You are what you read

If you believe the above maxim, as I do, then I hope you may be interested in volunteering some of your time to contribute to a research project that I’m a part of. A group of other professionals and I have got together to research the curriculum content of what children are taught to see how gender stereotypes play out in the classroom. We are starting with finding out what novels and plays children are taught in secondary school English lessons in the UK, to see what balance of male and female voices are being taught. We suspected that there would be an imbalance, but from the research carried out so far, the results have been pretty shocking (you can see the results so far here). In some schools, between the ages of 11 and 16, children don’t read any whole text written by a woman. Out of the 70 or so schools we’ve researched, we haven’t found a single female playwright being taught in any year group. A lack of female voices, a lack of female perspectives, and a lack of female characters, all contribute to the perpetuation of the message that women are less important, their stories and experiences not worth hearing, and their talent less valued. Our curriculum in the UK is flexible, and many texts can be freely chosen by individual schools. The fact that most still choose to follow a narrow curriculum of largely white male authors suggests that there is a lot of work to do. But without the evidence, we can’t prove this is happening, and without being able to prove it’s happening, we can’t do anything about it.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about sexual harassment in schools and the need to tackle this through better sex and relationships education. But sexual harassment isn’t going to be solved by a few lessons on consent; sexual harassment is the symptom of a much deeper disease of misogyny and patriarchy that is deeply rooted in our societies. We can only begin to unpick and reconstruct attitudes towards gender if we rebuild what we learn about gender in the first place. Our eventual aim is to research every subject taught in schools, gather a group of subject specialists to look at redressing the gender balance in each subject area, and create new curriculum materials to enable a radical shakeup of the way in which children learn about men and women and their roles in the world around them.

But for now, we’re starting small, with English, as it’s much more measurable than other types of data and changing the texts being taught in the classroom is a quicker fix than changing the content of other subjects. In order to gather enough data for us to be able to prove (or indeed disprove!) our thesis, however, we need volunteers, and lots of them. There are over 3000 secondary schools in England, and we’d like to try and research the English curriculum in at least one third of them so that we have a statistically relevant sample. Researching a school only takes about ten minutes, so you don’t need to dedicate lots of time. If you believe that women’s voices need to be heard more prominently in schools, and that we need to break away from teaching the same old narrow field of male texts that perpetuate stereotypical patriarchal attitudes, then please do sign up to help us with our project. The website is here, where you can find out more and sign up. I’d be so grateful for your support!

The Half-Crown House by Helen Ashton

The premise of this wonderful, and inexplicably out of print, mid century novel is so far up my street I can’t believe I hadn’t come across it before last week. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of one day in the life of the Hornbeam family, as they prepare their minor stately home, Fountains Court, for the final open day of the summer, when locals and tourists are invited to take a tour of the state rooms for the price of half a crown.

Henrietta Hornbeam, 29, is the current family member with the responsibility of keeping the dilapidated house going, with precious little money or resource to do so. Despite being orphaned young, she and her beloved twin brother Harry (yes, twins called Henry and Henrietta – horrific!) spent an idyllic childhood in the house they both adored, but Harry’s death in WWII has knocked the life out of Henrietta and given her precious little enjoyment of anything. All that keeps her going is her responsibility to the house, but the strain of trying to maintain it is becoming almost too much to bear. The strain is eased somewhat by the emotional support of her distant cousin Charlie, who lives in the stable block and uses the grounds as a market garden, bringing in some much needed income. Having lost an arm and an eye in the war, and his wife and child to the Blitz, Charlie has gravitated back to the family home ostensibly to support Henrietta, but also to heal.

While Henrietta and Charlie are doing their best to keep things ticking over, Henrietta’s grandmother, old Lady Hornbeam, is upstairs in her bedroom, criticising everything they do. Spending most of her time reliving her glory days as a society beauty and reported mistress of Edward VII, she feels no guilt whatsoever at having been the one who frittered away most of the family money due to her lavish expenditure at the end of the nineteenth century. She is keen for Henrietta to marry the rich American who she bumped into in the local church at the beginning of the summer, and who is arriving on this final day of the season to potentially buy a valuable painting for a sum of money that would help the family enormously – but also, everyone suspects, propose to Henrietta. His money would solve a lot of problems, but can Henrietta leave Fountains Court, and does she really want to marry ‘her American’?

