Queen Victoria: A Life – Giles Lytton Strachey (1921)

“Her attitude towards herself was simply regal…”

Seeing as it’s been a while since I’ve indulged my inner Queen Victoria fangirl, I thought I’d dig up a copy of this 1921 biography of Queen Victoria, except this one is a little less reverent than other ones. This one was rather chatty, a bit sycophantic in places, but also had some snark in it every now and then, and even though it didn’t follow more typically “serious” biography format, it was still awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. And it’s a good read.

Who was Strachey? Giles Lytton Strachey was born into a fairly wealthy family, and although college-educated at Cambridge, didn’t quite make it into academia, instead leading a writer’s life (mixed with other dilettante activities) and became part of the Bloomsbury Set. He had lovers of both sexes (scandalous at the time), and seems to have led a pretty quiet life overall.

Strachey had been interested in skewering some of the Old Guard of Victorian times, a period that was not all that far away from when he was writing. And this was the first of quite a few skewerings of Victorian leaders…

To the facts:

Victoria had only died at the turn of the century, and was followed by World War I, a war which rather turned the world on its head in many ways. England was no longer the Imperial Mistress of the world, the Industrial Revolution was turning centuries-old social class structure on its head, and by the 1920s, the Old War was far enough way where it was ok to have a more light-hearted view of things, whereas the Second World War was seen in few people’s headlights at the time. Thus, this biography was published and is said to have changed the world of biographies from then on. (No longer so serious…)

Since the biography was packed with interesting tidbits (esp. if you’re a Victoria nerd), here are some of the more intriguing details, bullet-style. (If you’re not a Victoria fan, you might want to avert your eyes.) 🙂 :

  • Not a big fan of women’s suffrage: “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Women’s Rights,” with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is best, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety…. Lady so-and-so ought to get a GOOD WHIPPING. It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself…
  • Victoria was rather difficult and stubborn throughout her life, but no one was brave enough to say this to her face.  In fact, when Disraeli was prime minister, at one point she was trying to persuade her government (and everything was “hers”) about a foreign diplomatic situation, and when it wasn’t going the way she wanted, she threatened to abdicate the throne …

Her life was pretty typical for a queen once she grew up and married her first cousin, Albert, but when he died, things went a scotch awry.

  • After Albert died, every single bed that Victoria slept in had a photo of Albert in his death-ness taped to the back of the headboard just above the pillow on the right-hand side. (Those Victorians loved a good death…)
  • Victoria believed that all her subjects were naturally as bereft as she was with the death of her True Love….

“The Queen desired that wherever her subjects might be gathered together they should be reminded of the prince. Her desire was gratified; all over the country – at Aberdeen, at Perth, and at Wolverhampton…”

  • Apparently, the Queen was quite a packrat in some ways: she never threw any tangible thing away, but had them scattered throughout her palaces. Almost every surface was covered in objects d’art and photographs, portraits and marble or gold busts of people in her life (or her pets).
  • After Albert died, these things could also never be moved (since she thought Albert had decided many of their locations and thus they were sacred). In fact, she had so many that eventually, her staff took photographs of the things (from several angles) and measured exactly where they were located in each room, so if, by some chance, something got moved, it could be put back into EXACTLY the same place as it was before “darling Albert” died. According to Strachey, she loved looking through the multiple volumes categorizing her things, and would also have an album or two close to hand for when she would have a spare minute.
  • When Albert died, the set of his rooms at Windsor was kept shut away for only a few privileged eyes, but she commanded that her husband’s clothes be set out afresh each evening upon the bed, and water set by the basin as though he was still alive. Kept this up for 40 years.
  • Post-Albert, she was very overwhelmed by official duties, and complained of it frequently in letters. Albert had been a big help to her, getting up early and writing precis of all the complicated correspondence and then putting it in a neat pile in her red boxes for when she got up. In fact, she over-relied on him (and he enabled this) to the point that foreign diplomats and politicians worldwide knew that the only way to get on Victoria’s good side was to overly-compliment Albert and to match their words with her feelings towards him.
  • Despite the age of Victoria being an age of discovery and the Industrial Revolution, Victoria pretty much ignored most of that. (They were really Albert’s interests, and although she was interested when he was there, once gone, no more.)
  • Public view of Victoria vacillated from time to time over the years: she wasn’t very popular when she withdrew from the public eye, but when she gradually came out of mourning (decades later), her public image improved. She fought vociferously with the various prime ministers – about world affairs (esp. going to war with Prussia and/or Russia) but also the smaller things. For example, she recused herself legally from signing new commissions in the army (up until then, new officers had always been approved by the Queen/King), and changed the law for would-be assassins (of which there were more than a handful) so that they would face the death penalty instead of automatically being charged of being insane. (And – get this: lashings would still take place – up to 40 lashes from a birch branch for some unlucky people.)
  •  “From 1840-1861, the power of the Crown steadily increased in England [due to influence from Prince Consort]; from 1861-1901 it steadily declined [due to influence of her Ministers].”

