Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess – Sally Bedell Smith (1999)

diana.jpgSince there was a rather large English wedding that occurred the other day, my curiosity was triggered to learn more about one perspective of another former royal: Princess Diana.

(Especially after reading two of Bedell Smith’s other books: Prince Charles (good but no blog post for this one) and The Queen.)

(I know, I know… I’m English and typically we tend to rather roll our eyes with respect to the monarchy and the American obsession with them, but it was still an interesting read. Besides, loads of Americans frequently ask me (as the only English person they may know) to explain some of the finer points of this, so I was also just curious. I’m doing it for the people, man. 🙂 )

Bedell Smith is an American writer who is good at her craft and seems to approach her subjects with a pretty well researched and balanced perspective. They’re not academic tomes, to be sure, but they are readable and seem balanced for the most part. Sort of like an in-depth People magazine article of a kind.

So, this title was about the life and death of Princess Diana in respect of how she ended up marrying Charles and then all the drama that came with that. (And there was a LOT of drama.)

After reading this book, the feeling that I end up with is one of pity for everyone involved, really. (Keep in mind that I didn’t know any of the parties though… 🙂 )

And so it seems that most of the drama was actually created by Diana herself most of the time (at least according to this author). Diana seems to be mentally fragile for the majority of this book. Barely educated (no thanks to her parents) and then probably mentally ill on top of that.

If this book is true (and I don’t know that it’s not true, TBH), then the match between Charles and Diana was a mess from the beginning and then stayed that way throughout their lives. I think that the initial impression that many Americans had of Diana immediately after she died was that she was a golden and angelic woman who was stuck with a boring old codger, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

(Whether she was mentally ill or not, she does come across in this read as a particularly high-maintenance personality in a very unhappy relationship that probably should have never happened.)

Bedell Smith uses source after source to show the reader that Charles as not, perhaps, the evil monster that he was portrayed as in the 1990’s, and the end result was that he was just doing his best with a slightly unbalanced wife who he shouldn’t really have married.

I’m not sure what to think really, and since I don’t know them in any way, there’re probably few out there who really do know the events. This was certainly one perspective that doesn’t apologize for either of them in the end.

By sticking to her journalistic sources, Bedell Smith seems to give a fairly balanced view of this messy marriage and I have enjoyed the read.

If you like a fairly chatty tone to your non-fiction, but one that’s also supported by annotated facts and a large bibliography, you might like this author. It’s certainly not rocket science, but it’s still a pretty good read for when it’s hot outside and you don’t want to think too much about anything in particular.

So, not a bad read. Not a great read. Just somewhere down the middle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a really interesting story that is hard to believe. However, when you look at Queen Victoria’s personal history, you can see a pattern of behavior. Albert died quite young and Queen Victoria never really got over his death, wearing black mourning clothing every day until she died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll have to see.

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

Celia’s House – D. E. Stevenson (1943)

miCGYCEhFXfj911XXhSZ29gIn the library the other day, I found myself in the “S” section and cruising around, happened upon a D. E. Stevenson title, Celia’s House (1943). I’d been hoping for a Miss Buncle title or perhaps a Mrs. Tim Christie, but no dice on those. Instead, they did have this one and after having heard so many good things about Stevenson as an author, I took it home with me. Even more impressive: I picked it up the next day and then read it!

(You know how sometimes library books get shuttled home and then sit on a shelf for weeks unread until they need to go back, primarily because there’s little accountability for the books? No? Might just be me…!)

This title, Celia’s House, traces the history of a Scottish mansion through its owners via inheritance, and so the start of the novel introduces us to Celia, who’s actually an old lady by now. Celia is planning her will and decides that instead of the eldest son of her son inheriting the house (as would be more traditional in them days), she wants a not-yet born daughter called Celia to inherit the land.

This puts rather an onus onto the immediate family to actually go ahead and then produce this daughter, name her “Celia” (as the grandma expected), and then for this young Celia to grow up and get old enough to inherit. In the meantime, the old Celia dies,  and few others are told about the arrangement – neither the young Celia nor her elder brother (who would be the one more typically to inherit). And so, it’s a complete surprise to young Celia when she’s told at the end that she will inherit the mansion.

So, pretty basic story, pretty basic read, but saying that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it. I did, for the most part. It’s a quiet domestic mid-century-ish novel that was pretty fun and fast to read. The only parts where I had trouble (in terms of not rolling my eyes) was in the early part of the novel where Stevenson matches her narrative style with the talking style of an 11-year-old boy. (That was a bit painful, but it stopped after a while.)

