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One From the Archive: ‘How to be a Victorian’ by Ruth Goodman ****

First published in 2013.

9780670921362In her first venture as a solo author, Ruth Goodman has attempted to present ‘a radical new approach to history’ by showing the ‘overlapping worlds of health, sex, fashion, food, school, work and play’. She states in her introduction that she wanted to ‘explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history… one that celebrates the ordinary and charts the lives of the common man, woman and child as they interact with the practicalities of their world’. Goodman herself is an expert in this field, and has experienced life on a Victorian farm whilst taking part in an incredibly interesting BBC documentary.

Goodman has used the timeframe of a day in which to set out her information, beginning with the waking up routine of your average Victorian, and following them until they retire to bed at nighttime. In this way, she has given How to be a Victorian an almost circular feel, which is a refreshing technique in terms of history books. Throughout, she has made use of primary and secondary sources, which have been taken from a vast amalgam of documents and records – diaries, letters, autobiographies, magazines and other printed matter, all of which ‘sought to inform and shape public opinion’.

Throughout, Goodman writes intelligently about a wealth of little known details about life in Victorian Britain. Rather than merely including the commonplace information which the vast majority of us know, the author has dug deeper, unearthing unusual routines which were all the rage during Victorian times. These include the profession of a ‘knocker-upper’, who was employed as a human alarm clock by his clients. He would take a long cane and lantern out with him in the early hours, which he would rap on the appropriate windows, and would then charge a penny a month for the privilege. Goodman explores elements of life such as the rug making techniques of the day, clothing and corsetry, recommended haircare, the dangers of factory work, and how often to bathe a baby – far more often than the average adult would partake, that’s for sure. A section in the middle of the book is devoted to a glossy spread of photographs and illustrations, and many black and white images have also been included within the main body of text. These are rather useful additions, particularly with regard to the advertisements which Goodman writes about.

How to be a Victorian is best read in small sections, as it is filled with a lot of information, much which is likely to be lost by the reader if the entirety of the text is taken in at once. Each chapter has been split into relatively short sections, which allows it to be picked up and put down at will. Goodman is clearly incredibly enthusiastic of her subject, and the fact that she has first-hand experience at using many of the techniques and routines which she describes sets her apart from a lot of historians. Here, she has presented a far-reaching account of Victorian life throughout the entirety of the monarch’s reign, and in consequence, she has created a marvellous guide for anyone at all interested in the period.

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Germany

Germany is the third country which I have been lucky enough to visit so far this year.  My boyfriend and I travelled to beautiful Munich at the end of February.  Here are seven books set in Germany which I have loved, and would highly recommend.
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005) 893136
HERE IS A SMALL FACT:  YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.  1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.  Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with her foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.  SOME MORE IMPORTANT INFORMATION:  THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH.  It’s a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.  ANOTHER THING YOU SHOULD KNOW: DEATH WILL VISIT THE BOOK THIEF THREE TIMES.
2. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1995)
Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.  When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
494653. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2004)
For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.  Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.  Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.
4. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008)
A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.
5. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous (1953) 12238919
For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. The anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject–the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.
6. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)
‘From the Booker Prize-winning author of Offshore comes this unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his fiancee Sophie, newly introduced by Candia McWilliam.The year is 1794 and Fritz, passionate, idealistic and brilliant, is seeking his father’s permission to announce his engagement to his heart’s desire: twelve-year-old Sophie. His astounded family and friends are amused and disturbed by his betrothal. What can he be thinking?Tracing the dramatic early years of the young German who was to become the great romantic poet and philosopher Novalis, The Blue Flower is a masterpiece of invention, evoking the past with a reality that we can almost feel.’
95455457. The End: Germany 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw (2011)
Ian Kershaw’s The End is a gripping, revelatory account of the final months of the Nazi war machine, from the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 to the German surrender in May 1945.  In almost every major war there comes a point where defeat looms for one side and its rulers cut a deal with the victors, if only in an attempt to save their own skins. In Hitler’s Germany, nothing of this kind happened: in the end the regime had to be stamped out town by town with an almost unprecedented level of brutality.  Just what made Germany keep on fighting? Why did its rulers not cut a deal to save their own skins?  And why did ordinary people continue to obey the Fuhrer’s suicidal orders, with countless Germans executing their own countrymen for desertion or defeatism?

 

Have you read any of these?  Have any made their way onto your to-read list?

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‘Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia’ by Sigrid Rausing ****

I chose Sigrid Rausing’s Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I was quite looking forward to it, particularly as I have included very little non-fiction on my list.  It seemed as though it would offer something a bit different, and whilst a lot of the themes are similar to some of the other Eastern European literature which I read before it, the very fact that it is a memoir makes it all the more fascinating.

9780802122179Between 1993 and 1994, Sigrid Rausing, a Swedish anthropology student working towards her PhD at University College London, travelled to Estonia to undertake fieldwork.  She stayed in a former Soviet Union border protection zone named Noarootsi.  She met and interviewed many different people for her project.  The book’s blurb proclaims that ‘Rausing’s conversations with the local people touched on many subjects: the economic privations of post-Soviet existence; the bewildering influx of Western products; and the Swedish background of many of their people.’  In this memoir, published twenty years after her fieldwork ended, Rausing reflects upon history and political repression, and the way in which the wider world affected the individuals whom she met.

Of the aims of her PhD, Rausing writes that she wanted to explore the themes of history and memory in Estonia: ‘I was there to study the local perception and understanding of historical events in the context of the Soviet repression and the censorship of history.’  The collective farm which she stayed and worked on folded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and was ‘officially closed down in February 1993, following a vote by all the members in which just one person voted for its continued existence.’  Rausing lived and worked in the village, immersing herself as much as she was able into gatherings and the like, and trying her best to learn the very difficult Estonian language.

One gets a feel for Rausing’s surroundings almost as soon as the book begins.  She writes: ‘The rest of the villages on the peninsula – bedraggled collections of grey wooden houses with thatched rooves, sometimes propped up by shoddy white brick – were like villages all over the Soviet Union at that particular time.  Forgotten places sinking into quiet poverty.’  Rausing gives many examples of the visible changes within Estonia following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and the effects which poverty and strict rule had: ‘Haapsalu was the nearest town to my prospective field site.  It had been a spick-and-span little coastal town in the 1930s, a summer spa where people came for mineral mud baths.  Now, the baths were long since gone, the paint on the beautiful wooden houses flaking and unkempt…  The main street was wide and muddy, with many shops selling few things, and almost no cars.’

The most fascinating element of Everything is Wonderful is the way in which Rausing manages to be at once a participant and an outsider in Noarootsi.  Because of her position, she is able to gather so many different perspectives on issues affecting Estonian people.  She builds a full picture of life for those villagers and townsfolk ‘forgotten’ by the wider world, often lived in poverty: ‘The people on the collective farm had little connection either with the land or with high culture.  They just got by, day by day, enduring the uncertainty, the confusion, and the quiet fear: fear of unemployment, fear of Russia, fear of the future.’  Everything is Wonderful is stark and bleak, but very human; it is at once enlightening and harrowing.  Rausing’s memoir is a fascinating and important piece of social history, told from a position of retrospect, but working from the notes which she collected whilst on her fieldwork trip.

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‘Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August’ by Oliver Hilmes ****

9781847924346I love books with concepts such as Oliver Hilmes’ Berlin 1936, where an entire event – in this case, the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin – is charted using not just official figures and statistics, but with the inclusion of ordinary people who witnessed part of it. Hilmes has put this particular book together using a diverse range of diaries and letters, along with historical information about the weather on each given day, and surprising figures, such as the amount of food in kilograms eaten within the Olympic Park.

The spectators included in Hilmes’ account are as diverse as the Chair of the International Olympic Committee, composer Richard Strauss’ wife Pauline, the American author Tom Wolfe, and Austria’s Ambassador to Germany. There are also extracts from the diaries of high-ranking Nazi officers, and Jewish people who were already beginning to see what an enormous threat Hitler was to their freedom. One of the real strengths in Berlin 1936 is the way in which Hilmes demonstrates how ordinary lives play out against the pomp and circumstance of the Olympic spectacle, which is just as fraught with social problems as the city of Berlin itself.

Berlin 1936 is a fascinating piece of social history, with a direct focus that never fades from Hilmes’ commentary. The narrative which the author has created works very well, and he seems to effortlessly tie the numerous different occurrences and opinions together. The structure too, which is given on a chronological day-to-day basis, is splendid. Berlin 1936 is engaging and well researched, and builds wonderfully as it goes on.

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One From the Archive: ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing’ by Nina Sankovitch ****

First published in April 2014.

Nina Sankovitch, author of the highly acclaimed memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magic Reading, has decided to explore the art of corresponding by letter in her newest book.  She has chosen to go ‘on a quest through the history of letters and her own personal correspondence to discover and celebrate what is special about the handwritten letter’.

It is utterly charming to write a book about something which seems, to the modern world, to be so quaint, particularly in an age when it is far more likely to type a quick email or contact friends through mediums like Facebook and Twitter, than to settle down with a pen and paper and send off the finished result in the more traditional way, envelope et al.  Those who love to read letter collections – and there are, it seems, many of us scattered around the globe – are sure to find much of interest within Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing.

Throughout, Sankovitch moves from letters written in ancient times, focusing upon those within Greece and Egypt, to the correspondence which exists between famous writers.  We as readers are able to see how letter writing has adapted over time, to fit the changing world – from documenting love and expressing sorrow, to solving the most brutal of crimes and passing trivial notes at school.  She begins her book with rather a sweet personal anecdote, of the moment at which her young son sent her his first letter: ‘He quickly covered an index card with blue marker squiggles, then carefully worked the card into an envelope.  His face serious, he turned and handed me the envelope’.  Sankovitch also writes of the importance of saving letters, believing that they are ‘the history of our lives made solid’, which ‘place us firmly within our history’.

Sankovitch’s writing style is lovely, and the warmth of her personality can be found in every page.  The way in which she weaves in her own experiences of writing and receiving letters, and the delicious silence which comes between the two, works marvellously.  An avid letter writer as a child, it seems as though she was spurred on to start writing Signed, Sealed, Delivered after unearthing ‘a trove of old letters’ from members of the Seligman family in the shed of her newly purchased house in New York.  Throughout, she sets out the history of each family or person whom she discovers through the art of their correspondence, describing the ways in which the things that they wrote and sent reveal crucial elements about themselves and their personalities.  She sees the importance in every scrap of letter which she encounters, believing that even the tiniest note has a story to tell.  The structure which Sankovitch uses is not a chronological one, but one segment leads wonderfully to another, and the entirety feels well-rounded in consequence.

Sankovitch also portrays the way in which letter writing through history has been able to cross the boundaries set in place by society – to speak about forbidden relationships, and to converse with those of other races in the United States far before the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, for instance.  The social history has been well written and considered, giving each letter and the story which goes with it a good grounding.  The author brings fascinating people to the fore, and the aforementioned Seligman family are a fabulous example of this.  One of the sons, James, whom Sankovitch is particularly fond of, is ‘a sweet and funny and affectionate correspondent’, who touchingly ‘wrote home almost daily’ when he was away.

Rather than becoming overdone in the stories it relates or its gushing love for letter writing, as could so easily have happened in the putting together of such a book, Sankovitch has created a work which is both far-reaching and concise.  Signed, Sealed, Delivered is a lovely piece of praise for something which should be revived – the simple practice of writing letters, which surely means a lot more to its recipient than a hastily composed email or text message.  Hopefully, Sankovitch will inspire far more people to correspond by traditional methods, and will help to bring back the popularity of something which has been so very important to our ancestors for millennia.

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‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

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‘Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells’ by Desmond Seward ***

Since 1625, Derbyshire’s Renishaw Hall, built under the instruction of a Cavalier, has been the home of the Sitwell family. Desmond Seward, author of Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells, has, as well as providing a chronological history of the Sitwell family, woven in four centuries of goings-on in England, paying particular attention to some of those events which so impacted upon the illustrious family in question. He writes that ‘three centuries of colourful characters left their own stamp on Renishaw – such as the Regency Buck who added the great rooms and was known to have hunted a tiger with his hounds’.

Spanning the house from its beginnings until the present day, Renishaw Hall includes details of the painstaking renovation which the house has recently undergone. Seward believes that ‘modern Renishaw’s real creator was the under-estimated Sir George Sitwell, a pioneer of the Baroque revival… Better known are his children, the Trio – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – who were the Bloomsbury Group’s rivals in the 1920s and leading literary figures in the 1950s and 60s’. Of the siblings, the writer Harold Acton remarked, ‘The Sitwells might wander far from Renishaw, but they would always return in spirit’.

Within Renishaw Hall, much detail is amassed with regard to the births, marriages and deaths of various familial members, but there is often scarce information – particularly in the first half of the book – as to what each of the individual figures were like. In this manner, Seward’s work can tend to be a little dry in places. The primary sources – diary entries and extracts from letters – do augment the whole however, adding some of the contextual information and firsthand observations regarding those in question.

41t3bpzknzl-_sx332_bo1204203200_The narrative itself does not really pick up until the twentieth century begins; evidently the wealth of readily available information about Edith Sitwell and her immediate family has helped greatly to make the whole more interesting. The Trio almost leap to life upon the page – Osbert especially. That is not to say that Renishaw Hall is a badly written account by any means, but there is no sense of carefully measured prose, and the descriptions which would have made the whole immensely more readable are few and far between. Even the initial description of the house has been glossed over somewhat, and one has to rely on the included photographs to really get a good feel for its appearance.

As with family histories in general, it can be said that some of the Sitwells were far more intriguing, or worthy of more curiosity, than others. There are certainly several elements of interest concerning them and the social history which they lived within in Renishaw Hall; the acquisition of art, travels in bygone eras, and the relationships between the Trio and their father, who was largely seen as a buffoon. Renishaw, writes Seward, ‘meant most to Osbert, who, born in 1892, was aware from an early age that the house and the estate were going to be his’.

Renishaw Hall is an interesting commentary upon the life of a house and the family who inhabited it, but I did feel as though some of the information – particularly within the earlier chapters – could have been handled better. The inclusion of a Sitwell family tree would have been of use to refer to at times as well. I found some of Seward’s slightly odd turns of phrase a little jarring – ‘After Lytton Strachey was safely dead’, for example. Rather a slow starter, Renishaw Hall does pick up, and if you have any interest whatsoever in Edith Sitwell particularly, it is certainly worth a read. Saying that, it is certainly not the compelling account of an old country house and its inhabitants which it could have been.