail about one of Queen Victoria’s mourning outfits going up for sale…. It’s got a picture of her knickers – I imagine she is turning in her grave at this intrusion. 😉

And here’s an article from the journal, Medical History, with more details about Queen Victoria’s Medical Household (author: A. M. Cooke).  Fascinating if you like that sort of thing…

* Randomly enough, this guy Gull was also named as a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murder case. Well I never….  You learn something new everyday. 🙂

Under the Greenwood Tree – Thomas Hardy (1872)

book163Dick wondered how it was that when people were married they could be so blind to romance; and was quite certain that if he ever took to wife that dear impossible Fancy, he and she would never be so dreadfully practical and undemonstrative of the Passion as his father and mother were. The most extraordinary thing was that all the fathers and mothers he knew were just as undemonstrative as his own.

This is a book of gentle humor and loving description of country life in an English small village – quite idyllic and a big comparison with his later much bleaker published works. This reminded me of E. F. Benson, Miss Read, and Angela Thirkell, except written from a Victorian mindset and using the vocabulary of the day.

It also covers a few more serious issues – gender roles, the changing times of agriculture – but it has plenty of levity and wit in its gorgeous descriptions of countryside and the people who inhabit the village. The female protagonist is a headstrong and educated village school teacher who, of course, is who a lot of the village men (and women) talk about. She’s not a shrinking violet, by any means, and the end of the book could be seen as moralistic or shocking, depending on your viewpoint or if you were Victorian or not.

…wives be such a provoking class o’ society, because though they be never right, they be never more than half wrong.”

hardyThe book starts off with a section introducing the reader to the members of the Mellstock Quire (or Choir) and I would have been perfectly happy if the whole book had revolved around these fairly funny guys. It was still a good read when Hardy takes the narrative off into other worlds, but honestly, it would have worked just fine to stick with these early characters.

Divided into sections to represent the changing seasons (plus a conclusion), this was a fast read with quite a few snappy one-liners in it (not what you’d expect from an author with such a gloomy reputation) and there is plenty of satire and irony scattered throughout the story.  However, despite this humor, there are loads of pastoral paradise descriptions as well – it was a beautiful reading experience and just sucked me in. I could really see some of what he was describing in my head.

…hanging of bacon, which were cloaked with long shreds of soot, floating on the draught like the tattered banners on the walls of ancient aisles…

So – there’s the twisting winding love story, the interloping of an unwanted new organist which upsets the balance of things, and a new vicar who wants to “modernize” things. There’s a funny group of old grumpy men and a country wedding, and lovely descriptions in between. I don’t think this is a particularly deep and meaningful book, but as a good read, it checks all the markers for me. I am now rather curious to read his later work to see the contrast between this rather happy story and his other more tragic takes on life.

There’s also a 2006 TV production of Under the Greenwood Tree which I’d like to track down at some point.


Other intriguing points I found:

  • Written in 1872 when Hardy was 32 – grew up in small village in Dorset with stonemason father and reading mother. Mostly taught himself from the books he found in Dorchester the nearby town, and was an apprentice to an architect when he turned 16. Specialised in restoring old houses and churches and after living in London for a few years, returned to Dorchester to be a professional restorer of church there.
  • First novel he wrote was rejected and then he burned the manuscript, but then Under Greenwood got published (under an anon name at first). Also serialized (similar to Dickens et al.)
  • Work reflects his idea of rural life in his fictional county of Wessex, although got bleaker as time progressed.
  • Also quite forward thinking with regard to role of Victorian women and the novels Tess of D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure were eviscerated in the press enough to stop Hardy writing novels and concentrate on poetry.
  • Died in 1928, and it seems (according to legend) that his heart was to be buried in Stinsford, his birthplace. All went according to plan until a cat belonging to the Hardy’s sister snatched the heart from the kitchen (where it was being temporarily kept) and disappeared into the woods with it. Yikes.