So, pretty straightforward read and would be up your alley if you’re searching for a domestic not-very-demanding novel about a fairly upper class family and their manor house. Lovely descriptions of the Scottish scenery and an overall pleasant way to spend a summer’s afternoon and evening.

Sometimes fluff is enough! 🙂

 

 

Whotcha reading?

61NR514KCRL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_So, although there is some significant messing around in my schedule right now, I’m also doing plenty of reading (naturally), and when I don’t have my nose working through the reading-through-the-whole-AP-style-book project, I’ve also been reading some fun stuff as well.

I tackled Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience (Chandra Prasad, ed.) another collection of short stories, this time from the perspective of living a multiracial experience, and this was pretty good. It seemed a stronger collection than my earlier short story experience, and it was so interesting (to me) that the one common concern for the authors in this collection was the life-long question of identity. If one is of a multiracial family, where does one really belong? It seems to be a very frequent and real challenge for people who have different parents from different ethnicity groups, primarily because (I think) people feel like they have to pick “sides” in terms of a racial identity.

So, some great stories in this collection from writers with all kinds of backgrounds, POC and otherwise. I enjoyed this read.

51RcFw8xmTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I did a fast (and very funny) read of Nina Stibbe’s novel, A Man at the Helm (2014). Such a hilarious book, primarily because the author seems to have lived a lot of the same experiences as I had as a child, and so she cracks me up. I’ve enjoyed her other book, Love Nina (2013), a fiction (?) collection of letters that she sent to her parents when she was doing her first nanny job, and there’s one more fiction title out there somewhere that I’m going to track down. I just love Stibbe’s writing. (Ooh. Just found another  title (An Almost Perfect Christmas (2017)…) I’ll add it to the list…)

I tried to read Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise but wow. It was so confusing, and even though I got about halfway through the book, I still hadn’t the foggiest idea who some of the characters were, so I admitted defeat. Strange as I’ve loved Morrison’s other work: Sula (1973), Beloved (1987), and Jazz (1992), but there you go. Can’t have a home run every time.  (Actually, this title (Paradise) was the last title in the Beloved trilogy (consisting of Beloved, Jazz and Paradise), so I’m not quite sure why I found it to be so confusing… It might have been my Monkey Mind to blame.  🙂 )

And then, non-fiction-wise, I’m close to finishing By the Lake of Sleeping Children, a non-fiction read of work by Luis Alberto Urrea (whose work I tend to adore as can be seen here (review of The Devil’s Highway [NF 2004], here (review of Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexico Border) [NF 1993} and here (review of novel Into the Beautiful North [F 2009]). This particular title is about the time Urrea spent getting to know the people (and the society) who end up living in this huge rubbish dump on the border of Mexico and the U.S. near San Diego.

Stuck between two different countries and with no way out, Urrea shows how hard their lives can be, as well as how they can find some small joy throughout their time. It’s an astonishing read as you know these folks have the same goals of life as anyone else: good health, worthy employment, happy relationships but how to achieve those goals when you are the poorest of the poor? What would be your escape?

The good thing about Urrea’s writing is that he doesn’t write down about these families, and he doesn’t pity them. He treats everyone with equal respect and although their lives may be very very hard, there is no sentimental approach to his descriptions of their day-to-day activities. It’s very neutral and balanced, and I really appreciated that.

So that’s the summer so far… I hope you’re having an awesome summer as well. 🙂

Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s been a while since I’ve had the need to do a “swabbing the decks” kind of post, but it’s come around again. This type of post is just for me to catch up with some of the titles that I’ve been, the titles that perhaps don’t really warrant an individual post of their own. It doesn’t mean that these particular titles are not good. Au contraire. Most of the time, it’s because the books haven’t triggered any great thoughts or debate for me, but they are still good all the same.

I’ve just finished two quick but enjoyable reads of a couple of the Miss Read books, Friends of Thrush Green (1987) and The School at Thrush Green (1991). I do enjoy these rather mellow narratives where the most vexing thing is usually that the tea was luke-warm and perhaps a newcomer arrives in the village.

They’re just enjoyable chillaxing kinda books and ideal for very hot days (as we have been having) where you’re taken over by lassitude and end-of-the-semester fatigue and don’t really want to think that hard. I don’t know if I could plough through all the Miss Read novels one after the other, but as a refresher between books, they work a treat.

