Words new to me…

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

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

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

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

Pultaceous: having a soft consistency; pulpy.

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

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

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

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

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

Carious: decayed. 

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

De novo: starting from the beginning of something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 2018 reading review

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!

The reads for November included:

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in November4 (and a half)

Total number of pages read 1,818 pages (av. 303). (This is exactly the same number of pages that I read last month. Weird.) 

Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / 4 non-fiction.

Diversity0 POC. 2 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned book and e-book.

Future plans include reading more of the printed word and my students’ writing. 🙂 

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

“Her attitude towards herself was simply regal…”

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

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

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

To the facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some other Victoria-related reads, try:

The Vampyre – John William Polidori (1819)

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

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

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

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

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Dr. John Polidori.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoilers end here.

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

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

 

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.)

Queen_Victoria_and_Abdul_Karim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll have to see.

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

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

Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented – Thomas Hardy (1874)

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I started this read thinking that I hadn’t read it before, but in actuality, I’ve now read it twice, once in school about thirty years ago (but I have no hope of ever remembering that), and once a few years ago when I blogged about it on JOMP.  However, despite my gappy memory, I still enjoyed this read this time around, picking up on different aspects as I went through it again.

Hardy is not typically thought of as a “happy” read, but Tess is not too tragic – at least in my opinion. It’s not happy, that’s true – but I think if you view the narrative arc through the lens of a Victorian reader (especially a female middle class Victorian reader), Tess is certainly one of the more flawed characters, having a checkered less-than-spotless past.

At the same time, she is such a good person that, with modern eyes and a modern sensibility, it’s hard to see the objections that some readers in the nineteenth century came up with. (Sorry – ending with a preposition there.)  

Not much to say that hasn’t been reported before, did find this little nugget for you from Goodreads:

The term cliffhanger is considered to have originated with Thomas Hardy’s serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1873. In the novel, Hardy chose to leave one of his protagonists, Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock that has been dead for millions of years. This became the archetypal — and literal — cliff-hanger of Victorian prose.

Other Hardy reviews on JOMP are here:

Under the Greenwood Tree Thomas Hardy (1872)

Far From the Madding Crowd  Thomas Hardy (1874) (earlier review)

Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy (1891)

The Nether World – George Gissing (1889)

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The Nether World is a Victorian perspective on the underground world of those mired in poverty and for whom there is little to no way out of their precarious situations. It’s not a happy read at all, and in fact, it’s rather hard to keep going at times as the sheer grind of hopelessness and filth never ever ends. However, I imagine that this is a more realistic depiction of how life was for the Victorian underclass of London and other large cities. Dickens also covered these lives of the unlucky masses, but at least he would tip the scales every now and then with some levity. Gissing – not so much.

It’s also a tale of intrigue covering, as it does, the possibility of inherited wealth from an elderly man, but as immediate wealth tends to do, it leads to unhappiness for many of those who believe that they may be in line to receive it. The world that Gissing’s characters inhabit is unrelenting in its tough life for each of the characters; there is no future to look forward to, just the day-to-day needs of food, water, and a roof over your head, and despite how grinding these descriptions were, I think it was actually these pictures that pulls you as the reader into the lives of these unfortunate people. Most of the characters have not done anything to deserve these hard lives – it was just an unlucky twist of birth and geography that seems to have thrown the majority of the people into these situations.

Still, despite the oppressiveness of this lack of resources, families still stick together (not always happily), and most people work and continue to live their lives even if they do end up living at the bottom of the financial pile with few options to escape out of their worlds.

Gissing was a naturalistic writer (i.e. didn’t sugar-coat things and has a strong sense of location), and this is demonstrated by the way that the entire book is set in this dark poor world. No one escapes to the world of money. People dream of doing so, but their dreams end up thwarted, and I imagine that this POV echoes reality of the time: how does someone born into poverty escape it without getting money for education, useful work experience, knowing the right people? (Not so different from nowadays, one could argue…)

As a rather long book for me (404 pages), this title clearly falls into the Scary Big Book category but as I have learned to read huge-page-count projects on my ancient Kindle (as opposed to a physical copy), it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it might have been. (I tend to get rather intimidated by large page numbers – not by the content, just the numbers. Nutty, I know.) If I’m honest though, I must admit that the middle bit was rather b-o-r-i-n-g and the number of characters was a bit confusing at times. Uncertain whether to blame the author or me about that!

So – a rather glum read overall. I’ve read other Gissing’s (New Grub Street and The Odd Women), but I think I might be done with him now…

Catch Up Time

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Just wanted to do a catch-up post so that I could mention some things that I’ve been reading. These are still good reads, but just didn’t merit a huge detailed review of the experience. As I mentioned, they’re still good (for the most part).

The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide (2014)book366

Slightly strange slight novel about a young couple who live in a house where a neighborhood cat drops by with some regularity. As the (glacial) pace of the narrative continues, the couple become fond of their guest cat, but the whole thing is written with such surgical distance that it was rather difficult for me to become glued to the story. I’m not sure if it was me or the book, but this was a toughie to enjoy.

Leaf – Daishu Ma (2015)

book367A wordless graphic novel that has a narrative that’s very open to interpretation. The arc follows a young person who lives in a rather stark black and white world (illustrations are great, btw) where the only color comes from a few blue lights that stand out in the darkness. And then one day, he finds a large yellow glowing leaf and the remainder of the narrative is focused on trying to find out more about the leaf.