To add further complications, the last day of the season is also the day Harry’s posthumous child, nine year old Lord Victor, is coming to live at Fountains Court for the first time. His mother, a shop girl that Harry hastily married while on leave after getting her pregnant, has never been accepted into the family, and now she has remarried, Victor has been sent for to take up his inheritance. Henrietta must therefore manage an anxious child, her querulous grandmother, her American, and her own conflicting feelings for Charlie, all while appearing to be the graceful chatelaine for her visitors. However, an unexpected revelation from old Lady Hornbeam before the doors open for the day throws everything into chaos, and soon nothing will be the same for anyone again…

I loved everything about this novel. The history of the house is told through the interwoven stories of present and past Hornbeam family members, and the evocative descriptions of the architecture, decoration and objects that make up Fountains Court and its gardens are so beautifully written and well observed that I felt I was walking through the rooms as I read. I’ve not read a huge amount of immediately post-war novels, and I found it so poignant how Ashton draws with such an unsentimental and realistic pen the legacy of the war in so many ways; not just through the grief of losing loved ones, but also the resulting financial, social and lifestyle changes. The lure of America, largely untouched by the privations of war, looms large; there is an American air base almost on the doorstep of Fountains Court, and the wives posted there can’t stop complaining about how backward English homes are. The descriptions of a shining, modern America with its appliance-filled, centrally heated homes certainly throws into sharp relief the dilapidation of Fountains Court. And the visitors who turn up to pay their half crown don’t mince their words when they suggest that Fountains Court should be pulled down to make way for modern housing to benefit many more people than just one family – there is no longer a feeling that this kind of heritage should be respected and preserved, but more that there should no longer be a place for such extravagance in a post-war world.

The social critique embedded within the novel reminded me very much of Marghanita Laski’s The Village, which also looks at post-war life and the enormous societal changes that took place. Its a fascinating glimpse into so many facets of the period, but ultimately, it’s the depiction of the house and its evolution over time that is the star of the show. Helen Ashton has such a good eye for detail when it comes to the built environment – she also wrote the marvellous Bricks and Mortar, republished by Persephone Books, which is about an architect’s life, so she clearly had an affinity for the subject. I really can’t recommend The Half-Crown House highly enough. Second hand copies are readily available for not too much money – mine cost me £5. And it has the most stunning dustjacket – worth buying the novel for alone! Though I’m hoping soon someone will reprint it, as it very much deserves to reach a wider audience!

London’s Notable Women: Amelia Edwards

Amelia Edwards (1831-1892) was a remarkable woman with a great deal of energy, curiosity and a pioneering spirit. A true polymath, she began writing from a very young age, but she also showed great promise as an artist and musician. Writing, however, was where she largely focused her energies in the first decades of her life, with a range of prose and poetry being regularly published in the popular periodicals of the day, as well as several novels, which saw considerable success.

However, when she was orphaned at the age of 30, Amelia found herself freed from the responsibility of caring for her elderly parents and having to churn out a huge volume of writing in order to financially support them, and so was able to at last please herself. She had always dreamed of travelling, and in the early 1870s, she visited Italy and France with a female friend, publishing the well-received A Midsummer Ramble in the Dolomites (1873) upon her return. However, her real desire was to visit Egypt, and in 1873, she and her friend Lucy made their first trip to the country that was to go on to obsess Amelia for the rest of her life.

Amelia fell in love with Egypt’s beauty, but more than anything, she became fascinated by its history and the rich archaeology that was just beginning to be discovered. Witnessing the terrible desecration of many graves, the looting and destruction of artefacts and the illegal trade of grave goods by unscrupulous dealers made her determined to do something to ensure that Egypt’s archaeological history was protected from those who wished to use it merely to make money. Also, in an age of increasing development and tourism, Edwards saw that it was going to be necessary to take prompt action to ensure that Egypt’s precious monuments would be safely preserved for future generations to enjoy.

As such, Amelia founded the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882, in partnership with curators at the British Museum. Abandoning her other writing to devote herself entirely to the cause, she travelled far and wide to give talks, and wrote numerous articles and books to raise awareness of new archaeological finds and promote the need for the study and preservation of artefacts. Her efforts raised much of the money required for the Fund’s work, and it was thanks to her that a new generation of archaeologists were trained and supported to become the trailblazers of modern day Egyptology. Sadly Amelia found herself pushed out of the Egypt Exploration Fund towards the end of her life, with the growing professionalisation of archaeology making her female and amateur status considered unworthy of respect. Decisions were increasingly made without her, despite her campaigning work paying for much of the Fund’s activities, and though she continued to be actively involved, she no longer enjoyed the central role she had once held.

