READING FROM MY SHELVES: FEBRUARY

Books started: 10

Books finished: 8

Books abandoned: 1

Books kept on the shelf: 7

Books bought: 4 (oops)

It’s been a bumper reading month, largely because I’ve been on half term for two weeks and had a nice long journey to Devon on the train so have had plenty of time to read. I have also bought quite a few books – but most of those were for school purposes, so I like to think they don’t count. And I read them all as soon as I bought them, so I’m at least not adding to the pile!

So, what did I read this month? Well, I finished Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women, which had been on my shelves since it came out last year. I’m sure many of you have heard of it; a shocking, data-based exploration of how the world is biased against women in pretty much every facet of day-to-day life, it’s a sobering, enlightening and inspiring read in that it sets out practical, unemotional ways forward for society. I’m sure many people have the impression that it’s a man-bashing polemic, and Criado Perez has received a lot of unbelievably vile abuse from men as a result of her work, but it really is a very measured, well researched and written account of how the world is built for men – often not out of any malice, but just out of a lack of thought – and she explores how this damages and restricts men’s lives as well as women’s. Anyone who cares about the world being a more equal place for everybody should read it. This one’s definitely staying on my shelf, as I know I’ll be lending it out frequently!

Next was a book I’ve had on my shelves for so many years I’m almost embarrassed to admit it; it was actually the first Virago Modern Classic I ever bought, when I was a teenager. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is one of my favourite middlebrow American novelists, and Her Son’s Wife is a very emotive and thought provoking tale of what happens when a widowed teacher, Mary Bascomb, who has put all of her love and hope into her only son, has to share her son and later granddaughter with his selfish and childish wife. I thought this would be a straightforward nightmare mother-in-law story, but it’s so much more than that, and the characters are drawn so fully and sympathetically that it’s difficult to decide who carries the most blame for the awful situation the characters eventually find themselves in. Fisher is, as always, at her best when describing the love between adults and children, and the devotion of Mary to her granddaughter (the hideously named Gladys – much to Mary’s horror) and her realisation of the damage her suffocating love has wrought on her son is powerfully and movingly drawn. She is also wonderful – as one would expect from one of the earliest advocates of the Montessori method – brilliant at describing Mary’s work as a teacher. Mary is an incredibly complex character – demanding and exacting of herself, she fails to see how her inflexibility pushes others from her – but at the same time, the reader cannot help but sympathise with the way her son and his wife use her. The book finishes on a note of ambiguity, and it’s certainly a story that will stay with me. However, I did feel it was a little overlong and overwrought in places, and as such, I haven’t kept it on my shelf – it’s been given to a friend who I know will enjoy it, and left space for something new to fill its place!

I very much enjoyed Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which has been languishing on my shelves since I bought it when I lived in New York, many moons ago. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by Willa Cather, and this is no exception; set in Virginia just before the Civil War, it looks at life on an estate where the proud mistress, Sapphira, becomes irrationally jealous of one of the slave girls, Nancy, and believes she is having an affair with her loyal, religious husband. She sets out to make Nancy’s life hell, to the point where her daughter, Rachel, has to resort to desperate measures to try and get Nancy out of her mother’s clutches. It is a beautifully written, wonderfully evocative novel that demonstrates Cather’s skill at bringing a place and its people to life. Nothing much happens, but it doesn’t need to; the characters are so life-like and the prose such a pleasure to read that I couldn’t bear to put it down. I’ll certainly be keeping this one, and I’m now half way through the final unread Cather on my shelf, Shadows on the Rock, which is quite the change of scene: 17th century Quebec!

The first new book I bought and read was Isabel Greenberg’s wonderful graphic novel, Glass Town, which brings to colourful life the juvenilia of the Bronte siblings, as well as telling the story of their lives. For fans of the Brontes, it’s a joyous read, with a lively, well written narrative and beautiful illustrations that imagine the kingdoms of Angria and Gondal.  For those who are yet to be introduced to the Brontes, it’s a marvellous introduction – I’ll definitely be using this at school! While on holiday in Devon last week, I picked up Lightning Mary by Anthea Simmons in the gift shop of the wonderful Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter – it’s a children’s book about Mary Anning, of the fossil collecting fame, who’s a bit of a local legend in East Devon. I thought it might be a good book to get my younger students to read, and I loved it, so I definitely will be recommending it to them – it’s got plenty of real history blended with a good plot and lively characters – perfect for 9-12 year old readers. In a charity shop in Exmouth, I also picked up a children’s book – Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. It’s a lovely old edition and I have had it recommended to me several times, so I thought, perhaps now is the time to read it! I whipped through it on a windy and wet afternoon in Devon, and I loved its time travelling narrative between twentieth century and sixteenth century Derbyshire, with Penelope Taverner finding herself drawn into a tragically doomed plot to save Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s another one I think my kids at school would love, so it was definitely worth picking up!

