Mr. Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo (2013)

Wow. I have just finished up my first read of Bernadine Evaristo’s novel called “Mr. Loverman” – and I loved it. There is not one doubt in my mind that this will not make my Top Ten List of books at the end of the year. Right now, it’s tantalizingly close to the top…

Yes, it was THAT good. I enjoyed this read even more than her 2019 Booker-Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, so whatever your experience was with that the highly regarded novel, good or bad, there is an even higher possibility that you will enjoy this novel as much (or more).

Such high words of praise, right? Let me tell you more….

The actual plot revolves around Barrington Jedidiah Walker, a 74-year-old British immigrant, born on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean, who now lives his life in Hackney in London. Barrington (now called Barry) is known for this retro dress sense and as a husband, father and a grandfather. 

He’s been married to wife Carmel for years and has two daughters. 

At the same time as Barry has been married to Carmel, he’s also been living a secret parallel life with his childhood friend and lover, Morris. 

Barry’s retired from his factory job and now has some big choices to make. (And never fear. I’m not giving anything away about the plot here. It’s all on the back-cover text of the paperback I have.)

Barry is a joy to get to know – he is cheeky, mischievous, careful of others’ feelings. At the same time, Barry is deeply flawed in some ways and yet this only makes him even more human. 

He has a grown-up family with wife Carmel, but he’s in love with Morris (and has been for his whole life since he was a child on his island home). His marriage is going into meltdown and Morris would like him to move in with him into his flat. What to do, what to do. 

Bernadine Evaristo, award-winning author.

Evaristo has written this novel mostly from the POV of Barry (with occasional flashes of POV from other characters) and to stay true to that vision, she has written it all in a strong Caribbean accent (mixed up with a bit of London dialect). 

At the same time, the story is also deeply immersed in the older Caribbean immigrant culture of Britain and I found it to be fascinating to see Barry glide in and out of these overlapping environments, each with their own particular set of mores and expectations.

Although this novel is a love story, it also addresses the more weighty issues of prejudice, truth (the definition of truth, to yourself and to others), being a good person, love-is-love, family relationships… It sounds like a very heavy read but through these different POVs, it’s handled with aplomb by the author. 

Barry is hilarious at times. Once I got the hang of his Antiguan accent, I was swept up into the story and stuck closely with him as he tries to figure out what he wants. He’s a caring man – he doesn’t want to be malicious to anyone but he’s old, his family has grown and the marriage seems to consist of constant bickering. 

Morris is his safe haven – but is he willing to risk everything he knows for his childhood friend and lover? 

The only downside I saw in the entire novel was the final chapter. It reads as though it’s just stuck on to the plot at a later date and time in that there is a definite change in the writing style and tone. Barry’s POV remains the focus, but the actual voice of Barry is so completely different. 

It’s set a year ahead of time (I think), and there is the possibility that the characters could have grown and/or matured in some way. The POV just didn’t even sound as if it was originating with the same character.

The writing style (even some of the word choices) seemed rather out-of-character after the previous 298 pages. It didn’t ruin the novel but I was left rather puzzling about why the book ended up like this. 

Despite that little hiccup, I still adored this read. I loved getting to know Barry and Morris, his adult daughters are hilarious in their own ways, and it’s a complex love letter to the city of London and its melting-pot residents. 

Just loved this and am now planning a second read. I’m sure that there were quite a few things that I missed in the first time through… 

Plus – it looks Evaristo has other texts out there to chase down. <rubs hand with glee>. 

The Disease history book cont’d…

More fascinating notes from the book, Disease by Mary Dobson. (Part One of review is here.)

According to the author, the actual origin of the popular drink of gin-and-tonic actually got kickstarted with the disease malaria and its not-very-tasty medicine, quinine.

In the early days of the British Raj, there was a big public health problem with malaria, and quinine was a main staple of malaria prevention and treatment. Dobson reports that the British people would add quinine to Indian tonic water (to make it taste better?) and that led to the basis of a gin-and-tonic.

(Something similar happened in the States as well: during the U.S. Civil War, every Union soldier in the malarial zone was given a daily dose of quinine sulphate dissolved in whisky. Huh.)

Unrelated random fact: One famous smallpox survivor was Queen Elizabeth I who contracted the disease in 1592. Her penchant for wearing her face covered in white lead and vinegar is thought to have been her strategy to cover up her smallpox facial scars. They are also thought to have been the reason why she didn’t want to get married as she didn’t want to show anyone her scarred skin. (Poor thing.)