It’s a fairly simple message and yet so open to interpretation that the meaning could be different from one reader to the next. I’m on the edge about books with a message this diluted: does that narrative have enough meaning in the end or is the author/artist expecting the reader to do much (too much?) of the heavy lifting? It’s an interesting thought to pursue.

I’m probably making much more of it than it’s intended, but it would be interesting to read this and then hear how others from very different backgrounds (socio-economic, cultural, heritage, age) may interpret it. Is it a message similar to The Lorax (Seuss) or is it something else?

book363And I really enjoyed Oliver Twist, but didn’t have enough time in the end to get a proper post about it. However, don’t let that deter you. It’s a brick of a book (go me!) and is worth every page. I just adore Dickens’ writing and sense of humor.

And now I’m back at work which is a mixed bag of blessings: I enjoy it and yet it’s hard to beat three weeks of total messing around. But you know – at least I have a job I enjoy so if I do need to spend a lot of my time doing something, this ain’t too bad. 🙂

Aurora Floyd – M. E. Braddon (1863)

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Mary Elizabeth (M. E.) Braddon was a prolific writer (approx. 90 (!) books between 1860 and 1915) and her output consisted of plays, poetry, essays, novels and a number of literary magazines. She had also been an actress in her earlier days, an experience which is said to have helped with her sensation novels published later. (Both Lady Audley’s Secret [1862] and Aurora Floyd [1863] were wildly popular, so much so that certain groups were threatened by her writing and she was criticized as a “purveyor of immoral fiction.”)

Sensation novels were a literary trend in Victorian times usually characterized by mystery, strong passions and opinions (unseemly at the Victorian time) and intricate plotting, all of which are there in large quantities during Aurora Floyd. (See here for a review of her earlier novel, Lady Audley’s Secret.) If you know to expect over-the-top everything going in, it’s a great ride for the reader. It’s a roller coaster ride which speeds along and then ambles in places, but it’s always enjoyable.

The novel spins its tale of murder, intrigue and family over three volumes (at least in my Kindle copy) – this sounds long, but it’s a fast experience as a reader. It’s a fun tale of Gothic romance, incredible coincidences and massive amounts of overwriting, but it worked.

The plot involves the titular Aurora Floyd, the young beautiful daughter of a rich widower in northern England who married a ne’er-do-well husband in her early years, a decision that comes back to haunt her and that involves blackmail, secret-keeping, and loads of money. (You can just feel the frisson that was felt by well-bred Victorian ladies reading this behind their fans in the drawing room on a rainy Monday while their husbands checked the Stock Exchange numbers.)

Typical of sensation novels, Braddon runs a lot of different lines of plot throughout this read, but as each string is added one after another and then linked back, it’s surprisingly easy to keep track of who is doing what to whom. (“Dickensian” was the way that I’d describe this although this was much more Mills and Boon without delving into the hard-hitting social issues quite so much at all.)

ME Braddon in her younger years

I enjoyed it also as a look into the world of domestic life slap in the middle of Victorian times, for a look at rural vs city life, and also to see how slow and difficult murder investigations must have been before the inventions of cars, telephones, forensic evidence and the internet.*

It’s a fun read, and one that I kept returning to before, during, and after vacation, so it obviously kept my attention and interest. If you’re in the mood for anything Gothic, murder, fainting heroines, black mail, and dastardly husbands, you would probably enjoy this. It’s nothing too deep, but it’s a fun read and I recommend it.

(*Slightly relevant historical side note: The concept of professional police (as opposed to private paying for whoever was willing to do it) was officially introduced in England by Sir Robert Peel when he became Home Secretary in 1822. His work led to the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 which established a full-time professional and centrally-organized police force for greater London are known as Metropolitan Police. By the 1850’s, police forces were established nationally across England, Scotland and Wales.

Peel had this philosophy based on “The police are the public and the public are police” (or “policing by consent” as it’s known in UK circles). These “Peelian Principles”, as they are known and upon which an ethical police force are based, are as follows:

  • Every police officer should be issued an identification number to assure accountability for his/her actions
  • Whether the police are effective is not measured on the number of arrests, but on the lack of crime
  • Above all else, an effective authority figure knows trust and accountability are paramount (thus the idea of “policing through consent”)

(Interesting aside #1: UK police used to have a height requirement for all applicants: at least 5 ft. 10 inches until 1960. [Ah-ha: That’s why Dixon of Dock Green was so imposing…] This was not removed until 1990 when minimum height requirements were dropped. The shortest recorded UK police officer is PC Sue Day of Wiltshire Police at 4 ft. 10 inches.)

Well then. Now you know these things….

(One more slightly interesting aside #2, this time related to the book: There is a 1912 American silent movie of Aurora Floyd which was quickly followed by another US version in 1915. And if you were alive in 1863, you could have seen a stage version in London whilst BBC Radio 4 did a radio version with Colin Firth called A Cold Embrace in 2009 if anyone caught that. Luckily, no one has attempted to do a version only doing mime just yet.)

DixonofDockGreen (Above) This is Dixon, of the TV show “Dixon on Dock Green” which was on the BBC from 1955-1976 and featured the daily life at a London police station.