Victoria: A Life – A.N. Wilson (2014)

Having been immersed in watching the PBS series, Victoria, this Spring, I became pretty interested in learning about this particular monarch and so, prowling my TBR shelves (go me!) I came across this thick volume about Victoria and dug right on in. 

First of all, I think that this detailed biography will only check the boxes for someone who is REALLY interested in Victoria. It goes into a lot of detail about the politics of the time, and so if you’re not really into that, I’m not sure that this will be the read for you. I had to really concentrate to stay alert through some of these parts, so I’m thinking other people may have the same problem. (There may or may not have been some skimming at times.)

Having said that though, Wilson has done a good (and thorough) job of giving the reader the details of Victoria’s life and times, so now (after 642 pages), I feel confident in having a much more thorough overview of Victorian times and their tubby little queen. 🙂

Wilson reviews the entirety of Victoria’s life, from birth to death, and generally speaking, it was a great read if you’re wanting to learn more about this enigmatic monarch. Wilson is a scholar and a biographer, but in spite of this, he still manages to sprinkle humor and wit throughout the book which brings a sparkle to an otherwise pretty dry read.

To be honest, the only really dry bits were towards the middle of the book (and her life) when Albert dies and when Victoria chooses to remove herself from public life and events for approximately 30 years or so. (Not a bad gig if you can get it.) She does, eventually, get back into things, but it takes quite a while for her to do this, and in the meantime, peeps are pretty mad at her, enough so there were rumblings of England turning into a republic (sans Queen). Her return was rather in the nick of time.

Wilson also addresses the significant others in Victoria’s life post-Albert, including John Brown and the Munshi. (See below for links to other related reads you might be interested in.)

Queen Victoria (on horse) with her “friend” (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more…. ) John Brown
up in Balmoral in Scotland.

I can’t blame them, really, as Victoria was hiding in her various palaces and only doing the minimum duties while she nursed her never-ending grief for Albert. (She did manage to throw up a lot of expensive statues and memorials for Albert throughout the country, but actual useful monarchical work? Not so much.) 

Despite this avoidance of public life, Wilson does show that Victoria was keeping up with the paperwork related to parliamentary life and diplomacy overseas, but it was very in-the-background for many years. (If you’ve watched the Victoria series, she goes through quite a lot of advisers and prime ministers over the years, and despite all the rules about the monarch and the government being separate and equal, Victoria liked to have her little hand in things of governance at times which raised some eyebrows. Anyway, this book rather sorted out that complicated revolving door for me a little more, so that was helpful.)

So, I think that this biography is more for the Victoria Super Fan than merely a casual observer, and even then, the middle bit about the political landscape was slightly dry (shall we say?)

However, this was more than made up by all the details about how closely the British royal family was tied up with mainland European royal families through marriage (mostly), and it clearly lays out how much planning went to determine who should get married to whom and when, and to see how her nine children fare (or don’t as the case may be). (And Bertie fares as well as you would expect…)

Thank goodness for a family tree at the start of the book. Some people change names when they’re put on the throne so it can get a tad confusing in places. 

As mentioned, Wilson is a master biographer who goes into great detail about the life and times of this miniature monarch. (She really was not very tall.) I know that I have another volume by Wilson about the Victorians in general waiting on the TBR shelves so feel comfortable looking forward to that read at some time. 

Other related reads on the blog:

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Movies, movies, movies…

As part of Black History Month celebrations, our local cinema screened a viewing of “Selma” (2014) which details the long march undertaken by Martin Luther King, Jr., and his group to secure equal voting rights. What was really cool was that the showing of the movie was followed by a panel of professors from the university’s law school, mostly constitutional law specialists but all of whom added a new level of interest to the whole thing. 

Anyway, back to the movie: this is a true story that follows a three-month period in 1965 in Selma, Alabama, when King and other members of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference were focused on voting rights and voter access for the African-American community at a time when there were many people still against it and when segregation was still common across the South. It culminated in the Selma-Montgomery march which ended with the (in)famous crossing of the bridge to enter the city. 