TV-wise, we’re finishing up the latest season of “Better Call Saul”, the spin-off of “Breaking Bad”, which we have loved. It’s probably going to lead to us re-watching the “Breaking Bad” series now that we have learned this prior (and parallel) storyline. So good…

The big thing is what to read next? The eternal question for any reader….

 

Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson (1972)

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(Apologize for the earlier distribution which had no text in the post. I’m not sure what happened, but trust me, it had the text when I pushed the publish button.)

Not having read that many Australian reads, I was mooching around for some Aussie titles the other day and came across a mention of Jessica Anderson’s novella “Tirra Lirra by the River” on Eva’s blog, A Striped Armchair (now not updated but still a fascinating source of info).

This title has been on several “Best Novels” lists from various sources and was awarded the Miles Franklin Award when it was published back in 1972. And, in fact, I think it’s quite commonly read by high schoolers for their English curricula. (Poor things. I wouldn’t consider teenagers to be the best target audience for this type of narrative.)

The protagonist is Nora Porteous who is, TBH, one of the more unlikeable characters that I’ve come across in quite some time. I was looking for a fairly optimistic domestic novel, but I wouldn’t call this one “cheerful”. It’s a domestic novel that focuses on one woman’s life, but cheerful it ain’t (cf: back to unlikeable character mention). 🙂

Nora has a rather stifling existence when she is a young married wife. Her husband is yucky, and she is not attracted to him at all which leads to sexual dysfunction which leads to more problems. Unable to sort them out, the unhappy couple divorce and Nora leaves Sydney bound for a new life in England by herself and on her own terms.

Now at seventy, Nora decides to leave England where she’s been living for thirty years or so, and returns to her hometown, gets pneumonia, and then is nursed back to health by some compassionate neighbors who remembered her from her early days in the ‘hood.

So, there’s not a ton of “action” in this novel, and some reviewers have said that “not much happens” which is spot-on if you’re looking at the external piece of this novel. But it’s very much an “interior” novel based on a character’s ideas, memories and perceptions more than the physical moving around. (Nora spends most of the second half of the book lying in bed sick… so not a lot of action on the outside.)

But you know. Nora is not easy to like. She’s rather a grumpy old sod, and she has come back with the idea that her childhood home will be an easy fit for her, despite her age. However, as with anything fraught with the dangers of memory and nostalgia, it’s a mixed bag for her. Things have changed, and yet they are still similar, but Nora is now a completely new person from just getting older and living in a different country.

She’s been fairly content in England, living with two friends and earning a living of a kind by being a seamstress. She’s no good at the cutting out” piece of sewing, where one cuts out the pattern with scissors and requires detail and accuracy. I’m trying to think of how this might be a mirror of something in her life: perhaps her ragged edges of the material reflect the uneven edges of her foggy memory? Not too sure though.

The whole of this novel is based around memory and how one can remember events in one’s life through different lenses that evolve over time. Maybe it’s linked with the metaphor of “stitching” the different memories together to create a new and different picture…?

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Jessica Anderson, author.

What’s actually more interesting to me is the author Jessica Anderson. In 1972, when Anderson was awarded the Miles Franklin Award, most of the previous awardees — up until then — had been male authors. Australian fiction was rather dominated by males, and so in 1972, Helen Garner (Monkey Grip) was awarded the National Book Council Award and when Anderson received her recognition, it seemed to mark a turning point for the industry. (It was also slap-bang in the emergence/continuation of feminism as well for Commonwealth countries, and so the occasion seemed to mark the turning of the tide.)

In addition to both writers being Australian women, the protagonists in each book are also called Nora (what are the odds, right?), but as I haven’t read the Garner book, I’m wondering if her Nora also goes through the bloom of independence in the way that Anderson’s Nora does. (Anyone know?)

Anderson herself seems to have her life on her terms. Born in 1916 in rural Queensland, she seems to have chosen to live as she chose, and not necessarily as that of societal conventions and mores. Like Nora, she traveled to England at the start of her adult life, and lived with her partner, a man, without getting married. (Shock! Horror!)

She returned at the start of WWII to Australia and started writing “commercial” stories for magazines under an assumed name. (Wonder what “commercial” stories are/were?) She also separated from her partner, and only during her second marriage did she feel secure enough (artistically and financially speaking) to write in an “art for art’s sake” fashion (instead of what would sell). (Perhaps that is what is meant by “commercial stories” – stories that she wrote that sold which may not have really been what she wanted to write seriously?)

