What an absolutely charming literary interlude with the inhabitants of a fictional small English village in Suffolk in 1969. This was such an interesting read that, when I turned the last page, I felt as though I had just had a few cups of tea with these individuals, each of whom had been interviewed by author Ronald Blythe to just tell him (and thus you) about their everyday lives.
I’m not too sure where I found out about this title, but
have a feeling that it’s always been around in my life, most probably from seeing
my mum read it ages ago during my childhood. I remember the cover and being
interested in it, but then forgot about it for years. On a trip back home to
the Mother Land, I must have stumbled upon it (or my mum found it for me) and
wanting a fairly calm book to read, I selected it from my TBR shelves.
I’d known it was a non-fiction read and one with a
sociological slant to it, and so, looking for a fairly gentle read with a
domestic focus to it, I’ve just finished it, really enjoying every minute.
“Only a man born and bred in the county could, one feels, have extracted the confidences and revelations which fill these pages, as an old soldier, a farm labourer, a district nurse, an ex-army officer and other typical figures tell their personal stories.”
Blythe patiently has sat down and recorded his conversations with villagers in the 1960s, a time of great change from the more traditional rural ways to the modern approaches, from both people whose families have lived in the village for centuries to those who have moved there more recently (the incomers).
Blythe describes this book as “the quest for the voice of
Akenfield, Suffolk, as it sounded during the summer and autumn of 1967”, and
the volume includes pieces of monologues from a wide range of villagers,
ranging from the wheelwright and the blacksmith to the farm laborer and the
Brigadier, and in a variety of ages (but typically veering towards middle aged
In this way, the reader gets to hear (via the villagers’ own words) how the village has changed (or not). Blythe interviews the oldest inhabitants who have seen the farewell of horse-pulled ploughs and introduction of factory farming to the younger residents trying to decide whether to stay in the village or leave. It’s mostly men who are included, but that’s probably (a) a sign of the times – the interviews were actually done in 1959 and 1960, and (b) most of people who “worked” outside the home (but still in the actual village) were men. Most of these men had wives (or at least some of them did), but the wives either didn’t do recognized “paid” labor or had jobs in the nearby town of Ipswich (and were thus outside the project parameters).
This was a read that pulled me in each time I opened the
pages and when I wasn’t actually reading it, I was thinking about the
characters and residents. It’s a realistic look at rural life in England in the
1960s and doesn’t sugarcoat or idealize any aspects of life: the animals are
working creatures, the land is appreciated for how and what it can produce, and
there’s a poignant air throughout the book of a dying/changing lifestyle to be
replaced by an unknown future.
Overall, a gentle and fascinating look at country life in
England. Highly recommended.
As an ongoing reading fan of Lucy Knisley’s graphic novel/sequential art work, I was happy to discover that she had recently released an update to her autobiographical books with the latest news about her getting pregnant and then successfully having that offspring.
What I really appreciate about Knisley is that she has no pretensions about being anything but normal – her perspective on her own life is refreshingly down-to-earth and, unusually for a graphic novel of this genre, she is not writing to heal a personal or familial trauma (apart from this getting-pregnant thing).
Plus, Knisley seems to be a very curious person (similar to how I am) and so you never quite now what to expect for inclusion in her graphic novels. (Question: is a graphic novel still a graphic “novel” if it’s true and autobiographical? Or does it then become a “graphic autobiography”? …)
At this point in her life, Knisley has now been married for a few years and she and her husband, John, decide that now is the time to start a family. It’s this topic around which the book revolves, from the overall preparation for it (she researches in much the same over-the-top-but-fascinating-to-me levels) and her work is as honest as she can be in how much she tells the reader about herself and about her life. (When I have finished one of her books, I feel as though I’ve just been having an enjoyable conversation with a good friend at a coffee shop or similar. She’s that relatable.)
