Tag Archives: Victorian Life

What Makes Us Tougher or More Forgiving Of The Books We Read?

I am currently reading ‘Fanny and Stella; The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian London’ by Neil McKenna and so far I am really enjoying it. As many of you will know I am fascinated by the Victorian period and will generally purchase or seek out any book that is set in that era either written at the time or the contemporary neo-Victorian novels. One of the things that I have noticed lately, though less with non-fiction like ‘Fanny and Stella’, is that I am much, much tougher on these books, particularly the latter and I have been meaning to chat on here about it for a while. Do you think we are tougher on the books that we assume we will love when we start them?

I noticed recently that with two really good books, ‘When Nights Were Cold’ by Susanna Jones and ‘Tom-All-Alones’ by Lynn Shepherd, which I had picked up in part because they were set in the Victorian era and so the Victoriana magpie in me had simply had to have them both. Yet I think, in hindsight, I was tougher on them than if I had read anything by either author set in another period. So therefore what drew me to the books was what made me all the more critical of them.

I think this is partly because of my personal knowledge of, and fascination with, the time (the amount I studied to be a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery, which involves tests and allsorts or did when I joined) and also because I read so many of them. It is natural that the more we read the tougher we are with what we do and don’t like isn’t it? Here I may as well say that I now compare more Victoriana novels to Jane Harris’ ‘Gillespie and I’ or something by Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins. I am not sure it is such a fair comparison with the latter two as they are classics of the time and two of the great writers of the time. Yet that does stick in my mind a tiny bit.

This doesn’t just happen with books on my favourite subjects or set in my favourite eras though, it can happen with hyped books or the latest book by our favourite authors. I find it harder to be so impartial with those books too. I know that I am always harder on books that have received a lot of hype from the press, bloggers, friends etc. I am also much more forgiving if the latest novel by my favourite author is not as great as I was expecting, just because it is my favourite author. Fickle aren’t I? Though aren’t we all to varying degrees? It is something I have been pondering so I thought I would throw it out there to all of you.

Do you find that you are harder on books when you love the subject, genre or author or do you find it is the other extreme? What are those subjects, genres, authors or even types of literature? Do you think the more we read the pickier we naturally get? Do you have books that you set as milestones for other books to be compared to and if so what are those books and why?


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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?


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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.


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