It’s a fascinating story to watch how the two sides waged war – the people who were anti-segregation and those who were for it. There seemed to be v little overlap between the two groups, and any contact between them was a tinder-box ready for flames, and the film does a really good job of showing how King, Malcolm X, and the other SLCC leadership had to work on many fronts to make any forward progress. 

If you’re interested in historical social justice, in voter rights, in politics, in American history, this would right up your alley. It definitely opened up a lot of rabbit holes down which for me to enter… 

(For a different perspective on this same event, check out Rep. John Lewis’ graphic novel called The March trilogy.  Or perhaps check out this autobio of Melba Pattillo Beals who was one of the Little Rock Nine, the small group of brave students who attended the first high school in Little Rock that became desegregated in the 1960s. Fascinating and horrifying at the same time.)

Author James Baldwin.

Last night, we watched an Independent Lens documentary called “I am not your Negro” which relies upon documentary footage and the words of writer James Baldwin to tell the story of race in America. It utilized a mix of historical footage and more present-day events (Ferguson etc.) to show how far America has (and hasn’t come) in racial relations, and although I might not have been the biggest fan of Baldwin’s book Tell it on the Mountain, this documentary showed how powerful his words could be in the oral tradition. A whole other world when you hear it, and I encourage you to seek out this documentary. It’s very good.  

And then we also saw “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” starring Melissa McCarthy in a film about Lee Israel, another U.S. writer but this time one who had come upon hard times and who decided to create forged letters from famous authors for her to sell to collectors in NYC. Israel herself doesn’t seem to be a sympathetic character, but the story was fascinating (especially if you’re interested in reading, writing, books etc.) It’s worth tracking down to see. .

And then it’s Oscar season as well…. Happy times.

Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

February 2019 – Reading Review

February turned out to be a reading-heavy month, which was fine by me and I enjoyed the majority of the titles. Since it was also Black History Month in the U.S., I usually try to put a heavier focus on POC authors and topics, but I wasn’t overly impressed by the number of POC titles I actually completed this year. (I enjoyed the majority of the reads, but the total itself just wasn’t as many as I had hoped for. I think the flu was responsible for some of that.) No biggie.

Still, better than nowt and all is good. I’ll just carry on with this POC focus throughout the rest of the year, as I have done for the past few years.

The reads for February 2019 included:

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in February 201911
  • Total number of pages read 2,814 pages (av. 256). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / 10 non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. books by women.
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-book. (I know that this total equals more than 11, but the e-book was an owned book, so counts for two categories. Seeeeeee?)

Plans for March include going to Graceland and some reading. And probably a jigsaw puzzle as I haven’t done one for ages… 🙂

Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and our Times – Glen Jeansonne, David Luhrssen and Dan Sokolivic (2011)

I happen to be visiting Memphis (and Graceland) over Spring Break next month, and in preparation for that trip, I thought I’d look for a good bio about Elvis at the library. There were a couple, one of which looked very serious and intimidating, so of course I chose the other one. 🙂

I’m not the biggest Elvis fan in the world, but I grew up hearing his music and watching a few of his films, and I well remember that day when Elvis died in the ‘70s. So my thoughts of him are a tangle of Elvis in Hawaiian clothes or being rather overweight in a white rhinestone-sparkly outfit. I know, however, that there are people on this planet who live, breathe and die Elvis… (Hoping to rather see some people like this at Spring Break!) 

LOS ANGELES – APRIL 1964: Rock and roll singer and actor Elvis Presley in a movie still with a woman on the set of ‘Blue Hawaii’ at Paramount Pictures in April of 1961 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Going to Graceland seems like a very American pilgrimage to do, especially for my English mum (who I’m meeting there). My mum was around the right age to revere Presley (late teen/early 20s) and she probably wasn’t a SuperFan, but I know she knew his songs. 

So, never one to turn down American kitsch when it comes my way, I’m looking forward to the adventure. 

To the book: It’s written by three guys, two of whom are in academia (Ph.D. and/or doctoral student) and one a music journalist, but all three are very interested in the King of Rock and Roll, but mostly, their focus is on his music. 

