Non-Fiction, Reviews

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley (2017)

I bought my copy of Jane Austen at Home while on holiday in Devon, when I ran out of reading material (first time in my life that I only packed one book, silly me). I ended up reading it mostly after the holiday, but starting it in picturesque Devon only added to my joy at reading such a lovely book.

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For lovely it is. Lucy Worsley has a wonderfully easy writing style that is great to read, with her personality coming through nicely at certain points, though not overpoweringly. Her academic background means that she covers her subject comprehensively, as well as proclaiming herself a ‘Janeite’ and including all the small details of Jane Austen’s life that make this book so enjoyable.

I have long been a fan of Austen’s novels, but knew relatively little about her life before reading Jane Austen at Home – so it was wonderful to learn more about her. One thing I particularly liked was the way the Worsley related events and circumstances in Jane’s life to similar examples in her novels. This was peppered throughout, always reminding us of Jane’s work and its roots in social realism. We see that Jane was a keen observer of life and preserved so much of it in her work; but also that she put quite a lot of herself and those closest to her into her characters, and this only serves to make them more real and relatable. As a lover of Persuasion, I adored exploring how Jane’s own experiences and feelings informed her creation of Anne Elliot, and her story.

The premise of the book, and the reason for at Home in the title, is that Worsley sets out to tell Jane’s story through the places she lived, “[showing] us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her.” This is wonderfully executed as we follow Jane through her various homes (there were many), as well as her visits to relatives and holidays to the coast.

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Jane’s first home, Steventon Rectory (image: janeausten.co.uk)

Worsley also explores the importance of home to women of the Georgian period more generally, using Jane as a starting point but also using the examples of her friends and relatives. Unmarried women like Jane had no real control over where they lived and were at the mercy of their male relatives, and so they made their homes their own through the small spaces they could claim. Jane shared a bedroom with her sister Cassandra, and in some homes they also had their own little drawing room, which Jane seems to have really cherished. Worsley also explores how women would express themselves through their home-based work, like crafts and music. Writing was of course a key way in which Jane expressed and asserted herself, in her novels but also in poems and letters. I loved Worsley’s examination of how important letter-writing was, not just as a means of communication and connection, but also as a way of really expressing the inner lives of the women who wrote them.

As Jane’s readers will know, she was excellent at what Worsley calls ‘double speak’ – saying one thing, that seemed rather plain, but really meaning something else, or something more, that was much more interesting. In this way Jane used her letters to express her real feelings and opinions that she might not feel able to say outright. Worsley highlights the fact that letters were often read aloud to the household, and one didn’t want something private shared openly, and so this double speak was used to imply hidden meanings. This all adds to the distinct impression that Jane and many of the women she knew were full of deep emotions and strong opinions that were hidden beneath their ‘perfect’ exteriors.

In relating Jane’s life to her novels, this book really shows how life was slowly changing and expanding for women in the Georgian and Regency eras. Worsley presents the time and context of Jane’s books, as well as the novels themselves, as a sort of stepping stone on the way to women’s emancipation and freedom. They depicted life as it really was, and showed readers that women were ready to take more power, to express and assert themselves, and to be heard.

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Jane’s portable writing desk (image: bl.co.uk, © British Library)

One particular strength in this book is Worsley’s dedication to dismantling the often negative preconceptions about Jane – that her life was ‘without consequence’, that she was an ‘old maid’, that she was boring and lived a boring life. Many of Jane’s relatives glossed over the more interesting parts of her story in their telling, and Worsley uncovers all of these inaccuracies. She demonstrates Jane’s sense of humour, irony, and sarcasm, and explores her love life over the years. Jane received several marriage proposals, and apparently loved to flirt at dances and parties – far from the image we sometimes get of an old spinster with no romantic prospects. Rather, we see that Jane simply did not want to marry someone she didn’t love; she wanted a home, a family, just like anyone else, but she was particular, and not willing to settle for someone who did not really make her happy. This is another reason I hugely admire Jane.

