All About Those Victorians

I actually wanted to call today’s post ‘All About Victorians and a Little Bit of Death’ but I thought that the second half of that sentence would either put people off or possibly attract the wrong sort of attention and so I toned it down somewhat. There is a reason behind my post today though, its not just being slightly macabre for the sake of it. I mentioned to you on Saturday that it was a big day for me at Highgate (and I was appallingly nervous) as it was the important tour guide training. I actually took a picture of a very newly uncovered tombstone that I thought might interest all you fellow book lovers because of whats carved on it…

Anyway the good news is that (hip, hip hoorah and a huge sign of relief) I am now officially one of Highgate Cemetery’s Tour Guides!! So should you happen to venture there on a weekend after the 10th of April then you might get me taking you around. Naturally I now want to be the best tour guide ever, unlikely as some of them have been there for a decade or more and know so much it makes me feel quite vexed, and so I am on the hunt for more reading matter that can bump up my knowledge of the Victorian era and even all things deathly, which means I need to face one of my reading weaknesses… Non fiction!

As you can see above I have dug out a few non fiction goodies I already own that might help me. ‘Necropolis’ by Catherine Arnold is a book about ‘London and its dead’ that I mentioned a while ago, dug out of the TBR and then promptly forgot to read. ‘Stiff’ and ‘Six Feet Over’ are the two of Mary Roach books that I have been meaning to read for ages, the first is all about what happens to your body after you die and latter is all about the afterlife which the Victorians were very into. ‘Underground London’ by Stephen Smith is about what lies underneath London that you might be missing out on and discusses some of the cemeteries etc. Finally Jessica Mitford’s book ‘The American Way of Death’ might be slightly off track and in the wrong country but it might have some relevant bits and we do get a lot of American visitors to the cemetery and I have been told ‘engaging with your audience is key’.

I need your help though. Not only do I think that there are more books on this subject I am more than likely missing out on I have a huge gap in my knowledge and that’s the in’s and out’s of Victorian life and the history of 1800 – 1900. I did get sent both ‘The Victorian House’ and ‘Consuming Passions’ by Judith Flanders in the post but they went missing which was very vexing and the publishers didn’t send a second set. I have heard these are marvellous though. What would you recommend? I can guarantee many of you will have wondrous recommendations of books that I should give a read and if you do I would be thrilled.

You might also know some places to go that I haven’t thought of. I dragged The Converted One and my friend Michelle round Brompton Cemetery yesterday (they filmed some of Sherlock Holmes there, so a sort of tenacious bookish theme there too).

I have also already done Kensal Green, which I previously shared with you, and aim to do the rest of the Magnificent Seven in due course. But apart from cemeteries where else might I go and visit? I know I live in London but I often find people who don’t hear or secret places those of us living here pass by. So that’s your mission today, to recommend places of Victorian interest to visit that I might have missed and even more importantly books on Victorians that I must, must read.


Filed under Book Thoughts

64 responses to “All About Those Victorians

  1. Congratulations, Simon! The tours will be so exciting and I love the new book tombstone that has been unearthed.

    I’ve been to West Norwood Cemetery, on of the Magnificent Seven, and the Greek Orthodox section was interested. I recognised the Sherlock Holmes setting from the photograph!

    I’ve been wanting to read Stiff by Mary Roach for some time as I’ve heard great things. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh is very good, albeit fiction set in America.

    I recommend buying a companion to Victorian literature and culture (I think the one I used at uni was published by Blackwell). Most of what I know about Victoriana I learned from literature, especially Dickens.

    • Its really exciting that they keep unearthing these wonderful tombstones. Mind you with well over 52,000 graves and lots of undergrowth there are always going to be some to find… well not always.

      I havent heard of The Loved One, I am going to have to see if The Converted One might get me a copy of the lovely orange spined ones.

      I think Dickens is an author I really need to give a try.

  2. Dot

    Congratulations Simon!! Very exciitng!

  3. farmlanebooks

    Congratulations! I haven’t been to Highgate so I’ll have to ensure I get there some time soon.

    I’m afraid I don’t know much about non-fiction, although I am looking forward to reading those Mary Roach books.

    Have you read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters? It is the best Victorian fiction book I know and highly recommend it if you haven’t tried it already.

    • I have yet to read Fingersmith Jackie. Because I only have that and Tipping The Velvet of Waters work left and so am savouring them as there probably won’t be a new Waters for a while.

      I am intrigued by Roach, I think I will start out with Stiff and see how they go.

  4. gaskella

    Well done Simon! I’ve got Stiff on my wishlist and Necropolis in the TBR piles too. I’m useless at Victorian stuff, but am a huge fan of Waugh’s ‘The Loved one’ which Claire mentioned.

    • Thanks Annabel. I am wondering if asking at the library will bring up any unusual and interesting leads there, you always find some wonderful random no longer published books in one of my local libraries if you are lucky.

  5. You could go to The Old Curiosity Shop (as mentioned in Dickins) I havent been there but my father has. Its just north of the Strand, on Portsmouth Street.

    Other than that theres the Jack the Ripper sights, Whitechapel looks very different now but you can still see little details like where the original pavement was etc.

  6. Congratulations! Does this mean you will be my tour guide during the UK book bloggers weekend?

    I’m currently reading OUP’s “The Arsenic Century” – a chapter at a time, it is true but it is fascinating – all about the perils and poisons of life during Victorian times.

    As for death, try Jim Crace’s “Being Dead”.

    • It could mean I might very well be, depends if I am on shift that weekend and which tour time you end up on. You can’t unfortunately predict which tours you get.

      Oh that OUP book does sound wonderful. I will have to look up more about it, and the Crace too, thanks Lizzy!

  7. Congratulations Simon! As it happens, FH and I have been talking for ages about doing the Highgate tour. I’ll make sure we come along after April 10th in that case!

  8. Yay Simon! We never doubted your success for even a moment.

    How about Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey? Although it focuses on only four figures from the period, it has great insight into the time and all is delivered with Strachey’s characteristic wit. Who thought that Victorians could inpsire humor?

    • I havent heard of Lytton or that book so thats one book to most definitley look out for thanks Frances. I do like some humour now and again, I have heard Stiff is very funny in parts.

  9. Jenny

    Congratulations! That’s great! I hope you have a lot of fun with it 🙂

  10. Susan in TX

    Congratulations, Simon! Somewhere I saw that there is an iPhone app for “literary London,” which may not be at all helpful, or what you are looking for. I’m embarrassed that I don’t remember more about it, but as I don’t have an iPhone, and won’t get to go to London for awhile yet, I didn’t give it my full attention. I’m sure you could “google” it up, though.

  11. Susan in TX

    Meant to say also, that I thought the tombstone was outstanding! (Can you say that about a tombstone? 🙂 )

    • You can indeed Susan. This is a particularily bookish one, though there is another actually its much more hidden away though. They are some utterly amazing non bookish ones.

  12. You need to have a chat with Ana/Nymeth from Things Mean Alot. She is THE QUEEN of Victorian literature. If I ever get back to London, you can bet I will be visiting the Highgate Cemetary, and will request you! Congrats!

    • Hahaha you cant do requests for guides I am afraid, though I find the idea of all of you turning up and doing that quite comical and very flattering!

      I shall drop Nymeth a line.

  13. Rob

    Congrats on the appointment Simon! As for recommendations on the Victorian age, a bit after my specialist period I’m afraid. So I’m going to remain quiet on that one.
    Good luck

  14. Congratulations, Simon! That is awesome – a tour guide for Highgate – WOW! Reminds me of Martin in Her Fearful Symmetry. You are going to have so much! And I loved that picture of the book tombstone – amazing! Cheers!!

  15. How fun! Congratulations. Love the tombstone in the picture above.

    Have you read Her Fearful Symmetry? One of the main characters is actually a guide at the cemetery, and most of the story takes place in a flat that borders one of the cemetery walls. It had some neat details about the history of Highgate – author clearly did some research, although how much is embellished for fiction I could not say.

    There’s also a British publisher called Shire that has published a series of books on the Victorians, including one on Subterranean London and one called The Victorian Cemetery (there’s also the Victorian Hospital, Asylum, Undertaker, Farmer, Home, Childhood, etc). Anyway, the cemetery one would probably be fitting!

    And to second Claire’s comment above, Stiff, by Mary Roach, is excellent – I never thought cadavers could make me laugh so hard!

    • Hi Kerry, I have indeed read Her Fearful Symmetry and Audrey is actually a guide at the cemetery still. I havent had the pleasure of meeting her yet but am very eager to. Shire books sound awesome, I am going to have to have a good look through their back catalogue.

  16. Congratulations! I am not very useful as I have no recommendations but though I would pass along the congrats anyway 🙂

  17. Congratulations! I am so very envious! 😛

  18. As a mad keen Victorianist with a penchant for Gothic valhallas like Highgate I honestly think you can’t beat Dickens, Dickens and more Dickens, plus Sarah Waters’ modern take on them in Affinity and Fingersmith. But my all time sweeping Victorian pastiche that takes in the social history brilliantly is undoubtedly Charles Palliser’s ‘The Quincunx’ – and in my humble opinion it’s much better than ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. I need to revisit Highgate for my next project which is on the death of
    Prince Albert – so will look out for you!! Best, Helen

    • Helen it is an honour having you come by and comment on the blog so thank you very very much. I desperatley want your Beautiful For Ever, no one took my hints that I made very loudly though in the lead up to my birthday which was most vexing and I am on a bok buying ban this year. Will have to hope my library get copies in.

      I didnt know Albert had links to Highgate, but then again I am very knew to it all. I am becoming a bit of a victoriana obsessive first was the sensation season and now this… if only we could get time machines, I would love to go back at varying points and visit Highgate and see it in all its guises.

  19. Erika

    There are many photographs of dead children on These were a Victorian photographic occupation as many of the children had never had a living photograph taken of them. These are very moving, not gruesome.

  20. Congratulations!! I should say your post reminded me of Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, err.. LOL! I am myself trying to read more non-fiction, so I can see what you mean! Good luck though!

  21. Emma Stickley

    It may be a bit specific, but The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal is amazing, as is The Pre Raphaelite Sisterhood both by Jan Marsh. The Victorians by AN Wilson may also be of interest.
    It all sounds very exciting!

    • Yet more books that I have now listed to look up as I had heard nothing about them until you mentioned them. Thanks Emma.

      • Emma Stickley

        You’re welcome – the first two are both ones I used for my dissertation on Lizzie Siddal, so I may be a bit biased towards them, but The Victorians is a good general book to have a look at. Can you now get to see the Rossetti plot on the tours? Anyway – here is me getting carried away with all things Lizzie, I’ll stop now!

  22. Dabarai

    Hello, I have bumped at your blog yesterday and I like it a lot. As for Victorians, is The Victorians by Paxman? Or is it too obvious?

  23. Louise

    Congratulations! I remember visiting Highgate Cemetery many years ago and being fascinated. I’m assuming you have read Falling Angels by Tracey Chevalier – set at Highgate Cemetery. I’ve not read many Victorian non-fiction books but a few of my favourite fiction books set in the era are Fingersmith and The Crimson Petal and the White.

    • I havent read Falling Angels but its one we were talking about quite a lot on the training over the last couple of weeks and is one I should have asked for my birthday, oh I am vexed at my lack of forward thinking.

  24. i have Stiff at home that is waiting to be read.

    have you read To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis? i just finished that last week and it was excellent. it’s not your typical Victorian novel, so it may not fulfill your particular needs at the moment, but it’s still really great.

  25. Wow! Knew you could do it.

    Are you allowed to mention where Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko is buried?

    In terms of other Victorian places to visit, have you been to Postman’s Park? I’ve got pics here:

  26. Lela

    You might enjoy this link, it is full interesting Victorian tid-bits.

  27. Mae

    Congratulations! Does it sound really awful to be lusting after a tombstone? And have you read Audrey Niffenegger’s ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’? Highgate cemetery features prominently.

  28. Eva

    Congrats! And Necropolis by Catherine Arnold sounds really neat. 🙂

    Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum was one of my fave nonfiction reads last year. It’s about turn-of-the-century spiritualism & scientific studies of death in both the US and UK. If that helps!

  29. Eva

    Oh, forgot to add that I have a few nonfic titles on my Our Mutual Read challenge list that are about life in Victorian England. I haven’t read them yet, but Victorian London by Liza Picard and Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders both sounded interesting to me!

    • Judith Flanders I mentioned above she has a couple of amazing books about victorian times. I hadnt heard of the Picard book but that sounds like it couldbe right up my street too.

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  32. louise

    Just headed back to this post to say I am currently reading ‘The Victorian House’ by Judith Flanders (picked up for £2 in charity shop yesterday). it seems to be a good read.

  33. What happened to you, Simon? We’ve not seen you down the cemetery for a long time. Best wishes, Sam

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