When I first starting writing this and after having finished the read, my overall opinion was that it wasn’t one of the best reads I’ve had this year. However, now that I’ve put some more thought into this, it’s certainly a novel that encourages you to delve into it deeper, and perhaps this is why so many Australian schools put it on the curriculum? It does seem to lend itself very well to further ideas once you’ve finished reading it. (At least for me.)

As a side note, the title is a line taken from the old poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shallot, but as I’m not that familiar with the poem, I can’t say whether I can see the link to the actual plot (apart from Nora’s frequent mentions of Camelot?)

Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers – Shyam Selvadurai (ed.) (2005)

book416After having fully immersed myself in authors and writing by African-American writers during February, I thought it would be fun to continue reading other POC authors and writings from around the world, so browsing through the TBR shelves (go me!), I came across this title and thought it would fit the bill perfectly.

I’m not sure where I ended up hearing about this title, but the stickers on the book lend credence to the fact that it’s probably used as a textbook in a world literature class somewhere or other, and regardless, this was great fun to read.

As the whole book title reads, Story-Wallah: A Celebration of South Asian Fiction, this was an anthology of writings and authors from Southern Asia and featured a wide range of writers from the well-known (such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith) to the slightly less well-known (at least to me). They were all originally written in English (I think) and all fiction, and the range of the short stories was quite astounding. I loved it. It was like eating candy in a pick-n-mix as you (I) never really knew what was coming once I’d finished a story. There wasn’t a bad one in the whole anthology, and I adored almost every page that I read.

As Shyam Selvadurai writes in his introduction, “The stories jostle up against each other . . . The effect is a marvelous cacophony that reminds me of . . . one of those South Asian bazaars, a bargaining, carnival-like milieu. The goods on sale in this instance being stories hawked by story-traders: story-wallahs.”

Edited by Selvadurai, it’s a perfect read for a monkey mind (comme moi right now), and I thoroughly enjoyed almost every story, even taking notes of a few favorite authors to dig into at a later date as their included short stories were so strong.

Authors ranged from locales across the Southern Asia diaspora, from Sri Lanka, India, Great Britain, USA, Trinidad, Fiji and others, and explored (as GoodReads says) universal themes of identify, culture and home. I fairly gobbled this read down, and am going to keep it on the shelves for another read at another time. Yes, it was that good.

Naturally, some authors were more favorite than others (as is typical in a wide-sweeping anthology), and I made notes to make sure that I track down more work by Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Farida Karodia, Hanif Kureishi, and Shani Mootoo, but there are loads more from which to choose.

It’s a big book (>400 pages), but it’s extremely readable and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Highly recommended in almost every metric. 🙂

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(Above) – This is what is generally accepted as Southern Asia, but the book travels more widely than this…

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch – Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

book412Since we’d just finished watching the latest season of The Crown TV series, I decided that I was interested in learning more about Her Majesty (HM)* QE2, and having had an enjoyable read of a biography about Prince Charles (same author), followed it up with this bio of his famous mother.

Sally Bedell Smith is an American author who has a penchant for writing biographies of royalty, whether that is monarchy-related royalty (such as the Queen) or Camelot-related royalty (such as JFK et al.) This author can write very readable books and does so in a breezy rather People-magazine-like manner, so I think if you know that this is fairly superficial coverage of a very private and elite world, then you’ll be squared away. It’s not, however, a very heavy fact-based book, but Smith doesn’t claim otherwise really.

So this title covers the life of Queen Elizabeth II (or Lillibet, as the Queen Mother would call her) up until 2012, and the one word that jumps out at me after having read this now would be “dutiful”. Smith does a thorough job covering how QE2 has grown up, inherited the throne when she was a young 21-year old, and she seems to do a pretty decent writing job with the limited public information that the Palace office releases. (Obvs, no F2F interviews with the royal family.) (All the info seems to come from secondary sources, and thus the People magazine comparison.)

The Queen is portrayed as playing a huge role in continuity and consistency, whether complications arise from within her family or outside in the world at large. My own take on the Royal Family is that they are a link over the centuries in the history of the UK, and although they may be expensive to keep and house, they are also interesting in their right, acting as a strong lure for tourists from around the world. From this read, it was interesting to see how hard (some of) the family actually work in the Firm (the nickname for themselves), and although I can see the attraction of being a princess, it’s also a gilded cage in a lot of respects.

