Friday 24 July 2020

Non-Fiction: Queen Victoria by Lucy Worsley (2018)

Victoria served as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 until her death in 1901, making her the longest serving monarch up until Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.
Lucy Worsley’s book uses letters, diaries, and other material to explore twenty-four days in Victoria’s life with insights into the era which was named after her.
Naturally, there has been a plethora of books written about Victoria and her reign with a wide range of opinion, speculation & gossip - some of it sympathetic and some not.
This book looks at Victoria’s life from her birth & childhood up until her death and shows her growth and development as a woman and a leader, her relationship to her husband Albert and their nine children, (she outlived three of them) and her interactions with various members of her staff and the government of the day.
When Victoria was still a baby, her father died of a fever leaving his wife, Victoire, in sole charge of their child. Unfortunately, as he was dying, he advised his wife to put her trust in his friend and servant, John Conroy, a trust that would cause much trouble later on as Conroy exerted his control over Victoire and Victoria.
As the years passed it became more probable that Victoria would one day sit on the throne and so her life was carefully regulated and controlled under the ‘System’ that Conroy devised for her.
Victoria and Albert met when she was sixteen but even though their meeting had been clearly arranged, she was resolved not to marry until she was twenty.
Three weeks after she turned eighteen William IV died and Victoria became Queen. Conroy had hoped to exert his power through Victoire as Regent in the likely event that William died before she came of age, but the king had hung on and now Victoria could rule in her own right. And Victoria rose to the occasion.
Pressure had been put on the queen to marry and at last she posed the question to Albert, as was her prerogative, and he accepted.

Victoria often used the third person to describe her actions as queen:

‘Had she been engaged to the Prince a year sooner,’ Victoria explained in later life, ‘she would have escaped many trials.’

Nine children were born to them and Albert took on many duties Victoria would normally would have done had she not had the responsibilities of motherhood.
Worsley portrays Albert as a bit of a controller with a hardened attitude in areas of royal business as opposed to Victoria, who she considered was more conciliatory by nature.
After the birth of their first child Victoria said that Albert’s care for her, ‘was more like a mother...’
Worsley observed that, 
‘The words ring true, but they were perhaps strange ones to use of a husband: a ‘mother,’ a ‘judicious’ nurse. In fact, Albert was infantilising his wife.’

Albert was also portrayed as very moralistic, almost prudish - characteristics that are often associated with the Victorian Era. He was also said to have been very exacting of his children and expected them to be studious, which Bertie, especially, did not live up to.

Albert’s untimely death, supposedly from Typhoid Fever, at the age of only 42 years was devastating to Victoria. Since their marriage she had come to depend more and more upon her husband’s involvement in ministerial affairs.
A decade of mourning followed for Victoria during which she was absent bodily from public life but now her wayward eldest son, Bertie, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of his father’s death, was almost at death’s door himself.
When Bertie unexpectedly pulled through his illness, Victoria emerged from her more isolated existence and began to ‘re-possess her power...She returned to her best self, the self she had lost in Albert, had begun.’

This was a good introduction to the life of Queen Victoria and I liked the ‘twenty-four day’ approach as it helped to give an overview of her life in general. The author presents Queen Victoria as a complex person with faults and eccentricities but also as a person who was affectionate and sympathetic. Her unusual pressurised upbringing prepared her in many ways for her future role but it also disadvantaged her in other aspects, and certainly didn’t help her in her role as a mother.
Victoria came to the throne at a time when society was less comfortable with women in power than the Tudors and Stuarts were with their queens, but her strength was to rule through influence rather than power.
According to the author, on the one hand Victoria was very socially conservative but on the other she was ‘tearing up the rule book for how to be female.’ (I don’t know if this is just a modern take on Victoria or not.)
Reading this book filled in many gaps for me regarding Queen Victoria and it did so in an engaging way. Worsley presents Victoria as a multifaceted woman about whom you could feel both sympathy and dislike. I thought it was awful how she basically treated her unmarried daughters as ladies in waiting and her expectation that her youngest daughter, Beatrice, would not marry but stay with her as scribe and general dogsbody was appalling. (Beatrice did eventually marry but only after she’d promised her mother that she and her very good-natured husband would live with the queen!)

‘In this book I have questioned, sometimes undermined, the story of Albert and Victoria’s endlessly, superbly, unquestionably happy marriage. But for Victoria, his charm had never failed. For her, the bewitchment of the ‘angel’ to whom she had proposed marriage sixty-one years previously at Windsor Castle still geld strong.’

Besides being a writer of history books Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and a presenter at the BBC.
The lovely floral cover image on my copy of the book is from the William Morris Gallery.
It has 509 pages which includes 75 pages of sources and notes.
Age recommendation: I was thinking this might be a good book for my 15 yr old but there are some sections I’d definitely skip. There is mature content in quite a few of the chapters that I wouldn’t consider suitable for that age.

Linking to the 2020 Non Fiction Challenge: History

Sunday 12 July 2020

Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge (1948)

Pilgrim’s Inn (also published as The Herb of Grace) is the second book in the Eliot Family Trilogy. Its best to read it after The Bird in the Tree as most of the characters are introduced in the first book and the central theme continues into the second book. I read both books one after the other.

The Bird in the Tree introduces the Eliot family and the history of Lucilla, the matriarch of the family, who purchases the house at Damerosehay, which she intends to establish as an inheritance and a place of refuge and beauty for her grandchildren.
Lucilla had very noble intentions but when her beloved and favourite grandson, David, entered into a relationship that was the antithesis of all she had planned and hoped for, she took some matters into her own hands.
The Bird in the Tree has the rumblings of WWII in the background and ends with on a shaky note regarding this relationship. Pilgrim’s Inn picks up the pieces at the end of the war and continues to work through the ramifications of the various individual decisions.

What I liked about this book:

The setting (the coastal area of eastern England) and the descriptions of the countryside
The theme - a moral dilemma; the choice between feelings/emotions and duty
•       Goudge doesn't offer quick fixes. Her characters feel pain and hopelessness but there is always a redemptive pathway
The sensitivity shown by the author to the effects of marital breakdown on children
Goudge’s lovely reflective writing:

‘Hers was the unconscious tyranny of inexorable great expectations.’

‘She knew how worrying, even how agonising sometimes, the questions of grownups can be to children whose capacity for experience so far outstrips their capacity for talking about it. And in afterlife it it’s the other way and educated folks seemed to experience so little of any consequence and yet to say such a vast and wearisome amount about it.’

Some Characters:

Lucilla, a grandmother who was quite manipulative at times. Yes, she loved her family, but her actions were often quite selfish towards some of them, especially her unmarried daughter, Margaret. I cringed a few times to read how she advanced her own (noble as they were) plans. She was a praying woman but perhaps felt the Lord needed some help from her!

Hilary, the eldest of Lucilla’s five children - a bachelor and a parish priest - on the other hand, was not in any way manipulative. Placid, patient, wise, utterly unselfconscious, utterly happy, much loved and popular within his parish. He did know when to speak out and did so when the time came.

Annie-Laurie, a gifted young lady with a dark past and a secret she dare not disclose.

Nadine, a beautiful woman who made a decision to put duty before passion but is now faced with working this out in daily life.

‘In even the smallest of selfless decisions there is a liberation from self...’

David, a young, sensitive man devastated by loss and only capable of ‘tattered loving.’

'Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tattered loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not lift my head where thou mayest prove me.'
- William Shakespeare

Pilgrim’s Inn is a slow, worthwhile read; descriptive and thoughtful with a satisfying outcome. I haven’t yet read the last book in the trilogy but this one didn’t leave me with a sense of unfinished business so unless the book falls into my hands I probably won’t read it.
Or should I? Have you read the last book in this trilogy? I’d be interested to know whether it really adds anything more to the story.

Linking to 2020 Back to the Classics: Classic with a Place in the Title

Monday 6 July 2020

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2011)

Inside Out & Back Again is the chronicle of  a ten year old Vietnamese girl during 1975. Hà, her mother and her three older brothers live in Saigon. Her parents had come south just before the borders between North and South Vietnam had closed. Her father had been in the navy and was captured by the Communists while on a mission. It wasn’t known if he was dead or alive.
One day their father’s best friend, Uncle Son, visited them and said he could get them out of the country. The alley outside their back door would allow them to bypass the navy checkpoint and give them access to the port.

'I will not risk
fleeing with my children
on a rickety boat.

Would a navy ship
meet your approval?

As if the navy
would abandon its country?

There won’t be a South Vietnam
left to abandon.

You really believe
we can leave?

When the time comes,
this house is our bridge
to the sea.'

Two of Hà’s brothers don’t want to leave the country but their mother had lived in the North. She knew that her son at college would eventually be asked to leave; her younger son would come home from school chanting the slogans of Hồ Chí Minh and be rewarded for reporting everything that was said in the home to his teacher.

The family destroyed everything at home that could be used as evidence against their father and taking only necessary items, they boarded a ship. Two weeks later while they were at sea, there was a formal lowering of their flag as the commander announced that South Vietnam no longer existed.

Although Inside Out & Back Again is a work of fiction, it is based on the author’s own experience as a Vietnamese refugee. It is written in free form verse in short, crisp, ‘visual’ phrases which reflect the sound of the Vietnamese language. (Hà would have been thinking in Vietnamese and not English.)
I think the free verse works very well for this book. My teacher daughter gave me this book to read and said that she read it aloud to her 6th Grade class at school when studying immigration. The family in this book eventually settled in Alabama in the USA, as did the author, but their experiences, in many ways, mirror those of refugees who came to Australia.
Here are some ideas my daughter used with this book:

*  Mapped out Ha’s journey

*  Looked at literal and figurative language and used this to help us discuss the culture shock for the main character

*  Discussed what it would be like to view things that are normal to us from the perspective of someone seeing them for the first time (took photos of the classroom, what do you think your first impression would be?)

*  Annotated poems from the book

*  Performed poems

*  Wrote our own free verse poems

*  Looked at the history - push and pull factors of migration

*  Discussed racism and how people often treat people who are unfamiliar or “other” badly or dismiss them as inferior. How does this affect the main characters experiences? How might her experiences have been different without these attitudes?

Inside Out & Back Again was a 2012 Newbery Honor Book and is a very accessible book for younger readers to introduce them to the Vietnam War, immigration and free form poetry. Recommended for ages 9 to 12 years of age but interesting for older readers also.