Tag Archives: Judith Flanders

The Lives of Servants

Yesterday I asked you for some advice on books set in, or written by authors from, Iceland. In a few hours I will be whizzing off there and may just have some of your recommendations in my luggage with me. I say I may as this is one of five or six posts that will be going live while I am there, so you won’t even know I am gone. Anyway today I want your recommendations for another sort of reading material that I am hankering after… reading about servants.


This might sound a little bit random, but recently servants and their history have really taken a hold of me. This probably started off a good while back when Downton Abbey, though I have to say that I have started both series two and series three, after adoring series one, and alas have given up with them both – its lost a certain something, even Maggie’s lines aren’t as good as they once were. What has really made me fascinated, and sparked this interest, is the wonderful BBC series ‘Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs’ presented by Dr Pamela Cox.

Starting from the Victorian era and on to the not too distant past over three episodes, Dr Cox looks at how the life of domestic servants has changed, their conditions and the struggle of power and rites. Imagine a younger Mary Beard talking enthusiastically about the Victorians, instead of Romans, and you can almost get the gist and I am sure you will understand why we have been gripped.

It has also been making me think about my house, which is late Georgian/early Victorian, and the history of its predecessors and servants. How do I know we have servants? Well we often have our lovely 78 year old neighbour come round for dinner who lives in the attic of our building and outside her door are the servant’s bells. Well, it gets better… I was musing about this on Twitter when a lovely man named Matthew contacted me as he is a genealogist and looks into families and the history of houses, he has been doing my house for free very kindly and look what he found out, not only did we (well I say we, but really its they) have a nurse maid and three servants in the house, one of them came all the way from Switzerland – click on the image below and you’ll see.

1901 census

Slowly but surely I am finding more and more out. We have had a few deaths in the house and also some births, sadly one birth was also one of the deaths a few months later, we have even seen an advert for the cook who would have lived here. Fascinating!

What I want now though is to be able to read even more about the lives these servants might have had, what they did and the atmosphere they did it in and I wondered if you had any recommendations. Alas Dr Pamela Cox hasn’t written one but I know Judith Flanders has a book called ‘The Victorian House’ which I have ordered from the library, but I would love to know of more, especially any diaries of domestic staff from the time. Can you help?


Filed under Book Thoughts

Victorian Based Books…

One of my favourite things to read, which Essie Fox’s ‘The Somnambulist’ reminded me of especially after talking with her about it, is a good Victorian novel and yet weirdly I have seemed to have strayed from them in the last few years. I don’t just mean the originals like the wonderful Wilkie Collins who I have binged on in the past (though I have been considering some of his novels I haven’t yet read and as you will see I have been debating trying Charles Dickens again what with his birthday having come and gone) but also the contemporary novels by authors like Sarah Waters and many more. I did have a brief binge on one after reading Essie’s, which I will be discussing tomorrow, but I think once I have finished of the wonderful letters between Nancy Mitford and a bookshop I think it is time to gorge myself on all things Victoriana. I love the dark atmosphere and sense of mystery that the period brings and it seems perfect at the moment as Britain seems to be having a big freeze. I already have three books lined up for the weekend…

‘The Sealed Letter’ is the only Victorian fiction, though contemporary, I have at the top of the TBR so far. I had to get this from the library as I forgot I had lent it to someone and suddenly fancied it. It will be my second and a half read of any Emma Donoghue, I got half way through her short story collection ‘The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits’ when someone selfishly (joking) ordered it for themselves and so back to the library it went. ‘Room’ is obviously her most famous novel but with ‘Slammerkin’ and others it seems Emma likes this period so I am hoping it is good.

The other two books are non-fiction. ‘The Maul and the Pear Tree; The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811’ by P.D James and T.A. Critchley was been inspired read by the fascinating experience that listening to the audio book of Judith Flanders ‘The Invention of Murder’ is proving to be. In the first several chapters I have listened to the case of the Ratcliffe Highway murders and not only how they were the case of the first real serial killer, but also how they changed the way the police worked. I couldn’t get enough and so pulled out this book dedicated just to that and seeing the wonderful P.D James playing a cold case detective for real, fabulous.

‘The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper’ either the official memoirs of Jack or simply the mad ramblings of James Carnac arrived by surprise the other week. I am one of those many people fascinated by this case because of course no one ever found out who Jack the Ripper was – in the case of James Carnac’s writing it could be that he really was him or that he was a bit mad and wrote a very grisly and almost too knowing novel about Jack. I am going to play detective and try to decide the truth, I have ordered a few Jack the Ripper books to read alongside this one. Does that make me a bit morbid having a grim fascination with it all?