(Editorial aside: What was pretty interesting was that the writing styles throughout the book were all very consistent. Sometimes, when you have multiple authors doing separate chapters, the styles don’t mesh but whoever edited this book deserves kudos for making this not the case for this title.)

‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
Sam Phillips, recording studio executive.

It’s quite a short read for the life of someone who led such a meteoric life, but this is balanced out with the substantial bibliographies at the end of each chapter and at the end of the book (for further reading). However, what I found really appealing about this was that it was not just a straightforward biography (i.e. Elvis was born, he lived, he died). 

This looks at the life of Elvis via the perspective of the huge influence he had on American (and global) music and culture during his career while also considering who influenced the man himself. 

I don’t know if perhaps I’ve been pretty dense about this, but I hadn’t realized until now quite how much of an influence the African-American culture and music were on Elvis, although now I look back at it, of course it’s pretty obvious.

In fact, Elvis wasn’t even the first white singer to sing blues music, but he was surely around the beginning. (Actually, Elvis first gained attention for singing country music and its cousin rockabilly, but he was also influenced by the smooth crooning of Perry Como, Bing Crosby and the like. It was a huge mashup of musical influences.)  

Bought up in Mississippi, Presley’s mother and father were poor and worked in the fields picking cotton alongside the many African-Americans who were also employed in that manner. 

Mississippi was originally the location of the biggest slave market in the country, and was a hub for both industry and immigration. It had been one of the way-stations along the route for those African-Americans who were moving to the North as part of the Great Migration, and thus, the Mississippi Delta is one of the birth places for blues music. 

(Interestingly, the Great Migration also included large numbers of poor white people, including the Presley family. Although born and raised on the “wrong side of the tracks” of Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis ended up living in Memphis, Tennessee, another informal station on the Great Migration route and where his family had moved trying to find a better life.)

Elvis’ parents were a hard-scrap couple, his mother employed at a shirt factory and his father with blue-collar jobs (via the New Deal) along with some involvement with bootlegging, and in fact, one suggestion was that his father’s activities with that was one of the reasons for the family’s move to Memphis. 

As common in the South, religion played a big role for the family and, despite living during one of America’s most racially charged periods of time, the Presley family did not hold racist attitudes to others. (Perhaps because of the constant exposure to their neighboring African-American families as friends and co-workers.) This close proximity also led to Elvis being exposed often to the gospel music and blues of his friends in the neighborhood. 

The Great Depression had ended just a few years before, WWII was a recent memory, and being the South, the centenary of the Civil War was close by, so it was a time of change for many. Elvis’ father had been charged with a poverty-motivated crime and sentenced to three years which caused a lot of financial hardship for the family. 

So, being of low income, their small home had no electricity or plumbing, but they could afford a battery-powered radio which was how the small Elvis was exposed to all these influences. Curiously, Elvis also became a huge fan of comic books, especially those of the superheroes like Captain Marvel. (Their capes became an integral part of his stage costumes in later life.) Huh. I hadn’t put that together…

(And so it goes on. This was a great read. I had no idea that Elvis led such a fascinating life. 🙂 )

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History – Vashti Harrison (2017)

I happened to catch this title in a display for Black History Month at the library, and curious, picked it up. My own knowledge of notable African-American women was limited, shamefully, but I knew that there were loads of inspiring and not-quite-so-famous women role models out there. Who would be included in this title? Let’s see…

Among the forty or so trailblazing women, there was Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895). In 1860, she applied to the all-white New England Female Medical College where she was accepted and graduated in 1864. Out of a total of approx. 500,000 physicians across the country, only 300 were female physicians, and out of that number, Crumpler was the only African-American woman. In. The. Whole. Country. (Can you imagine how hard she had to work in this world?)

Crumpler focused on women’s and children’s health, and published her own textbook, A Book of Medical Discourses, in 1883. (View the book here.) Wowee.

…There was Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) who was a junior high school teacher for 35 years, as well as an artist (at a time when African-American people did not have many rights). She was a leader in the Color Field Movement which created paintings using bright blocks of color and was an important influencer in art. (Rothko was influenced by Thomas.)

Apollo 12 – Splashdown – Alma Thomas (1970).