This read is obviously pro-monarchy, and does seem to be rather full of speculation rather than fact in places, but if you remember that the book is just a biographical take on a very private but public figure through an American author’s worshipful lens, you’ll get on ok with this. It’s not academic; it doesn’t break any new ground; there are no surprises in this, but it’s also quite a good read (despite all those caveats).

What I liked most about this biography was that it was also a useful primer for some of the history of England during the twentieth century. Despite growing up in England, I still had some huge gaps in my historical knowledge wrt prime ministers, Princess Margaret, politics, and other topics, and I found that this was a pretty useful history book (albeit in a sycophantic and superficial manner).

As I think about this, this title was (and is) tailored to the American market (myself included since I live here), and through that lens, it does what it says on the tin, simplistic though it may be. It’s a good birds-eye view of the world of QE2 and the people who surround her, and it was helpful to me to be able to put more context on some of the larger monarchical events that have happened during my lifetime.

However, I think it’s important to remember that this is more of a celebrity biography than anything, and perhaps is more of a taster of the life of HM than anything else. Despite the shallow depth, this was still an enjoyable read, and I think that it’s scratched that “The Crown” itch for a while, and opened several rabbit holes down which to chase.

Now I’m going to peruse the shelves to see what else I can find to read from the TBR pile.

  • So I did have Her Royal Highness (HRH) here, but that wasn’t actually correct. QE2 is referred to as Her Majesty (HM) as there is no one in the family who has a higher position that she does.

The Making of Home – Judith Flanders (2014)

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I’m always really curious about the social history of places and times: how did people live then? Under what conditions? What did they do each day, and what did their houses look like?

With that said, it’s little wonder that I really enjoyed a recent read of historian Judith Flanders’ work called The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How our Houses Became our Homes which covers exactly that topic, huge as it is.

Flanders is a social historian with several titles to her credit, including Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (see review here), The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (see review here), and one or two in the TBR pile (The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London). Obviously, I enjoy her writing and what she has to say…

The idea that “home” is a special place, a separate place, a place where we can be our true selves, is too obvious to us today that we barely pause to think about it. But… “home” is a relatively new concept.

As usual, this book is so chock-full of interesting (to me) points, I ended up with a bullet list of curious facts, so hopefully, that will work for you.

  • The concept of having a “chairman/woman” on a committee or in a company stems from the fact that early in history, furniture was really expensive and out of reach for many families. If they did have enough disposable income to buy something, they might only have the cash to buy one chair (instead of a set).* Thus, if you review early paintings of domestic settings (such as in the seventeenth century), you may notice that a family may only have one chair in the room. As this was typically the father’s or husband’s place (since he was considered the most important person in the group), he got to sit in the chair. Thus, the chairman. 🙂
  • Bedding was a huge chunk of a family’s budget when starting out. For a family in the 18th century, there are records that show they paid more than a quarter of their total household income for bedding and furniture, so it was a huge investment for the average family.
  • Beds usually only had flour sacks of hay (or straw) as the mattress, and families sometimes put up to five flour sacks of hay on top of each other to give more padding. (I’m wondering if this is where the origin of the Princess and the Pea fairy tale came from…)
  • Families were all up on the latest household fashions. For example, pendulum clocks were invented in 1657. Two decades after that, almost no Dutch families owned a similar clock. Four decades after its invention, nine out of ten families owned one. And thus the world turns…
  • In 1727 in Bath, it was quite common for a middle class family to own a table, cooking pots, and a mirror, but curiously, the great majority of these same households didn’t own a cup or even knives and forks.
  • For middle class pioneer families in the US during this same time, they lagged behind their British counterparts in terms of household goods: it was very common for pioneer families out west to live in a similar fashion to the lifestyle of English families one century earlier. (Couldn’t exactly go shopping very often and didn’t have much disposable income.)
  • The history of cups and saucers: When tea was first imported to UK, the Chinese style of tea-cup with no handle was fine for how the tea was served (lukewarm). However, when the Brits started to like their tea really hot (as now), the previously handle-free cups were unsuitable and thus, handles were added to the cup. When Brits started adding milk to the tea, there was a need for a bigger cup, and when sugar came into the pic, tea drinkers needed a small spoon to put the sugar into the drink, so thus teaspoons. Teaspoons led to saucers, as a place to rest your spoon whilst you drank your tea. Huh.
  • In the Middle Ages, guests were expected to bring their own knives and forks (instead of the hosting family providing them). They were considered as personal items. Knives were originally round-ended, and thus one could not spear your food to eat it. Instead, forks were developed to spear your food once you’d cut it with your knife. Most middle class people just ate with a knife and a spoon which they would bring with them when they traveled.
  • The British Navy refused to accept use of forks until 1897.
  • Seventeenth century England houses commonly only had one fireplace in one room, and heat was seen as a luxury more than a necessity. (What were they thinking? Have you been to England in December and January? Brrrr.)

