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.)
—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.
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
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).
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
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.
When school finished up in mid-December, there was the usual crush of reviewing final exams and getting the grades in on time and so it was a few days before I could really sit down and chill out. Since I’m now faculty, I earn the same university breaks as the students which ended up about three weeks, give or take a day. (I still find it amazing that I’m now on the faculty side of the university after twenty years as a staff member. That staff work experience definitely enables me to be a stronger faculty member, I must say.)
So, to the reading:
I really enjoyed a solid read of The Butchering Art by social historian Lindsay Fitzharris. About Joseph Lister and his quest to revolutionize Victorian medical care via anesthesia and better hygiene, this was an NF which ticked almost all of my reading boxes: well written, well researched, Victorian times, medical history, social history, dry sense of humor – and I really enjoyed this read. (See here for a more in-depth review.)
Then, I embarked on the journey of Alex Haley’s Roots, the fiction-y saga of Haley’s family who were shipped to the U.S. as part of the Slave Triangle trade route and have stayed in the States since then. True or not, this was a really interesting narrative. Does anyone remember watching the old TV series of Roots when it came on? I’ve always meant to read the book, and finally got around to it. I think that there is some debate about what exactly is true and what is not, but just speaking about the plot – it’s a good read and really demonstrates how strong Haley’s family (and others in the same situation) must have been to make it through all these years.
(Roots was also a Big Scary Book in terms of page numbers, so go me. It’s the little things, right?)
I read some more of Ray Bradbury’s sci fi, this title being The Martian Chronicles (see review here), and it happened to be one of those library books which have the well-turned yellowing pages with a perfect type font and size as well which made it a really enjoyable read. (I can’t help it. A reading experience involves much more than just the words for me!)
Traveled to a plot set in India with Lavanya Sankaran’s 2013 novel, The Hope Factory (another really good read with interesting characters and a fast-moving plot but no blog post), and then followed that up with a library checkout of the latest book Homebody by Joanna Gaines, an HGTV interior designer who (along with her husband Chip) has a series of TV shows about doing up old houses. This led me to redoing some of the decorations around the house and getting inspired that way – plus it had lots of pictures to look at!
Then a solid read of the 2018 America’s Best Travel Writing volume which was pretty bad until about halfway through when suddenly the read clicked for me. It was edited by Cheryl Strayed, and since I’m not the biggest fan of her work, I think this was the reason that I didn’t get on with the initial selections in the book. We did become more friendly in the end, but if I had stuck with Nancy Pearl’s rule of 50 pages, it would have been a DNF for sure. That’s the gamble with a curated collection of stories in these volumes… Still, as mentioned, I did come across some good selections which saved the read for me.
The new year brought more determination to read from my own TBR pile, so I pulled a random title with an old Virago volume, The Orchid House by Phyllis Strand Allfrey (1954). No real blog post, but this was an ok read (albeit slightly strange). This novel is widely considered to be one of the stalwarts of Caribbean literature despite the fact that Allfrey was of Caucasian descent and of a family that benefited significantly from the slave trade.
However, this seems to be generally forgiven since this narrative, her first (and only) published novel, was from the perspective of an old island nanny of the family. It’s a pretty dark and rather strange book though. However, this was more of a broccoli book for me in the end. Nothing too outstanding though, and I’m glad to have finally read it after it being on the TBR shelves for longer than I will admit. 🙂
I’m in the middle of reading some Wodehouse for light relief, and just about to pick up another one from the TBR, this one called The Rotter’s Club, a 2001 novel by Jonathon Coe. Very different from the Caribbean novel as this one is set in the much colder and grittier parts of Birmingham in England in the 1970s, and is from the perspective of a young lad. It’s been really funny in places so far – enough that I burst out laughing at the gym this morning – so I’m looking forward to the read.
So that’s me all caught up for now. How have your reads been lately?
So, in the manner of a lot of book bloggers, I have compiled a list of my “Best of…” titles that I’ve read last year for both fiction and for non-fiction. In the same vein, titles on these lists are not necessarily published in 2018 – this is just when they made their wending way into my grubby little mitts and off the TBR pile (for some of them)…
Similar to others in the book blogosphere, I rather enjoy being quite nerdy and reviewing how my reading patterns went over the past year, although I had thought I had read more than this. However, no worries. It’s not a race so all is fine. Just interesting.
So, to the numbers:
TOTAL books read in 2018 – 78. (Average: 6.5 books/mo.) Biggest monthly totals in the summer months (when school is out). Smallest total was in March (which coincided with Spring Break travel and prep for said trip.)
This was composed of almost 50/50 with regard to F and NF. (Actual numbers were 40 F and 38 NF. Of the NF, the majority were bio/autobio.)
Authors: Another category that’s almost 50/50: 41 M and 37 F
Authors of color (AOC)/Topics related to POC: 30 (38%, just over one in every three).
Where were these books from?
I’m pleased with this one: 50 percent were from my own TBR. (Progress of sorts.)
I read an average of one e-book (Kindle) for each month. Library was the other source.
Year range of publication date: 1899 (The Vampyre/Polidori) to 2018 (various). 1993 average.
Shortest book length: 32 pp (The Vampyre/Polidori). Longest: 912 pp (Roots/Hailey). 295 pp. average.
Overall, this was a fun year. Additionally, I had two solid reads of the AP Style Book (for professional development), so it was a good mix of work/play. I had an enjoyable year.
Goals for 2019? None really (apart from the yearly read of the AP Style Book :-] ). Just more of the same, so long as it’s fun. 🙂
“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 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 I always thought 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 human excrement that had piled up on the riverbanks. Yuck, but where else were people supposed to go?
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:
With the arrival of December comes the end-of-the-semester projects such as grading and finishing up some work writing and looking forward (very looking forward) to the holiday break.
I’ve been so lucky this semester in terms of having some really hard-working students who are willing to learn what I’m trying to teach, so I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned as much from them as they have from me. I’m only in my second year of college teaching, and I want them to have the best college writing experience that I can possibly give them, so I’m always reading how to improve my teaching, both in and out of the classroom.
Finals Week starts this Friday, so that means that classes are all wrapped up for the most part now. No more power-points (which has been the name of the game this semester); now, I just need to get them organized in files on my computer ready for next semester, finish up the grades, and hopefully, have a much more relaxed schedule.
Plans over Christmas mean not much, really. Superhero and I have quite a few days off work, so we’ll be putting up the decorations (nothing too crazy but it’s fun), and then just hanging out until the new year. May be some small travel, but it’s up in the air right now, but if we stay or if we go, it’s fine either way.
This last time last year I was about to have surgery on my ankle which rather put a damper on things, so no surgery this year means a much more relaxing time off (for both me and for the Superhero – he won’t have to drive me around everywhere!)
I’ve been reading, and so here’s a couple of reviews of two titles that didn’t make it on to the blog proper just yet. They’re both good reads – just haven’t had the time/energy to compile a proper review. (I must admit that I had a better read of one more than other.)
Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung. Just like it says on the tin, this is a graphic novel about a young woman coming to realize (and accept) her introvert tendencies. It’s like a more personal Quiet (SusanCain), but with lots of pictures. I’m torn about these “quiet books”.
Yes, I might be more of a quiet person than other people, but I don’t consider it to be a pathological weakness (which is sometimes the feeling that I get from some authors about the topic). I’m not weird (others may disagree!), I think that there are plenty of people like me, and luckily, I think the world is becoming a lot more accepting of us non-noisy folks.
I do admit that I may feel like this perhaps because (a) I’m old enough to not be that concerned about what other people think about me, and (b) the world knows more about how different people view the environment and the people who surround them. When Cain’s book first came out, was she the first author to really focus on this aspect of people? I seem to remember there being quite a kerfuffle about her non-fiction book at the time.
The second title that I’ve finished was a charming nature-focused book by Sy Montgomery called How to be a good creature: A memoir in thirteen animals. This was a shorter read, wherein Montgomery recalls thirteen animals with whom she’s had friendships of one sort or another. What was really good about this read were the lithographic illustrations by Rebecca Green. Just a sweet book to read, really.
I’ve also just finished a great non-fiction read about Joseph Lister and his impact on Victorian surgery, which was great. However, I’m going to put together a longer review about that…
Speaking of longer, I’m currently reading Alex Haley’s Roots, which is close to 1,000 pages. For some reason, I’m not hyperventilating about the length of this book, but I must admit that it would probably be easier to read on a Kindle. 🙂
It’s the beginning of a new month and it’s close to the end of the college semester, so let’s check in with how my reading is doing (just out of interest). I’ve been reading, but not quite with the same speed as I usually do. My eyes is tired at the end of the day, sometimes!
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.
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.
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.