I really could waffle on about how much I love Jane Austen, and how much I loved this book. It is an exploration of her life, but also of women in her time, and their experiences. We learn about their domestic daily lives, their place in both the home and wider society, and the ways in which they took control. Jane Austen at Home really gives us a sense of Jane’s personality and her experience of life, and how this often directly influenced the novels that we love. For me, it is one of the best biographies I have read, and I shall recommend it to everyone. I only wish I could read it again for the first time; instead, I plan to visit Jane’s home at Chawton Cottage this weekend, where she wrote many of her books, and hope that I can follow in her footsteps.

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Jane’s penultimate home, Chawton Cottage, which is now the Jane Austen House Museum (image: visitwinchester.co.uk)

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First published in 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton. I read the 2018 Hodder paperback, pictured above.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor (2016)

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(image: goodreads.com)

I saw this book at a conference last year, and it sat on my reading list for months until I received it for my birthday in January. I was a bit apprehensive about reading it as I knew it wouldn’t exactly be a light read, and the paperback is 429 pages (not counting the appendix, notes, and bibliography). But once I had a copy myself, I knew I had to just go for it, which is often the best option for long or intimidating books (for me at least).

I have been keen to read more classics stuff outside of work (where I work on classics books), but wanted to avoid feeling like I was working, which is why I chose a non-academic book like this one. It is written by a professor, and published by a university, but it is not a textbook. In the introduction the author describes it as a sort of encyclopaedia, which sort of makes sense, though it reads like a biography or history. The encyclopaedic aspect comes through in the sheer volume of information and the huge amount and range of sources that are cited, from myth, history, and archaeology.

The latter is crucial to Mayor’s argument that there really were women who were like the mythical Amazons – equal to men in combat and status, riding horses, fighting and going out to battle, etc. Mayor carefully defines the difference between the Amazons of Greek myth, that we see in their art and literature, and real women across the ancient world who lived Amazon-like lives. The real women that Mayor discusses were from the lands north and east of Greece, covering what is now south-east Europe, parts of Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and over into Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. It is a huge area – hence the huge book.

Mayor assumes that her reader has a good base of knowledge about ancient Greek society and gender roles, and uses this as a starting point to compare the women of these various regions with women in Greece, as well as the Amazon women in Greek myths. Mayor points out that there are some classicists who theorise that the Amazons were purely something from Greek myth and not based on any real people – and she disputes this. There is plenty of historical and archaeological evidence for ‘warrior women’ in multiple tribes, peoples, and places throughout the regions mentioned, and Mayor catalogues many of this in detail. This cataloguing can get a bit overwhelming, but it’s worth the effort for the incredible stories of these warrior women and the lives they lead.

As someone who only studied classics up to A-Level, it was fascinating to learn about more of the ancient world outside of Greece and Rome. I loved hearing about these women who lived like men, rode into battle, and yet still formed families, had children, and lived full lives. Greece starts to look like the anomaly instead of the norm, with its women confined to the house for all their lives, never having any freedom or choice.

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(image: pinterest.com)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the consideration of how ancient Greek people, both men and women, would relate to the warrior women of the east – whether mythical or actual. The common mythical trope was that the Greek hero and the Amazon would be more or less equal in combat, their fighting charged with potential sexual tension, but ultimately the hero would overpower and kill the Amazon. The most famous (and earliest) piece of Greek art to feature an Amazon is Exekias’ vase showing Achilles and Penthesilea at the moment that they lock eyes and fall in love, exactly as his spear enters her chest and he kills her (see right). Penthesilea was a mythical Amazon queen who led her band of female warriors to Troy to help defend the city against the invading Greeks. They managed to kill plenty of soldiers until Achilles and his band of men attacked, and the women were all killed. The story was immortalised by Exekias, and the Greeks loved this interplay of sex and death on the battlefield, in the Greeks’ most famous victory over their eastern neighbours.

The Greeks seemed to have a weird fixation on Amazons as ‘wild’ women who must be overpowered by heroes; they held a certain fascination as both ‘manly’ and strangely alluring. Mayor details several Greek myths in which the sexual tension between the Greek hero and the Amazon is a very important factor, included in all versions. This fascination with Amazons meant they were included in huge amounts of ancient Greek art and literature.