—There was Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), whose poetry I had heard of but whose personal life I was unaware. She published her first poem when she was just 13. After publishing books of poetry, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first African-American ever to earn that honor.

—There was Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) who was a social psychologist and counselor. Educated at Howard University (where quite a few of these forward-thinking leaders were educated at different times), Phipps Clark is notable for designing some research on children and how they see the world.

Called the Doll Test, researchers would give children, both black and white, dolls from which to choose in answer to some questions. After being asked questions along the lines of “which doll would be nice?”, Phipps Clark’s research showed that African-American kids who attended segregated schools would choose the white dolls for the positive characteristics that the questions asked, and the African-American dolls for questions as “Which doll is mean?” 😦

Unsurprisingly, these kids had really poor self-esteem of themselves and of others of the same race. This research became the basis for the 1954 legal case that changed America: Brown vs. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.

And the list goes on and on of notable and extraordinary African-American women who are just not talked about when they should be household names. Every page introduced me to someone who either I’ve never heard of or didn’t know much about, and one of the best things was the Harrison has drawn each of these figures with the same face, to allow young readers to imagine their own faces in a similar position.

This was such a lovely book, and I hope it’s widely available in school libraries across the US. I learned so many new names to learn more about. I bet you will as well.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” – Zora Neale Hurston (1931)

As part of Black History Month (and part of my ongoing goal to read more diversely), I saw this title on a blog somewhere (not sure where), but it seemed to align perfectly with my reading goal. Plus it looked fantastically interesting, so I found a copy at the library and set to reading it.

Barracoon is the name for a type of hut that was used for the confinement of slaves and criminals, and this book features remarks from interviews which Neale Hurston had with an 86-year-old former slave called Oluale Kossula. His slave name was Cudjo Lewis, and he arrived in America from West Africa where he was captured and brought across the sea on Clotilde, the last ship to cross the waters for the transatlantic slave trade.

Written in 1931 (but only published quite recently in 2018), Neale Hurston was at the start of her career as an anthropologist when she was tasked by her boss, Franz Boa, to meet and interview an 86-year-old former slave, one of the few survivors who could remember and then talk about his journey from Africa. (It’s astonishing to me that there was actually a living person with this memory back in the twentieth century. In my head, slavery happened yesteryear and ages ago, but obviously, I was wrong on that.)

Despite slavery having been deemed illegal in the US, Kossula was snatched from his African village and enslaved in the US in 1860. He was trapped as a slave for more than five years, when he was released and with others, worked to establish a community called Africatown in Alabama, a place where the other survivors from the Clotilde could live and work.

As Neal Hurston gradually gained the trust of Kossula, she was given more pieces of his history. Kossula was understandably not that trusting at first, but slowly and without rushing the process, Neale Hurston sat with and listened to this remarkable old man. Recalled in a heavy dialect that’s written almost phonetically, I could almost hear this old man recount his life in his accent.

It’s not that easy to follow, but you get the hang of it after a while and being able to “hear” his voice (via the writing) adds a level of intimacy that perhaps you wouldn’t be able to get in any other way (especially now with Kossula long gone from this earth).

Some of the freed slaves who lived in Africatown.

Without getting in the way of Kossula’s memory, Neal Hurston does a remarkable job of letting him tell his own life story without the need to be a filter for him. His story requires no translation, but it’s all the more remarkable when it’s “heard” in your head as his accent.

What makes this a stand-out account is that Kossula still has memories of his growing up in a small African village so it’s a more immediate account of a slave’s journey than perhaps other first-person recollections of slave life (for example, Frederick Douglass or Solomon Northup).

Kossula’s memories of being captured and taken to the ship with a long and harrowing journey ahead of him is detailed and immediate. Since his memories are personal, the descriptions of the ship journey and his slave life are all the more powerful due to them being recent memories for him.

An NPR review puts it best when it describes this book as being not only about the brutality of slavery in this country, but also about the emotional toll of being taken away from your home and own language, of being lost and losing almost everything. It’s a multi-layered recollection that is all the more powerful for being so personal.

This is a tough read due to its focus on how inhumane people can be to others. But it’s also a powerful read to hear a man’s own words describe his journey from freedom to captivity to freedom again.