A broken arm during a lecture tour of America in 1890 weakened her health, and when her partner of thirty years, Ellen Drew Braysher, died in January 1892, Edwards was devastated. Just three months later she too died, of severe influenza, and was buried by the side of the woman she had shared most of her adult life with; their grave is now listed with English Heritage as a landmark in British LGBT history.

Though Edwards may have suffered from a lack of appreciation towards the end of her life, today she is very much recognised as being the ‘Godmother of Egyptology’. Her legacy lives on in the continued existence of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now known as the Egypt Exploration Society) and the Edwards Chair of Egyptology at University College London, the first paid academic position for the study of Egyptology in the UK, which she bequeathed the money for in her will. She launched the careers of many early Egyptologists, such as her dear friend Flinders Petrie (first Edwards Chair of Egyptology) and Howard Carter (of Tutankhamun fame), and ensured that, at a time when much irreparable damage could have been done to Egypt’s archaeological history, as much as possible was preserved for us to still marvel at today.

Amelia Edwards was a real trailblazer in so many aspects of her life, and yet she started out living in a dinky Georgian terrace just around the corner from my own flat. This is where her blue plaque now sits, on one of (in my opinion!) the loveliest streets in London, Wharton Street, which has the most spectacular cherry blossom trees that make it a real sight to see in the spring. Close to the hustle and bustle of King’s Cross and Bloomsbury, but tucked away amidst the Georgian squares of Clerkenwell, it’s just as tranquil now as it probably was in Edwards’ childhood, and every time I walk past, I like to imagine her sitting in the window, scribbling away, dreaming of Egypt.

Dramatic Reading

The National in lockdown

I didn’t realise how much I love the theatre until I couldn’t go anymore. I took it for granted that I could wander down to the National, the Old Vic and Young Vic, the Almeida and the Bridge, the Menier Chocolate Factory, The Globe, The Royal Court – whenever I wanted to. I’d often go mid-week, after work, grabbing cheap last minute tickets for the price of a seat in the cinema. I loved being immersed in that dark communal womb of wonder where the outside world falls away and you’re fully, utterly, breathlessly present for two precious hours. Watching another world come alive before your eyes, the product of a collaboration between so many artists, is a joy and a privilege, and witnessing it with a mass of unknown others, who, for those two hours, form a connection – become one with you – in that suspended moment of shared experience, is a form of genuine magic. But living in London, I was spoiled by how much choice there was of theatre to see, and I didn’t recognise it as a privilege to be able to watch one or two plays a week – it was just a given. Sometimes – sometimes I would book tickets and not even go! I’d be too tired after a day at work and think oh well, it doesn’t matter, I’ve got something else booked for next week – what I wouldn’t give for such nonchalance now. I truly didn’t appreciate what I had, and how precious my theatregoing experiences were. I also had no idea how empty my life would feel without that ability to immerse myself into an imaginary universe once per week. I only truly understood what the theatre meant to me when I walked down to the National Theatre in May, saw its blank-eyed facade devoid of any life, and burst into tears. I genuinely felt like I had lost a friend.

More time has passed in this strange state of limbo than I’m sure any of us could have imagined since coronavirus arrived on our doorsteps. We have had to adapt and adjust and accept our new reality, and in many ways, I feel this has been a good exercise in learning not to sweat the small stuff. It’s also been an excellent exercise in helping me to distil exactly what I value the most, and what I really could do without in my life. Understanding how much the theatre means to me has led me off down a path I never thought I’d tread; I’ve been writing plays myself, and am currently doing a playwriting class (online!), which I’m enjoying enormously. I’d never thought for a minute that I could possibly write a play – and I’m certainly no great shakes at it! – but I’m loving the experience of thinking like a playwright, and discussing plays from the perspective of a playwright, and sharing my passion for plays with people who also love the theatre. And, in order to fuel my creativity, and replace the void of theatre-going in my life, I’ve been reading plays, which is never something I’ve ever really done for pleasure. Obviously, as an English teacher, I read and teach plays all the time, but it had never occurred to me to read them for non-work purposes. After spending a few weeks immersed in plays, I’ve discovered how much I’ve been missing. Most plays take an hour or less to read, and the experience of reading them is intense and exhilarating. As a reader, you have to do so much more work with a play than you do with a novel – it’s up to you to fill in the silences, to interpret the stage directions, to imagine the staging. It is a real imaginative workout for the brain, and while it doesn’t replace seeing it come to life before my eyes, I’ve been on a wonderful journey through some of the best plays of the last few years. If you need to reboot your reading life, or are struggling with attention span at the moment, give a play a go. You might be surprised by just how much you enjoy it.

