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BOOK REVIEW: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose

Friday, March 24, 2017




BLURB:


In her study of the married couple as the smallest political unit, Phyllis Rose uses as examples the marriages of five Victorian writers who wrote about their own lives with unusual candor.The couples are John Ruskin and Effie Gray; Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh; John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor; George Eliot and G. H. Lewes; Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth.


MY THOUGHTS:


A really interesting look at the marriages of five different sets of men and women who lived in Victorian times. Most were writers and intellectuals, and so their lives were not the norm for the times; nonetheless these brief biographies show that Victorian society was not quite as rigidly stratified and straitlaced as most people think. 


The couples whose lives are examined here are John Ruskin and Effie Gray; Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh; John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor; George Eliot and G. H. Lewes; Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth. I learnt something new about them all, and about the cultural institution of marriage. 


BOOK REVIEW: Rising Ground by Phillip Marsden

Friday, February 10, 2017



BLURB:


Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? When Philip Marsden moved to a remote creekside farmhouse in Cornwall, the intensity of his response took him aback. It led him to begin exploring these questions, prompting a journey westwards to Land's End through one of the most fascinating regions of Europe.From the Neolithic ritual landscape of Bodmin Moor to the Arthurian traditions of Tintagel, from the mysterious china-clay country to the granite tors and tombs of the far south-west, Marsden assembles a chronology of our shifting attitudes to place. In archives, he uncovers the life and work of other 'topophiles' before him - medieval chroniclers and Tudor topographers, eighteenth-century eighteenth-century antiquarians, post-industrial poets and abstract painters. Drawing also on his own travels overseas, Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our history but of man's perennial struggle to belong on this earth.


MY THOUGHTS:


I love books which take a place or a time or a person or a natural phenomenon, and then uses that as a springboard into a wide-ranging meditation on art, history, science, poetry, or any manner of things. And I have always wanted to go to Cornwall.


So I was interested in Rising Ground as soon as I heard about it. 


Philp Marsden has a degree in anthropology and has written a number of books about his travels in Ethiopia and Russia, as well as numerous essays for The Spectator. He was, however, raised in Cornwall and recently bought a farmhouse on a creek there with his wife and children. The book is not a memoir of the renovation of this old house, though some of his personal experiences are woven into the narrative. It is more about ‘topophilia’, a lovely word which means ‘love of place’, and examines some of the little-known but interesting people of the past who have loved Cornwall and studied it and written and painted about it. 


It’s the sort of book that you can pick up and enjoy, then put down and not pick up again for a few weeks, as each chapter is an essay on a particular aspect of Cornwall. I was particularly interested in the chapters on the standing stones and barrows and graves and other ancient monuments, and on the blind-and-deaf Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who I had never heard of before. 


A really interesting read. 


BOOK REVIEW: Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird

Saturday, January 07, 2017




THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience. 

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings to life the story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning. 




MY THOUGHTS:

I have spent the last two years deeply immersed in Victorian Britain. I have watched dozens of documentaries, and read more than a hundred biographies, memoirs, and histories of the time. Queen Victoria was a constant looming presence, sometimes revered, sometimes reviled. 

I was just finishing the final edit on Beauty in Thorns, my novel set in the mid 19th century, when Julia Baird’s immensely thick biography was published. It seemed a fitting way to finish my investigation of the period and so I paid the hefty $50 purchase price and lugged it home. I expected it to take me a while to finish, but the book is so warmly and engagingly written, and so fascinating, I whizzed through it in a couple of days. 

Described as ‘An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire,’ Victoria the Queen busts open many of the myths about both the woman and the era. Victoria was tiny, forthright, and loved sex. She refused to be a mere figurehead, and used her position to promote profound changes in the society in which she lived. For example, she hated cruelty to animals and was instrumental in bringing about anti-vivisectionist laws. Even though she famously said women who marched for female suffrage should be whipped, Queen Victoria was a great example to many women and supported education and job training for girls. And she condemned those around her for their snobbery and racism, and was actively engaged in trying to break down such societal barriers.

It is clear Julia Baird’s research has been impeccable, and there is much in this biography that is fresh and new. However, it is her storytelling skills that really shine.  The crowded streets of London, the stifling atmosphere of the court, the pure air of the lonely Highlands, are all brought vividly to life, as are the people in Victoria’s life – her austere and brilliant husband, Prince Albert, the rough yet tender gilly John Brown, and the many different Prime Ministers who served her. By far, the best biography of Queen Victoria I’ve yet read.

You may also be interested in my review of The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK




BOOK REVIEW: The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece - Carola Hicks

Thursday, December 08, 2016

BLURB:

One of Europe’s greatest artistic treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. 


For all its fame, its origins and story are complex and somewhat cloudy. Though many assume it was commissioned by Bishop Odo—William’s ruthless half-brother—it may also have been financed by Harold’s dynamic sister Edith, who was juggling for a place in the new court. 


In this intriguing study, medieval art historian Carola Hicks investigates the miracle of the tapestry’s making—including the unique stitches, dyes, and strange details in the margins—as well as its complicated past. For centuries it lay ignored in Bayeux cathedral until its discovery in the 18th century. It quickly became a symbol of power: townsfolk saved it during the French Revolution, Napoleon displayed it to promote his own conquest, and the Nazis strove to make it their own. 


Packed with thrilling stories, this history shows how every great work of art has a life of its own. 


MY THOUGHTS:

I have always been interested in the Bayeux tapestry and made the trip to see it in its little French stone village this year. 


It really is a fascinating artefact, the world’s longest piece of embroidery and quite possibly the first real comic strip. It tells the story of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066, in a series of small scenes sewn with extraordinary vigour and humour. 


I bought Carola Hicks’s book in Bayeux, and read it over the next few nights. It begins with the story of how the embroidery came about, and then the extraordinary story of its survival over the next three thousand years. It survived the French revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, years of being kept in a damp church cellar, and the Nazis who tried to steal it. A really lively and beguiling story about an utterly unique piece of art. 


Love books set in France? I have a list of my favourites here


Do you love non-fiction books that illuminate history for you? Any suggestions for me? Please leave a comment for me.


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