Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife

I actually wrote this ramble after I first read the book, about two years ago. However, I recently reread it because it is the sort of book which is easy to read but also very rewarding every time. When I first read it and watched it, I was about 4 months behind everyone else regarding the ‘trend’ – as usual. I only started watching the series after my grandmother and I were talking about her life in the East End at teaching college in the fifties. Call the Midwife is set in the same time period and is, according to my grandmother, fairly accurate. Obviously such productions take artistic license and I am sure that it wasn’t quite so clean on the streets, but the reassurance of general accuracy is comforting somehow. Then I read the books and (as always) they were even better, but this time the BBC had done a good job. Actually, the BBC adaptations are usual good. Of course they edited but where they had it made sense.

The TV series made me cry with laughter and cry with sadness. The most stirring scene was one I didn’t remember from the book, namely the death of Mater, Chummy’s mother. Oh how I cried – it was so so sad!! All the portraits are heartfelt and real and the tragedies are not oversentimentalised. I thought. Because I’d seen the TV-series I knew which books I did or did not want to read. I do not think I could read In the Shadow of the Workhouse without crying over every page. That book features the veteran and the siblings shown on TV and Jennifer Worth’s style of writing is so open and easy to read but so astute that it makes it even more poignant.

Some stories are only one chapter long; some portraits of a family are strung out over several chapters. But what always amazed me was the casual acknowledgement that nurses and midwives in their uniform would never be molested or even really talked to because their profession was so respected. In uniform they could go where even policemen would only go in pairs (and only if they couldn’t help it). This respect is something to long for when many women of whatever profession cannot walk the streets without comments, jeers or even physical abuse. And yet the midwives’ respectability also seems to imply that life for women in the East End at that point would have been more dangerous than Worth admits. She mentions all kinds of women, the more well-to do (perhaps in a comparative way) as well as the homeless and completely destitute. But while she always emphasises the communal spirit that played down problems the gaps in her writing imply a more dangerous and problematic world. However, as Worth says towards the end of Farewell to the East End which describes the changes brought about by the demolition of the docks and the rehousing of families, the destruction of the community of the East End was not necessarily a turn for the better. The houses were bigger, cleaner and safer. However, tearing a family apart that was not defined by blood-ties, makes me wonder how high the cost was.

Now while that last bit sounds as if I’m a bit of an ‘oh let’s go back to the old days’ kind of person which (at my age) would seem more than a little odd, as I have no idea what life was like in the fifties, I do think that the idea of asking someone to ‘watch my baby out here while I pop in to the shop to get bread’ is very nice.In this day and age the concept of trust has changed and the concepts of responsibility, of health and safety and of childcare have changed drastically – some for the good and some, arguably, for the worse.

The occasional problem with TV series and novels is a tendency to romanticise life in the past, the present or even in the future. It is easy to stand at a distance from a culture or a time and say: ‘This is ideal’. Generalisations are never good (an oxymoronic sentence, surely?). I appreciate the difficulty of ‘getting it right’; it seems as if you either romanticise or exaggerate, in this case, squalor and dirt. And because of this Worth’s focus on the community or family allows a glimpse of life in the East End without judging or pretending to be the complete image. A window into a way of life. Not good. Not bad. Just perceptive – with maybe a few embellishments.


Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park

Having ended my last post with a reference to The Provincial Lady in Wartime (which probably only those very careful readers of mine who happen to know the book will have noticed), this post ties in quite neatly with the Second World War theme. I am aware that a post on the First World War would be more appropriate, considering the ongoing commemoration of the outbreak a century ago, but I have not recently read any great books on the Great War – other than the already written-about book about the Scotting Women’s Hospitals. So, for now, to the Second World War.

I actually read this book last year, and blogged about it too, but I came across it again the other day and, amid the recent re-opening of part of Bletchley Park to the public, renewed my interest in the subject. Before I read this book, I did not know that Bletchley even existed. I’d heard of Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, but only because I’ve studied his brother Ronald Knox’s work. I’d never heard of Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman or Tom Flowers before. And yet those four were part of the code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park where they broke into Enigma and its Japanese equivalent during the Second World War. I’d certainly heard of Enigma.

II didn’t understand much of the code-breaking technique – cribs and hints because you recognize names etc. But having never seen anything written in code I think I am excused. This fact also made me admire the men and women even more, because they came into the whole job having about as much of a clue as I do now. And they shortened the war by two years without being able to tell anyone that they did it. One of the saddest things I read in the book was that one of the young men could not even tell his father on the latter’s deathbed how vital his work had been – and his father had died thinking that his son had shirked his duty. Little did he know that his son’s sense of duty was so acute that, even 10 years after the war had ended, he couldn’t divulge the secret work. This young man was not alone. All of the young people working at Bletchley felt that they couldn’t tell their nearest and dearest. However, nobody asked and that was what astonished me most. Although I did like one girl’s way of making people lose interest: she said she was a typist. Which was true but no one was to know what she was typing up.

What I liked especially was the balance between the war and civilian life. Every other chapter or so was dedicated to the culture and day-to-day life of Bletchley Park. It reflected the general British sentiment of “carry on as if there wasn’t a war on”. Despite the bombs (and Bletchley was lucky to receive only two direct hits – another reason for the intense secrecy!) and despite rationing there were stories of dances, plays and pantomimes, love stories, stories about the stealing and disappearance of tea mugs – stories that lightened up an otherwise grim story.

The book unites the familiar tales of the Battle of Atlantic, the Blitz and D-Day but the backdrop of Bletchley Park (or BP as the code-breakers referred to it in code) gave the world a whole new dimension as well as giving rise to even more conspiracy theories. However, the author does a very good job of remaining objective and academic and lets the story speak for itself.

In addition to this book I would recommend Mavis Batey’s biography of Dilly Knox. He was a character and her memoirs of this great scholar, historian and friend are touching and fascinating at the same time. Batey herself is part of McKay’s book. She worked with Dilly breaking the code and it was interesting to read an insider’s view of the whole period. Not that, when you read closely, much is revealed. The secret of Bletchley still holds somehow, even if the basic facts are known.

Rethinking my reading has also made me want to revisit Das Boot, a German classic about a U-boat during the war in the Atlantic. It’s a fascinating account of a cat-and-mouse game but the roles of cat and mouse are constantly interchanged. I am a bit tired of World War Two – as a young woman who went through the German school system, we spent much time on what is called ‘Aufarbeitung’ – making sense and learning about that black period of German history. However, books such as McKay’s and Batey’s show that, even for one weary of the topic there are always different aspects to learn about.

Brian Dolan, Ladies of the Grand Tour

Well, I got this book for my last birthday and it’s already almost my birthday again. It doesn’t often take me that long to read a book but this is a great book for dipping in and out of.

For those who are not entirely sure what the Grand Tour is or was, this term describes the journey British men of the upper classes made through Europe after they finished their formal schooling. The Tour was supposed to finish off their education, give them a chance to experience other cultures and make them into better politicians and members of society. In reality, the Tourists often returned having spread their seed and gathered up the art and memorabilia from famous sights in France, Italy and Germany – the main stopping points of the time.

This book is a great introduction to female travellers and travel writers in the 18th and early 19th century. Famous names include Mary Wollstonecraft, Fanny Burney, Georgiana Devonshire and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. All the women come from fairly different backgrounds, although obviously they are from what the British have termed the upper middle class or aristocracy. Nevertheless, their upbringing and their reasons for travelling are often wholly different. One woman travelled with her sister and her father, who wanted to show Europe to his daughters. Another travelled to escape a loveless and humiliating marriage. Yet others were widowed and journeyed because they finally had the freedom and the means to do so. All these women are united in the fact that they wrote about their journeys – what they enjoyed, what they saw, whom they met and what they did not like. The letters, journals and books capture contemporary events such as the French Revolution, often in more detail and more focussed on the actual surroundings than men’s writings of the period, which often focus on the politics and the less visible ideas behind it all.

The chapters themselves focus on different aspects of the Grand Tour – art, travel, society, sickness, relationships, politics and others. Whilst some might say that the Grand Tour must have been different for men and women, Dolan shows a fair amount of similarity between the two. Both collected art, socialised and endured the difficulties of travel in those years. Women focussed on sketching famous paintings and a well-educated and skilled female traveller would win as much admiration for her drawings as she would for her writing and perhaps more so, as drawing was an accepted feminine pastime. British women also used their travels to get to know French salon culture, a world where the women held court, presided over the intellectual scene of the day and encourage the development of the arts. Salons were places for politicians, artists and intellectuals looking for stimulating conversations – places where the woman was accepted as often the first among equals. Such as situation was unthinkable in Britain before the female Tourists introduced their countrymen to it and their writings and gatherings contributed so much to the emancipation of women in the time.

Travels also brought about interesting conflicts between politics, patriotism and personal interests. Hester Piozzi was shunned by her British friends for converting to Catholicism when she married her second husband, an Italian. Other women were accused of losing their place, of transgressing boundaries and of putting themselves in needless danger without considering their husbands or children. Yet many of the women were also unmarried spinsters or widowed – women who were often marginalised by society who found a purpose in their travels. For these women, travelling became a sort of career, replacing housekeeping and childbearing.

Attentive readers will have noticed that I do not name many women. That is because sometimes this book feels like a Russian novel – too many characters with very similar names. I often felt that as long as I called a woman Mary Elizabeth I’d probably got half of her name right. Few women stood out as Mary Montagu or Hester Piozzi did and I feel let down by my own memory that I can not remember more details about these remarkable women. Perhaps the book would have been better served with biographical chapters. Despite the short biographies at the end of the book I got inordinately confused between the women and their often similar travels. But then, I suppose, I can always go back and re-read because no doubt there are many details which I have failed to pick up this time.

Ruth Goodman, How to be a Victorian

Self-help manual for people interested in steam punk or social history of the Victorian age. I reckon this book could be either.

What grabbed me was the illustration on the dust-jacket about wearing a corset, including the sage advice that breathing might be difficult especially once liberated from the corset. Ruth Goodman is an academic but, in a similar way to Dr Lucy Worsley, seems to enjoy trying things out for herself. For some, it might be grating and frustrating to almost lose the history in the ‘faff’. However, I have always been interested in social history more than military or political history. I’m interested in why people acted the way they did, how they lived and how those lives influenced history, culture and, most especially, literature.

The life of the upper middle class and aristocratic woman has always interested me in particular because the life of the working class woman has been well researched and documented, as have the lives of the gentlemen. Yet I find that the upper class lady has been forgotten – probably because their lives appear vapid and subsumed in fashion and parties. But precisely these things fascinate me. In these ladies’ lives we find a return to medieval sumptuary laws, if only implicitly. Women found different outlets for their energy which they were not, by society, allowed to exert elsewhere. The rules and regulations of upper class society are fascinating and complex, I find, and (naturally) differ from country to country.

Ruth Goodman’s book is not a history of women, nor a history of the upper class. It is a broad social history of the Victorian age with additional tidbits such as the best Victorian toothpastes which actually work and are all organic – and which make-up is best to avoid because of its toxic contents.

The writing is very engaging and I really liked the structure of the book, because it starts in the morning and ends in the evening. It’s a very good way of avoiding confusing excursions from a chapter. However, I did miss, in the leisure section, an in-depth discussion of the theatre. This is where my interest in the upper class comes back in again because the theatre is a social circle in its own right with its own rules and its behaviour. I appears I have found my next book – but maybe I need to finish the book on the Grand Tour first.

Eileen Crofton, Angels of Mercy

Well now first of all – apologies for the long absence! Perhaps, you think, I might just not have had time to write about all the books I’ve read. Yet to be perfectly honest, I haven’t had the time or the energy to actually finish a book in a long while. And now there will hopefully be two or three posts in fairly quick succession because I have finally finished some books!

After a brief foray into light reading or the modern novel, I returned to my interest in history. As this year marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, I had wanted to read a book related to this subject. However, it appeared to be hard to find a book which doesn’t just deal with the more well-known Western Front in the usual manner. Imagine my glee when I discovered a book about women on the front!

The rather naff title (sorry!) disguises a really fascinating story of the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont, France. This hospital was situated directly on the front line from late 1914 and was staffed and run entirely by women – with the exception of the occasional male helper and the French chef. Women had only been allowed to qualify as doctors since the late 19th century and the Royaumont staff included many of the early pioneers – surgeons Francis Ivens, Agnes Savill, Ruth Nicholson, bacteriologist Elsie Dalvell and radiographer Edith Stoney.

The women did everything – the more obvious nursing tasks such as dressing wounds and cleaning wards, but also the cooking, carrying the injured men up and down stairs on stretchers and collecting the wounded from the clearing stations. The chauffeurs faced great dangers as they often had to drive at night through German shell attacks, especially in the final months of the war.

The hospital was on the front line during the battles of the Somme and in 1917 the women were asked by the French government to establish an outpost at Villers-Cotterets, even closer to the front line, to be used as a clearing station for the wounded. This outpost had to be evacuated as the Germans suddenly advanced in early 1918 and the last women only just escaped after all the wounded and the staff had been evacuated.

The hospital remained in action until May 1919, when it was finally closed. Many of the women who started out as orderlies or nurses went on to become doctors and surgeons. The women of Royaumont and the other Scottish Women’s Hospitals opened up the field of medicine for their fellows as women had previously been almost completely confined to gyneacology – apart from the few, like Elsie Inglis and Frances Ivens who had dared to be different.

These incredible women helped the French soldiers, whose own government was unprepared for the horrors of the injuries in the trenches – even more unprepared than the British and the Germans. By the end of the war, these doctors had contributed pioneering research into gas gangrene, radiology, surgery and bacteriology.

Whilst I did not necessarily always like Ms Crofton’s style of writing, her book was absolutely fascinating and is definitely worth a read.

John Julian Norwich, A History of England in 100 Places

This is another recycled post but I enjoyed the book so much I thought I’d share it!

When I got the book for my birthday I thought something like ‘hmm – wonder if I’ll actually finish that’. Then I started reading it and found it very easy to read. Norwich has a style of writing that lends itself to historical anecdotes and this book is basically a collection of well-researched connected anecdotes. The author himself is aware of the restrictions of the book; it concerns only England and many places mentioned are used as a gateway to a period of history rather than the history of a specific place. Thus, the story of Battle Abbey is the story of the Norman Conquest, the events leading up to it and most of King William’s reign – not just the story of the Battle of Hastings. However, this does mean that although Lord Norwich was restricted to 100 places, the reader actually gets an insight into many more places and much more history than the title itself suggests.

The places chosen are an eclectic mix of ‘serious scholarly stuff’ and, if you will, ‘pop history’. For example, the places chosen for Anglo-Saxon England are Sutton Hoo, Lindisfarne, St Peter-juxta-Mare in Essex and Offa’s Dyke. Sutton Hoo has been popularised in recent years thanks to the discoveries and new findings made there. Lindisfarne has always seemed to me to be a bit like the Isle of Avalon – mystical, mythical, not quite real, but I’d at least heard of it. The church of St Peter’s is, Norwich conjectures, the first one in England (ca 653) and Offa’s Dyke – well, to most people it’s probably a great walk. So we have two places that people not generally versed in historical literature might have heard of and two places which are lesser known or known for other things. Such a pattern continues until the twentieth century when the places include the Lizard Marconi Wireless Station, Coventry Cathedral, Watford Gap Motorway Services and Mendips (otherwise known as the childhood home of John Lennon if you didn’t know – I didn’t).

Two things I particularly liked about the book. I was really glad of the photos – and I think 98 of the places chosen for the book have a photo. Nevertheless, some show only a part of the building or place which is, occasionally, disappointing but it fits with the necessity of brevity displayed throughout. The other thing I found very helpful was that all the places are presented in bitesized chunks. It is as easy to dip in and out of this book as it is to read a whole period in one go. Great bedtime reading and definitely for anyone with a passing interest in British history.