So, in this particular volume, Knisley not only tracks her various attempts to get pregnant (not as easy as it sounds) while also relating a connected and wide-ranging litany of background info about women’s reproductive health, including its history and some of the science behind it as well as recounting the more personal side of things. It’s an effective mix of personal and impersonal and it’s a recipe that really works.
This blend of personal perspectives and more objective information also enables the reader to feel invested in Knisley’s reproductive life – when they have difficulty getting (and staying) pregnant, my heart went out to them at how heart-broken they were. How could something so “easy” as getting pregnant become so difficult for these two people (and others)? It’s actually a riveting story and one that I read through all in one go. (I had to know how things concluded in the end!)
Knisley presents scientific facts and debunks superstitions in a respectful manner, really saving the emotional approach for her own personal side of life, and so this makes her an effective and credible teacher for this information, some of which was new to me (and may be for you too). In fact, I really think Knisley would be a good writer for a sequential art-take on some harder science topics, if she ever decides to travel in that direction. I’d read that work, for certain. (Are you reading this, Lucy? You know. In all your spare time! Ha.)
So, much like her other reads, Knisley’s latest volume is an excellent addition to her ever-growing oeuvre. I hope the fact that she now has a toddler doesn’t signal the end of her graphic-novel days, but fortunately, there was a hint at the end of this book that there may be more to come: “It all ends right now, with a new beginning…”
Fingers crossed that Knisley continues to refreshingly document those early days of motherhood that lay ahead of her!
Other (highly recommended) Lucy Knisley reads include the following. Your best bet would be to start at the beginning and read them chronologically:
Nonfiction November, that time of year to celebrate stories filled with facts and footnotes, truth being stranger than fiction, and very, very long subtitles begins today!
This week, a look at your year in nonfiction:
Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julie @ Julz Reads): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?
My year has included a big increase (+170 percent!) in the numbers of NF titles that I’ve chosen and completed, related (I think) to a growing need from recognizing that there is still so much for me to learn in the world out there. That, and I seem to be interested in almost EVERYTHING so there is always a good book waiting for me to pick it up. (Additionally, this trend may or may not be related to the political nonsense happening across the globe in terms of truth (or the lack of it).)
What has been your favorite NF read so far this year? In terms of being influential, I think my favorite NF title so far has been “Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (written in 1931 but published more recently). It really underscored just how recent slavery was; before I had read this book, slavery had rather seemed like some “long-ago” historical event, but the fact that Neale Hurston actually met and interviewed a man who had lived through it was amazing and really brought the fact home that it wasn’t really that long ago when it occurred. It also overlaps with the focus on most of my NF reading this year. (See below for more deets.)
What particular topic have I been attracted to more this year? Oh, the African-American experience for sure. No doubt about it. As part of my ongoing focus, I’ve been choosing book titles that are either by a POC author and/or about a POC experience. Since February was Black History Month (at least here in the U.S.), I’ve maintained my emphasis of reading more African-American authors and/or related topics, and looking back at the numbers, I can see that just over one in every three titles falls under that category (and this number includes all the POC titles – not just those from African-American writers.)
This also aligns with the fact that the university where I work now has a vice-president who is focused on diversity, and in so doing, has brought (and is bringing) some powerful voices to campus to bring more awareness of diversity issues: bias, privilege, protest, history… It’s been eye-opening to say the least and I’ve learned a lot. I have a lot more to learn, but I know a lot more than I did this time last year.
That would be the topic-of-choice for this year (and ongoing), but another focus has been reading from my TBR shelves as well. When those two goals overlap, even better!
Which NF book have I recommended the most this year? Despite what I’ve just said in the section before this one, this most-recommended title would have to be the tried-and-true “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. I reread it each year as a reminder of effective writing and I mention it a lot in class to students. I’m also pretty sure that I mention it to my poor patient friends more than they’d prefer, but what can I say? It’s good!
What am I hoping to get out of NF November?
I’m hoping to find more excellent titles that overlap with my current interests, and – fingers crossed – introduce me to more subjects of which I am woefully uninformed right now. I do seem to have a growing craze on animals so perhaps some new titles there?