(Strachey writes that in the first years, she was a “mere accessory”; in the second, since there was no Albert, her Ministers rather took over a bit more when she checked out for her decades of mourning.)

  • She never allowed any divorced lady to come into her courts. (Not sure about divorced men, but that was probably ok.)  She frowned upon any widow who married again (see Victoria’s own life) – even though she was the daughter of a widowed mother who had married again. Hmm.

Victoria died on January 22, 1901. For many of her subjects, they had never known any other queen, and this death, although not a huge surprise, did rock the world in a number of ways. 

So, this was a rather fascinating read for me, seeing as it was the first royal biography that was a bit more gossipy (and even sarcastic) in places. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

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The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London – Christopher Skaife (2018)

Having heard a mention of this book on NPR, I happened to come across it in the New Books section at the library, and immediately picked it up to check out and read. It was close to perfect for me and reminded me of just sitting down to a cup of tea with this charming author.

Being a ravenmaster (or person in charge of the ravens at the Tower) is quite a new job title, despite the long history of the location. People have only been given the title since the late 1960’s – before that, staff (i.e. the Beefeaters*) would look after the ravens, but it was put under the responsibilities of the quartermaster (or similar).

And it’s the little (and surprising) tidbits that really drew me into this read. Skaife is the perfect guide to this small but prestigious world of people who live within the grounds of the Tower of London. (And the Beefeaters and their families really do live inside the castle. The drawbridge is pulled up every evening around 11 or so, and then the inhabitants are cut off from the rest of central London for the night.) The Tower is still an official royal palace and yet, despite having lived inside its confines for more than a decade, Skaife still retains his wonder and curiosity which is communicated to the reader throughout the pages.

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Despite the cachet of being a Beefeater (also called the Yeoman Warder), each person who holds this position has at least 24 years of unblemished service with the British military, and then once in this position, warders usually stay there for the rest of their lives until they retire.

Skaife has been doing the Beefeater-ing for the past 15 years or so, and the Ravenmaster-ing for the past eight (or more?) years after completing 24 years as an infantryman (and drum major) in the British Army. He knows his stuff and reports that most of his deployment time as an active soldier was in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles (1970s/1980s), which means that he was frequently at risk from the IRA.

So Skaife came to this position legitimately and having paid his dues. Despite being an infantryman and despite having a patchy formalized education, he succeeded when he joined the army at the (young!) age of 16 and a half. (Good for him, I say.) He’d been veering down the path of trouble in his early years, and his parents were happy to see Skaife doing some honest labor under army discipline.

His time as a full-time professional soldier was spent immersed in military life, but he’d maintained a lifelong interest in history despite his early attitude to formal education. When coming to the end of his army career, there was an opening to be a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and he applied and was selected.

His job as the ravenmaster (its real job title!) came after years on the job as a Beefeater, and his main job duty now is to look after the seven HUGE ravens who inhabit the castle. Tradition holds that should the ravens ever leave the castle, it will lead to the destruction of the Tower and great harm will come to England, and Skaife’s recollections of how he looks after these birds (and how they look after him) is incredibly interesting. (Luckily, the ravens are happy with the food and the set-up that they have at the Tower, although every now and then, one of the birds tries to make a break for it.)

The day-to-day routine provides a general structure for the narrative, but interspersed is related information to do with the history of the Tower, its ravens and his own life. It’s a fascinating mix, mainly because Skaife seems to be one of the most charming raconteurs in addition to being a self-taught raven expert. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and modest, all of which combine to make the book read experience come across as though you’re having a cuppa tea with one of your friends.

