Tag Archives: Non fiction

Victoria and Albert: A Royal Love Affair by Daisy Goodwin and Sara Sheridan

HarperCollins | 2017 (21 September) | 303p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Victoria and Albert by Daisy Goodwin and Sara SheridanLast Sunday the second series of the ITV historical drama Victoria finished and I was left bereft. So when I saw the handsome companion volume in the shops yesterday I snapped it up and it’s fair to say that I’ve spent much of last night and today completely immersed in it. Not just because it brought back all those lovely feelings you get when watching a drama series that you love but also because it made me do my homework. I know a little bit about Queen Victoria but Victoria and Albert presented me with so much that I wanted to learn more about. And so I did get distracted. In the best of ways. Looking up original photos, old paintings, contemporary accounts, Victorian recipes, exhibition catalogues, dress illustrations, political tracts and so much more. Victoria and Albert: A Royal Love Affair felt like a beautiful, glamorous gateway.

Daisy Goodwin, of course, is the author behind the screenplay of the TV series and in the book she gets the chance to explain exactly where she veered from historical fact. The series does this quite a bit and so I appreciated the chance to see the events of the series and its people put in their true context and order. The book doesn’t delve too deeply. It isn’t that kind of book. It’s more of a general guide to the people and themes of the series, presented in short, beautifully-presented and fully-illustrated sections, accompanied by quotes from contemporary sources, such as Victoria and Albert’s letters and journals, and snippets from the TV series.

So we’re given short sections on such things as travel, the churching ceremony after childbirth, corsets, sex, Ira Aldridge (the African-American actor), inventions, Ada Lovelace, the Corn Laws, the Irish Famine, pets, royal nicknames, and so much more, as well as sections on each of the key figures who feature in the drama. There are also regular panels which go behind the scenes of the series, looking at makeup, costume, food, child actors and so on. All lavishly accompanied by illustrations – photos from the series as well as contemporary photographs, paintings and newspaper pages. There is so much to look at!

The book focuses on 1840-1846, the years covered by series 2 of Victoria. It does merely touch on some of its themes – you can hardly adequately cover such topics as the Irish Famine in a page – but it certainly does enough to spark further interest and investigation. There were some subjects I would have liked the book to tackle more, particularly the royal children and the household servants. I would have loved to have known more about the butler, for instance.

If you enjoyed the Victoria series, then I think you might well like this stunning hardback. It doesn’t replace detailed studies of Victoria’s early reign but it most definitely illuminates some of the period’s themes for the more general reader. I’ve now ordered the other companion volume, The Victoria Letters by Helen Rappaport, and will be looking at biographies. I’m hooked. This book has also re-awoken in me an interest in historical non-fiction which I thought I’d put to bed some time ago. It turns out I was wrong. Thank heavens.

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton – ‘Of Babies and Bellies’

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth NortonThe Tudor period continues to fascinate – a period dominated by so many larger-than-life, charismatic, powerful, fearful, proud and dangerous personalities, male and female. But what was life like for a Tudor woman away from the public eye, in those major life-changing moments, such as marriage, giving birth, widowhood, but also in her daily life? In The Lives of Tudor Women, Elizabeth Norton presents the seven ages of the Tudor woman from childhood to old age, from the first years of the Tudor period to its end in 1603, through the examples of a number of very different women, ranging from the royal to the merchant’s wife to the peasant and servant. Their stories highlight many aspects of the Tudor age, including the intimate and homely as well as the religious and the unconventional.

To celebrate the publication of The Lives of Tudor Women this month by Head of Zeus, I’m delighted to host a special post. Below you’ll find an extract from Chapter 1 – of Babies and Bellies – in which Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen, faces the anxiety of pregnancy and childbirth.

The Lives of Tudor Women – Book Extract from Chapter 1: Of Babies and Bellies

Towards the end of January or early February 1492, Queen Elizabeth of York, felt a familiar fluttering in her womb – a fluttering that provided proof that she had conceived for the fourth time.

Henry VII’s queen was, by then, close to the midway point of her pregnancy. But in the first months of pregnancy, the condition was notoriously difficult to diagnose. Could her symptoms merely be ‘her natural sickness or store of water’? Alternatively, could her increase in girth be due to ‘some windy matter’ rather than an expected baby? There were signs, of course, which could indicate pregnancy; but few physicians were prepared to confirm their diagnosis until the child actually began to stir in the womb. A mistake could be highly embarrassing for all concerned, and so for months women were left on tenterhooks.

The first gentle movements, when they came, were testament to the fact that a new life had begun. For as far as most Tudors were concerned, life did not begin at conception. The man’s seed entered ‘the woman’s privitie’ as one physician coyly called the neck of the womb, there to be met by a matching seed, released by the woman. To contemporaries, these were the raw materials for a child.

Even before conception, most Tudor parents had a preference for boys. They were then anxious for some hint that their wish had been gratified. It was theoretically possible, asserted some physicians, to tell the sex, since boys occupied a right chamber to a sub-divided womb and girls the left. This segregation was, of course, a myth (‘but dreams and fond fantasies’), as others rightly realized. Life itself was deemed to begin when the soul entered the fully formed foetus, which occurred at 46 days for a boy and 90 days for a girl. A Tudor girl was thus nearly three months in the womb before her contemporaries considered her to be a living person.

The question of gender still gnawed at the minds of many Tudor parents as the mother’s sickness subsided and her stomach began to swell; and most Tudor mothers wanted a son. The wealthier sort of parents could interrogate their physicians on the sex, their questioning filling the doctors with despair. ‘It is very hard to know at the first whether the woman be with child or no,’ complained the French royal physician, Dr Guillimeau, towards the end of the sixteenth century, and ‘so by great reason must it needs be far more difficult to discern and distinguish the difference of the sex, and to determine whether it will be a boy or a wench’. They were not miracle workers. But even Dr Guillimeau believed there were certain signs a mother could look for. Everyone knew that men were hotter than women, which gave them strength, intelligence and vigour. It stood to reason then that younger women, who became hotter than their seniors, would bear boys.

There were, it was thought, some helpful things prospective parents could do to better their chances of conceiving the right gender. Those most anxious for a boy should refrain from sexual intercourse when the wind blew southwards, since this was almost sure to result in a girl. The pregnant woman could also scrutinize her reflection – was her complexion clear? If so, it could be a boy. Carrying a girl was harder work, and so the mother would have ‘a pale, heavy, and swarth countenance, a melancholic eye’. Boys reputedly lay higher in the wombs than girls – again due to their heat – while a girl would lie ‘at the bottom of the belly, because of her coldness and weight’. Carrying a girl was even believed to affect a mother’s health more adversely than carrying a boy.

In early 1492, at least Queen Elizabeth of York could content herself that she had already fulfilled her dynastic duty, with the births of two fine sons – even though death could strike down seemingly healthy children at any moment.

Once pregnancy was established, it behoved a mother to ensure the health of both herself and her child. Spending her time in ‘good tempered air’ was particularly important, as was a good diet. Pregnant women also had to think about clothing, since few women owned an extensive wardrobe. Even queens adapted their existing clothes, with extra panels added to their dresses. They could supplement them with more-specific maternity wear, such as ‘self grow’ waistcoats, kirtles and gowns, which could be let out as the wearer’s pregnancy advanced. To begin with, gowns could first be unlaced to make them roomier, before more drastic changes were required. Women would also think about clothes for the birth itself. It was common for Tudor women to wear a hood with a shoulder cape in which to give birth.

Elizabeth of York may initially have had concerns over her fourth pregnancy, because she had conceived only three months after the birth of her second son, Henry, on 28 June 1491. Her husband, heir to the House of Lancaster, had won his crown on the field at Bosworth in August 1485 – inaugurating the Tudor dynasty. His marriage to Elizabeth, who was the eldest daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV, had helped cement his position by unifying the houses that had fought for decades. To the royal couple, who were frequently surrounded by proud demonstrations of the new dynasty, each of their ‘issue lawfully born’ helped to symbolize their union and their hold on the throne. Nonetheless, such a rapid new pregnancy in 1492 – almost certainly an accident – was a cause for concern, given the very real dangers that threatened women in pregnancy and childbirth.

The Autobiography of James T. Kirk by David A. Goodman

The Autobiography of James T. Kirk | David A. Goodman | 2015 | Titan Books | 272p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Autobiography of James T. Kirk by David A. GoodmanBorn in 2233 on a farm in Iowa, James Tiberius Kirk quickly became fascinated with everything to do with planets and was thrilled at the chance to move to Tarsus IV when he was a boy of 12. Joining Starfleet Academy as soon as he could, Kirk’s career was meteoric, fast becoming ‘Starfleet’s Greatest Captain’ and even more than that – a legend. Shortly before his tragic death in 2293, Kirk completed his astonishing life story, the manuscript given to editor David A. Goodman. Although published posthumously, this autobiography is our first opportunity to look deeper into the mind of this most famous of explorers, all told in his own words, in his own inimitable style.

Introduced by Leonard H. McCoy M.D. and with an afterword by Spock of Vulcan, The Autobiography of James T. Kirk is long overdue. I’ve been fascinated by Kirk for almost my entire life and have been a proud Trekkie for just as long – visiting exhibitions in Las Vegas, attending the odd convention, marvelling at Captain Janeway, swooning over Chakotay. But, obviously, it all began with Kirk and his crew and this book gives us the chance to spend more time with Kirk, in this future world where good always wins and Starfleet rules benevolently further the prosperity and peace of all species, except for those who are evil, and not including those rules that are made to be broken. Because Kirk is a famous rule breaker, too.

It’s fair to say that it’s nigh on impossible reading this book without having in your head the voice of William Shatner bringing its words to life. The good thing is that you really can imagine Shatner saying the words, it’s true enough to the spirit of Kirk for that. The book, though, covers Kirk’s entire life and it’s arguably during the account of the years before Kirk became Captain when the story comes most to life. The anecdotes are a lot of fun, not just recounted, but lived through again with dialogue and action. The later chapters follow closely the episodes from the series and so there is much more familiar ground. But it’s always good to revisit these adventures and spend time with the crew – laughter and sadness combine here just as much as they do in the series. But throughout there are moments of reflection from Kirk as he looks back over episodes that sometimes caused his friends – and family – harm. It’s left to Spock at the end to assess Kirk’s legacy.

A number of good quality colour photographs in the centre contribute to the authentic feel of the autobiography. The book itself is very good looking and well written and is an enjoyable reminder of all that I love about Star Trek and the crew of the Enterprise. As a fan of the series, this is a very hard book to resist. Resistance, though, is probably futile.

The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la Bédoyère

The Real Lives of Roman Britain | Guy de la Bédoyère | 2015 | Yale University Press | 264p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la BédoyèreThe Romans brought much more with them to Britain than roads, sanitation and posh tablewares – their obsession with recording the smallest of details, the most insulting of curses, as well as a habit of letter writing, means that for the first time in the island’s history we are able to learn the identities of a small number of individuals. Through their words, we can begin to build up a picture – albeit a fragmentary jigsaw – of what life was like in Britain almost two thousand years ago. And then there are also the accounts which preserve Rome’s attitude to this distant bit of empire – they didn’t think much of it.

But although Britain might have been a drafty backwater, it still contained a number of people who began to think of themselves as Roman, changing their names, their housing, their way of life, perhaps enlisting in the army, serving and dying overseas, perhaps owning slaves, then later freeing them, climbing the social ladder. It’s arguable how much or little life changed for the poor working in the fields but for those with Roman coins in their pockets it was sometimes appropriate to express their status in inscriptions, tomb monuments, villa mosaics, bling. And because of all of this we are able to learn a little about the real lives of Roman Britain.

This is the Roman Britain that Guy de la Bédoyère evokes in his excellent and very accessible history. It is a province populated by a colourful mix – native Britons as well as people pulled from across the Empire, many finding their way here through army service, or servicing the army. Following a broad chronological structure, de la Bédoyère examines the surviving evidence to examine what life – and livelihoods – were like from the conquest through to the withdrawal of the legions in the early 5th century. The emperors aren’t ignored – de la Bédoyère takes us to Rome to uncover the plans these men had for the distant province – but the emphasis is strongly on lives in Roman Britain and these cross all ranks and social scales. We have governors and administrators, centurions and ordinary soldiers, tradesmen and prosperous freedmen, potters and craftsmen. The evidence comes from all manner of sources, including graffiti on tiles and pots, mosaic symbols, to grand monument inscriptions, which, tellingly, were sometimes forgotten after a century, dismantled and reused in later Roman buildings.

Not surprisingly, most of the written evidence covers the male Roman world, indeed the free male world, but there are glimpses of female life, albeit mostly wealthy female life, thanks to letters which survive from Vindolanda as well as tomb memorials from elsewhere.

But while The Real Lives of Roman Britain gave me a great deal to think about, it also made me realise just how little surviving evidence there is and what does survive is often fragmentary and in a poor state. So few lives are represented. Very occasionally a person is known from two or more inscriptions but this is most unusual. A person pops up in the record, gives us a little detail about their lives, sometimes very mundane, and then disappears from history again. But these little fragments do tell us that there would have been a wealth of evidence that’s now gone, that these glimpses of past lives are just a taste of the generations of life that shaped Britain during these centuries. It is all hugely intriguing and frustrating at the same time.

Archaeological evidence is also used to throw light on Roman lives and some of it is striking, not least the evidence for ancient murders, or the remains of many infant burials under one roof. This is just as compelling as the remains of grand villas and palaces. But it is in these villas that there are signs of early Christian worship and there is evidence of fascinating continuity of activity at one site in particular.

Guy de la Bédoyère makes a distant period and distant lives accessible. Known from Time Team, he knows how to communicate the past and he knows how to pick those little bits of evidence that strike a chord more than any other, bringing the driest of sources to life. This book would make an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to know more about what life was like two thousand years ago along the roads and in the towns that are still such an important part of Britain today.

The book includes plates and substantial notes.

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 301
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback
Source: Review copy

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily KoppelReview
When seven men were named in 1959 as the first Americans to rocket into space, their wives could have had little idea of how their own lives were to be transformed. The Mercury astronauts had more than enough on their plates to keep them busy, taken away for days or even weeks at a time to complete their training while all the time competing against one another for the crown of being the first to make it to orbit. The women were military wives, used to moving from barracks to barracks, living on little pay and most with very small children. But from the moment that their husbands became household names, the very epitome of the American Dream, the wives were caught up in an inescapable whirlpool of cameras, reporters, White House visits and press conferences. They also had to put up with their husbands and in some cases that was no easy task. And then there was the fear… when one wife asked, she was informed that there was a 50/50 chance that her husband would return home alive.

The Astronaut Wives club, a non-fiction account, follows the lives of these women and their exclusive club from the beginning of the Mercury programme through to the last Apollo missions in the early 1970s. This covers the Mercury, Gemini and Moon wives, a group that grew to include about fifty women but when it all began there were just the seven, going where no woman had gone before while all the time maintaining their motto ‘Proud, Thrilled and Happy’.

This is such a fascinating story and there is a lot of story to tell. We hear about the special arrangement that the astronauts and their Astrowives had with Life magazine, an arrangement that was really a glorified life insurance policy that took over much of their lives. There was also the pressure on the wives to be the perfect American housewives, well-turned out with perfect hair and makeup and a kitchen full of the newest appliances to go with it. The meetings with the Kennedys added to the pressure although to most they were a great pleasure. The wives were able to cope to varying degrees – some were confident and assured, others had speech impediments and extreme shyness. Some had husbands who protected them and were well behaved, but many did not.

I was riveted by the lives of these women, especially Marilyn Lovell, Susan Borman and the other Apollo wives who had to endure those hours of darkness when their husbands were on the far side of the Moon. Of course, not all of the men survived and their wives’ experiences are especially poignant and tearful.

So, all well and good – a riveting story. But the problem with The Astronaut Wives Club is that the writing does not do justice to the lives of these women. There is almost no depth, no insight into how the women thought. The book is built upon interviews but there is little evidence of that. The focus throughout is on reeling off what the wives were up to, one thing after another, with no kind of analysis, while focusing on their shopping and makeup issues. These were intelligent women but you wouldn’t know it. I know that this was the 1950s and 60s but there is no need for the misogynistic ways of the past to have coloured so completely this interpretation of these women’s lives.