For a review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Eyes were Watching God, check here.

Screen Time….

There’ve been some good movies lately, so thought I’d bring you a couple of thoughts about two that we’ve seen in the past month or so. Both of them were good (although one was miles better than the other), and both were pretty different from each other. 

Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

I’d been curious about seeing Bryan Cranston/Kevin Hart’s project called “The Upside.” The trailer had made it look like a light-hearted comedy (and Hart is a comedian) so that was the approach I’d taken and was expecting. It was a pretty good movie, but the end result was that I felt that the producers couldn’t decide if they wanted this to be a comedy or a serious drama. Due to this indecision, it felt like the movie didn’t really reach either of these goals and so I walked out feeling slightly dissatisfied. 

It’s got a fairly standard plot line contrasting two very different characters who are more or less forced to be together and then hijinks result. Cranston’s character is a quadriplegic who happens to have oodles of money. He needs to hire a full-time live-in caregiver and that’s the (slightly clumsy) way that Hart’s character is introduced – as a candidate for that position. Hart, on the other hand, is a foul-mouthed newly-released ex-con who has to prove to his probation officer that he’s been applying for jobs. Hart needs a signature on his form to show that he’s been on a job interview, and so this is how the two people cross paths. 

(You know, it reminded me of the older movie called “Trading Spaces” with Eddie Murphy which has a similar set up between its characters, and is actually, you know, funny.…) 

However, as mentioned, the movie couldn’t decide whether to play up the comedy angle (two colliding worlds) or whether it would be a serious drama (life lived with serious disability and the impact it has on the person), so at the end, I was left feeling confused. It wasn’t hilarious (as the trailer had sold it) but it also wasn’t a serious drama (which it could have been). It ended up being somewhere vaguely in the middle, which left some frustration. 

The other movie that I saw was the brilliant “On the Basis of Sex” about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones who’s actually English but can do one hell of an American accent). I was slightly concerned when I saw the words “based on a true story” right at the beginning of the film since that can mean several things: is it only slightly based on the true story? Which piece(s) are not factual? And why did the producers decide to veer off the true life and when? 

However, despite these concerns, the bio pic ended up being really good (although I’m still not clear which bits were factual or not). Bader Ginsberg is a true American hero for me, and with the recent Cavanaugh hearing (he of the “I like beer” comment), the contrast between her views and that of other justices is huge – almost as though they are from completely different planets. With Bader Ginsberg alive and kicking, I feel safe that she’ll represent the more liberal views of this country, but she’s getting on in years and people don’t live forever…

Back to the movie: it was very well done and although I kept wondering what the true and not-true bits were, the plot line did show how driven Bader Ginsberg had been to be one of the first group of women to attend Harvard Law School, how she balanced home-work life with her husband (who seemed to be very cool to me), and how Bader Ginsberg had used her considerable legal knowledge to help to bring down the very-established gender discrimination which had been in place in the laws of the U.S. for eons.

Her plan seems to have been to show the courts that gender discrimination works in both ways, and so she developed a great argument for an unmarried male caregiver who had been denied tax relief for his caring for his old mum. By using such a non-threatening (to the males) approach of demonstrating the unfairness of such bias in the laws, Bader Ginsberg carefully paved the way for addressing the numerous other ways that the law had discriminated against women. An absolutely brilliant approach for the day and age in which they were living.

The film focuses around her law school years and on this particular case so it’s a fairly narrow time period, but it clearly shows the widespread discrimination that Bader Ginsberg and other women had to deal with. Looking back, I shake my head that it was allowed to continue as long as it did (and still does in some places), and so I am filled with admiration for Bader Ginsberg’s courage and leadership to change things. 

SPOILERS NOW FINISHED.