I’d also love to be introduced to more non-fiction readers!
ETA: People have asked which particular NF titles I’ve read this year. Here you go. (Links where available):
“My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.”
Traveling around the web, as one does, I came across an interesting nugget of American history when I met Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American female physician in the U.S. when she graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1860. (She was also the college’s only African-American graduate.)
Consider this statistic: there were only 54,543 physicians
in the whole of the country in 1860. Only 300 of those physicians were women
and Crumpler was the only African-American female physician. (And, in fact, as
late as 1920, there were still only 65 African-American female docs in the
entire country. I wonder what the stats are now…
(ETA: Only 4 percent of practicing physicians in 2016 are African-American, most graduating from HBSUs. Only 2 percent of nation’s physicians are female African-Americans. Female physicians now make up 34 percent of the whole physician population, but are still underpaid compared with men (64 cents for every dollar a man earns). Overall population of US (now) is 15 percent black (2013, US Census Bureau).)
Back to Crumpler: Crumpler was a remarkable woman and this is thought to be the very first medical text by any African-American author.
Imagine the U.S. as the country as it was then when Crumpler
was getting her medical education as a “doctress” (as the title says). How very
courageous and determined she was:
1860 – Crumpler graduates from the medical college as a “doctress”.
1863: US Emancipation Proclamation (meant that slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States).
1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all states. Establishment of Freedman Bureau (agency to help millions of black slaves and poor whites in the South after Civil War.) (Actually, Crumpler and her hub moved to Virginia to work for the bureau and “more than 30,000 colored” after the war.)
1868 – 14th Amendment secured American citizenship for African-Americans.
1870 – 15th Amendment secured voting rights for African-Americans (on paper)
But obvs slavery still happening. (Look at Barracoon
by Zora Neal Hurston (2018) which covers the life of Oluale Kossula who
arrived in the U.S. from West Africa where he had been captured as part of the
slave trade in 1860, same year as Crumpler is attending her first year at the
So, absolutely loads to think about with this nonfiction read, and that’s not even getting to the actual contents just yet!
Since this book is more of a how-to manual for the
healthcare of people (not just African-Americans although they may well have been
the main (and only audience for this text), I’ve put together a few notes on her
healthcare guidance during this late Victorian period in case you’re curious. (Crumpler
was also more than likely to only have been allowed access to care for the African-American
populations as well…)
It’s in a bullet list since that seemed the easiest way to present such disparate info:
health advice (under 5s):
One of the main baby healthcare advice chapters is titled this: Necessity of Agreeable and Soothing Surroundings. It’s meant to be in reference to infants but it certainly works for me as well. 🙂
“All loud talking or laughing should be strictly prohibited. To insure this, no sly jokes should be indulged in by anyone present; for by so doing convulsions of an alarming nature may be brought on. “ (Chapter 5)
If the baby has a rattling or wheezing noise in its throat,
Mrs. Crumpler recommends using a real feather (that has been wetted to tamp the
down) to tickle the back of the tongue to make the child cough or gag… Don’t
give the baby “soot tea”, by any
Saffron tea is really crocus tea? And was popular for baby’s poop problems?
Don’t give infants a “little
weak toddy” to “bring up wind and
make them sleep”. It can cause intoxication and then a “fearful attack of purging”. Plus it may
“inculcate a desire for tippling in many
of our weak-minded youth”.
Later on:watch out if giving your baby any alcohol:it “tends to stunt the intellect and dwarf the stature of the youth of our land…”
And no oysters for the young one: they are “most dangerous”. A broiled lamb chop of beef would be fine to give the baby though, as support for the diet of mother’s milk though. (They help to prevent “cholera of infants at the breast, especially in our crowded cities”.)
And too much soda (i.e. in making breads) makes your baby bald.
And don’t overfeed or do the “coarse habit of ‘stuffing’ babes, to avoid frequent feeding of them”
– the habit needs to “vanish like dew
before the noonday sun” …
Children who eat candy are also at risk of developing “dwarfed statures”… but kids will also be
troubled with worms at the same time (due to the candy).