More than once I came close to putting the book aside, exasperated by the narrative’s triviality – the thrilling is made mundane time after time. In the latter part of the book when terrible tragedies had harmed these lives the style does pick up a little – it was in the nick of time – but it never gets close to revealing any true thought into what these wives and their husbands went through. The bouncy, cheery narrative also flits between the wives with such speed that it was very difficult to get to know more than a couple of them. It’s all so superficially touched upon. I would have loved to have learned so much more about the women, their husbands and children. There is a very brief recap of how their lives turned out since the space programmes as well as a few photographs, but I would have welcomes an awful lot more.

I was compelled to carry on by my deep interest in the extraordinary experiences that these wives went through, when they were almost treated like aliens from another world. It reminded me of reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff many years ago but it isn’t in the same class. The Astronaut Wives Club might serve to give the reader a taste or a glimpse into its subject but as a whole it does not do the women justice.

Menagerie Manor by Gerald Durrell

Publisher: Bello
Pages: 160
Year: 2012 (this edn, first published 1964)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Prize copy

Menagerie Manor by Gerald DurrellReview
Not only did I grow up reading and re-reading Gerald Durrell’s books, but I also have never wanted to be someone else as much as I wanted to be Gerald Durrell. Sunday evenings watching the marvellous television adaptation of My Family and Other Animals, his autobiographical tale of his childhood running free and wild in Corfu, a paradise existence if ever I saw one, combined with the intense enjoyment of Durrell’s animal collecting memoirs to make me want to have a zoo when I grew up. While this wasn’t to be for me, it did, of course, become a dream come true for Gerald Durrell. After years of collecting species in the wild for other zoos during the 1940s and 1950s, Durrell established his own zoo in Jersey in 1958 and, quickly turning its purpose into the preservation of endangered species, founded in 1963 what has become the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. His death in 1995 was such a loss but, fifty years after some of them were published, we still have his wonderful humorous and compassionate books to enjoy. I was delighted to learn that Bello had reprinted them in 2012, making them available to another generation of animal lovers as well as people of all ages who love to read a good tale.

Menagerie Manor is a great place to begin among the 25 or so autobiographical books. Written in 1964 to fund the zoo, it tells the story of the zoo’s origins, driven in large part by the urgency to save his sister Margot’s London house and garden from its hundreds of wild occupants, housed in suburbia while Gerald found somewhere to house them. Jersey was the perfect choice – a beautiful old house and grounds surrounded by wealthy philanthropic neighbours. Much of the book, though, is about daily life in the zoo for a man who might have been the boss but could not tear himself away from ‘the frontline’. Woken each dawn by Trumpy, the grey-winged trumpeter who looked like a ‘badly made chicken’ and clambered up into Durrell’s bedroom each morning, the day is full of characters and personalities, some human, but most not.

I laughed out loud at the antics of Delilah the porcupine and Topsy the baby woolly monkey with her guinea pig while the story of Louie the gibbon is heartwrenching. Many of the anecdotes are supported by gorgeous sketches of the animal in question.

Attitudes towards animals have changed over the last half century and modern eyes might roll a little at the tendency of Durrell to name animals or sometimes to anthropomorphise. However, as Durrell’s Senior Mammal Keeper says in the closing tribute to Durrell’s legacy, much of this was a result of Gerald’s desperate drive to protect the future of these animals, to raise funds to do so, and one huge way to do this was to make potential donors empathise with the animals in his care. This was a time when captive breeding was rare and very unsuccessful. Once the zoo was established, Durrell made a determined effort to shift the nature of its collection, moving towards animals in need of preservation and conservation. The fact that he also had an extraordinary knack of writing about animals, his zoo, his keeps and himself in such a charming and attractive manner can only have helped his cause.

Above all else, Durrell writes in the most captivating style about animals that are scene stealers. Whether it’s rescuing baby gorillas from animal dealers, chasing escaped tapirs through beautifully manicured gardens or the mammoth efforts to get two skinks to breed, there is a treat on every page. I can’t think of another writer who has made me laugh so much over the years.

May these stories live forever.

I am so grateful to Bello Books for my set of books! My old copies are battered, bruised and loved to bits. Now I can enjoy Durrell’s life all over again.