Stalin had smallpox as well, btw, but he had all his photos touched up to hide that. (Remind you of any other orange-colored world leader who would also probably do that?) President Lincoln survived the same disease. And so did Pocahantas (who died in 1616 on a visit to England, possibly of smallpox.)

Moving on to polio and its history of vaccination: I didn’t know this, but in 1955, Cutter Laboratories (a U.S. company and one manufacturer of the then-recently licensed Salk vaccine), distributed faulty serum. A total of 200,000 people were inoculated with this serum which then turned out to contain “virulent non-attenuated polio virus”. Seventy thousand people became ill; 200 children were left paralyzed and ten died. (I’m wondering if this is controversy is somehow related to the ferocious antivaxxers of today? Vaccinate your kids, folks.)

So, by now, you might have surmised that I may have enjoyed this gruesome but straightforward book. I really did (and so much so that I’m going to keep this copy to read at another time).

However, there was one (easily preventable) thing that kept popping up – poor production work with the graphics.

Whoever the poor soul was who added the graphic elements to one of the later proofs kept overlaying their image outlines so that the rest of the image field would cover up one end of some of the paragraphs which meant that there were whole sections of text where you had to sort of guess what it was trying to say.

I don’t want to seem too judge-y. It’s an easy thing to miss, in general, but proofreading/editing should have happened. I would have thought that if you had a well-written serious tome about public health hazards from the past, the least you could do would be to check for that novice error. (Maybe it was an intern. It’s intern season…) 😉

If I had been Dobson, I would have been disappointed in the final product (if she ever saw it): her research, her words, probably her collection of illustrations – and then there is that?

That aside, the book did have some lovely qualities: glossy pages, plenty of high-res graphics, loads of historical ephemera and lots of intriguing sidebars with fascinating bits and pieces about whatever disease was the topic for that section.

Ghoulish but fascinating. Highly recommended.

Just FYI: Other medical history (or medical-related) reads for JOMP include:

Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers – Mary Dobson (2007)

Now, there is a dismal solitude… shops are shut… people rare, very few walk about… and there is a deep silence in almost every place. If any voice can be heard, it is the groans of the dying, and the funeral knell of them that are ready to be carried to their graves.

Thomas Vincent, describing the Great Plague of London, 1665-1666.

Seeing as we are in the midst of this current pandemic, what better time (thought I) than to read more about other diseases that have occurred throughout history. So, shopping my TBR shelves, I found this book…

This title was written by Mary Dobson, a medical historian who was director of the Wellcombe Unit for the History of Medicine and a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. (Thus, she knows her facts and there are a lot of them. She’s also, pleasingly, a very good writer.) 

As the book’s subtitle tells you, the contents cover health emergencies over the years, ranging from syphilis to schistosomiasis (due to parasitic worms in tropical aquatic snails) to SARS and bird flu. 

It was really interesting to read that Dobson, a scholar of medical history, also mentions the then-current widespread concern for another modern flu pandemic, perhaps from animal vectors (and this was when the book was published in 2007, 13 years ago).  And yet the Orange Goblin disbanded the U.S. Pandemic Taskforce last year since “we didn’t need it anymore.” <smh>

[Aside: I am so curious to read the not-yet-published NF account of this particular current-day pandemic. You know there are gonna be a few titles out there that will cover it.]

Back to the book: the chapters are divided into Bacterial Diseases, Parasitic Diseases, Viral Diseases and Lifestyle Diseases, and each chapter (and disease) goes into depth (including pretty detailed timelines) to cover the basic history of the topic for that section. It was absolutely fascinating for me.

Since I am a medical history nerd, I thought it might be best to approach this using bullet points. Here we go: 

  • Quarantines first started when the Black Death arrived at a Venetian colony called Ragusa. The inhabitants detained travelers from an infected nearby island for thirty days (or trente giorni). This time period proved not quite long enough so they increased the time period to forty days (or quaranti giorni) – thus, the word “quarantine”. Now you know… 😉 
  • Speaking of plague, you may remember that 17th-century physicians had the wearing-a-mask activity and social-distancing down to a science… They would also stuff herbs down the beak to help cover up the smell of rotting flesh. (See pic below.) Luckily, we don’t need that just yet. 🙂
  • Another word-related random fact: stethoscope. Invented in 1816 by French physician Réné Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826), who had been embarrassed when treating a young overweight woman patient. He had wanted to listen to her heart but didn’t want to put his ear directly against her chest, so he rolled up a tube of newspaper and bingo – the start of a new medical instrument. (“Stethos” is Greek for “chest”, and “skopein” means “to look at”.) 
  • And OMG. I was thoroughly grossed out by the discussion of human worm infestations. One rather ethically-dubious experiment concerns two criminals who had been both condemned to death in the mid-19th-century. A researcher called Friedreich Küchenmeister fed the prisoners some pig meat with worm larvae inside it, and once the men had been put to death, scientists recovered adult tapeworms from their innards, one measuring 1.5m (or about 5ft) long. Euuugh.  (One good thing about worms: they have potential to treat human illness as a form of biotherapy, but you’d have to (heavily) sedate me long-term for that procedure if the worms are alive when they’re put in me.) 
  • The word “vaccination” originates from Latin “vacca” (which means the word for “cow”). Pasteur gave the procedure that name in honor of earlier researcher, Edward Jenner (1749-1823) who came up the idea of inoculating healthy people with cowpox to give them immunity to the more virulent and fatal smallpox, a big problem at the time. 
  • Speaking of smallpox, why is it called “small” pox? Possibly to differentiate it from syphilis, another disease with pustules and called the “great pox”. 

And there is more really interesting info, naturally, in this read but I don’t want to wear out my welcome with you. (You might not be quite so taken with medical history as I am!) 🙂

So – expect Part Two in an upcoming blog post, and in case you’re not sure, I really enjoyed this particular read! 

One of the 17th-century physicians wearing the plague-avoidance outfit of the time. Not such a far remove from the mask and glove requirements of the current day. 😉

Reading Catchup

I’ve been reading quite a bit since the COVID thing started (although not as much as I had anticipated seeing as I have all this time available), but the pace is picking up (in between jigsaws!), and I’m planning on reading more now that school is finished and the grades are in. Phew. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve read a mix of books, a couple of them really excellent and one just meh, but all of them off the TBR. (Go me.)

The “just meh” one was “Home Life One”, the first of four volumes and a collection of newspaper columns from an English journo (?) named Alice Thomas Ellis. (See top pic.) She wrote columns on domestic life, I suppose you’d call it, and they were published in The Spectator, a British magazine that runs conservative (I think). 

I must have read someone somewhere online praising these offerings and rushed out to order it, but the columns didn’t seem to hit the same high notes for me. I think some of this was because I just worked my way through the collection, one after the other, and I now doubt the wisdom of reading the book that way since it all got pretty same-y after a while. Maybe I should remember that next time I choose a similar book. The content was also a little dated (but that’s hardly the author’s fault!) Moving on…

The good reads: a Canadian novel called “Birdie” by Tracey Lindberg (2015). Selected as a 2016 CANADA READS title, I picked this book up on a trip to Vancouver last year as one written by an aboriginal native author. This was a really good read, although it covers some heavy-duty topics as part of the plot: sexual abuse, mental illness, native rights… 

Kudos to the author, though, as this book reads smoothly and although the characters (one in particular) undergoes some hellish experiences, it’s written in a manner that it’s not too much for you as a reader (although it might be triggering for some people). Good book; off the TBR; native author about native characters: win-win-win. 

(Plus – look at the fantastic artwork on the cover: It’s a detail from Modern Girl, Traditional Mind Set by George Littlechild (2010), an author/artist of the Cree Nation, same as Lindberg.)

The other excellent read was just a cheapie bargain book from the sales shelves at B&N (when it was open), but despite the price, it was soooo good (if you like this sort of thing). I’m going to do a more thorough review in the next few days as I’d like to chat about it more in-depth, but suffice to say, I loved it. Stay tuned.

And then a good friend of mine happened to ask me to be an early reader for her second novel – which I loved. If anyone is an agent (or knows one), please let me know. I’d love to hook my writing friend up with someone who knows what they’re doing in the publishing world. Other people need to read her work – it’s good!!

And naturally – jigsaws! 😃

Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975)

I’m not entirely sure where I first heard of this title (someone out there in Blogland), but whoever you are/were – thank you! This was a surprisingly good emotive read – and ended up being much more than I had initially thought it was going to be. 

Written as an epistolary novel (be still my heart), this wry but thoughtful narrative features alternating diary entries from two middle-aged Londoners, one divorced, one who “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian”, but both leading pretty lonely lives. (It’s rather Muriel Spark-like in some ways.)

The overlap between these two characters occurs at the aquarium at London Zoo with the turtle enclosure. Although visiting at different times, William G. (the divorced person) and Neaera both have the same idea of freeing the trapped turtles in their too-small cage and it’s this, along with other overlaps, that leads them to come into contact with each other. 

It’s not a simple love story though (although at first blush, it might read as though it’s being set up like that). It’s also not completely filled with middle-aged glumness and angst. (It has some good humor in places.) It’s actually much more complex and layered so what, at first, reads like a fairly straightforward read actually ends up giving you lots to think about. Kudos to Hoban to not taking the easy route with this plot. 

William, now divorced (although why remains a mystery), works in a bookshop and lives in a slightly rundown boarding house. The divorce has meant he has lost his house, his mortgage, daily access to his children, and now he is forced to share a bathroom and a tiny kitchen with his irksome (but distant) housemates. Neaera, OTOH, is a successful children’s book author and illustrator although faced with a serious writer’s block at the moment. Both can be a little prickly and difficult, but there’s enough cheer to make it believable. 

The free-the-turtle plan, although hatched independently from each other, is the point at which these two people interact but through Hoban’s use of diary entries, the reader can see how each person has his/her own reasons for this idea. Generally, both feel trapped in their own lives as well, so it’s a metaphorical idea of freedom at the same time. 

The writing itself is reflective of its times (the mid-1970s) so there was a patch in the middle when I thought I was going to stop reading the book (Gendered expectations. Hippy groups that simulate your own birth! Gaaah.) However, soldier on and you’ll find that the remainder of the narrative picks up again and maintains its pace until you turn that last page with a sigh of satisfaction at both a solidly good read and a big unexpected twist which saves the plot from stereotype. 

Overall, this ended up being a really thoughtful read and I’m glad that I tracked it down. Thanks again to whoever it was who first mentioned it. I’d never heard of it but it was a worthwhile use of time. (It’s been republished by the NYRB back in 2013 so it might be easier to find for you. I found an earlier edition at a book sale.) And interestingly, it’s also come out as a 1985 British film of the same name.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo (2019)

The Booker Prize winning title for 2019, Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Women, Other was an excellent and enjoyable read. Although somewhat complex in scope, the book is made up of short stories, each focused on a British woman of African descent, some related to each other and others not but all with an overlap to someone.

(It’s actually quite a complicated set up, but someone has put together a diagram of how each of the characters related to another, if that helps. It would have been helpful if I’d found this during the read. I’ll try to dig it up online for you… )

So there are twelve characters of a variety of ages and backgrounds. As a reviewer on MookesandGripes writes: each of the four main stories introduces the reader to one of four key figures, and then goes on to introduce the reader to two more key characters associated with each of those four already mentioned.

I hadn’t known about this pattern before I had finished the read, but I do think it would be helpful to keep it mind. I had picked up that different stories mentioned characters who had previously been mentioned, but you do have to keep your wits around to keep track of who was whom with whom. It’s a good book if you don’t – Evaristo is a good writer for certain. It’s just that when you see these interlinking pieces, it elevates the novel to a higher level of appreciation (or at least it did with me).

Another interesting characteristic of the novel is that Evaristo chose to write each of the stories using non-standard English (re: grammar) so there are no full-stops/periods. It’s fine – you get used to it – and I’m wondering if she made that choice to give the book more of a stream-of-consciousness feel. It does feel as though you’re privy to the character’s own private thoughts as Evaristo recounts their narratives in this style.

It’s a strongly feminist book and takes pains (although it’s done seamlessly) to be as inclusive as possible in terms of who each of these female characters represent, socioeconomically, sexually, gender identity, professionally, etc. However, regardless of the demographics given for each character, Evaristo has managed to make each a believable character for me. There was no “checking off a list” feel to the book, in terms of representatives from each of the particular groups. Each was presented “as is” and not “other”ed (re: the title). It was really smoothly written and organized with the message of inclusivity woven throughout the story as opposed to being layered obviously on top.

So, there were lots of things that I really enjoyed about this book, not least the way that Evaristo has managed to eerily and accurately reproduce the exact dialect (and a lot of the vocab) that people in my town had used when I lived there growing up. It was like hanging out with my English friends (in terms of conversational style) and it made the read very convincing for me. Every time I opened up the book, I was typically sucked in to the narrative and didn’t come up to the surface until a suitable breaking point in the structure.

You know, I’m not always in agreement with the judges of the Booker Prize each year but I’m definitely supportive of this year’s selection. Congratulations to the author. To the readers who haven’t read it yet: get thee to a bookstore or library and fix that situation. Prepare to put some focused time and effort into the read and it will repay you many times over.

See here for a review of Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman. (LOVED it.)

Persephone Giveaway Time (U.S. Focus)

Hello, fellow bookies!

In the joy of (almost) getting my grades completed, I thought I would celebrate by offering one of you a free copy of a Persephone volume, “Hostages to Fortune” by Elizabeth Cambridge (1933).

I haven’t had time to put a blog review about this read, but suffice it to say, it’s a Persephone and it’s a good fiction read. (Find out more about the book at the Persephone site here.)

Just let me know in the comments if you’d like to enter the drawing to win this particular copy. I’ll probably draw a name on Wednesday of this week (so 12/11). It’s a brand new book, one owner (me), one read through (me), so it’s in good shape.

The only caveat is that the winner will need to have a U.S. mailing address. (Sorry, rest-of-the-world!)

Bon chance!

Swabbing the Decks – End of Summer Edition

swab_decksWell, classes on campus start this week which means that summer is now dusted and over, at least in terms of (no) job responsibilities etc. The really hot temps are going to be around for at least another two months (if not more), and the weather forecasters warned this morning of temperatures around 106 and 109 this week. Crikey. That’s a bit too hot for me. (ETA (later the same day): It was up to 115 degrees in my car today. Wah.)

Still, I’m ready for school to start and to get back into that routine. I really enjoyed the summer though and wouldn’t turn down a few more days of doing-not-much if it was offered to me! We have a week or so of school, then it’s Labor Day and then we’re back into the academic calendar for realz.

Seeing as it’s going to be sooooo hot this week outside, I foresee quite a lot of staying inside the house in the AC, so perhaps a jigsaw puzzle may be in order over the next day or two. I have a couple in the cupboard that I could finish and I haven’t done a puzzle for quite some time.

This semester, I’m scheduled to teach the same class but this time only having the lecture class. (So me talking to about 60 students about the topic). In previous years, I’ve typically had a lab as well as the lecture, which means that I get 20 of those 60 students mentioned above, but in a smaller computer classroom with lots of one-on-one time and lots of grading. But – no lab for me means no grading which means more extra time which is a nice unforeseen bonus. What to do with the extra time…? 🙂

Reading-wise, I seem to be over the lassitude of late summer (and fatigue from summer school) and now I’m reading up a storm. (Reviews to come.) I’d like to start picking up some more POC reads. Since the demise of Toni Morrison, perhaps I should read one of her titles? Haven’t read her for quite some time. (In case you’re curious, here are my thoughts on Sula, Beloved, and Jazz…)

Movies? We saw the latest Tarantino one – “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” which is a slow-burning movie but pretty good overall. Tomorrow, I think we’re off to see the British movie, “Blinded by the Light” which has 90 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Curiously, the movie is also set in 1980s Luton, a small town close to where I grew up in England and a town where nothing much ever seemed to happen. Despite that, this year I’ve read a fiction book set there (The Thrill of it All) and now this movie… Who knows what will happen to that metropolis in the future? The world is its oyster, right now.  🙂

Hit the back-to-school sales for some new back-to-work clothing, but it’s far too hot to wear anything that is remotely related to autumnal sartorial choices. Right now – we’re probably going to hit the outside pool this weekend. (Wear your sunscreen, folks. A free PSA for you.)

Hope your seasonal changes are going smoothly as well!

Pandora’s Daughters: The Secret History of Independent Women – Jane Robinson (2002)

“I cannot but… condemn the great negligence of Parents, in letting the fertile ground of their Daughters lie fallow, yet send the barren Noddles of their sons to the University, where they stay for no other purpose than to fill their empty Sconces and make a noise in the country…”

Hannah Wooley, Gentlewomen’s Companion (1675). 

Plucked from the TBR pile (go me!), this turned out to be a really interesting nonfiction read covering some of history’s notable women, both famous and not-so-famous, mainly U.K. and a few in the Colonies. Going back as far 25 centuries ago (!), Robinson compiles some of the names and lives of women who have worked hard to have careers (both honest and otherwise) in the name of survival (for many) and independence (for all). 

Robinson’s introduction posits the idea that, for many readers of today, the idea of female entrepreneurs and business people seems only to have really emerged and flourished during the age of Queen Victoria, but using solid research (including many first-person accounts), the author demonstrates women have been running innovative businesses for much longer than that. 

And it’s a fascinating read… Seriously. I’ve done quite a bit of reading of women’s history over the years, but this book introduced me to loads of impressive and new-to-me women, so perhaps they’ll be some new people for you to meet as well. 

The list of business women of whom Robinson makes mention includes those in a wide range of occupations, from engineers and surgeons to plumbers and pirates to an Orcadian wind-seller and a Royal Marine. The breadth of career choices would make any high school careers counsellor go into conniptions with joy, and it’s extra-amazing when it’s put into its historical context. 

 Since there were just so many interesting women about whom I learned, I thought it would work better if I gave you guys a list of just some of these fascinating people: 

JOAN DANT (c. 1631-1715) , Quaker, widow of Spitalfields weaver. Peddler in hosiery and haberdashery. Started off selling door-to-door (with goods on her back in a box). Ended up building a significant import/export business based in London, Brussels and Paris. “I got it by the rich,” she said, “and I mean to leave it to the poor.” She did. 

CATHERINE DESHAYES DE MONVOISON (d. 1680) aka “la Voisin”. Professional poisoner who sold her arsenical potions (named “inheritance powders”) to jealous ladies of the court of Louis XIV. Instrumental in the rather too-convenient deaths of various husbands who stood in the way of King Louis and his various mistresses. Convicted as a witch and burned. 

And you just have to look up the AMAZING tale of Merry “Cutpurse” Moll (or properly called Mary Frith), born in Aldgate in 1584. Or APHRA BEHN, an early spy in England (or was she?…).

ANN BONNY AND MARY READ – early pirates on the open seas around Jamaica. Wore men’s clothing and fell in with notorious pirate “Calico Jack” and his sea-faring criminal spree. Ended up being convicted as pirates, the penalty of which was death by hanging. But, they both declared themselves pregnant (which gave them some immunity and time). Probably Mary died of child-fever in jail (prior to baby’s birth) and no one’s sure of what happened to co-pirate Ann. 

“…all women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgin, maid or widow, that shall from and after [this] ACT, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the Law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanour…” (1770 Statute against the perfidy of women (George III).  

Don’t forget England’s first (recorded) female soldier and marine, HANNAH SNELL in the eighteenth century who ended up on a sloop-man-of-war going to the East Indies to fight at various places (including the siege of Pondicherry where she received twelve wounds). She ended up dying on the boat after serving five years at sea, with no one knowing until her death that she was actually a woman. She’s in the Royal Museum of Marines in England. Go her!!

“A learned Women is thought to be a comet, that bodes mischief, when ever it appears. To offer to the World the liberal Education of Women is to deface the Image of God in Man, it will make Women so high, and men so low, like Fire in the House-top, it will set the whole world in a Flame…  (Mrs. Baathsua Makin (c. 1600-1676), An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673).

MARY SEACOLE: Seacole was a freed African slave/doctress who was living in Kingston, Jamaica, when this story starts. Married to a Scottish guy, the couple start to run a successful hotel on the island. She then ends up visiting relatives in England and then traveled the world exploring. As part of her travels, she learned about Florence Nightingale and her work at the front in Crimea. Seacole really wanted to work with Nightingale’s group, but Nightingale refused to interview her (for being a person of African descent), so looking for other options, Seacole arranged to find an investor who then enabled her to open a hotel in Balaclava (close to the battle front) where she not only hosted guests but also gained nursing skills for anyone who needed it, regardless of “sides”. Mary died in London, and her grave is still tended to and honored by the Jamaican Nurses’ Association I wonder where her grave is…?

Books to find for future reading:

  • Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave. Aphra Behn. 1688.
  • Emigration and Transportation – Caroline Chisholm. 1847.
  • The A.B.C. of Colonization – Caroline Chisholm. 1850. (Very intriguing as a historian document. Was it a kids’ book?)
  • A Lady’s Voyage Round the World – Ida Pfeiffer. 1852. 
  • Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands – Mary Seacole. 1854. 
  • Mariana Starke (1762-1838) pioneer of independent travel. Wrote Travels on the Continent – set template for travel guide books after that. 

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: