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terms-conditionsEvery December, I attend an Old Girls reunion and Christmas carol service for my old school.  It’s a fun event and I always meet the most interesting women.  There’s the Olympian with stories about her time in Brazil this summer, the children’s book author who I adored growing up, the researchers doing amazing work in their labs, and the retirees who now travel the world after lives spent in law, medicine or academia.  It’s a circle I take for granted much of the time but always appreciate reconnecting with around the holidays.  It is also a chance to cuddle babies of younger alum while eating cookies with the school logo on them – a win-win, really.

This year, the event was the perfect thing to get me in the mood for the newest release from my beloved Slightly Foxed (so popular they are now out of stock and waiting for it to be reprinted): Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, a history of British girls’ boarding schools from 1939 to 1979.  The cut off date is, delightfully, based on when the duvet became popular, ushering in an era of unprecedented comfort.  Maxtone Graham is having none of that: “the years I longed to capture were the last years of the boarding-school Olden Days – the last gasp of the Victorian era, when the comfort and happiness of children were not at the top of the agenda.”  And capture it she does, in vivid, joyful detail.

But first, an aside: how stupid do you have to be not to adopt the duvet until the late 1970s, Britain?  Of all the things you should have picked up on your continental holidays over the previous two hundred years, this would have been a really practical one.

I loved every page of this book but the introduction is particularly dear to my heart, especially when Maxtone Graham describes the prototype founders of girls’ schools:

…girls’ boarding-schools tended to be started, almost by accident, by two unmarried daughters of a widowed Victorian clergyman, who needed to “take in” a few pupils in order to pay the bills.  These sisters were often called Maud or Millicent, women with unflagging energy and small waists, who had a vision of how a girls’ school should be, and who brought their schools into existence through dogged determination, enlisting wealthy professional men (often cousins) to form the necessary company and invest in the enterprise.  These women were driven by zeal for the idea that girls could be properly educated together, as were their brothers.  They thrived on obstacles in their way.  The historians of their schools say things like, “All this might have daunted lesser mortals than the Wingfield-Digbys.”

Delightfully put and full of truth.  My own school’s history tells an almost identical tale.

In chapters ranging from “Choosing a Suitable School” to “Teaching Nuns and Kitchen Nuns” and “Fresh Air and Other Discomforts”, Maxtone Graham looks at the experiences of girls at a wide variety of schools.  Some were miserable, some happy.  Some schools valued education, while at others it seems to have been a foreign concept.  We hear about students who discovered boarding school life had little to do with Mallory Towers and others who excelled and made friends for life.

I loved hearing about the characters of the different schools.  There were so many small, obscure ones, including complete disasters where parents recklessly deposited their daughters without taking the time to discover the headmistress was an alcoholic or that the teaching staff was disappearing, leaving the upper year girls to take over teaching the younger ones.  The overachieving academic schools (school?  This seems to have been a rarity) provide few good anecdotes.  The snobbish schools that had little interest in teaching girls much beyond deportment and how to find a husband, on the other hand, are horrifyingly enjoyable to read about:

Southover was known as “the school where everyone married everyone else’s brothers”; and those brothers would certainly have been members of the landed gentry or above.  If you read the list of pupils’ addresses at the back of the Southover school magazines of those days you find a mouthwatering selection of old rectories, castles, manor houses and farms.  The acceptable home address was: name of large house; village it was quite near; county.  It was not done to live at any kind of obscure urban address, such as 24 Whitfield Road, Haslemere.  Only about one girl in the whole list did live at that kind of address and I pity her, because it stands out.  If you did have an urban address it had to be a London one, and ideally Cadogan, Belgrave or Eaton something.

The Catholic boarding schools appear to have been even more elitist:

Mother Bridget taught Latin to the juniors and she kicked off the first Latin lesson for the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: “Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.”  “Quite a few hands did go up,” remembers Maggie Fergusson, “and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin.”

You do finish the book wondering how the girls at most of these schools managed to make their way in world.  Yes, marriage can keep you out of the workforce you are ill-prepared for (that was the typical solution for the girls from the earlier years covered in the book) but by the 1970s a year at finishing school and then an early marriage weren’t on the cards for most women.  Maxtone Graham talks about their post-school lives with the women and their attitudes are varied.  Some are angry that their schools never even considered the idea their girls would want to go on to university or give them enough education for a practical career while others thought the old ways “made for a better, more stable world than today’s world of career-ambition, with all the anguish, stress and risky postponement of parenthood it can bring.”

It is a charming, completely bonkers world and, for the most part, I am delighted it is gone.  British schools aren’t particularly spectacular these days (see recent PISA scores), but at least there is an attempt to educate everyone in basic subjects to a certain level.  It is horrifying to think how some of these schools would have performed in this era of standardised testing.  The ability to remain ignorant has been severely curtailed and thank goodness for that.

However, as Maxtone Graham concludes, academic achievement isn’t the only thing that matters and the boarding schools of old had their virtues:

There was an innocence about these establishments.  They were not all about self-advancement or money-making.  They were run on a shoestring by women with high moral standards who needed to make ends meet and did so by taking in girls and forming their characters.  As much by accident as design, these girls emerged into adulthood with sources of inner strength and resolve that (often literally) can’t be measured by exam results.  The worst of the hopelessness has gone, but so have the best of the eccentricity and the most well-meaning of the amateurishness.

I’m not entirely sure I agree, being torn between my love of eccentrics and my bone-deep belief in the importance of academic achievement.  But what I am not torn over is my love for this book.  It bubbles over with humour and warmth and made for one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.  Male or female, Old Girl/Boy or not, this is a book everyone can – and should! – enjoy.

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the-romanovsI started reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore yesterday afternoon and it is, as every single reviewer assured me, wonderful.  But, like all things Romanov-related, it is also rather overwhelming:

The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambitions, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughters; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state.  Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.

The sheer level of violence is extraordinary and the drama of the dynasty is completely absorbing.  I fell into the book for a few hours and emerged able to think of nothing else but the blood-thirsty early Romanovs and their supporters.

n33964With impalements by the dozen fresh in my mind, I decided something a little – a lot – gentler was needed before bed.  I wanted something that was all the things the Romanovs were not: peaceful, good-humoured and non-homicidal.  But I wasn’t quite ready to leave Russia so I turned to that most comforting of authors, Eva Ibbotson, and her first adult novel, A Countess Below Stairs.  Its fairy-tale like beginning was the perfect antidote:

In the fabled, glittering world that was St. Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.

It was back to The Romanovs this morning but, I suspect, it will be back to Ibbotson tonight.  A perfect balance.

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Perfect Wives in Ideal HomesI read a few really excellent books right at the end of 2015, the most enjoyable of which was Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson. Nicholson writes social histories that focus on British women and in previous books she’s looked at surplus women following the First World War (Singled Out) and women’s lives during and immediately after the Second World War (Millions Like Us). Here, she has moved on to the 1950s.

For thousands of young women […] in the early 1950s, the dreams of education, career, achievement and fulfillment were within reach. The war had exploded the inequality myth. The doors were opening. But for too many, their own ignorance, fears, confining desires and expectations were bred-in-the-bone.

To tell her story, Nicholson draws on an amazing variety of first-hand accounts from:

  • a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret
  • a Jamaican immigrant
  • a beauty queen
  • a working class girl who studied at Cambridge
  • an Irish nurse
  • a miner’s wife
  • a young policewoman
  • a rock n’roll-loving Teddy girl
  • several educated but desperately isolated suburban housewives
  • and many more

Through these women and their experience, Nicholson marks the mood of the decade. She looks at the fields now open to women (all of them, basically, though women were only being paid 59% of what men received in the same roles) versus the conditioning in popular media that reminded them femininity was the most important thing. Graceful secretary, desirable air hostess, and glamorous model were presented as much more appropriate ambitions than a career as a lawyer, doctor, or politician. And, most important of all, work must come second to husband, home and children.

However, that wasn’t really the reality. “In the post-war world, there was little – except a residual belief in her own incapacity – to stop a young woman from training to become an architect, a biologist, or a lawyer. The opportunities were there.” In 1951, nearly 85% of women between the ages of 14 and 25 were working. By the end of the decade, it wasn’t just single women who were working: in 1961, 30% of married women under 30 and 36% of married women between the ages of 35 and 45 worked (up from 25% in 1951).

Nicholson chooses to focus on specific women’s experiences. This is very compelling from a story-telling perspective though I did miss having a historical or geographical context. And while Nicholson pays particular attention to women of the working class, we don’t hear much from the upper middle class – the women who followed their fathers and brothers into professions, becoming doctors and lawyers.

What she does do wonderfully is allow the women to tell their own stories. I particularly enjoyed the chapters which look at the pressure to be constantly attractive and appear pure, but also sexually alluring. A confusing enough mix which, when coupled with poor sexual education, lead to a predictable number of shotgun weddings or quiet adoptions.

We hear much about the two famous Margarets: Princess Margaret and Margaret Thatcher. Nicholson contrasts them throughout the book and it is an effective pairing: one the beautiful, feminine storybook princess whose purity and perfection, at least in the 1950s, was the pride of the nation, the other a brilliant, ambitious career woman, ready to take advantage of every opportunity available to her and brutally pilloried for it (though that would come later, once she achieved success).

Like most enjoyable reading experiences, I have my quibbles with Nicholson’s presentation of facts. Throughout the book, she treats certain topics as though they are relics of the past, specific to the 1950s, when if fact they persisted long past that decade. She treats the opposition to Princess Margaret’s relationship with Townsend as something specific to her time and gender. Given that her uncle and nephew faced similar pressure when they fell in love with unsuitable partners, there is a strong argument to be made that it is more a hazard of position than anything else. Also, bizarrely, she throws in an off-handed comment about how the women of the WI were “starting to look beyond poultry-keeping and meal preparation.” The WI started off in the 19th Century, enraged by high infant mortality rates and determined to educate and mobilize woman to combat issues such as poor hygiene, a lack of family planning, and alcohol abuse. If anything, it has become dulled and sanitized since then with its jam-making and hymn singing.

There are some disappointing anti-male comments scatted through the book (references to the walls built by men to keep women out of professions, etc). Apparently, it is natural for women to be conditioned to accept stereotypical gender roles but men have no such excuse. And they certainly do not get any credit when they did encourage women to enter the workforce and join professions, though Nicholson does acknowledge that the walls no longer existed in any meaningful way.

Overall, it is a very fascinating book and great fun to read. I added so many of Nicholson’s source books to my own to-be-read list and can’t wait to learn more about some of the fascinating women introduced to me here.

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The Fishing FleetI love to read histories and memoirs about life in British India so as soon I as heard that The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy was coming out, I rushed to place a library hold.  And as soon as it arrived at my library branch, I picked it up and read it.  I thought a book about the women who went husband-hunting in the Raj by de Courcy, whose previous books I had enjoyed so much, would be a delightful one to spend an afternoon with.  And in many ways it was.  It just wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped it would be.

De Courcy looks at the women who went to India looking for husbands during the time of the British Raj, from the mid-19th Century to 1947.  She does an excellent job of explaining why they were needed and what motivated them to come but fails to provide any real detail on how the women experienced and (hopefully) adjusted to life there.  The book is a composite of intriguing accounts culled from the letters, diaries, and memoirs of the women of the Fishing Fleet but there is very little attempt to tie the different accounts together.  Individually they were fascinating.  Combined they were a bit of a mess, albeit a well-written and, with a number of photographs included, well-illustrated one.

De Courcy’s explanations of the norms of Anglo-Indian society were useful, though (like most topics in this book) much more ably covered in Margaret MacMillan’s superlative Women of the Raj.  She points out that most British men in India were there in service to some master or another – government or military – and were not generally allowed to marry until they were around thirty, by which point they were in a hurry to find a mate after years of loneliness.  She reminds readers that the British in India were decidedly middle-class (the wealthy having no need to make their fortunes in India and the poor serving no purpose in a land where servants were easy to come by) and that social conventions were rigidly observed and generally more strict that at “Home”.  She does do a particularly excellent job of describing the bureaucratic process by which Indian wives and mixed-race children were, over some years, stigmatized (having been the norm through the 17th and 18th Centuries), thereby guiding British men to seek British wives.  And she also very ably explains why British women would risk coming all the way to India in order to find a spouse.  Middle-class men left Britain to make their fortunes in the outposts of the empire but, in doing so, left a female population sadly short of potential husbands.  In Victorian England, when marriage was the most desirable ambition for a woman, this created a problem:

From 1851 to 1911 approximately one in three of all women aged twenty-five to thirty-five was unmarried; and between fifteen and 19 per cent of women aged thirty-five to forty-five were unmarried. 

The focus is on the hunt for a husband rather than the marriage that follows and for me that was the main problem with this book.  Girl arrives off ship, finds herself with a three-to-one male-female ratio and, generally without too much fuss, finds herself besieged by suitors.  It all happened very quickly:

Getting engaged in the Raj was sometimes a bit like speed dating.  Often, minds were made up and a lifelong commitment to another human being promised after only a few meetings and without the aphrodisiac bait of great wealth, a large and splendid estate, or huge personal prestige to account for such rapidity.

To me, what would be fascinating is to know what happens after those hasty marriages.  How did the new brides adjust to their husbands and their new, frequently remote, surroundings?  There are two chapters near the end devoted to “The First Home” and “Up Country” by they are brief and not particularly informative.  Most of the accounts de Courcy shares end with the engagement or the marriage, the “happy ending”.  (Only in one case are we told that the marriage was unhappy.)

Everything is dealt with very quickly and with very little depth.  Chapters are short and jump from one topic to another, sometimes interspersed with a chapter devoted to one or another of the women.  The topics are interesting but with chapters that never exceed twenty pages de Courcy never has the room to expand on any descriptions or themes.  If possible, she used too many examples and never has time between different women’s stories to build up a detailed portrait of their experiences or to reflect on their significance to the country.  When de Courcy poses that question in the epilogue, asking “Did the Fishing Fleet girls have any real influence on the conduct of affairs in this vast country…?” it was a shock to me since nowhere in the book had she spent time reflecting on that.  Everything felt just a little too shallow.

It is a fun book to read because of the specific stories de Courcy shares from the women who went “fishing” but I think it could have been so much better

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I picked up Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright (with Bill Woodward) excited but with really no idea of what I was getting into.  I had expected a sort of memoir (the subtitle is “A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948”) but the book is actually a history with personal elements, not just of the very fascinating years from 1937 to 1948 but of all the years leading up to the war.  This is the introduction to Czech history that I have spent so many years searching for and it is frankly marvellous.

Albright begins the book by offering a brief outline of Czech history prior to the nineteenth century before starting to focus in on the modern circumstances that shaped the country she was born into.  Like all Czechs, she is very proud of her nation’s past achievements, concerned that foreigners might not be aware of them (or, worse, might attribute them to the country’s larger neighbours), and enjoys educating the reader:

By 1900, 80 per cent of the [Austro-Hungarian] empire’s industrial production was based in the historic Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia.  The literacy rate was 96 percent, twice that of Hungary and higher, even, that the German.  The economy was expanding more rapidly than that of England or France.  The Czechs were leaders in rail service, coal mining, iron and steel production, chemicals, paper, textiles, glass, armaments, and industrial machinery.  Guided by the motto “In work and knowledge is our salvation”, they developed novel techniques for processing ham and fermenting beer, made a popular liquor from beets, invented a convenient way to market sugar (in cubes), introduced the assembly-line production of shoes, and were among the first to install electric rails and trams.

This is the kind of trivia most Czechs love to bestow on the uneducated masses (which is of course why I have quoted it here – I understand my duty as a half-Czech).  It is part of the national identity, the off-told tale of the industrious, cultured, democratic nation subdued by its larger brutish neighbours.  Albright makes no attempt to appear as an unbiased historian.  She talks about writing her PhD dissertation and being challenged by her professors for her idealised view of her homeland:

Over time, I became conditioned to think of my homeland as exceptional, a country filled with humane and democratic people who had struggled constantly to survive despite foreign oppression.  The nation’s finest moments had been marked by a willingness to defend itself against more powerful foes; the saddest by a failure to fight back when betrayed by supposed allies and friends.  Its purest expression could be found in the period between the two world wars, when the Czechoslovak Republic served as a model of twentieth-century democracy within an otherwise dismal Europe.

Clearly, Albright has learned more about the nuances of human behaviour since then and some of the most interesting portions of the book deal with the moral dilemmas faced during and after the war, but, in her heart, it seems Albright still believes in the popular, idealised vision of the shining Czech democracy, never more perfect or pure than under its first leader, T.G. Masaryk.  And how easy it is to romanticise those brief years of democracy, from 1918 to 1938!  What could be more dramatic than the way it was brought to an end with the Munich Conference, when the Czechs were betrayed by their allies?  No one forgets Munich.  Albright’s family (her maiden name was Korbel) spent the war in London but just because they found shelter in the UK that did not mean that anything was forgiven:

Even with Churchill now in the prime minister’s chair, the legacy of Chamberlain and appeasement was not forgotten.  My father told a story about that period.  He had been on a bus and tripped over an Englishman’s foot.  Instead of apologizing, he said, ‘I am not sorry, that is for Munich.’  Then there was the immigrants’ ironic prayer: ‘Please, O God, give the British all the strength they will need to withstand the beating they deserve.’

Albright’s own memories play almost no part in this book.  Born in 1937, she has no memories of Prague before the war (and wouldn’t have, even if she were older, since her family was living in Belgrade where her diplomat father was posted).  The Korbels spent the war in London, where Josef Korbel organized and managed BBC radio broadcasts to the Czech people back home and where he also served under Jan Masaryk in the Czech government in exile.  Albright only recalls details from the last couple of years of the war but she gives a marvellously detailed account using other sources of what was going on both in the Czech community in England and in the occupied Czech lands.  She traces the fate of her family members detained at Terezin and then killed in Poland.  She recounts the Czech resistance’s success and failures, most dramatically the blundered assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.  She looks at the decisions involved towards the end of the war that led to the Russian forces liberating the Czech lands and establishing a foothold in the country.  She talks about the awful expulsions that went on after the war, when a vengeful nation sought to drive out all of its ethnic Germans, regardless of their alliances.  And she gives her own views on the mysterious death of Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk in 1948, officially stated as a suicide at the time by the communist government but ruled as murder in a later investigation after the Velvet Revolution.

The country that existed after 1945 was one that bore very little resemblance to the optimistic, proud nation of only a decade before.  Albright draws on her father’s writings frequently throughout the book but it was his insights into post-war Czechoslovakia that were most interesting.  He was able to understand the complexities and challenges his daughter still struggled with in her twenties, when she was receiving the critique on her starry-eyed dissertation:

In his writings, my father described a country divided among returning exiles from London and Moscow, resistance fighters, ‘sit-it-outers’, ‘comrades’ (who talked the most), and former concentration camp inmates (who said the least).  So much had happened that the sense of national solidarity had all but drained away.  Too many people had grown used to taking orders.  The Czechs who had survived the occupation resented their countrymen who had been ‘safely out of it’ in England.  Many of the exiles who had served under arms questioned the bravery of those who had remained at home.  The gulfs separating these groups, lamented my father, ‘were deep, always emotional, sometimes rational, and rarely bridgeable.’

I found every page of this book fascinating but I was truly delighted by the depth of information Albright provides.  With so much more detail, I was able to better understand some of the episodes from my own family’s history.  For example, my grandmother’s first love had been in the RAF in England during the war.  He came back after but left again in 1947.  Now I know that the Czech and Slovak military was being trained in the style of the Red Army, which meant that those men who had served with the Russian military during the war were given the most prestigious postings while the British-trained men were effectively shunned: “The Communists wanted a monopoly on wartime heroes and so redefined the London-based military as a tool of capitalist oppression.  Within a few years, the majority of the men who had fought so bravely with the RAF were either forced into exile or in jail.”  Albright’s breaking down of the criteria for dispelling ethnic Germans after the war also helped me to understand why some of my family members were exempt while others were not: my great-grandmother, an ethnic German born in Bohemia, was excused because her family had been targeted by the Nazis (her Czech husband had been killed by the Gestapo) but her two sisters, both widows of other ethnic Germans, had no such ‘proof’ of their loyalty and were so forced to reapply for citizenship, which was initially refused.

Focusing on the difficult moral choices during these eventful years, Albright adds a new and more personal dimension to the book.  Her own life story is briefly sketched over the course of the book but it is never the focus.  It is by contemplating the moral dilemmas faced by statesmen and civilians alike that she reveals more of herself to the reader.

What fascinates me – and what serves as a central theme of this book – is why we make the choices we do.  What separates us from the world we have and the kind of ethical universe envisioned by someone like Havel?  What prompts one person to act boldly in a moment of crisis and a second to seek shelter in the crowd?  Why do some people become stronger in the face of adversity while others quickly lose heart?  What separates the bully from the protector?  Is it education, spiritual belief, our parents, our friends, the circumstances of our birth, traumatic events, or more likely some combination that spells the difference?  More succinctly, do our hopes for the future hinge on a desirable unfolding of external events or some mysterious process within?

She asks the reader to ponder the complexities of responsibility and to contemplate his or her own ethical values.  It is not so that the reader can answer ‘correctly’ as to how to behave in a challenging circumstance but so that he or she can better understand the pressures that shape history and judge more fairly even the most disastrous of decisions.

I adored Prague Winter.  There is no other single English-language book out there that provides such a thorough overview and analysis of this period of Czech history and certainly not one that does it in such an engaging and approachable manner.  Trust me, I’ve been looking for over a decade.  I have read everything I could get my hands on, have grilled relatives, have absorbed any information I could find and yet still I only knew a fraction of what Albright includes here.   After I finished reading, I immediately went out and bought a copy for my aunt, who in turn leant it out to a friend as soon as she finished reading.  It is that kind of book.

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With so many books (so many) waiting to be reviewed, it is overwhelming to know where to start.  But in honour of this week’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations for the Queen, I knew just what to review today: A Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport (apparently the article was deemed necessary for the North American edition – in the UK it is simply Magnificent Obsession).  As we celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s sixty years on the throne, what could be more appropriate than to consider a book about the only other British monarch to have reached that milestone?  With the sad lack of street parties or public gatherings of any kind in my corner of the Commonwealth, this (and a celebratory fruit cake baked on Saturday) will be the extent of my celebrations.

After reading Harriet, Lyn, and especially Elaine’s glowing reviews of this last year, I was thrilled when my library copy of A Magnificent Obsession finally arrived.   I started reading immediately and did not put it down until I had turned the last page.  I have always enjoyed reading about Queen Victoria, even though I have never particularly warmed to her.  From all the biographies I’ve read and especially from her correspondence with her eldest daughter Vicky, she has always struck me as self-centred, demanding, unsympathetic, and rather irresponsible.  But I adore the intelligent, disciplined Prince Albert and am endlessly fascinated by the relationship between the Queen and her consort.

Rappaport’s subtitle is Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy and the book focuses on Prince Albert’s final illness and the following ten years, from 1861 to 1871, when the Queen retreated from public life and her official duties to wallow in her grief.  Full of detail, the book offers an absorbing and frequently disturbing chronicle of a woman who, having lost the husband she loved so passionately, throws herself entirely into the theatrical act of mourning him and protecting his memory, and of the consequences that obsession had on both her family and the way the monarchy was viewed in Britain.

The book begins by outlining the extent of the sober Albert’s influence over the frivolous Victoria and the overwhelming volume of work and intense responsibility she happily passed on to him.  After a difficult beginning to their marriage, when Albert found himself frustrated by his lack of responsibilities, he slowly and steadily assumed more vital duties.  By the 1850s, having become Victoria’s chief adviser, “Albert believed that his wife, and more importantly the monarchy, could not function smoothly without his own now-essential input.”  And the Queen believed it too, cheerfully indulging in the fantasy of herself as the dear little wife reliant on her husband’s support.  But Victoria’s reliance on Albert was too complete and her demands too exhausting:

His constant sublimation of his own needs to his wife’s far more volatile emotional ones had worn him down: always putting her first, advising, reassuring, consoling, shielding her from trouble and anxiety at every turn and being the crucial stabilising force that had enabled Victoria to fulfil her duties as Queen.

These details appear in other biographies but what really struck me about Rappaport’s description of his final years, plagued by illness, fatigue and constant stress, was his loneliness.  Albert was Victoria’s all, the focus of all her passionate worship.  But for Albert, so much more intelligent and thoughtful than his wife, so much more moderate in his emotions, his wife could never been the equal companion with whom he could share his true self.  She exhausted him.  He did have a few close male friends and his dear, brilliant daughter Vicky who could provide the kind of intellectual companionship he needed but slowly he lost them too, as the friends died and his daughter married and moved to Prussia:

By the late 1850s, with the departure of his adored daughter Vicky, who married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858, much of Albert’s vital spark had irretrievably faded; he became increasingly stern and humourless, retreating into himself more and more.  Without real friends or close intellectual peers, or his own entourage at court, or a supportive political faction in Parliament, his only consolation was his work.  And much as he loved his wife, Albert’s attachment to her was increasingly driven by the principles of reason and duty and doing the right thing.  Victoria was fundamentally his ‘gutes Wiebchen’ – the good and loyal little wife – and mother of his children.  She gave him her all, but for a man as restless as Albert it was never enough; she was not, and never could be, his soul’s mistress.  And for Victoria it was agony; there was nothing she could do to hold back the tide of melancholy and pessimism that was engulfing her husband.

The details of Albert’s final illness (the cause of which Rappaport proposes was Crohn’s disease, not the contemporary diagnosis of typhoid fever) are fascinating – everything in this book is fascinating – but it is Rappaport’s chronicle of Victoria’s first, bizarre decade as a widow that makes this book unique.  The woman turned mourning and grief into an obsession, making it difficult for her children to lead normal, healthy lives with her demands for their companionship, the strict pageantry she demanded of mourners, and her fixation on the saintliness of her dead husband.  She isolated herself away from the public – and her government – primarily at Balmoral and devoted herself to widowhood.  She was determined to memorialise Albert so that the people of Britain would never forget his significance and – of no less importance – his moral perfection.

But while the public outpouring of grief at his death had been impressive, the public memory is short and as the years of Victoria’s self-imposed isolation dragged on, sympathy waned for the “widow of Windsor”.  By 1871, with republican sentiment on the rise as the reclusive queen continued to demand large sums for private use and the scandalous Prince of Wales ran up debts, the situation seemed dire.  The sense of tension in these chapters is a testament to Rappaport’s skill; we know that the monarchy is not going to be abolished in the 1870s, we know that Victoria still has thirty years left in her reign, we know it and yet you can’t help but feel anxious, desperate for her to take up the reigns of responsibility once more or else who knows…

This is getting repetitive but it cannot be said enough: the level of detail here is wonderful.  Rappaport’s liberal quoting of Victoria’s letters and diaries is nicely balanced with the perspectives of those affected by her grief – her children, the government, and the public.  You get a wonderful sense of both the private world of Victoria’s grief and of the ever-changing world beyond her, at first sympathetic to her loss and then, as the years went on, frustrated by her absence.  From the first page to the last (the very last, since I had a wonderful time reading the bibliography) I was delighted by this book.  It is a wonderful history that reads with the intensity of a well-plotted novel and it more than lived up to my high expectations for it.

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I had so been looking forward to A Force to Be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute by Jane Robinson but found myself surprisingly indifferent to it once I started reading.  It is a good and informative book, giving a solid overview of the group’s development over the last hundred years or so, but for me it felt like there was something missing.  Robinson does a good job of presenting the facts but it felt very dry, even though the writing style is enjoyable.

To begin with, I was perhaps irrationally irritated by Robinson’s fondness for referring to anywhere in Canada as ‘backwoods’.  We have a lot of places that can legitimately be described as backwoods, being both wooded and sparsely populated.  Generally, the places that Robinson specifically referred to as backwoods were not, being either rural agricultural communities or, in one case, a provincial capital.  This is a foolishly small thing but I found it incredibly off-putting.

The WI began in the farming community of Stoney Creek, Ontario in 1897 but it wasn’t until almost twenty years later (in 1915) that it was successfully established in the UK.  From WWI to the present, Robinson chronicles the group’s accomplishments, from the requisite jam-making and ‘Jerusalem’-singing to their advocacy for more education on contentious issues like family planning and, as soldiers returned from First World War, sexually transmitted diseases.  So much of what the WI has done from the beginning, and what makes them such an admirable group, has been about making sure women had the education and confidence to improve their quality of life – all their larger contributions spring from that:

The WI’s most significant contribution to feminism remained, and remains still, what it had been from the very beginning: to equip women with the confidence to think and speak for themselves, and to make well informed decisions for their own good and for the benefit of their families and the wider community.

But, in many ways, this felt like a very shallow history.  The WI’s accomplishments are listed off and a few of their most notable champions described but always through rose-coloured glasses.  Robinson acknowledges the challenges and conflicts faced early on when the Women’s Institute was struggling to establish itself in Britain and, for me that was probably the most fascinating part of the book, especially concerning the challenges of imposing a democratic organization on a class-conscious society.  After that, everything is generally delightful and wonderful, moving from strength to strength, creating a book that becomes (I hate to say it) dull.  The WI’s achievements, impressive though they are, are presented in such a bland, uninspiring way that I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed by even their most salacious efforts, like grannies pushing for safer working conditions for prostitutes.

Really, I think my issue with the book was its complete lack of human interest.  There are lots of facts but there are none of the anecdotes that make similar histories so fascinating.  I could not help but contrast it with the excellent How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton, which was such an exciting and engaging read.  The organizations are not that dissimilar (and in fact have worked together, particularly during WWII) but Hampton’s vivid details and well chosen statistics made for a far more interesting history.  I would still recommend A Force to Be Reckoned With because of the excellent overview it does give of the WI and Robinson’s obvious enthusiasm for her subject.  I just wish she had gone into more depth, giving more details and stories, which would have made for a much more interesting read.

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