And there’s so much more, that if this type of social history whets your whistle, I think that you’ll like Flanders and her work. Plus – the bibliography is lengthy and I added quite a few new titles to my ever-expanding TBR list.

Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed this read, and now I’m very grateful for central heating. 🙂

* When Superhero and I were young marrieds, we only had enough money to buy a dining room table. (We didn’t have enough to buy the matching chairs, so for quite a few months, we only had two non-matching dining table director’s chairs.) The next Christmas, we saved up and got the matching set. Baby steps, amirite?

Added for reference:

If you like this sort of book, here are some other domestic/social history books that I’ve read in case you’re looking to add to the ol’ TBR pile. (Obvs, I like Flanders!):

Minaret – Leila Aboulela (2005)

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When I was scanning a few book blogs the other day, I came across Minaret (Leila Aboulela) and picked it up from the library a few days later. I was intrigued by the topic, it was fairly short (matches my current summer levels of concentration), and it fit in well with my current focus on reading more POC authors. So, I picked it up last weekend, and then finished it on Sunday evening. (Quick read indeed.)

Aboulela is a Sudanese author, and this fictional narrative traces the spiritual (and literal) journey of Najwa, a Sudanese woman whose family is caught up in a big corruption government scandal, leading to them living in forced exile in London.

It’s an interesting story, but for some reason, I wasn’t too taken with it. Was it the writing? (It’s written in a very simplistic manner, but I’m not sure why that was the case. The protagonist was not a simple person, and her life was not straight-forward. Perhaps the simple style is used as a foil to reflect the complexity of her life? Not sure.)

Anyway, few contractions, few complex sentence structures, and pretty bare-bones descriptions… Not usually a big fan of that style, but I kept reading… (The reviews were so awesome, I thought that I was missing something, and perhaps this would all clear up by the end of the book…)

As the reader follows Najwa’s journey, both geographical and otherwise, we learn that she is a middle-aged woman whose rather coddled lifestyle is changed overnight when she is forced to move to England in exile, and live a life of servanthood for the other Sudanese ex-pats who are more wealthy.

This come-down is hard to take at first (naturally), but as the book progresses, Najwa learns how to live this new life. It’s helped by her attraction to the Islamic faith, although she was secular whilst she was in Sudan.

As the book progresses, readers follow her as she becomes a more religious and more devout Muslim woman. Interestingly, she ends up by the close of the story as being much more religiously conservative than she was at the start of the book. I think other reviewers have loved this title as it shows a woman becoming more focused on becoming a strict Muslim, and perhaps this is more typically depicted as a male journey? Not sure, but a lot of great reviews were blurbed on the cover. However, I was not quite as taken for a number of reasons, really.

First, there were some obvious proofreading errors which someone should have caught before it went to print (e.g. repeated or missing words etc.). With so much electronic editing help that is available now, there are few excuses to let this go to print without revisions. It became annoying after a while and was a distraction from the plot. (The author also goes on and on and on about how much the protagonist loves Boney M’s music. OK. We get it. Sigh.)

Second, the protagonist has some strange relationships with people. At first, I put this down to her forced relocation and the new culture and general life disruption, but then, as the story progresses, she ends up falling in love (sort of) with a nineteen year old son of her boss’ family, a young man who is decades younger than she is and who is a lot more radicalized than she is. Of course, problems arise…

I don’t know. It all got a bit confusing with regard to who is who and how they fit into the structure, so that, at times, I just gave an impatient sigh and then checked with a heavy heart how many more pages until the end…

Add to that the fact that the novel plays with time, and you’ve got one lost reader.

So – it wasn’t that great a read for me in the end (in case you haven’t picked that up yet!). I think that some of the reviewers were tripping over themselves to like this book for politically correct reasons, because I ended up with quite a different opinion at the end.

So, just an OK read for me in the end. Meh.