I also bought 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by art critic Jonathan Creary after seeing a wonderful exhibition inspired by his work at Somerset House (now finished, unfortunately), which looks at how capitalism is gradually eroding sleep from our lives as when we’re sleeping, we can’t be productive or exploited. The exhibition gave me much food for thought, but the book itself, while containing some pertinent comments about the ‘always on’ nature of our daily lives, and the ‘attention economy’ we’re all subjected to through the use of smart technology, it’s written in such an obtuse style I can’t be bothered to keep wading through it. I wish academics would learn to write in clear, comprehensible prose rather than a lot of pseudo-intellectual waffle. Perhaps then more people would read their research!

So, it’s been a productive reading month. I’m hoping to keep up the pace next month – though Hilary Mantel’s new novel coming out next week may slow me down – it’s almost 1000 pages long!

CULTURE: FEBRUARY

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It’s been a stormy month so far, and staying indoors has been a necessity to escape the seemingly endless wind and rain. Weather like this make me so grateful for living in London, where there’s always something interesting going on under cover, no matter what your interests. Museum-wise, I very much enjoyed the current exhibition at Two Temple Place, William Waldorf Astor’s intriguing house on the Embankment. They only ever mount one exhibition per year, and it’s always made up of loans from regional museums. I love this concept as it brings objects that would otherwise remain hidden from wider public view into the spotlight, and enables them to be placed within wider cultural, social and historical narratives. I’ve never been disappointed in a Two Temple Place exhibition since they opened around a decade ago, and Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles is no exception. It showcases collections of female textile enthusiasts from the nineteenth century to the present day, and not only are the textiles fascinating – from exotic dress to everyday costume, furnishing fabric designs to patchwork quilts – but the stories of these women’s lives – from nineteenth century spinster adventurers to twentieth century pioneers –  and the inspiration behind their passions are, too. I learnt a huge amount and so enjoyed the opportunity to get up close to some absolutely exquisite textiles. If you are in London from now until the end of April, I highly recommend it – and what’s more, it’s free!

Nora at the Young Vic was my theatre outing of the month – I absolutely loved this updated take on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. With three Noras – one from 1918, one from 1968, and one from 2018 – on stage all at the same time, and just one husband (which was a very difficult role to play, as he had to essentially play three people at once, and the actor, Luke Norris, did it very well indeed – Dr Enys of Poldark fame!), it explored how women’s experiences really haven’t changed all that much over the past one hundred years. I loved the use of choral techniques at various stages in the narrative to emphasise the links between the women, and the actresses did a marvellous job of expressing Nora’s strength alongside her desperation and vulnerability. The staging was sparse – which is my preference, as then the focus is all on the characters – and the short running time with no interval allowed for an emotional immersion in the story with no distractions or interruptions. There were quite a few gasps from the audience throughout – something I always love, as it shows how involved with the story everyone is becoming – and I left the theatre with plenty to ponder. It’s a real must-see, and there are plenty of tickets left – the run finishes at the end of March, so if you can make it, please do go!

Finally, when I was at the Barbican two weekends ago, I happened to see a poster for an upcoming concert – the world premiere of Max Richter‘s new piece, Voices. Max Richter is one of my absolute favourite contemporary composers, and hoping I hadn’t left it too late, I went straight online to try and book a ticket. I was enormously lucky to get one of the last ones, and I went on Monday night to listen to what was an absolutely transcendent, mesmerising and incredibly moving piece of music that is inspired by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Max Richter’s music always manages to speak to me in such a profound way, and I certainly wasn’t the only person in the audience who was moved to tears. Unfortunately it was only a two-night run, but it will be performed again in Paris in May if you happen to be around – the link is here. I’m quite tempted to book a trip so I can hear it again!

I’m off to see the new film version of Emma this afternoon – I’ve read mixed reviews and am intrigued to see what I make of it. Top marks are deserved – from what I can tell from the trailer – for the costumes, certainly, but as for the rest – hopefully I won’t be disappointed! If you’ve already seen it, what did you think?