Skaife pulls together mythology and facts about the Tower and about the corvids (name for ravens), and as he recounts his life with the birds, you can’t help but join in with his enthusiasm for his life. (As it turns out, Skaife learns during his research on the job that the ravens haven’t actually been at the Tower for centuries (despite the legend). He thinks that the ravens arrived around the 1880s, and have just stuck around since then. They have a safe living situation for the most part, a steady supply of food and water, and Skaife works to keep the flock as wild as they need to be whilst they’re there at the Tower. He doesn’t clip their wings to force them to stay there (although he does trim their feathers every now and then)…

Skaife honestly seems to be one of the most genial people that I’ve ever read – he’s both convivial and authentic, and so both the reader and the ravens are in good hands with him. Plus – he has an Instagram account as well (ravenmaster1) if you’re interested.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

Catch up time…

catch_upLife has been a bit busy lately, so in order to get caught up a bit, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of what I’ve been reading lately. Please don’t think that just because these titles don’t get their very own blog post, these titles are not that great. They are awesome, but in the interests of time and resources, I thought a brief mention would be better than no mention.

Back in September, I finished up a powerful read of “Warriors Don’t Cry”, a recounting of when Arkansas was forced to desegregate its Little Rock Central High School, much to the dismay of a lot of people. There were supporters, naturally, but this is from the viewpoint of one of the young high school students who took courage to new levels when she decided to stick with the desegregation process, scary though it was.

Reading just how badly people behaved during this  time period was heart-breaking and stressful. There was a band of six high school students, all African-American, who were selected to be the pioneers in integrating their school, and once I had read about how just plain horrible some of the people (community adults, teachers and students) were to these brave students, my heart went out to them.

It’s an amazing read that takes you into the very heart of a reluctant Arkansas city’s forced 1957 racial integration of one of its largest high schools, and it shocked me to learn how mean and threatening people were towards people of African descent (and those who supported them).

The author, Melba Padillo Beals, was a fifteen-year-old student at the time, and her recounting of this terrifying time when she was trying to get her education is shocking. (At least it was to me. I knew things were tough for African-Americans during this time during America, but this shows to what levels the opposition stooped to do – against high school kids!)

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Shameful and rather difficult to read, but not half as difficult as it must have been to actually live in those times. A tough but necessary read, especially in the atmosphere of today where it seems as though America is going backwards instead of forwards.

(Linked with this topic is also a short book of essays I’m reading that argues that America is moving towards resegregation… More to come.)

Kaffir_boyWanting to read more about racism, I picked up “Kaffir Boy “by Mark Mathabone (1986), a title that’s been on the TBR pile for quite some time, this one about South Africa’s time of apartheid and how one young black man struggles to escape. This was another toughie to read. It doesn’t gloss over the hardship of life for black Africans who have to live under apartheid, and once you’ve read these descriptions of living in a black township at that time, you realize that this kid’s escape to a better life was actually even more of an achievement. It’s sickening that the world allowed this government to continue with apartheid for as long as it did…

And then, since I rather needed something a little more cheerful to read, I did a quick reread of a collection of Atlantic articles by David Grann called “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” (See review of an earlier read here.)

Another really enjoyable and well-written read about how strange people can be across the world sometimes. 🙂

 

The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui (2017)

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Strolling around the shelves at the library (as one does), I saw this new graphic book title, and, having felt a drought on those lately, checked this out to read. It was a corker.

The Vulture’s Abraham Riesman has called this graphic memoir “one of the first great works of socially relevant comics art of the Trump era” and I agree. It’s a very timely topic.

Author Thi Bui had grown up in America (except for her early years) and was the child of parents who had been part of the original “Boat People” group who had fled South Vietnam during the 1970s. Struggling to understand her parents and the difficulties they faced as they started their new lives in America, this book explores their story.

When Bui becomes a mother for the first time, her views on her parents came more into focus and she found that she knew little about their old lives back in Vietnam during the U.S. war.

Her relationship with her parents had been strained as she grew up in the U.S., and her becoming a parent herself was the impetus for her to learn more about each of their own personal stories.

As Bui slowly reveals the pieces of their earlier lives, it fits together with her own life and allows her to see her parents through a new prism — as a daughter and as a mother herself.

It’s a circular narrative that winds through time and geography so it’s a read that you have to pay attention to. It’s not a daydreaming kind of book, but then neither is the immigrant story around which it revolves.

The plot is the fairly typical trope of “family starts in one place, has a tough journey to reach another place, and then struggles to fit in”, but Bui’s art adds a new level of detail to the story, refreshing the narrative arc through her simple but arresting illustrations.

By the end of the book, you (as the reader) can also feel empathy for her parents (including for Bui herself). It’s a really good read about one person’s family, and may well trigger thoughts about your own parents in the same vein.

It can be easy to forget that your mum and dad are people with their own lives and their own histories sometimes, but Bui’s efforts to trace her own family’s evolution is a timely reminder of both that and the immigration debate going on in the administration today.

Good one.

 

The Vampyre – John William Polidori (1819)

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An early cover stating the authorship as Lord Byron, when really it was Dr. John Polidori.

Since it’s October and the weather here has finally started to behave in a seasonal fashion (Rain! Getting dark early! Cooler temps!), I thought it might be a good time to look out for a slightly creepy read. Since I’m not a huge fan of horror and gore, I tend to move towards the “cozy creepy” and serendipitously I came across a mention of this early version of blood-sucking vampires. Ooooh. Count me in!

(Plus – I’m a big fan of the original Dracula by Bram Stoker [1897].)

This title, The Vampyre [link to Project Gutenberg], is a fairly short (in length) short story that first appeared in print in 1819, but was actually written in 1816 by Dr. John William Polidori, a traveling doctor connected with that group of Romantic writers including Lord Byron and his small creative gang which also included Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley (although they weren’t married at the time).

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Dr. John Polidori.

The friends (plus their doc Polidori) had been traveling around Germany and one stormy night, the group decided to see who could write the scariest horror story. Out of this challenge arose the classic, Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus (as its title is punctuated) from Mary Shelley and this short story, The Vampyre.

There’s a source on the Wiki page that says that this short story came about due to awful weather during that year’s summer when Europe and parts of North America had lashings of rain and was called “The Year without a Summer”… That’s why the literary group got bored and started to write stories. (Apparently.)

[If you read the Wiki page for the Year without a Summer, it’s actually pretty interesting… Caused by a big volcanic eruption in Indonesia, they think. Well, I never…]

And actually, this close association between Polidori and Byron led to some misattribution as to who the original author when this story was first published. (See the top image of the original cover.)

(Fair’s fair though: Polidori’s story was originally influenced by another piece of writing that Byron had done earlier.)

That was sorted out not soon after, and the familiar trope of the vampire as a high-class fiend with a thirst for the blood of high society maidens was born.

Although the idea of vampires (immortal blood-sucking creatures who relied on other humans for their nutrition) was quite a new phenomenon for English lit at that time, the idea had been kicked around in novels and plays (and even an opera) since the early nineteenth century. The earliest seems to be by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who published The Bride of Corinth in 1797, which could be the actual first mention of a vampiric character, but Polidori’s is the first mention in English literature…

Warning: An extremely high number of spoilers abound in the text below.

Back to the story: the plot is very similar to the typical vampire trope (although still new to readers at the time), and follows Aubrey, a young English gentleman, who meets mysterious Lord Ruthven at some parties in London. No one seems to know Lord Ruthven very well (although rumors abound), and Aubrey ends up following him to Rome. After Lord Ruthven seduces a daughter of a mutual acquaintance, Aubrey leaves and travels on to Greece where he meets (and is attracted to) Ianthe, an innkeeper’s daughter (beautiful but not really suitable for the lover of a high-society young man such as Aubrey).

However, love is not to be for young Aubrey. Young Ianthe gets murdered (By whom? Would it be Lord Ruthven? Is, in fact, Lord Ruthven a vampire? Daaa Daaa Dunnn…)

Aubrey rejoins Lord Ruthven (why??) but Ruthven is then attacked and murdered by some bandits. Before Ruthven pops his clogs, he makes Aubrey promise not to tell anyone anything about Ruthven’s life (and death) for a year and a day. Aubrey promises (of course he does).

Aubrey goes back to London and is surprised when Ruthven shows up alive and well. Reminded of his promise to Ruthven, Aubrey stays quiet even when Ruthven is working on seducing Aubrey’s sister. Helpless to rescue his sister, Aubrey suffers a nervous breakdown. The happy couple get engaged – on the very day that Aubrey’s promise to Ruthven about staying silent ends. Oh. My. Gosh.