Anyway, I just loved this film and I’m still curious about what was true and not-true in the movie. Maybe this is the year that I finally read a biography of Bader Ginsberg to find out for myself.  🙂

TV-wise, we’ve been getting into Jason Bateman/Laura Linney’s crime/drama series called “Ozark.” Goodness me – they know how to ratchet up the suspense on these episodes (without Netflix bloat) , and now we’ve reached the end of Season Two, we’re all atwitter for Season Three. (Luckily, the series got renewed so there will be continuation. Phew.) Highly recommend it if you’re looking for a new series to watch – just know that it gets a little tense at times. 🙂

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury (1977)

So, I’d been busy with school and life and after looking at my recent book reading, realized that I really wanted to read just a straight-forward non-hard-hitting fiction. Having had pretty good success with Bradbury in the past (Dandelion Wind /(1957), Fahrenheit 451(1953) and Farewell Summer (2009)), I dropped by the library to pick up “The Martian Chronicles”.

Its publishing date is 1977, but as it’s a compilation of short (connected) stories inside, the individual pub dates for each story vary from 1946-1950. I actually had little idea of what this book was about or how it was structured, so went in with a clean plate. Since I wasn’t clear that this was actually a collection of connected short stories (if they can be called that), I was mightily confused with the timeline at first, but once I’d figured out that this is a series of stories that follow on from one another, I got it sorted out. But hell’s bells. I was muddled at first.

In case you’re like I was with no clear idea of this read, the title may clue you in: The Martian Chronicles. “Chronicles” to me suggests something of a newspaper, and once I knew that that was the book’s basic structure, the stories started to make much more sense.

Each chapter/story is set on Mars as it becomes colonized by humans escaping from an Earth which has had a catastrophic event that has made it unlivable for humans.  The stories are in chronological order starting with the date of January 1999 and finishing with the date of October 2026, and since it was written way back in the mid-1940s, it’s fascinating to see what someone back then was forecasting for this possible future – now our immediate past and present. (See? It does get a bit confusing.)

However, by halfway through the read, I’d got the hang of things and I’d recommend that if you choose this title, you read it in one or two long sittings (instead of picking it up and putting it down). I tried that strategy of picking-up-and-putting-down, but once I realized that I was going to be able to follow the book much more easily if I just got reading in big chunks, the whole experience turned around and I really enjoyed the book.

Ray Bradbury with his hands out, circa 1980. (Photo by Tribune/Getty Images)

It’s interesting seeing how someone in the 1940s thought the future of the U.S. would be in 60-80 years’ time (which means that Bradbury’s future is actually now our present).

The book starts with a rocket landing on Mars in 1999, but it’s an early adventure for the space agency on earth, and so it’s more exploratory than anything. As the chronology continues apace, the years that each chapter represents are pretty close together until about the year 2005 when the story then jumps ahead to how Mars is in 2026.

Of course, since it’s written by an American, it’s an American-focused story but doesn’t seem to suffer from that and it’s definitely par for that time in history.

Bradbury tracks how Mars is gradually colonized over the years, and how this new society progresses, along with its troubling interactions with the native Mars people. As background, America in the 1940s was not yet in the big Space Race, there was some excitement and glamor about the whole thing but it was still rather vague. WWII was not that long ago for many people and their families, and so Bradbury’s America is very much a white-people-with-little-white-fences type of society and men are mostly in charge, although kudos to Bradbury for including one or two stories which do deal with race-relations issues.

Also, alongside this historical background, astronomers had been fascinated with Mars since the 19th century, and early space-watchers had reported the red planet had straight lines on it, visible through their early telescopes. This gave rise to the idea that Mars had been colonized already and that the straight lines were actually man-made canals moving water from one area of the planet to another. Thus, it wasn’t such a huge leap to think that perhaps beings were already there.

As an aside, slightly random but interesting all the same: Bradbury has credited this book as being influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919 – yuck) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939 – great read but no link), in terms of how they affected the novel’s actual structure and playing with time. (I can’t see any influence in this read, but perhaps others can. I didn’t get on very well with Anderson when I read him though. Maybe in their episodic structures?) 

Additionally, Bradbury credits Edgar Rice Burrough’s work (especially the Tarzan comic books)… (And as before, I’m having difficulty seeing the connection between this story and the Tarzan ones, but perhaps others may be more erudite than me…)

It’s not a particularly cheerful book, but it ended up being a great read, and I found it so interesting to see the 1940s’ prediction of future life in space, with both its accuracies and inaccuracies. Good one.