Oh and if you are wondering what I will be reading all these on, check out this reading chair (which the books were photographed on) below, doesn’t it look like a wonderfully modern contemporary version of a Victorian chaise longue? It’s very comfy I have many wonderful hours ahead.

I am now mulling over which classic Victorian novel to dip into at some point too. I have some of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s lesser known works, some more Wilkie Collins (and I believe his biography by Peter Ackroyd is on the way) or do I take the plunge into Dickens? After all Susan Hill makes a compelling case on Dovergreyreader today, do visit. What would you recommend? Are you a fan of books set or written in the Victorian era and which are your favourites? You may inspire me.


Filed under Book Thoughts

Books at Bedtime and Audiobooks Again…

Just over a year ago I did a post that caused some quite interesting responses and debate. It was a post on audiobooks and one where I said that, for me personally, audiobooks felt like cheating. The debate ranged from people feeling the same (though people mainly emailed me this, it seemed they didn’t want to put it in print) as me, to people thinking I couldn’t be more wrong and even people taking umbrage and saying I was being discriminatory towards people with certain disabilities. The last bit I tried not to dwell on as anyone who knows me would know this wasn’t the case. I also said I would try more audiobooks out… and then didn’t really (well actually I tried some Agatha Raisins but more on those shortly).  I’d not thought about this much until BBC Radio 4 had ‘My Dear I Wanted To Tell You’ by Louisa Young as their Book at Bedtime.

For anyone who doesn’t know of it ‘Book at Bedtime’ is a show on Radio 4 each weekday evening which chooses a different book each fortnight to adapt into. ‘My Dear I Wanted To Tell You’ is a book that I have ummmed and ahhhed about reading because it has had some great praise but not ever quite seemed my thing (it’s a war book and sounds a bit like lots fo other war books if I am honest), however as Olivia Coleman was reading it – I love her acting, her comedy, her voice – I thought I would try it. I enjoyed it, I felt taken back to my childhood and the nights I would put a tape in my tape recorder to fall asleep to. Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘The Norman Conquests’ was a favourite. Yet I didn’t want to run out and buy the book, I think this is meant to be a small part of ‘Books at Bedtime’ the main being that it is, well, a book at your bedtime-ish!

This came up again when Will Wiles tweeted me the other night, when I was debating a book to actually read at bedtime last week, that his book ‘Care of Wooden Floors’ was going to be the latest Book at Bedtime choice and I should tune in. I thought about it and decided not to because I actually wanted to read the book. Hear me out before you all say ‘it is like reading a book’ because the main reason was that it would be an adaptation and if I listened and really liked it (which I have been told I would) I wouldn’t have quite had the full story, but I would know the end and might not therefore be inclined to read the entire book knowing the main spoiler. Interestingly when I listened to Agatha Raisin last year, I liked it a lot but it wasn’t the full unabridged stories and I felt a little cheated. But what about trying audiobooks again?

Fate kicked in at the weekend twofold. Firstly I realised I had ‘Nocturnes’ by Kazuo Ishiguro as an audiobook which I had no idea of (sorry Gemma at Faber as I think you gave this me, oops) and I also had the book so I could cull a book, awful reason but I was desperate, plus it was one about music and apparently this has the music in it. Then I spotted ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris on audiobook in the library and so I thought ‘I loved that book, I know it inside out, what could be a better audiobook to compare the listening-reading to reading-reading’ so I borrowed it and one more for good luck.


I now have about 65 hours of listening delight ahead. I think this mix of a book I know well, some short stories plus a non-fiction tome on a subject I love with Judith Flanders ‘The Invention of Murder; How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime’ which sounds right up my street to try out. So I now have some hopefully wonderful ‘listening-reading’ experiences ahead. Gav has been trying to convert me on The Readers so deserves a mention as I probably wouldn’t have been quite so likely to go so whole heartedly into this experiment without his pestering. I will report back and let you know my findings.

In the meantime what are your thoughts on audiobooks and Book at Bedtime/adaptations on the radio? Are they like reading-reading a real book? What have been your favourite audiobooks and what made them so good?


Filed under Audiobooks, Book Thoughts

Latest Library Loot

Did you all have a nice Easter? I do hope so. Mine was four days of doing very, very little. I have to say that I didnt do as well on the Easter reading that I had planned, I read a lot it just wasnt any of the books that I thought I would read or quite so much as I intended.

I did however do lots of relaxing. In particular film watching seemed to be the theme of the weekend which was nice. First up we went and saw ‘Clash of the Titans’ at the cinema in 3d which I thought was wonderful escapist fun (the film not the 3d effects which I think is an overated fan and will be a phase in cinema), we watched several DVD’s including the hilarious ‘Ugly Truth’ the epicly long and epicly rubbish ‘Australia’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’ which has left me with mixed feelings I need to work out. I also did manage to sneak a trip to the library with The Converted One in tow, I know wonders will never cease, and managed to get my hands on some rather delightful books…

Other People’s Daughters – Ruth Brandon (I thought this would be interesting in part because it covers the Victorian era, which a lot of my library loot was aimed specifically at after my call out for Victoriana based books, and also a fascinating insight into the lives of women of all walks of life in various periods in history)

Consuming Passions – Judith Flanders (its all about ‘leisure and pleasure’ in Victorian Britain, I was sent this by the publishers ages ago but it got lost in the post apparently)

Hector and the Search for Happiness – Francois Lelord (the only fiction book which I couldnt resist after hearing Simon T’s thoughts, will be a gooden for my ‘Lost in Translation’ unchallenging sort of challenge)

Ghost Hunters – Deborah Blum (recommended by Eva of A Striped Armchair and is not only about spiritualism and death in Victorian UK & USA and is one she rates very highly as her favoiurite non fiction book of last year)

Counting My Chickens – Deborah Devonshire (its a Mitford Memoir for one and Chatsworth is just down the road from my childhood home – and still residence of my Gran – Matlock in Derbyshire, am sure it will be a treat… do admit!)

So as you can see firstly a couple of you are to blame and secondly I am going to be having a detour from current modern fiction and heading of into the world of non fiction. I wonder how I will get on? I will actually be doing a post about Savidge Reads reading material and the contemporary-ness of it in the next day or so it just needs some more mulling over and fine tuning. So what are the latest books you have pilfered from the library? Or if you are not a library goer, what have you bought or been given of late? Have you read any of the above?


Filed under Book Thoughts

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

This Just Goes To Show…

You know what I was saying earlier about too many books? Well not long after that post had ‘gone live’ in fact once I was at work and being very busy and important and in fact had been being very busy and very important for some time I went off to make a cup of tea for myself and the team I am in (see there can be an I in team). At the kitchenette on our floor what does someone go and tell me about as I am “reading sensation novels aren’t you?” These little perfect gems of Victorian life, I could weep…


The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed – The best-selling social history of Victorian domestic life, told through the letters, diaries, journals and novels of 19th century men and women. The Victorian age is both recent and unimaginably distant. In the most prosperous and technologically advanced nation in the world, people carried slops up and down stairs; buried meat in fresh earth to prevent mould forming; wrung sheets out in boiling water with their bare hands. This drudgery was routinely performed by the parents of people still living, but the knowledge of it has passed as if it had never been. Running water, stoves, flush lavatories — even lavatory paper — arrived slowly throughout the century, and most were luxuries available only to the prosperous. The book itself is laid out like a house, following the story of daily life from room to room: from childbirth in the master bedroom, through the scullery, kitchen and dining room — cleaning, dining, entertaining — on upwards, ending in the sickroom and death. Through a collage of diaries, letters, advice books, magazines and paintings, Flanders shows how social history is built up out of tiny domestic details. Through these we can understand the desires, motivations and thoughts of the age. Many people today live in Victorian terraces, and so the houses themselves are familiar, but the lives are not. The Victorian House will change all that.

Consuming Passions: Leisure & Pleasure in Victorian Britain – Imagine a world where only one in five people owns a book, where just one in ten has a knife or a fork – a world where five people out of every six do not own a cup to hold a hot drink. That was what England was like in the early eighteenth century. Yet by the close of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution had brought with it not just factories, railways, mines and machines but also brought fashion, travel, leisure and pleasure. Leisure became an industry, a cornucopia of excitement for the masses. And it was spread by newspapers, by advertising, by promotions and publicity – all eighteenth, not twentieth century creations. It was Josiah Wedgwood and his colleagues who invented money-back guarantees, free delivery, and celebrity endorsements. nNew technology such as the railways brought audiences to ever-more-elaborate extravaganzas, whether it was theatrical spectaculars with breathtaking pyrotechnics and hundreds of extras, ‘hippodramas’ recreating the battle of Waterloo, or the Great Exhibition itself, proudly displaying ‘the products of all quarters of the globe’ under twenty-two acres of a sparkling ‘Crystal Palace’. In “Consuming Passions”, the bestselling author of “The Victorian House” explores this dramatic revolution in science, technology and industry – and how a world of thrilling sensation, lavish spectacle and unimaginable theatricality was born.

I need them now, I want them, I must have them… anyways I think that’s enough for now. Sorry! You must have been in this situation haven’t you, it’s not just me? What books did you ‘simply have to have’ after you had not long said ‘oh I think I might own too many books’? And if you are very like me… how often does this happen? Has anyone read any Judith Flanders?


Filed under Book Thoughts