Aubrey goes ahead and pops his clogs, but not before writing a letter to his sister warning her about Ruthven’s evil ways. The sister doesn’t receive the letter in time. That rascal Ruthven marries her, and on her wedding night, she is discovered, bloodless and limp. Ruthven disappears, never to be seen of again.

Spoilers end here.

So – I really enjoyed this read (and the resulting info I found about it.) This was an unexpectedly interesting trip down some Wiki rabbit holes…!

Note: I had thought this story would be under the Victorian umbrella, but apparently not. Her father, King George III, died in 1820, but Victoria didn’t inherit the throne until she was 18 (1837) and until her father’s three brothers had all died with no issue.

 

In Search of England – H.V. Morton (1936)

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In a conversation with my lovely mum the other month, we were talking about books (I know – shocker!), and she happened to mention that one of her favorite travel books when she was growing up was “In Search of England” by H.V. Morton.

So – with my mum coming out to the U.S. for a visit in a couple of weeks and with the intention of passing this edition on to her, I pulled this title off the shelf to have a look at. (As an aside, this particular book was also published in the year that my mum was born, which is a nice overlap, I think.) Anyway, I’m always up for some armchair traveling…

This volume is one of several in Morton’s sweetly old-fashioned “In Search…” series, and it’s a narrative that was written as Morton takes a leisurely drive around England in the 1930s.

Published in 1936, it’s been twenty years since the scars of the Great War were cut, and England has mostly recovered from the trauma that the war engraved on the national psyche. Another war seems to be out of sight, and it’s really a much more innocent England than it is now. Few realize that World War II is really just around the corner, and so life seems to be pretty cheery for the most part. (It’s only in looking back that you realize that the spectre of the second war was on the horizon…)

Morton takes a circuitous driving route starting out from just below Scotland, going south down the left-hand side (touching Wales and the West Country), swings across the bottom, and then loops up on the right-hand side of the country to return almost to where he started from.

It’s a gentle journey, and as Morton travels, the reader gets to meet some of the people and some of the places that he stops at. It’s a very charming book, and was a perfect read for me after the latest frazzling national news. It definitely calmed the nerves.

If you’d like a really lovely read of an England in the 1930’s, then I think that you would not go wrong with this enjoyable journey with Morton. It’s a product of its time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I bet you will too.

 

Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidante – Shrabani Basu (2010)

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I’d been wanting to jump back into some Victorian history lately, so dug out this book about the slightly strange friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian man who rose in the ranks to become one of the most powerful people at the end of the nineteenth century.

Called “Victoria and Abdul”, this is a solid non-fiction narrative that describes how a 24-year-old man from the Indian city of Agra ends up meeting and developing an almost inseparable friendship with Queen Victoria, the Empress of India.

Honestly, if you didn’t know this was fact, you’d wonder about the veracity of the story, but it’s a true one.

It’s also true that one can view the storyline through various perspectives, and I’m curious about how others have viewed this history, but for now, I am swayed that Basu, the book’s author, has done her homework and told a factual story.

If you’re not a fangirl or fanboy of Queen Victoria, there’ll be some gaps for you to fill in, but Basu does a good job of giving the reader the necessary background to comprehend what’s going on, and she writes in a straightforward manner which the reader will need as there is a huge cast of characters. Not a book to daydream through, but not difficult. (Plus there are lots of footnotes and citations to back all the information.)

(The only negative that I had for the actual writing was that it was a little simplistic in places, and Basu repeats some information several times (things an editor would have/should have caught, methinks.) But that’s really minor in the big scheme of things.)

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This photo was seen as blasphemous since the Munshi is starting right into the camera lens instead of staring at the Queen….

So – to the story. Queen Victoria, now the Empress of India, was gearing up to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, and with her queendom spreading across the world, she wanted to include some of her far-distant subjects in the event.

Abdul Karim was a young medical assistant in Agra’s prison and living a non-eventful life when his name was given to the ruling British diplomats as a possibility for traveling to England for the year prior to the Jubilee celebrations.

Abdul was ecstatic (as one would be) and travelled to England to meet the Queen and to work in her household. After an initial misunderstanding about what the job would actually entail, Abdul ends up serving meals to the royal household.

As time goes on, Abdul impresses the Empress (sorry – couldn’t resist), and his duties start to evolve. Queen Victoria is older now, 50 years on the throne, and it was unlikely that she would travel to India to see her subjects there.