London: Weekend Tourist

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It’s amazing how much you can miss of your surroundings when you live in a large city. I love the village feel of my neighbourhood, but it means I can get lazy of a weekend or evening. I have everything I need right on my doorstep, and so venturing farther afield has become a bit of a rarity, especially when the weather is cold and wet and spending too much time out of doors is an imposition. However, last weekend I decided it was time to spread my wings. Accompanied by a good friend, we went walking from Clerkenwell, where I live, down to the Barbican, which is a midcentury Brutalist development in the City of London that mixes residential property with a publicly accessible arts and cultural centre. It’s the home of the London Symphony Orchestra, houses a school and a university, the Museum of London (though not for much longer), a theatre, cinema, library, art gallery, lake and garden area, indoor conservatory garden, restaurants, bars…as well as hundreds of flats. It was designed as a mixed use community to encourage families to stay in the centre of what was then still a bomb-ravaged London rather than moving out to the suburbs, and though it is now more the preserve of well-to-do professionals and older couples than families, it still offers a fantastic oasis in the heart of the city. You can lounge around in the communal spaces and enjoy a coffee and a good book, sit on the terraces by the lake and watch the world go by, stroll through the conservatory garden (only on Sundays though) and catch an interesting film or exhibition. It’s a little like being on a university campus, and it’s a wonderful place to while away a few hours.

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Close to the Barbican is a cemetery I’ve never visited; hard to believe, seeing as it’s half an hour away from my flat, but I’d simply not ever had reason to walk past. I wanted to visit after a colleague mentioned it’s where William Blake is buried – I had no idea! – and so on our way, we popped in. Bunhill Fields is the burying place of several of our early literary greats, and has always been connected with nonconformists; Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan are here alongside Blake, and it’s a rather surreal experience to wander in this patch of consecrated ground filled with beautifully carved, largely 18th century gravestones, in amongst the high-rise flats and office blocks that have sprung up in the Old Street area in recent years. To protect the graves, they are all gated and locked, and you can only go up close with a registered guide, but it’s still well worth walking through to catch a glimpse of some of the impressive monuments. Opposite Bunhill Fields is John Wesley’s church, now a museum of Methodism, another site I hadn’t known was there: I have made a note to go back and visit another time.

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We meandered our way back up to Exmouth Market for brunch, passing as we went some interesting ghost signs on buildings, and seeing some marvellous examples of now repurposed Victorian architecture. We also stumbled across an old priory, the Order of St John, which has a beautiful crypt and garden to explore, squeezed in amongst modern flats and offices; it never ceases to amaze me how much history remains here, hiding in plain sight. I’ve lived in London almost all of my life, and yet this walk reminded me of how much I still don’t know about the city, and how many places I still have left to explore. You could spend a lifetime walking these streets and still only have scratched the surface. There are so many layers of history here, so many clues to the past left hidden in nooks and crannies, visible only if you know where to look. Just the other day, when going to run an errand to an office down a side street I’d not been to before by St Paul’s, I noticed for the first time a plaque pointing out where Thomas Becket (of Canterbury Cathedral martyrdom fame) had been born – I must have walked past that plaque hundreds of times and never seen it. I need to remember to keep my eyes open, and to take more detours. My final detour of my weekend walk was to take a roundabout way back to my flat, and I was surprised by the arrival of Spring in one of the Georgian garden squares behind my road. Clouds of delicate white blossom were covering the trees, and the grass was carpeted in daffodils. What a joy to find a sprinkling of the countryside in the heart of the city; I breathed in the sweetness and rejoiced at the thought that winter is almost over at last.

Review: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

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When I lived in East London, it was a common sight in the early evening to see hordes of people gathered outside the Ten Bells pub in Shoreditch, often dressed up in nineteenth century costume, preparing to go out on a Jack the Ripper walking tour. The pub itself, frequented by one of the victims on the night of her murder, holds a morbid fascination for many, who crowd into its authentically nineteenth century bar to experience a frisson of macabre pleasure at being a hair’s breadth from history. I have been on one of these tours myself; after studying detective fiction with my students a couple of years ago, they begged to go on a walking tour of Jack the Ripper’s London, and so, in the gloomy light of an autumn evening, we trod in his footsteps as we meandered our way through what was once a foetid warren of passages and alleys. These notoriously vile slums were the home of London’s destitute – the poor, the abandoned and the sick, all piled in together, spending their days doing whatever they could to scrabble together the pennies for a night’s lodging, and, if they failed to do so, finding a bed on the muck-encrusted pavement instead. Nowadays these streets are largely gone, razed to the ground by those seeking to stamp out vice at the end of the nineteenth century, or destroyed during the war. Now they house glass and steel skyscrapers, luxury apartment blocks, and hipster shops and restaurants. The Ripper certainly wouldn’t recognise this district any more, but despite the transformation of Shoreditch, his legend still haunts its streets. As we stood and listened to the description of the murders, the air became chill, the darkness more intense. Neither the comforting glow of the street lamps nor the anodyne modern architecture could lift the sense of unease I felt. Now, having read Hallie Rubenhold’s marvellous book about the victims of Jack the Ripper, I wonder whether part of that unease was the fact that I was taking part in an industry that treats the brutal murders of five women as mere light entertainment.