I’ve been galloping through the back catalogues of Noel Coward, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Brian Friel, Eugene O’Neill and Caryl Churchill, as well as exploring the work of some of the most interesting and challenging playwrights of the last ten to twenty years – Jez Butterworth, Laura Wade, Simon Stephens, Sarah Kane, Annie Baker. I’ve been looking at different translations of Ibsen and Chekhov and Brecht. One play often leads to another, one playwright to another, as I seek out more in a particular style, genre or period. It’s an education, and it’s certainly giving me a focus and a distraction during this latest lockdown. I am just loving it. If you’d like to have an explore of some playwrights outside of the big historical names, this publishing company, Nick Hern Books, is a great place to start.

And finally, my own sadness at the closure of theatres is nothing compared to the devastation felt by those who work in the theatre, a huge number of whom are freelancers and receive very little, if any, government support. If you can, please do support your local theatres – become a member, donate some money, or pay for some of the online streaming services the larger theatres, such as the National, are offering. The thought that theatres may not be able to reopen due to insolvency when this is all over is unbearable – the loss to our collective cultural life will be immeasurable. We must do what we can now to ensure our theatres have a future on the other side of this.

Books of 2020

If anything good can be said to have come out of 2020, it’s that I had more time to read. I made a concerted effort to read from my own shelves last year (though I did still buy and read plenty of new books, in the end – but when the only pleasure I was seemingly allowed for much of the year was going to a book shop, how could this have been helped?!), which has meant I’ve got around to reading a lot of stuff I’ve had knocking about for years. Some of these books I loved, some I didn’t, but either way, I enjoyed the experience of exploring my shelves, discovering new authors, and feeling the weight of guilt lift ever so slightly off my shoulders as I no longer had to look at shelf after shelf of unread books. I did have ambitious plans of reading literally all of my unread books, but obviously this was a laughable goal and very much did not happen. I did however make it through to L in the alphabet, which is pretty much half way, so not bad. I plan on continuing this project into 2021 – I’m scaling back on the new book buying (largely as I have run out of space, again) and really want to get through to the end of the alphabet. I’d also like to make more time for re-reading – I’m particularly hankering after revisiting all of my Dorothy Whipples.

So, what were my top 10 reads of 2020? Here goes (in order of reading, not rank order), and I hope they’ll give you some reading inspiration!

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

This is an absolutely fascinating exploration of the Jack the Ripper murders, taking a fresh look at such well-trodden ground by focusing on the lives of the female victims rather than their deaths or the possible identity of their murderer. By repositioning our gaze onto the women as people, and not as corpses, Rubenhold not only gives them back some dignity, but also produces a wonderful and absorbing piece of social history. Working class women’s lives are so little recorded in the history books; even if you have no interest in the Jack the Ripper story, this is worth reading for the many insights into nineteenth century working class women’s experiences alone.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

This is the book I’ve been lending out and buying for everyone I know this year. As I turned each page, my anger grew. Criado Perez’s forensic analysis of how the world is set up to favour men and discriminate against women, from minor annoyances (did you know that mobile phones are designed to fit the span of male hands, which is why so many women struggle to hold them comfortably?), to the downright dangerous (women and pregnant women are routinely excluded from medical trials, with men’s bodies used as a default, despite our numerous biological differences), is absorbingly written, factually sound, and scrupulously fair in its ability to understand and explain why these differences exist, rather than seeking to blame. If you need to prove to anyone who doesn’t want to listen that inequality is embedded into every area of our existence – then pass this book on. The more people who read it and make a fuss, the better!

Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

This was the last book I bought before we went into lockdown, and it’s what got me through those difficult first few weeks. Sophy Roberts is a remarkable woman, who carried out several journeys into the incredibly inhospitable Siberian landscape to search out the stories behind – and find the remnants of – the pianos brought to this region over the last couple of hundred years. Used by the Tsars and then the Communists as a penal colony, sparsely populated and seemingly on the edge of the universe, one would be forgiven for thinking that there couldn’t possibly have been any musical or cultural life in Siberia to discover. But you would be very wrong, as this wonderful book demonstrates. On her travels, Roberts is welcomed into so many homes and institutions by people desperate to tell the stories of pianos once loved, and through their tales of Siberian life, she – and we – learn so much about what music has meant, and still does mean, to Siberians. I loved every minute – how could I not love a book that combines two of my passions – pianos and Russian history – and it left me desperate to go and sledge my way across Siberia myself. Highly, highly recommended!

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

A work of total genius that had me weeping like a child at the end; a heartbreaking finale to what has been a remarkable series of books. If you’re not a Mantel fan, I know I won’t convince you otherwise, but if you’ve never started the Wolf Hall trilogy, and need distracting from the world and its weariness right now, then get stuck in now and thank me later!

The Sea Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I very much enjoyed discovering Elizabeth Jane Howard’s back catalogue this year, and this is the best of the bunch I read; a lyrical, evocative account of a very complicated love triangle set in 1960s New York, London and Greece, it’s worth reading for being transported so fully to another world alone, though the characterisation is also marvellous. I loved it!

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I’d had this forlornly sitting on my shelf for years, and wasn’t really sure why I’d ever bought it when I picked it up to read. What a pleasant surprise I discovered inside, when I realised how hilarious Isherwood is, and what a wonderful, perceptive and economical writer – with a fantastic ear for dialogue. Set in Berlin in the days leading up to Hitler’s rise to power, the menace in the air makes the city throb with nervous expectation, and British expat William Bradshaw finds his life taking a very strange turn when he bumps into fellow countryman Mr Norris on the train, who, as it turns out, isn’t quite the gentleman he seems…

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

I’d dismissed this Booker Prize winner as not being my cup of tea, until I gave it a go on a friend’s recommendation and found it utterly absorbing. An exploration of the interweaving lives of various different black women living in London across the decades of the mid 20th century to the present day, Evaristo creates a patchwork of vivid voices that opened my eyes to so many different female experiences outside of my own. There is so much richness in here, and it is so well written – it was definitely my fiction discovery of the year.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

I fell in love with Gloria Steinem after reading her wonderfully warm, generous and wise autobiography, in which she tells of the many lessons she has learned in her decades of travelling across the US to support women fighting for change within their communities. She tells of her childhood, of her experiences struggling to make a name for herself as a journalist in a male-dominated industry, of the many enriching friendships she has made throughout her life with inspiring women – and men – and of her discovery that her power is not in speaking, but in listening – because when people feel heard, that’s when they feel empowered. I’ve since gone on to read everything I can get my hands on by Steinem – she’s my heroine.

Summer by Ali Smith

I’d heard of the Ali Smith seasonal novels, but hadn’t given any of them a go until I saw the newly released Summer in a book shop in Scotland this summer. Written and published so quickly that it references the coronavirus pandemic, I felt strangely drawn to it despite knowing nothing about its contents. I devoured it over a couple of days, finding in this tale of interconnected modern lives, a voice that reflected my own thoughts and feelings in a rather uncanny way. When I finished reading, I felt buoyed up, purged, somehow, of my own negative emotions in knowing I was not alone – it was a wonderful experience. Smith is an incredibly clever, innovative writer, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work this year.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

This is a wonderful account of the lives of five remarkable women who lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square during the early part of the nineteenth century: famous novelists Virginia Woolf and Dorothy L Sayers, as well as now largely forgotten historian Eileen Power, classicist Jane Ellen Harrison and poet H.D. Rather than straightforward biography, Wade is interested in looking at what brought them to Mecklenburgh Square at different points in their professional and personal lives, and what living there, at the heart of Bloomsbury, meant to them. It’s an impressive piece of scholarship, though written in a pleasingly accessible way, and I discovered much I didn’t know, and would like to explore further. If you’re interested in women’s history, or the history of Bloomsbury, I know you’d love this.