Instead, she bought a group of Indian subjects to England to learn about their country. Abdul starts to give Victoria one-on-one private lessons on the Urdu language, and through their developing friendship and amid much consternation from the Royal Household, Abdul becomes closer and closer to Her Majesty.

Victoria names Abdul the Munshi, which means “clerk” or “teacher”, and over the next fifteen years, the Queen develops a very close maternal relationship with the Munshi (Abdul). He starts to advise her over Indian affairs, over-riding the Queen’s other more seasoned advisors, and Victoria starts to rely on him more and more, over more than just the India question.

He, for his part, pulls strings with Her Majesty to help his family, including giving a healthy pension to his father, and for Victoria’s household staffers, the whole thing is rather alarming.

This relationship causes endless friction throughout the staff at the Royal Household, especially as the Queen hands more power to the Munshi. He travels everywhere with her and spends all day with Her Majesty. She adores him, and does not tolerate any ill will towards him, despite what her advisors tell him.

And so the book goes on: the Munshi ends up with more and more power; one of his friends is thought to be an agitator and staffers delve into his background on suspicion of that. They delve into the background of his father, they try to rein the Queen in, they join forces with other government representatives…

However, Victoria was stubbornly protective of him until she died, and so for fifteen years, the Munshi and his royal friend ruled the roost.

It’s a really interesting story that is hard to believe. However, when you look at Queen Victoria’s personal history, you can see a pattern of behavior. (See this interesting detail about Victoria’s other male friend, Mr. John Brown. Did they get married?!)

Albert died quite young and Queen Victoria never really got over his death, wearing black mourning clothing every day until she died.

So, Victoria was lonely and heart-broken. The stage was set for someone to step up to the plate to fill that hole that Albert had left behind.

If you think about it, Victoria really seemed to need someone close to her for most of her life. For example, once her children had left the palace for their own lives, she partially adopted an African princess, she had a close friendship with another man from India, she had a close friendship (?) with John Brown, and when he died, there was the space for her to make a close friendship with the Munshi.

So it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that she would be open to having another friend, unsuitable though the Royal Household may have thought.

In the end, when Victoria dies in January 1901, the Munshi’s life comes to a stop with regard to royalty. King Edward VIII is swift to send the Munshi back to India to live on his land that Victoria had given to him. Edward, not a fan on the Munshi, tracks down and then destroys most of the correspondence between Abdul and the Queen (even sending staffers to the Munshi’s house in India to knock on the door of his family home to see if they had any more letters that had been missed before). No one in the Royal Household wanted the Munshi to use that personal correspondence for money…

It’s all rather sad really. Despite the official background checks, Abdul didn’t have any nefarious goals (apart from some self-serving ones), and so when I turned that last page, I was left wondering what to think about all this.

Were the Royal Household unpleasant (and bullying) to the Munshi out of spite and jealousy? Why did Victoria dig her heels in to protect Abdul so much? As the years have passed, the general consensus seems to be that the Munshi was harmless and a good friend to the lonely Queen.

Being an Indian, he must have stood out in the royal residences, and surrounded by the Queen’s personal and long-employed staffers, it must have been lonely for him at times as well. He knew that he was not well liked.

The staffers’ long campaign to get rid of him failed, perhaps through a combination of racial prejudice and snobbery, and Victoria stuck to her guns for the last fifteen years of her life. The Munshi was actually, through design or otherwise, the last person to see Victoria before the lid of her coffin was put on…

Anyway, it’s an amazing story and I highly recommend this read.  Incidentally, there is also a movie of this book with Dame Judi Dench, which I am interested in tracking down sometime. I read that it takes some fictional liberties though…

I’ll have to see.

By the way, the Smithsonian magazine has a good article on this topic.

And here’s a link from the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, about a new view of the Munshi and Victoria (from the Munshi’s diaries).

Cold Weather Reads for the Hot Season (at least here in Texas!)

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The temperatures here in West Texas are creeping up and have hit the typical numbers now, which means hot, hot, and more hot. I’m not the biggest fan of these never-ending hot and dry days, but luckily for me, I don’t have to work in the cotton fields or live in a house without air-conditioning. 🙂

It still doesn’t take the fact away that the days here can get really warm, and so I thought it might help keep us cool if I put together a reading list of books that feature cold weather in some way. (Cold and wet would be even better! You can take the girl out of England, but you can’t take the England out of the girl, as they say.)

So, here are a few suggested titles from both the blog and my TBR that might do the trick for cooling down your internal thermometer:

Antarctica would be a good place to start, so how about a read of the riveting adventure of Captain Scott and his fatal expedition at the turn of the twentieth century? Apsley Cherry-Garrard has The Worst Journey in the World, a two-volume diary that details almost every step of the way and is an adventure classic that is hard to put down. You can almost shiver in sympathy at these poor men who follow an almost despotic leader across iceburgs with completely inadequate equipment and training. (Volume l and Volume II). Another angle would the biography of Apsley Cherry Garrard called simply Cherry (TBR).

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If your goal is general survival, try Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why by Laurence Gonzales (TBR) as it looks like it has some useful tips based on research, but if you’d rather look at a slightly warmer (and more civilized) trip across some wilderness, you could try Mary Bosanquet’s Saddlebags to Suitcases, where she details her time crossing some of Canada on horseback back in the 1930’s/1940’s. It’s still cool, but more summertime cool.

If you’re interested in history and the pioneer life (since it can get pretty cold in a log cabin or sod house), Timothy Egan’s Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West looks good (TBR), and I know that Dayton Duncan’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993) is excellent.

If you’d prefer to look at pioneer things through a  family saga perspective, you could always read the classic, Giants of the Earth by O.E. Rolvagg (1927) which has some cold parts of it. (Clearly, since the story is placed on the northern plains of the U.S. in a log cabin…)

Speaking of living a domestic life for pioneers, another good read (this time a how-to book) is The American Woman’s Home by Catherine Beecher Stowe and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869), an excellent guide for first-time explorers which tells you how to survive both the hot and the cold if you’re building a new life and a log cabin on the plains.

db035d32e6865b0673e873457270f2c5Another good pioneer perspective (including a difficult winter or two), this time from a very cheerful and optimistic newcomer, is The Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart (1914) or you could return to old faithfuls such as The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940). Or even the NF book, The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin (2004) (TBR) which tells the tale of how a group of children got lost during a blizzard in America’s heartland back in the 1880’s.

Speaking of bleak weather, if you’d like to travel with a man and a boy during the aftermath of a tremendous event, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is as unrelenting a read as the bad weather and bad luck for these characters. (That’s a toughie to read, IMHO.)

On the other hand, if your plans are more “travel-around-the-world-with-servants” style, and you need some non-fiction to know *exactly* what to pack, try the Victorian travel book, The Art of Travel by Francis Galton (1854) . (So. Much. Stuff. But that’s ok as you’re not the one carrying it. :-} )

DQWqwPVXkAAFMF5Perhaps your plans include a journey via the Himalayas, so you could have an enjoyable journey with Michael Palin when he went there: Himalaya (2004) is a book about his travels there one year.

Another true adventure book that gets a bit cold is The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz (TBR) which follows the truly amazing journey of seven prisoners of war who escape from a Soviet labor camp and travel across Siberia, China, the Gobi Desert, Tibet and over the Himalayas to British India in 1941. (Also the related film tells their story and is called “The Long Way Back” (2010) if you’re more of a film buff.)

And if you’d rather take a look at the Russian side of the world, Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe (1968) is a riveting quick read about how one Polish family survives as prisoners in Siberia around the start of WWII.

If you’d like to get away from almost everything, I’ve heard it gets a bit cold out in space, so you could always refer to Chris Hadfield’s lovely book about his life as an astronaut, The Astronaut’s Guide to Life (2013)… (or Mary Roach’s pretty hilarious Packing for Mars…)

For a rather different take on life on English moors, try The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe (1959) , a collection of short stories by one of the more recognizable names of The Angry Young Men movement in mid-century England.

Or you could venture out onto the cold and rainy moors with The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901)  or perhaps another of the many Sherlock Holmes titles. (They usually involve some cold places of one kind or another.)

More cold-weather crime is via Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries, a collection of stories edited by Martin Edwards as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. And don’t forget Dame Agatha Christie who has some cold reads, Murder on the Orient Express being one of the more obvious choices.

You might prefer to go more on the domestic route with some dreary weather, so perhaps The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1954) or a quick WWII domestic read of 1939’s Mrs. Miniver (Jan Struthers). You know what? The gritty Irish trilogy that starts with The Girl with Green Eyes (Edna O’Brien, 1962) or maybe the trilogy that starts with The L-Shaped Room by Lynn Reid Banks (also published in the 1960s) might hit the spot since that’s rather a cold book (re: temperature) at times. There’s also a sequel to that as well: The Backward Shadow (1970) and that’s followed by the final title, Two is Lonely (TBR). (These titles are also known as the “Jane Graham” series…) Just sayin’. Sometimes you want dreary, amiright?

For a snowy and slightly scary story, don’t forget that Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)  has some chilly moments in it as well, as does The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1896).

Peter Hessler has written several NFs about life in rural China, so perhaps start with River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze about his time teaching in a small rural town, although there are several titles from which to choose. It has some cold scenes in it.

Similar (in that both places can be cold) but different would be a read of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (2010) of life for the typical person in North Korea. Brr. Hungry, poor and cold? No thank you.

If you’re not quite sure where exactly you’d like to go to get cooler, any of the prestigious America’s Best… volumes can take you almost anywhere you’d like, with travel writing collected and edited by a variety of authors (including Bill Bryson (2000) , Elizabeth Gilbert (2013), William Vollman (2012)   etc.)  These collections typically contain a mix of climates as part of their writing selections (although they can sometimes lack diversity in the author selections)…

Finally, for the more science-y folks, you could learn more about the amazing snowflake and see some stunning photography, in The Snowflake by Kenneth Libbrechrt and Patricia Rasmussen (2003).  This title even makes some parts of physics comprehensible and fascinating… (And that’s me saying that from the perspective of dropping physics and chemistry when I was 12 years old. If I can understand it from my non-science background, it’s probable that you will as well. Plus – great photography.)

So, there you go. Some wintery reads for you if you’re stuck with hot temperatures. Hope that helps (or at least guides the way for) you if you’re sweltering…!

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Empty Mansions – Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. (2013)

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Subtitle: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. 

An intriguing non-fiction about the Clark family who were a real rags-to-riches frontier family led by a ruthless businessman who traveled out to the hinterlands to find a better life through discovering and then selling copper and then growing his wealth even more through a series of savvy (and lucky) business deals. The patriarch, W. A. Clark, became nearly as wealthy as the Rockefellers and ended up being a controversial US Senator (with a bribery scandal to his name), a builder of railroads and the founder of Las Vegas.

But who was he really? Who was his French wife Anna, and what about his family?

With this background of privilege, the narrative traces the story of the Clark family from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to elegant Fifth Avenue in New York, from a one-room house to one of the largest houses in NYC with 121 different rooms for a family of four, and then in reverse when the only surviving member of the family chooses to seclude herself in an ordinary hospital room for twenty years.

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(Above) – Huguette (in white) stands with her father and elder sister.

It’s a really strange story but it’s fascinating, mainly because there are so many questions that still remain and no one seems to know the truth. As the youngest daughter, Huguette lived a life of extreme privilege far removed from the typical American life that surrounded her.

She had little formal schooling, but became an expert on Japanese culture; she owned Degas and Renoir paintings but without a successful painting career; she bought and owned a never-played Stradivarius violin which she rarely looked at and grew a large collection of antique dolls worth millions of dollars and with houses of their own to store the collection.

But with so many people sworn to secrecy about Huguette’s life, this is an NF based on rumors and family lore more so than actual fact. It’s also heavily based on memories that surround a $300 million fortune to be inherited and so it’s very difficult to know the actual truth of these events. Everyone has a stake in their perspective and so who’s to know what really occurred.

When Huguette retired from outside life and entered her hospital room, rarely to leave again despite being healthy and able-bodied, why was that? When Huguette gave $30 million to her personal nurse towards the end of her life, was she being manipulated by the nursing staff and the greedy hospital hoping for a “generous donation”? Why did she pull herself away from everyone she knew to choose to watch The Smurfs in a darkened room? Was she mentally ill or was she being blackmailed? So many questions!

So, this was an interesting read, although I did have to run it through the filter that it was co-authored by her great-nephew who trod very carefully when it came to the honest truth (what little there was). (Sort of a “Don’t annoy grandma or you’ll get left out of the will” idea.) In the end, this book was a mix of fact and fiction and although it rather veered towards sycophancy towards the last third of the book, it was still an interesting read.

How much is true? How much is Memorex? Who is to know, but it was interesting to learn about this filthy rich but slightly strange family.