Mayor argues that the Amazons of myth were based on real women encountered by ancient Greek travellers and historians, most famously Herodotus (I have just bought myself a copy of Tom Holland’s translation of his Histories). Having read her book, I completely agree with this. So many tribes throughout Scythia, the lands around the Black Sea, and over towards China, contained women who lived almost exactly like men – or who at least knew how to ride, shoot arrows, and fight to some degree – that it is impossible to refute the notion that mythical and legendary Amazons were based on real women.

The Amazons is a wonderful blend of mythical stories, histories, art, literature, and archaeology all being discussed and analysed, giving a broad overview of the lives of women outside Greece in the ancient world. While it is a dense and sometimes heavy-going book, it is also fascinating, engaging, and ultimately very rewarding. It is one of the most authoritative books I have read on the ancient world, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the lives of women in antiquity.

*

Published by Princeton University Press in 2014 (hardback) and 2016 (paperback). I read the paperback edition, pictured above.

 

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Articles, Non-Fiction

Things I Think I Could Write a Book About

I recently tweeted about this – apologies to any of my followers for the repetition here. It’s just that I have often, in my life, thought about writing a book. I used to want to write a novel, and actually managed to write one in my late teens, though I fear it is just over-emotional crap that should not see the light of day. I have it and several other unfinished pieces of fiction saved somewhere on my hard drive, and every now then I go and look at them wistfully, wishing I had been able to finish something. I also tried to write poetry, but that’s better left alone.

Last year, at my mother’s wedding reception, we were all a bit tipsy and I got into a conversation my with mother, aunt, and cousin about what a remarkable life my grandmother led and how her story could make a brilliant book – and my mother suggested I could write it. I admitted that I had thought of this before, but I had no idea how to approach it.

My first thought, after the hangover, was to do some background reading on where she grew up, namely India in the 30s and early 40s, at which point she came over to England with her English father and her siblings. But I failed to find any books about India in the 1940s before Partition, so the whole thing stalled (if anyone can recommend anything on that period I’d be very grateful!). I reckon I should also try to read about England at that time, to get more of an idea of what it would be like to move there as a very English, and yet not English, young woman. I know that Anglo-Indians faced prejudice both in India and England.

Anyway, my point is that I think there could be a book in my grandmother’s story. And that’s only my maternal grandmother – not my father’s mother, whose family had to flee Belgium in World War 2. That’s a whole other story, and one I know very little about. Perhaps I could just write a book about previous generations not passing on their amazing stories and how annoying this is for their children and grandchildren?

Here are my other possible topics, as mentioned on Twitter:

  • anxiety
  • dogs I have loved
  • divorce
  • mothers, both mine and other people’s
  • sex/lack thereof
  • my hair

Any takers?

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Articles, Comment, Non-Fiction

Things I’m reading that aren’t books

I read a lot of books, but I also read a lot of other stuff that doesn’t require quite so much concentration and/or time. A lot of this is book reviews and blog posts, but it varies. Here is what I have been reading recently:

Fern Riddell’s article on History Today – Sanitising the Suffragettes: Why is it so easy to forget an unsavoury aspect of Britain’s recent past? You can find Fern on Twitter here.

Speaking of suffragettes, I also liked Mary McGill’s article on Constance Markievicz over on The Pool.

I’m also enjoying the LARB’s review of 2017 in horror. My husband is really into horror and I’ve worked out what I do and do not like about the genre, and there is plenty that I love. Get Out was one such film, of course.

I’m keen to see The Alienist, whenever it is available in the UK, and will definitely be reading the book at some point. This article is pretty good.

Another big thing for me recently has been the new episodes of Star Trek: Discovery (so good!!). I’ve been reading a few things about the new developments, including these on io9 and Vulture (spoiler warning). Personally I still think it’s awesome, and still love Tilly and Stamets. And I still find it hilarious that Shazad Latif, who plays Ash Tyler, also played Clem Fandango in Toast. Reading-wise, it’s been the Wikipedia page for the series, as well as the Memory Alpha page.

I recently went to see Möngöl Hörde live for the first time (drove to Birmingham and back in one night), and it was awesome. It has got me back into their album, as well as Frank Turner’s back catalogue (he’s the singer!). I’m also refreshing Ticketmaster to try and get tickets to his upcoming tour… not a reading thing, but just a thing for me at the moment.