These women have become like the cardboard-cutout characters in an Agatha Christie novel – they are barely even registered as having been human, with lives of their own, that they didn’t deserve to lose. Is that because, as Rubenhold skilfully explores, that they have always been dismissed as ‘just prostitutes’? This categorisation has contributed to the belief – encouraged by contemporary newspaper accounts, and repeated ever since – that these women deserved their deaths. They were asking for it. They shouldn’t have been out on the streets at night. They only had themselves to blame. And so they have been forgotten, their names barely remembered – whereas their murderer – a man – enigmatic, mysterious, so clever he has never been discovered – has become a legend, someone even to be celebrated and revered. Rubenhold’s book is the first to redress this balance, placing the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper and their lives at the forefront of the story. Their murders are not even discussed, and Jack the Ripper’s name is barely mentioned; instead, this is an account of five ordinary lives, all of which are a fascinating study of how so many women in the nineteenth century lived on a knife-edge where one poor decision, one tragic loss, one period of illness, one missed rent payment, could send you plunging from a respectable existence into destitution, with no way back.

Annie Chapman lived a comfortable life with her husband and children on a leafy gentleman’s estate in the countryside; the daughter of a soldier, she had gone up in the world by marrying a coachman, and should have been content with her existence. But she had developed a penchant for alcohol, and her addiction grew harder and harder to manage. The death of her eldest daughter eventually tipped her over the edge; despite her husband and sister placing her in a sanatorium to find a cure for her alcoholism, she couldn’t manage to stop drinking. Her husband, at risk of losing his job on the estate and so his means of supporting their remaining children, had to cast her out. Homeless, destitute, unable – or unwilling – to seek help from her family – she became one of the thousands of unfortunates roaming the streets of London, eking out a day-to-day existence on the few pennies they could beg. She was killed while she slept on the streets of Whitechapel. There was never any suggestion from those who knew her that she had exchanged sex for money. The other women who were killed had depressingly similar stories. Due to addiction, abuse or abandonment, all found themselves on the streets, going from workhouse to workhouse, dosshouse to dosshouse, as they attempted to keep a roof over their head at night and some food in their bellies. Most were wives, some were mothers. Only one was known to have worked as a prostitute, and even that was only because she had no other option open to her. In a society that shunned women who didn’t fit the middle class ideal, that blamed women for sexual transgression while men could walk free, and that provided little to no opportunity for a woman to support herself without a male companion, these women were not just victims of a serial killer – they had, in many ways, already been murdered by a patriarchal system that had stacked the cards against them before they were even born.

The Five is fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measure. For anyone interested in women’s history, this is a must-read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Reading from my Shelves: January

Books started: 4

Books finished: 2

Books abandoned: 1

Books kept on the shelf: 1

Books bought: 1

It’s my first month of reading from my shelves and so far things have been going swimmingly. I started my project with the first unread book on my alphabetically organised shelves, and that was Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room. It hadn’t been languishing unread for too long; I’d bought it a couple of months before in my local Oxfam bookshop after growing tired of Simon nagging me to read it. It’s one of Simon’s all-time favourite books, so I had high hopes of falling in love and finding a new favourite. I’d also spent my childhood obsessed with Reid-Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard series of books, so I was intrigued to see how she wrote for an adult audience. The L-Shaped Room tells the story of 27 year old Jane, who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after an unsatisfactory one night stand with a former colleague. Chucked out of her father’s house when he finds out she’s pregnant, Jane, despite her good job, punishes herself by renting the most down-at-heel room she can find in a hideous boarding house in Fulham. At first she tries to carry on her life as normal and have little to do with the people in the house, but terrible morning sickness that leaves her bedridden and the loss of her job as a consequence means she soon finds herself needing their support, and so opens herself up to a whole new world of unlikely friendship and new experiences in the process. I really wanted to like it, I really, really did. But I found Jane whiny and annoying, the characters stereotyped, the plot painfully predictable and surprisingly unprogressive for a supposedly feminist novel (no prizes for guessing that the first man she meets in the boarding house turns out to fall in love with her, therefore fixing all of her problems) and the horrific levels of racism in the novel – the author’s rather than the characters’ – made me feel incredibly uncomfortable to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the book at all. I can appreciate how it must have been radical for Reid Banks to have tackled this topic in 1960, but I just wanted her to do so much more with this story than produce a hackneyed tale of a helpless woman ultimately being rescued by multiple male protectors. So, it’s gone into my charity shop pile.

Another book that’s joined the charity shop pile is Edith Ayrton Zangwill’s The Call. One of Persephone’s newer books, it’s an example of suffragette literature, and I was excited to be able to read a contemporary perspective of the fight for women’s right to vote. However, one hundred pages in, I gave up. Nothing had happened, the main characters – Ursula, a stunningly beautiful young woman (of course) making a name for herself in the world of chemistry, and her various suitors – were tiptoeing very slowly towards what I could tell would be a predictable marriage plot, and the brief mentions of suffragettes and Ursula’s distaste for them were also pointing to Ursula at some point having a conversion to their cause. However, everything was taking so long to get started and the characters were so one-dimensional that I couldn’t really have cared less about what was going to happen to them in the rest of the book. Thoroughly bored, when I reached the one hundred page mark, I decided enough was enough, and so, despite me normally adoring everything published by Persephone, this went unfinished. It will find its way into more appreciative hands via Oxfam soon unless someone can convince me to give it another go!

So, what have I read and enjoyed this month? Another Country by James Baldwin has taken me a good couple of weeks to read as it’s long and complex and challenging and thought-provoking; like a slice of rich chocolate cake, I could only manage a small amount in one sitting. However, I loved every moment of reading it; I’d never read anything by him before, and I have had my eyes opened. Baldwin’s searing honesty about the Black experience of life in mid century New York is almost painful to read, and his cast of various misfit characters, trying to make a life for themselves in a city filled with inequality and crime and desperation, make the pages quiver with their vibrancy. Best friends Rufus and Vivaldo, one black, one white, struggle to breach the gulf of experience that lies between them, and can never truly understand one another as a result. Ida, Rufus’ sister, lives with a burning fury inside her at the racism she experiences every day, destroying everyone she touches. Cass and Richard, a seemingly picture-perfect couple making their way in glamorous, bohemian circles, are secretly living in a miserable loneliness of failed ambition and unfulfilled dreams. Eric, an actor living in France to escape the horrors of the life he left behind in New York, gets lured back by the promise of a Broadway role, but he soon finds every street is haunted by the ghosts of his past. All of these characters’ lives intersect as they struggle alongside one another to find meaning and purpose, and I found their stories beautiful and terrible and utterly heartbreaking. This is by no means an easy read, but it’s an essential one, and James Baldwin was an incredible writer. I’m really looking forward to exploring more of his oeuvre in future, and Another Country is definitely staying on my shelf for re-reading.

I’m now in the middle of Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: the Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, and I’m loving it so far. As much as it is about the lives of the women who were murdered, it’s also about how history maligns and mistreats women, and about how easily we unquestioningly swallow stories without searching beneath the surface to check their veracity. For so long the focus of Jack the Ripper has been on uncovering the true identity of Jack; his victims were an afterthought, and after all, who cared about a bunch of prostitutes? Rubenhold’s intriguing take on the story is to place the women at the centre, and to find out who they were and the lives they had before they were brutally murdered for merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of them weren’t prostitutes in the first place, and all of them were simply victims of a callous society that punished those whose lives didn’t conform to socially acceptable standards, and which turned a blind eye to the suffering of the poor and needy, preferring to blame them for their situation rather than address the societal structures that prevented them from achieving any form of prosperity. However, why did the press of the time want to portray them as prostitutes who, in a way, deserved their deaths, and what does this tell us about the world in which they lived and its attitude towards women? And why was no-one ever curious enough about these women to try and uncover who they really were behind the myths? I’m hoping as I keep reading that Hallie Rubenhold will have plenty to say about these questions, and I can’t wait to find out more. Highly recommended!

Finally, books bought: I couldn’t resist buying the catalogue after seeing the wonderful Pre Raphaelite Sisters exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (now finished, sadly). I learned so much and wanted to have this for reference, so I thought my purchase was justified…