Words new to me…

Parlous: full of danger, precarious. (Also, in the olden days, it would mean excessive…) 

Anatomization: the process of cutting something natural apart to learn about its internal structure et al. Example: medical students will dissect a body in the morgue to learn more about how how everything is connected in the human.

Velocipedes: An early form of bicycle that is propelled by working pedals on cranks fitted to the front axle. (See pic below.)

Camera lucida: optical device that allowed surgeons to trace images projected onto a piece of paper and then “practice” their cutting skills using that. 

Pultaceous: having a soft consistency; pulpy.

Ragged Schools: 19th century charity schools in England around 1840s. Provided free education, along with a home, food etc., for those students who were too poor to pay. 

Hectic fever: this is a type of fever that sustains itself during a 24-hour period. 

Pyemia: another name for blood-poisoning (septicemia) caused by spread in blood stream of pus-forming bacteria released from an abscess. 

Erysipelas: a skin infection caused by Strep (typically). 

Hospitalism: the adverse effects of a prolonged stay in hospital. (Also called anaclitic depression). Common pediatric diagnosis in1950s for infants required to stay in hospital for long periods of time and due to their mental health (from loneliness, lack of human touch etc.) would waste away. 

Carious: decayed. 

Animalcule: old name for a microscopic animal. (Latin for “little animal”.) 

De novo: starting from the beginning of something.

Cicatrix: the remaining scar of a now-healed wound.

Antiseptic:from “anti” and “septic ” so material to prevent further infection leading to sepsis. Obvious to me now, but honestly, I hadn’t put that together before reading this. Duh, I know. 

Aleatory: depending on the throw of a dice; chance; random. 

Flaneur: a person who handles the art of strolling or sauntering. 

(Mostly taken from the title, The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris (2017).)

A velocipede in action. (Note pedals are on front wheel.)

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine – Lindsey Fitzharris (2017)

“The ascendancy of knowledge over ignorance, and diligence over negligence, defined the profession’s future…”

If you are interested in Victorian times, in medical history, in social history, in well-told narratives… have I got the book for you. The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris ticks all the boxes for me with regard to having a great read: dry sense of humor, loads of facts, about a time period that I’m very interested in, and medicine? Yes please. 

I think that it’s quite amazing how fast (and how far) medicine (especially surgery) has come from its roots in Victorian science. In close to 150 years, we’ve completely reshaped the goals and methods of surgery, along with significantly reducing the death rates associated with that. When you keep in mind just how grubby surgery was, it’s an astonishing leap forward. 

So, always curious about the history of medicine, I was trawling my TBR shelves (go me!) and stumbled upon this title. Shortlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize along with other notable accolades, it was a brilliant read and one of those “read at the right time” situations for me. I loved it. 

So, what’s the book about? It’s revolves around Joseph Lister (1827-1912), a surgeon who introduced new principles of cleanliness (along with the germ theory) which went on to transform surgical practice and reduce post-operative mortality (or “ward fever”) deaths by huge numbers. Or, as the book says, the shift in medical procedure from antisepsis (germ killing) to asepsis (germ-free practices). It’s quite the story. 

Fitzharris reports that during this period of time, surgery was traumatic and risky. No anesthesia was available, surgeons’ cleanliness habits were anything but, and this was a time when most physicians believed that pus from a surgical incision was a “good thing” instead of an ominous onset of sepsis. In fact, surgeons were known as having a particular odor when they were working: “good old hospital stink” which was really the smell of rotting flesh and blood from their time in the operating theater. Crikey.

It was actually safer to have an operation at your own home (instead of in hospital) – hospitals had mortality rates that were three to five times higher. Curiously, Death was known at the time as Old Jacky, and some patients were said to be able to predict who would recover and who would die during surgery. Odds were that the patient would die… 

In fact, hospitals were such filthy places that many of them had a person who was charged with going around to rid the patient mattresses of lice. In fact, this person was more highly paid than surgeons, so that demonstrates how important hospitals viewed this lice person. 