If your child is teething, “the greater mischief is done to the whole nervous system by the
unnatural but ancient custom of pressing and rubbing gums – it is possible to
trace the cause of insanity to this pernicious custom”
Teething and not
wearing shoes in puddles are believed to be a combo that directly cause
lung fever (another name for pneumonia) in infants. If your child does get
pneumonia, the best treatment is “patient
watchfulness, pure air and absolute quiet”.
Apparently, babies have always been tough to get to sleep. “Many children screamed with fright at the
noise created to get them to sleep”… What were the family doing to make the
kids scream when they’re trying to get them to go to sleep? The mind boggles…
Once you do have your child sleeping, don’t let your baby sleep too long in soiled clothes: it can cause “soft bones, enlarged joints, inverted feet, flattened back-heads, sickening sores, dropsy, blindness or numerous ills”…
If you are a family of “moderate means” and you are not able to keep more than one fire going in your house during the cold season, taking a baby from a hot room to a colder one can cause frequent and severe colds… So, try to live with all your rooms on the same floor in your tenement to avoid (or mitigate) this problem and help the heat (from your one fire) spread throughout the house more evenly…
If your baby does has a lot of snot in his/her nose, try to unstop it with goose oil on a feather. But – be gentle. If you’re not careful, you can break the baby’s nose and that causes cancer. (What?)
Reading for kids is also dangerous: “Can you not cut short the certain destruction that awaits your sons and daughters, through the influence of impressions gained by the constant perusal of fictitious, and in many cases, corrupt library books?”
a breast-feeding mother:
If the mother’s nipple [for breastfeeding] is not prominent
for the baby to suck, “a friendly adult
or child could soon draw out the nipple by sucking so that the babe can get
(Just try not to do this when one’s mouth is full of snuff
as it can cause other health problems (including “instant death”) for el bebe who breastfeeds immediately after this.)
If a new mom is waiting for her milk to “drop”, watch out: “diarrhea, convulsion, or even insanity may
be brought on through the means of any excitement whatever” unless you’re
careful… Diarrhea is also caused by “emptiness” in a baby (or a baby being
Don’t drink a glass of iced water when your baby is breastfeeding or this could happen: “the babe was seized with rigid convulsions and dropped from the breast” while the mother became “almost helpless with fright”… But some quick-thinking from Mrs. Crumpler with a tub of hot water and some mustard managed to save the day… Phew.
try to avoid cholera if you can:
There was a whole chapter on the issue of child/infant starvation
– it must have been a huge problem for the many poor families… Plus, failure-to-thrive
(or malnourishment) was also seen as an early symptom of cholera in children
(and cholera was one of the largest causes of infant mortality in those days)…
Cholera could also be caused by the mothers adding in a mixed or meat and veg diet too early after the birth of a child. (Poor mothers! They get blamed for everything!)
Cholera also increases the risk of having a “hair worm” which had been noticed to “infest the throat of some patients”. (Woah. What is that “hair worm” thing?)
And what is the cause of infantile cholera? No one really knows
at that time, but Mrs. Crumpler swears that it’s not contagious but does offer
this nugget: if you’re in a crowded space in the middle of a cholera epidemic,
it’s best to leave if you can. Poverty, “wretchedness” and crime spread
who’s responsible for all this?…
Places a heavy blame on mothers to “make a little sacrifice for the sake of equipping the mind” and look after their children better… Also, the child studying too hard can endanger your child’s health.
Mothers should learn more about health and prevention of illness, and get this: Crumpler, unsurprisingly, is pro-women’s vote. (But this wouldn’t happen until 1965!)
(But she does earnestly wish that mothers would try harder
to not give their children to the alms houses… “Our women work hard, seemingly…” ooh. Them’s fighting words.)
Crumpler also strikes a critical note when she reports that
women “appear to shrink from any
responsibilities demanding patience and sacrifice”… Yikes.
She also blames the declining mortality in the “colored population of Boston” on “neglect to guard against the changes of the
for women’s health in general:
Exercising during your period will cause you to go barren,
have ovarian inflammation, dropsy or consumption. (Periods also called “bringing on the turns”).
Monthly cramps are caused (and worsened by) having cold and/or wet feet (or even when sweeping the floor). Interestingly, another household task (sewing at a treadle sewing machine) also causes vaginal ulcers (mainly from getting frustrated with the machine itself). (This, although very serious stuff, cracked me up at the time since I remember frustrations when I was learning to use my mum’s treadle sewing machine. Not sure about the vaginal ulcers but definitely caused me some strife!)
“Poverty, with chastity, is an enviable condition.”
Menopause is worsened by drinking ice-water (which, in fact, could cause paralysis) and helped by “securing cheerful exercise for the mind, with an abundance of outdoor scenery”… Drinking more water just prolongs the hot flashes.
(But how best to control the size of your family (i.e. birth
control)?: Mrs. Crumpler recommends that “if
these little ones are given in quick succession, it is just as well to have and
get through with it. Many are the women who have borne a dozen or more children
into the world, and afterwards filled positions of trust and nobility…”
Colds are typically caused by northeast and easterly winds…
Beware of sudden changes in air, food or medicines
(especially those that contract or
depress muscles): “may cause suffocation
and death at any moment.”
Tumors of all kinds are caused by fish, eggs, oysters, pork,
gaseous vegetables, and anything that
depresses or excites the mind. Also, gas and “loaded bowels”. Anointing the entire body with goose oil should
Brain fever was caused by “some irregularity, over-work or undue excitement” and effective treatment includes shaving your head sitting in a cool dark room and keeping wet cool material wrapped around your neck.
Bought upon a recommendation from the trusty “What’s Nonfiction?” blog, I bought this book without knowing much about it or the author. However, tastes align between what I like and the choices of What’s Nonfiction, so it came into my grubby little mitts. And then I read it, and thought “meh”.
So I put it away and even put it into the pile to take to the library, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed something in my first read, so I rescued it from the library-donation pile and started to read it again. This time, I got it and it was a completely different read than the first time. (Why is that? Who knows? May have been in the wrong mood or stressed out a bit (start of the semester) or…or…)
However, I am so glad that I pulled it out for another read as this time, it was super. The vagaries of the human mind (or perhaps it’s only my human mind!) To the read itself:
I knew it was essays of a personal nature from Hodgman and I knew that he was a contributor to The Daily Show on TV, but apart from that, I knew nada, but I don’t think this was detrimental to the second read. (I’m just going to chalk up the first read experience to poor star alignment or similar.)
In a series of really well-written essays, Hodgman relates some of his experiences when he inherits/buys his parents’ old house in rural Massachusetts and then when his family decide to buy a third house in Maine. (I know – Hodgman is well aware of how privileged he is (re: income and circumstances) and accepts the name for his humor as branded by a friend: “privilege comedy”… Despite this, the essays that he writes are memories that are sensitive and personal, while also being funny tinged with a little oddity here and there.
It’s rather as though I’d happen to meet a friend of a friend at a coffee shop, and in the course of a fairly normal conversation with this person, he is relating these memories as they come up. He is a very relatable person (despite his acknowledged privilege) and when I had turned that last page, I was saddened as I didn’t really want the conversation to come to an end.
His descriptions of the house, his neighbors and friends and what he gets up to when he’s in the area vary from quite typical to the rather strange to the plain just funny. (I’m particularly thinking of the time he and a friend are making their cairns in a stream one sunny afternoon, but there are more instances of humor than just that one…)
Honestly, the best way that I could describe this read for you would be to say that I wish I could actually know Hodgman to really meet up in a coffee shop with him and some friends. He’s an intelligent and good writer who knows how to tell a good story.
Interestingly (and Hodgman must have known this when he titled this book), Vacationland (already one of the official slogans for Maine) is also the title of an independent “gay-themed” (Wikipedia) movie about two high school boys who have a crush on each other but have difficulties due to the town wherein they live. (Absolutely nothing to do with this book or Hodgman, but just an interesting piece of trivia.)
Loved it and I’m very glad that I went back for a second read. I think you’d like it as well.
Last weekend was a longer break than typical since it was
Labor Day, which typically signals for many people, that summer is over. (Not
by temperatures since around here, we’re still in the 90s during the day, but
in terms of the monthly calendar.) Seeing as we didn’t have a lot scheduled, I
planned to do some shopping (shoes :-}) and a lot of reading.
(Outcome was successful, although I’m truly dreadful at buying shoes. We’ll see how this pair work out for me! But come on – leopard-skin Keds? How can you go far wrong with those? I’m trying to be on-trend this autumn (for the first time in ages), and apparently, fake leopard is very in. 🙂 )
To the reading: The Superhero had to work on Monday which
meant a quiet day in our house (apart from Nova Dog barking at all those people
who have the gall to walk by our house without a hall pass). I happened to
clean out the magazine rack and in doing so, was reminded of two mags which I’ve
had for more-than-enough time to read them. Yesterday was that day. (See pic
above for deets.)
The first was a special issue from the New Yorker with a
bunch of true crime stories that they had culled from years of earlier issues, and
that included the old chestnut from Truman Capote (the first installment of “In
Cold Blood”). I haven’t read this since my freshman year in college when I was
fresh off the boat from England, so didn’t really remember much of it, but it
was such a good read that now I’m interested in reading the entire book by
Capote. It was the one of the earliest examples of narrative nonfiction (or
longform nonfiction) and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t appreciate it for what
it was when I read it back then. Now it’s on the list for the next visit to the
Other true crime stories were spread over the last forty years of the twentieth century but I wasn’t really familiar with the crimes they mentioned. Still – overall, a pretty good read. Glad I’ve read it, glad it’s off the pile, but one day later, pretty forgettable. :-}
The other mag that I had pulled from this pile was from a writing conference I attended last year about writing narrative nonfiction. This journal was put out by the sponsoring university and included the year’s best writing (as chosen by judges from the conference). A good selection of pretty diverse nonfiction, but as above, one day later, I can’t really remember any of the individual stories. (I am now worrying whether this says a lot about me as a reader! Maybe I need to start being a lot more intentional when I read!!)
I enjoyed this taste of nonfiction essays and learned a lot about how to structure a similar one should I end up writing something along these same lines. It was a good change of pace from longer reads and fit my Monkey Mind of the other day! Plus – off the pile and out of the house.
So, as sometimes happens, we’ve been sucked into a few really good TV series, mostly Netflix and all good. Not my typical fair, but as I’ve learned, different can be good.
First up was the Netflix documentary series on the Formula One racing season. Called Formula 1: Drive to Survive, it chronicles one cut-throat season of Formula One racing by following eight of the 10 Formula One teams as they compete around the worldwide circuit. This was utterly fascinating and engrossing for me.
I know. I am as surprised as you are at the level of interest this series created for me and the SuperHero. I’m not usually an avid follower of Formula One, had little knowledge of the sport and even less knowledge about the cars, but by following the documentary team as they shadow the different teams, the more that we learned about the drivers and the sport, the more interesting it became.
(You may not know this, but I must have been a former Formula 1 driver in my past life at some point. If I happen to catch it on, I love watching it. I know, weird, but there you go.)
So, as the episodes pass, we as viewers were pulled into this elite world of professional very focused racing drivers and learned about the top teams and how they fare. I just loved it. Honestly, if you are interested in a fast-moving highly demanding sport with drivers with fight-to-win personalities, you’ll like this series. We got just sucked right in.
(AND – get this. I happened to be working out at the university rec center, when I noticed that one of the car license plates in the car park happened to be “HAAS-F1”. Haas is the name of the F1 racing teams who compete in the F1 Series. There’s only ten teams total. Small worlds.)
On a different topic (but still good), we’ve been caught up in the series called Hanna. IMDb calls it a cross between a high-concept thriller and a coming-of-age drama, and the plot revolves around the life of an unusual young woman raised in the forest by her father. The series tracks her journey to discover the truth about her life while avoiding a focused CIA agent out to kill her.
Again, another out-of-the-box series for me, but this is also really riveting. Plus, she is a kick-ass young woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Can’t wait to see how this ends up… (She reminds me of Katniss or perhaps the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo character in some ways in terms of how tough she is.)
Speaking of women with unusual lives, we also blew through the PBS’ series of Mrs. Wilson, a three-part program from the BBC. As always, high production values and a story that just gets stranger and stranger by the minute. This is actually a true story inspired by the lead character’s real-life grandmother’s diary which makes it even more interesting. (The true story bit is so circular and spiral, that you wonder whether anything else can possibly happen – and then it does.)
Protagonist Alison Wilson believes that she is happily married in 1960s London until her husband dies, and another woman arrives at her house claiming to be Alec’s wife. What the heck…? And are there any more of secret Alec-related families? Who was Alec really?
What is true? What is false? It’s hard to find out, but it’s another riveting story (based on fact), and now I’m interested in tracking down the original source material online somewhere. Honestly, this was another winner in the TV world.
My advice would be to binge-watch this so that you can keep the complex narrative arc sorted out in your head. Just saying…
A fairly short read but packed with information from people who actually were in service during this time period. Dawes is a London journalist and he has pulled together a brief
collection of interviews and letters about life in domestic service, whether as an employer of those who were servants or as a servant in one of its many hierarchies.
Dawes covers everything from how scratchy and expensive it was to wear and keep a uniform in tip-top shape, to how long the day was for many servants and how young and miserable some of the youngest ones were. It’s a far call from life today, but really it’s not that long ago if you think about. Servants were still around (although in diminshed numbers) right up to the beginning of WWII, but once that had come and gone, women young and old realized that there were other better (and easier) choices to earn a living.
However, that is not to say that it was all doom and gloom and red raw hands from scrubbing the floors (although it was a lot of that). Dawes reports that servants still could have fun on occasion (when they were not too tired from carrying great big coal scuttles up five sets of stairs). An interesting look at times past, but not too sanitized with the flurry of nostalgia. Life as a servant could be very hard, very tiring and with little reward. But when a young girl (or her parents) were faced with the alternatives (workhouse or perhaps being on the streets), being a scullery maid meant a roof over your head and three meals a day which was sometimes more than they had at home.
This book reminded me of the BBC production of the Edwardian house when a group of twenty-first century people signed up to live for several months in a set up identical to that of how a wealthy Edwardian family would live. There was the Upstairs family (i.e. the home owners) who, of course, loved their roles and had no trouble staying or
keeping their roles going. Then at the bottom of the hierarchy was the scullery maid, again a 21st century young woman who *hated* every minute of it as she spent hours with her hands in greasy cool water washing pots and pans. However, in this scenariio, everyone was just roleplaying and was free at any time to resign and return to their comfortable modern lives. This was not a choice available to most servants, so it makes it even more interesting to me. How bad did it have to get before you resign as a scullery or parlour maid?
Another point that was interesting was the house owners (the rich Upstairs family) rationalized their judgemental manner by believing that this was the way it was supposed to be, and by using particular quotations from the Bible (very religious were the Victorians) to justify it. Servants *wanted* to be servants – they wouldn’t know how to be any other way (which, of course, is a load of clap trap)…
A thoughtful book about life above and below the stairs during the Victorian and Edwardian times. It’s also adding to my experience of watching the LWT’s 1970’s series of “Upstairs, Downstairs” right now. It seems that they were pretty accurate in their details.
Oh, and all this talk of cleaning made me get around to shining the silver candlesticks.