I am of course also reading a book at the moment, which is The Amazons: Live and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor – and I am loving it. I adored Classics at school and currently work on the Classics list at Routledge, so it’s a big thing for me. This is the first time in while that I have read a Classics book outside of work, and I love it. It’s technically an academic book given that Mayor is a Professor at Stanford, and it’s published by Princeton, but it’s still accessible and not presented as a textbook. Very pleased with myself for choosing it.

That’s me for now.

What are you reading, that may or may not be book?

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Fiction, Reviews

Re-reading: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1947)

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2009 Penguin paperback (image: goodreads.com)

I first read Alone in Berlin in 2011 just after I’d left university. I’d read a lot of books about the Second World War for a course at university, and my further reading (and time on Twitter) led me to this novel. It was only translated into English in 2009, so in 2011 it was still making quite an impact as a ‘new’ book in the UK, and everyone was talking about it. I read it without knowing much at all about the life of ordinary Germans during the war, or life in Berlin at the time. I had read mostly non-fiction about the war, survivor accounts like If This is a Man, and studies like Ordinary Men and Eichmann in Jerusalem, so this was a new side of the war for me.

I was impressed and somewhat overwhelmed by Alone in Berlin the first time I read it, though I’m not sure I fully appreciated it for what it was. Reading it in 2017 was a different experience. Since 2011 I have read a lot more about the war and have read about life in Berlin for ordinary people in non-fiction. I have also read a biography of Hans Fallada that was very illuminating about both him and the context in which Alone in Berlin was written; if you are interested in his fiction I would really recommend it. Fallada was deeply patriotic and refused to leave Germany during the war, even though his British publisher had made arrangements for him and his family to leave – he just couldn’t do it. He never joined the Nazi party and was therefore suspicious to his neighbours and Party officials – so much so that Goebbels himself tried to dictate his output (he was already a successful author and therefore well-known). He did the bare minimum to appease the tenacious Minister, and remained a private critic of the Party.

Alone in Berlin is based on the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who performed their own kind of civil disobedience to resist the Party. Their story was brought to Fallada by his friend Johannes Becher, who urged him to write about them – and Alone in Berlin was the result, written in only 24 days. Apparently Fallada was reluctant to take on the material, but once you read the book it’s clear he had a lot to pour into it – it is a rich and vivid novel filled with his resentments, anger, and sadness about the war years. The cast of characters features archetypes of Berlin at the time, covering Gestapo staff, petty criminals, terrified Jews, party members, beleaguered women, and those that just want to stay under that radar and get on with their lives – like Otto and Anna Quangel, the fictional versions of the Hampels.

Otto Quangel is a hard-working man, a foreman at a factory, hardened by years of work and with no belief in art or literature. He is described as having a birdlike face and a hard expression, and prefers silence to mindless chatter, even with his wife. He is uneducated, cautious, and set in his ways – and yet, he is the one to instigate his and Anna’s resistance. He decides to write anti-Nazi slogans on postcards and deposit them around the city for others to find. At first Anna is terrified of being caught, but her fear for Otto and her desire for a better life lead her to help him with the cards. Like the real life Hampels, the Quangels are depicted as simple working people with little education. They do not have the power or resources to form any kind of large-scale resistance, but their passion compels them to do what little they can. Their defiance is driven by the death of their only son on the Eastern Front. They realise that they must do something, however small.

The book features several supporting characters, mostly the Quangels’ neighbours in their apartment building. These include the Persicke family, increasingly led by their teenage son who becomes a zealous member of the Hitler Youth; the Jewish Frau Rosenthal, whose husband has already been ‘taken away’; an old judge who seems well-intentioned; Eva Kluge, the postwoman, and her layabout husband Enno; and Emil Borkhausen, the petty criminal who tries to play everyone at their own game. There is also Inspector Escherich, assigned to track down the writer of the cards once they become known to the Gestapo. He is a multi-layered character with his own arc within the novel, and is a brilliant example of those who were instruments of the Reich but grew to have their doubts.

As with other books about this time and place, there is a strong sense of desperation running throughout the book, and we go through extreme highs and lows with almost all of the characters. Safety, reputation, and life itself are often on a knife edge, millimetres away from either saviour or destruction. More than once Fallada perfectly demonstrates apparent randomness of whether one is caught or one escapes, whether life will continue as always, or whether everything will change. Nothing in Alone in Berlin is certain, and the effect is terrifying. It is an intense and vivid novel, and though the writing is sometimes a little clunky, perhaps due to the speed at which it was written, you are still completely sucked in and engaged with the story and the characters.

The fact that it’s based on a real story, and even the embellished parts are probably close to things that really happened, means that the saddest and most devastating parts of the novel are even more so, and the effect can be overwhelming. You are shown real suffering, real determination and defiance, real chance and luck, and how easy it can be to win or lose. As per the title, and as is said by Otto more than once, we are all alone in the end; but in a strange way, this can bring us together. Knowing that we are each alone means that we should show compassion for one another, we should know that no one’s life is easy, no matter their position.

I think this time around I had a greater understanding of what Fallada was trying to do with this novel – to show how easy it was to collude, or do nothing, or give in to authority and power. This can be seen in several characters, and particularly Inspector Escherich. Fallada also demonstrates that, like Otto the misanthrope, you don’t even have to like other people to see that everyone deserves to live and be free, and that everyone is equal. The afterword mentions the ‘banality of goodness’ on display in the novel, in contrast to the ‘banality of evil’ later explored by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (as well as others). Society in Berlin is so destroyed that basic goodness and decency have become rare. Knowing this also made me appreciate Fallada’s writing a bit more, though it is flawed. His tone is often very deadpan, nonchalant, understated, or even sarcastic when serious or sad things are being discussed; violence, death, cruelty, grief have all become so commonplace for the characters and the city that they do not require any special language.

When I reached the end of Alone in Berlin a second time, I wondered whether it can be considered a hopeful book. The answer is yes and no – even if evil wins sometimes, there are many more victories for goodness and compassion.

*

Originally published in Germany in 1947 as Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone); translated into English in 2009 and published by Melville House in the US, and Penguin in the UK. I read the 2009 Penguin paperback edition (pictured above).

A new film adaptation of Alone in Berlin, starring Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson, was made in 2016.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

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Fiction, Non-Fiction

Overdue update on Christmas and birthday books

As I said in my last post, life has rather gotten in the way of blogging over the last month or so (probably more than that), so I am only just getting around to organising posts I meant to write and publish a while ago…

First I must ask you to cast your mind back to the excitement of getting presents at Christmas, and then double it, because my birthday is just after Christmas and so I get lots of presents around that time. Not too bad.

I actually received fewer books than I expected to, seeing as I asked for quite a few, but I am so pleased with the ones I did get. And aren’t they pretty!thumb_img_9248_1024

These were all on my wish list apart from The Prose Factory, which was a pleasant surprise from my fiancé’s mother.  I’d never even heard of it but it looks fascinating so I’m looking forward to getting into it at some point.

I’ve just finished reading the book about Katherine Howard and have a blog post in the works. It has made me really want to read more about the women of the Tudor period, particularly Henry VIII’s other wives, as well as Elizabeth I and Mary. I am particularly keen on reading about my namesake as she has always held a certain mysterious magic for me and I would love to understand more about her life and reign, and her character.

I also asked for every Shirley Jackson book that I haven’t already got, and I am very pleased to now have Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales, especially as the latter is a very nice little hardback with a bright green back cover. I can’t wait to get back into more of Jackson’s eerie and wonderful short stories.

I asked for The Devil in the White City as it’s something I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. The book is set in 1893 and “tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the [Chicago World’s] Fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.” (quote from GoodReads). I think both these men have interesting stories, and it just sounds like a fascinating time. It also doesn’t hurt that H.H. Holmes was the inspiration for the character of J.P. March in American Horror Story: Hotel – and for the hotel itself.

My fiancé’s amazing brother and sister also got a set of Vintage Classics editions of Virginia Woolf, which was a lovely surprise.

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I’ve some of these but not all, and I’m very glad I get to read them in such lovely editions! I plan to start with A Room of One’s Own as I’ve never actually gotten around to reading it…

So there you go – lots of amazing reading to be getting on with. I did also get vouchers for Foyles so there may even more books soon, what a surprise!

Happy reading!

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm: A Reading Experience

More than one of my fellow reviewers on GoodReads wrote that reading this book is more than that – you ‘live it’ as well. It is an experience I will never forget. If This is a Woman took me ten days to read, which for me is a long time – but then it is 727 pages (I read the 2016 Abacus paperback). It’s long, but it needs to be long because of the sheer amount of information and individual stories that it tells; Sarah Helm is diligent and respectful, taking time to list names and tell people’s stories. I admire her for taking on the task of writing about Ravensbrück in such a way. She tells the life story of the camp, from its construction and opening in 1939 to its abandonment in 1945 – and its life beyond as a grave and a memorial. It was one of the longest-operating concentration camps in the network, and was significant for two reasons: it was only 56 miles north of Berlin; and it was built specifically to hold women. It was the only camp designated as such.

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2016 Abacus paperback edition

Sarah Helm posits that it was almost a special project for Heinrich Himmler. He ordered it to be created, and he sent very specific orders to his staff there. He visited quite regularly in the early days of the War because the camp was so close to Berlin, and he had organised for his mistress Hedwig Potthast to live nearby. The same doctor, Dr Karl Gebhardt,  who delivered their first child also ordered experiments to be carried out on Ravensbrück inmates.

The experiments are some of the worst things that happened inside the camp. A group of Polish women, and some French, were subjected to unnecessary surgeries on their legs during which bone and muscle was either cut or removed, and bacteria was introduced in the form of foreign objects. Some of them also had their legs injected with poisonous substances such as gangrene gas and petrol. The official reason for these experiments, ordered by Himmler, was to simulate battlefield wounds in order to work out how best to treat them. There was a debate around the drug sulfonamide and whether this could treat such wounds. Hitler’s personal doctor advised that it be given to Reinhard Heydrich after a bomb went off in his car, but Dr Gebhardt advised against it; and Heydrich died. Gebhardt was then ordered to experiment with the drug at Ravensbrück to ‘analyse’ its effectiveness.

The women who suffered through these experiments came to be known as the ‘rabbits’ of the camp, because they had been experimented on like animals. Reading Helm’s book, they were to me some of the bravest women of all in Ravensbrück. Once the experiments were over they lived in constant fear of being executed, as they were living proof of what the doctors has done and what Himmler had ordered. Some of them died whilst still in the camp hospital and some died later; but a large group survived and made a point of telling their stories. There is a brilliant article on them here that I would recommend reading – but I must warn there are also some unpleasant pictures.

The rabbits were telling their stories even while they were still in the camp. For a time they were able to send and receive care packages via the Red Cross and in these they hid letters to and from their families. The information in these letters made its way to a clandestine radio station in England that broadcast to the Polish underground; and the information was passed on from there is the Red Cross and various other parties (this is explored in detail in Part Three of Helm’s book). During the War the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was reluctant to do anything about reports they received of such atrocities, but the fact that the rabbits got the information out of the camp was instrumental in bringing their stories to light after the War. You can read more about the role of the ICRC during the War here.

It is easy to get caught up in the individual stories included in If This is a Woman, and there are so many; but Sarah Helm does an excellent job in making sure each gets their space and time, and I can only imagine how carefully she must have had to plan out the structure of the book to make sure everything was included and covered fairly. She conducted a wealth of original research, interviewing the women and visiting both the camp and the homes of those who were there. For years huge amounts of evidence and testimony were held behind the Iron Curtain, so it is only recently that a lot of these stories have come to light in the wider world, such as those of the ‘rabbits’.

If This is a Woman is an exhaustive account of Ravensbrück and the lives of those who were there – either as prisoners or guards. The last section of the book is dedicated to ‘what happened next’ and covers the fates of some of the most notorious SS staff at the camp, such as the commandant Fritz Suhren and the guard Dorothea Binz. The legal process is fascinating, but really the most interesting thing is the way the SS staff behaved once they left the camp, and during the trials. Helm states that when Binz was being led to the gallows she reportedly said “I hope you won’t think that we were all evil people.” You can read more about the female guards here.

The stories of how women were able to leave the camp, as well as where they went afterwards and what happened to them, are just as incredible as their time it. It is not just the events of the War that must be documented and commemorated, but what happened afterwards as well – these events changed the places and the people forever.

To do justice to this book I would have to write an article thousands of words long; so I hope this one will do for now. It is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. I hope that others will take on the task of reading If This is a Woman and will learn of these women and what happened to them, and what they went on to do. The book is a seminal work of World War Two literature and I would recommend it to anyone interested in that period. At last these stories can be told, and they should not be ignored or marginalised. At times the reading experience is hard-going, and often intense and incredibly sad, but the overall feeling is that of defiance and determination, and hope for the future. If This is a Woman made me proud to be a woman.

*

Published in 2015 and 2016 by Little, Brown and its imprint Abacus.

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman

I’d had this on my reading list for a while, and when I decided to sack off TBR 20 (we all knew it was coming – more in another blog post to come) I went to Waterstones in Oxford, and this was one the three books I bought (three! Such a delight. Lots of points for the loyalty card). I’d asked for this for Christmas but not received it, so it was the one I chose to read first. I tore through it over one weekend, getting completely lost in the post-Tudor world with its drama and… well, drama. These people were very dramatic.

I learned a lot about James I, which I enjoyed, and how he came to focus on witches and their prosecution during his reign. His mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, executed over an alleged plot to have Elizabeth I assassinated. Mary’s fate had a huge impact on her son, as expected, and according to Borman he had developed a dislike of women due to the combination of a mother demonised by society, and a queen who was intent on killing her. This, Borman states, contributed to his later suspicion of, and determination to eradicate, witches.

2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)

2014 edition (image: goodreads.com)

James’ negative feelings towards witches were intensified by the storms that prevented his fiancee Anne of Denmark to cross to England. He feared they were caused by treacherous witches, something that was confounded by his research in Denmark (he had gone to fetch Anne) about witches and their powers. He returned to England, newly wed and determined to rid his country of witches. In 1599, after the Berwick witch trials, he produced a book on the subject, Daemonologie, that proves a vital resource to Borman in his attitude, but also in the influence his opinions about witches had on the population. James’ influence is perhaps the best way to characterise his involvement in most of the witch hunting that went on during his reign. Though he was very enthusiastic about prosecuting witches at the start of his reign, his interest seems to have dwindled over time. Borman freely admits this, though it makes you wonder why he needed to be included in the title of the book – seeing that his book plays a bigger role in this story than he does.

This was the first little disappointment for me when reading Witches. The second was that the ‘conspiracy that has remained hidden for centuries’, mentioned on the back cover, isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s a long story, but the gist is: the Duke of Buckingham, one of James’ favourites, may have played a role in the death of the son of the Earl of Rutland, one of James’ friends, and blamed it on witches. This is all highly speculative, and really isn’t that big a plot point in the main story of the book, which is the trail and inevitable execution of the Flower sisters, the supposed witches who were accused of causing the death of the Earl’s first son, and later his second. Even though the second son died after they were executed. Anyway.

The story of the Flower women in undoubtedly fascinating, and demonstrates how witches were identified, their reputations tarnished somehow, and how people came to believe they were capable of dark magic. It is a terrible story of mass hysteria and injustice, as well as the ease with which those in power can take advantage of the vulnerable. It is a tale worth hearing, but given that Borman’s main source of information is a pamphlet about the trial, which was written after the event, it doesn’t really feel like enough material to fill a whole book. Simply it isn’t, and so Borman pads out the pages with theories about Buckingham and Rutland – in fact after the Flower women are executed the book devolves into a family melodrama, and the witchcraft now seems irrelevant to the story. It is a strange shift in tone and so late in the book it confirms the reader’s suspicion that Borman doesn’t really have enough of a solid line of plot. There is a lot of information in this book, but it is too crammed it with not enough time given to any one thing, and too much to things which are insubstantial, such as Buckingham’s story. As with the lack of James as the text progresses, this is not what I expected when I picked up Witches and started to read.

My point is that this book is a little rough around the edges. It is poorly structured, and the elements are not cohesive. The witches, and James’ fascination with them, provide great material, which is well told, but to me it seemed like Borman needed more time to pull everything together in order to create a book that worked as a whole. Witches works well in parts, but not all together. Which is a shame, because it could have been brilliant.

*

Published in 2013 by Jonathan Cape, and in 2014 by Vintage.

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