Despite being such places of high mortality rates, there were a lot of hospital expansions and excitement about new techniques for surgeons at this time. The latest official medical text, The Art of Surgery, was in its ninth edition and was such a respected resource that a copy of it was given to every single doctor in the federal army during the U.S. Civil War. 

The medical field was still ignoring germ theory though, and so public health was still pretty terrible, particularly for those who were in poverty. The world’s first flushing toilet came about during Albert’s Great Exhibition, and more 800,000 people paid a penny to test these facilities out for themselves during their visit. 

(Interestingly (for me – maybe not for you!), this is where the English saying, “going to spend a penny” (for needing to go to the lavatory) arose. I remember my grandma frequently using this euphemism when I was growing up, and it was because in my childhood (1960s/1970s), the lavatories at the local park would have a locking mechanism so anyone in need would have to put a coin (usually a big penny) into the slot before it opened. I can only imagine how many wet pants this tradition caused British schoolchildren as they didn’t have a penny to use.) 

London, packed with all these thousands of visitors for the Great Exhibition, was not really equipped to deal with the teeming masses, and there was a time when the river Thames was called “The Great Stink” due to it smelling particularly badly due to the huge amount of human excrement that had piled up on the riverbanks. Yuck, but where else were people supposed to go? 

One of the old locks that used to guard the access to the public lavatories back in the 1960’s/1970s in England. No penny? No luck. 🙂

Back to Victorian medicine: Fitzharris uses a wide variety of sources for this history, including one called the Yearbook of Medicine, Surgery, and Their Allied Sciences, which gave the helpful statement: 

“The bandages and instruments which have been employed for gangrenous wounds ought not, if possible, to be employed a second time…” 

This was the world of medicine that Lister entered, after having given his first speech at his new job in LATIN because the establishment believed that that showed these men (of course) were of higher learning. (Imagine the reaction of today’s surgeons being told to do that…) 

(Non sequitur: Glasgow (in Scotland where Lister’s first job was) was actually growing in such numbers that people called it “the second City of the Empire” after London. Well, didn’t know that.)

I think it’s best to do bullet points from now on…:

  • Lister was extremely interested in the parallel work of Louis Pasteur and his research on fermentation and the decomposition of organic matter. Lister was convinced that it was linked with the health of surgical wounds, but no one else was ready to listen yet.. (Curiously, another doc, Thomas Spencer Wells, was also interested in Pasteur’s work. Wells happened to be the surgeon for Queen Victoria… I love these overlaps!)
  • There’s also a good link between Lister and Lord Brougham (who founded University College of London where my brother teaches). Lord Brougham was president of the both the university and the hospital, and Lister was trying to get a gig teaching there as a professor. Brougham is also the name for a type of carriage and was so named for this guy. (See here for more on Lord Brougham and his travelling mummified body.) After other doctors started to believe that Lister was onto something with his cleanliness theories, they began to be known as the “Listerians” and as they became more established in the medical world, they gradually started to spread the theory throughout the profession. 
  • Random trivia: it was around this time that more personal hygiene items started to come on to the market, including a mouth-wash called, wait for it, Listerine. Developed by an American in Philadelphia after he had listened to a speech by Lister as part of his professional medical society meeting…  It was marketed as a variety of things, including a treatment for dandruff, a floor cleaner, and notably, even a cure for gonorrhea. (I know. I’d never put this together with Lister either…)
  • All this was happening around the time of a big flu epidemic that occurred earlier than the most famous flu epidemic of 1918. This particular epidemic was in 1889-1890, and brought a doctor to the fore named Robert Wood Johnson, who, influenced by one of Lister’s talks, joined together with his two brothers to develop a company focused on developing sterile surgical dressings and sutures. The name of the company: Johnson & Johnson. Huh.
  • (And also, around this time, was the start of public health and John Snow mapping the outbreak of cholera… Well, I never. It’s fascinating how things overlap sometimes…)

And, really, the information goes on and on in one of the most interesting reads I’ve had this year. 

Honestly, if you’re looking for some great non-fiction about a field that still holds its importance today, Fitzharris is a great guide to show you the way of Victorian medicine. I loved it (in case you can’t tell). 

For some Victorian social history reads, you could try these: