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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick by Sharon Wright (@penswordbooks) Highly recommended to Brontës fans and to early XIX century historians #literaryhistory

Hi all:

Those of you who follow me will know that I have shared my interest in the Brontës and my love for Haworth on many occasions already. And when I saw this book about their mother, I had to read it. And I am very happy I did.

The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick by Sharon Wright
The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick by Sharon Wright

The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick by Sharon Wright

At long last, the untold story of the mysterious Mrs Brontë.

They were from different lands, different classes, different worlds almost.

The chances of Cornish gentlewoman Maria Branwell even meeting the poor Irish curate Patrick Brontë in Regency England, let alone falling passionately in love, were remote.

Yet Maria and Patrick did meet, making a life together as devoted lovers and doting parents in the heartland of the industrial revolution. An unlikely romance and novel wedding were soon followed by the birth of six children. They included Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, the most gifted literary siblings the world has ever known.

Her children inherited her intelligence and wit and wrote masterpieces such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Yet Maria has remained an enigma while the fame of her family spread across the world. It is time to bring her out of the shadows, along with her overlooked contribution to the Brontë genius.

Untimely death stalked Maria as it was to stalk all her children. But first there was her fascinating life’s story, told here for the first time by Sharon Wright.

Links:

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Mother-of-the-Bronts-Hardback/p/16437

https://www.amazon.com/Mother-Bront%C3%ABs-When-Maria-Patrick/dp/1526738481/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mother-Bront%C3%ABs-When-Maria-Patrick/dp/1526738481/

https://www.amazon.es/Mother-Bront%C3%ABs-When-Maria-Patrick/dp/1526738481/

Author Sharon Wright
Author Sharon Wright

About the author:

Sharon Wright is an award-winning journalist and playwright. She was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, and now lives in South West London with her family. She has worked as a writer, editor and columnist for leading national magazines, newspapers and websites. These include The Guardian, Daily Express, BBC, Disney, Glamour, Red and Take a Break. She is also the author of critically acclaimed plays performed in Yorkshire and London, including Friller about balloonist Lily Cove.

Find out more at www.sharon-wright-agency.co.uk

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sharon-Wright/e/B07R6B461C/

My review:

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

Despite being a fan of the Brontës, having visited Haworth, and read about them (although I’m no expert), on seeing this book I realised I didn’t know much about their mother, other than she had died when they were very young. The author explains quite well why that is the case, as there seems to be very little trace of her, other than some letters she wrote to her then husband-to-be, Patrick, and a religious tract she wrote. There are also comments and memories collected by others, mostly by those writing the biographies of her famous daughters, but little dedicated solely to her. I am grateful to the author for putting that to rights. She has done a great job, digging factual information about Maria Branwell, compiling written records (be it newspaper cuttings, diaries written by neighbours or social connections, correspondence and accounts by others), introducing and interpreting the few writings we have by Maria herself, and pulling together information about the era and the places where the family lived to help readers place the family as actors and social beings in the period and the locations where they lived.  The level of detail is just right, as well. Wright explains how dangerous and dreary the trip from Penzance to Yorkshire would have been in the early XIX century, the unrest in Yorkshire due to the Industrial Revolution and the machines replacing workers (the Luddites had much to say about that, although their actions didn’t have any long-term impact), and the differences in the social settings of Penzance and Thornton, for example, but these explanations never detract from the story. Rather the opposite; they make it all the more compelling.

I don’t want to go into too much detail and spoil the enjoyment of the many interested readers, but I thought I’d share some of the things I noted as I went along. I’ve already mentioned that Maria was from Penzance, but it seems that her father and the rest of the family were likely involved in smuggling (that, to be fair, seems to have been an almost universal occupation in the area). Hers was a large family, and to illustrate just how hard life was at the time, although they were fairly well off, five of her siblings died before they got to adulthood. Religion played an important part in her life, and it’s only fitting that she would end up marrying a priest. She knew Humphry Davy (later Sir Humphry Davy) when she was young, her life was quite full and she was well-connected in Penzance, so we get a sense of how much she must have loved her husband to sacrifice all that to follow him in his career moves, and also what a change in her circumstances she must have experienced. She was a keen reader, and their love of books was one of the things likely to bring her and Patrick together, and it is clear from her letters that she was a good (and even passionate at times) writer, with a sense of humour. She was a woman of her time, and although she had the confidence of those around her, she wished for a life-long companion to support her and guide her in accordance to the norms of the time and as we can see from her own religious tract, her ideas (or at least those she expressed in writing for the public) were pretty conventional. I was gripped by the difficulties Patrick had to face to get the post as priest in Haworth. It seems they were not fond of being told what to do or who to choose there, and he renounced twice to his position before everybody was finally in agreement with his nomination.

I was fascinated by the comments of the author about women’s diarists and their importance to get to understand what everyday life was like at the time. Men of the period wrote the official history, but they hardly ever took the time to note the little details, those we are truly interested in, that help us bring to life a particular era. I am particularly fond of the entries from the diary of Elizabeth Firth, one of the Brontës’ neighbours. My favourite must be: “We sat up expecting the Radicals.” For your peace of mind I’ll let you know that it seems they never came. Wright also defends the importance of the local press, as again they are the ones that keep records of those things that are not considered notice-worthy by big publications, but help make a community what it is. She laments the demise of many of those papers, and I could not agree more.

The book includes two appendixes with the full text of Maria’s letters and also her religious article titled “The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns.” There is also an index with all the texts the author has consulted when writing this book, and I am sure people interested in learning more about the Brontës will find plenty of material there. There are also a number of illustrations, mostly photographs from the houses and locations mentioned in the book, some portraits and illustrations, and also a recreation of what Patrick and Maria might have looked like on their wedding day (that I loved).

I recommend this book to anybody interested in the Brontës, in the history of Haworth and Thornton, and in the history of the early XIX century England, especially those who, like me, enjoy getting transported to the era and having a sense of what life was really like then. A deserved homage to a woman whose heritage was so important and so little acknowledged.

Thanks so much to Rosie, to the author, and especially to all of you for writing. Remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling!

Categories
Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview WHAT WOULD MRS. ASTOR DO?: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE MANNERS AND MORES OF THE GILDED AGE by Cecelia Tichi (@NYUpress) A solid reference book, easy to read, full of amusing information #socialhistory

Today I bring you a non-fiction book where, as they say, reality can be stranger (or more extreme) than fiction.

What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age by Cecelia Tichi.
What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age by Cecelia Tichi

What Would Mrs. Astor Do?: The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age by Cecelia Tichi.

A richly illustrated romp with America’s Gilded Age leisure class—and those angling to join it 

Mark Twain called it the Gilded Age. Between 1870 and 1900, the United States’ population doubled, accompanied by an unparalleled industrial expansion, and an explosion of wealth unlike any the world had ever seen. America was the foremost nation of the world, and New York City was its beating heart. There, the richest and most influential—Thomas Edison, J. P. Morgan, Edith Wharton, the Vanderbilts, Andrew Carnegie, and more—became icons, whose comings and goings were breathlessly reported in the papers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. It was a time of abundance, but also bitter rivalries, in work and play. The Old Money titans found themselves besieged by a vanguard of New Money interlopers eager to gain entrée into their world of formal balls, debutante parties, opera boxes, sailing regattas, and summer gatherings at Newport. Into this morass of money and desire stepped Caroline Astor.

Mrs. Astor, an Old Money heiress of the first order, became convinced that she was uniquely qualified to uphold the manners and mores of Gilded Age America. Wherever she went, Mrs. Astor made her judgments, dictating proper behavior and demeanor, men’s and women’s codes of dress, acceptable patterns of speech and movements of the body, and what and when to eat and drink. The ladies and gentlemen of high society took note. “What would Mrs. Astor do?” became the question every social climber sought to answer. And an invitation to her annual ball was a golden ticket into the ranks of New York’s upper crust. This work serves as a guide to manners as well as an insight to Mrs. Astor’s personal diary and address book, showing everything from the perfect table setting to the array of outfits the elite wore at the time. Channeling the queen of the Gilded Age herself, Cecelia Tichi paints a portrait of New York’s social elite, from the schools to which they sent their children, to their lavish mansions and even their reactions to the political and personal scandals of the day.

Ceceilia Tichi invites us on a beautifully illustrated tour of the Gilded Age, transporting readers to New York at its most fashionable. A colorful tapestry of fun facts and true tales, What Would Mrs. Astor Do?presents a vivid portrait of this remarkable time of social metamorphosis, starring Caroline Astor, the ultimate gatekeeper.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/What-Would-Mrs-Astor-Essential-ebook/dp/B07CG2TD3H/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Would-Mrs-Astor-Essential-ebook/dp/B07CG2TD3H/

Editorial Reviews

“A new etiquette guide…has just turned up, offering further proof that sliding around the naughty edges of society can be as informative as it is entertaining.”-Alida Becker, The New York Times Books Review

“Tichi delivers a crisp survey of New York’s upper-class world in the late 19th century, using society maven Caroline Astor as the guide… Presented with a breezy authority that keeps the pages turning, Tichi’s book will captivate those interested in a light look at America’s fashionable gentry of eras past.”-Publishers Weekly

Author and Professor Cecelia Tichi
Author and Professor Cecelia Tichi

About the Author

Cecelia Tichi is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of several novels and books, including Exposés and Excess: Muckraking in America, 1900-2000 (2004), Embodiment of a Nation: Human Form in American Spaces (2001), High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music (1994), and Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (And What They Can Teach Us) (2009).

https://as.vanderbilt.edu/english/bio/cecelia-tichi

My review:

Many thanks to NYU Press and Edelweiss for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I picked up this book because I was interested in the era, late XVIII and early XIX century, personally and also for research purposes, and although I had read fiction set in the period, I lacked a reference book that would provide me the data I needed and written in such a way that it could be read from cover to cover. I’m happy to say this book provides both, facts and amusing anecdotes, and it is easy to read.

Despite the title, the book does not focus excessively on Caroline Astor, although it is organised around her figure, and it follows her life, from birth to death. Caroline Astor was the glamorous centre of New York society in the Gilded Era, and there is much talk in the book about the four hundred, as that was supposed to be the number of select guests who were truly the movers and shakers of the time. But this is not an in-depth biography, far from it, and the true focus of the book is the social history of the period, as it pertains to the upper crust. Those were changing times, and new money was starting to push out the old but not-so-wealthy-any longer families, but money was not enough to gain Mrs Astor’s favour. Class, good breeding and good manners were fundamental.

The book is divided into a number of topics: millionaires’ row (about their houses and their servants), convenience or contraption  (about new inventions, such as elevators or the telephone), competitive consumption (shopping), best dressed (clothing), well behaved (etiquette), dinner is served (food and restaurants), the social set (with quite a few subdivisions, mostly about leisure time, including theatre, opera, riding and promenades, summer houses…), the sporting life (sports), getting there (transport), money talks (including popular and unpopular advice, Wall Street, schools and newspapers), the whiff of a scandal (you’ll easily guess this one: from divorce to famous scandals of the era), on the scene (about theatre figures of the era), muckrakers (investigative journalism of the time), and funerals. There are also illustrations (quite a few, although as mine was an ARC copy and not the final version, I am sure there will be even more available to readers of the published book), and a lengthy bibliography that will be helpful for those interesting in checking out the original sources.

The author often relies on sources of the period, including articles, books on etiquette and general advice, and also fiction writers of the era (Edith Wharton, who was related to Mrs Astor figures prominently), and uses their words to illustrate the topics, and that contributes to making us feel as we were there, experiencing the fabulous and incredibly excessive world of those people.

As I said before, the book is divided into topics, and I am sure everybody will be able to find something they are interested in. I was fascinated by many of the anecdotes and by the way this set of very powerful and wealthy individuals affected the world around them. Rich women went shopping but due to etiquette rules could not go to a restaurant unaccompanied by a man, and therefore the new department stores started having their own restaurants (soda fountains to begin with) catering to women, and that spread. As they liked to travel in luxurious surroundings, yachts and train compartments would be built to their standards, no matter the price. Their parties would cost the equivalent of millions of dollars today, and they could result in having a full hunting party inside of a restaurant, horses and all.

I was also surprised to learn about things like the importance of Elisha Graves Otis’s invention of a “safety hoister” that allowed for the creation of safe elevators, and with them, skyscrapers (and know I know who the Otis I see in the elevators was), about the newspaper wars in New York, about the different electricity companies and how they helped shape today’s world, the history of the Panama hat (which comes from Ecuador), and although I knew about the fashion for using bird feathers (and sometimes whole birds) to adorn women’s hats, I was horrified to learn that some five million birds were estimated to have been killed just for that purpose. Oh, and the fact that electric cars were recommended for women drivers, as they were easier to start (no crank) and more reliable. What happened there? (I guess oil companies’ interests have a lot to respond for).  There is also mention of philanthropic endeavours, although they all came with strings attached.

In sum, this is a solid reference book, easy to read and full of amusing information and anecdotes. I’m not sure it will break new ground for those already familiar with the topic, but it works well as a reference book for the era, and as a good starting point for further research.  A glimpse into a fascinating and at the same time horrifying era of excessive consumption, glamour, and the cult of influence. Although there are lessons to be learned, the book is not intended as a criticism or a warning tale, and that’s left to the readers’ own opinion.

Thanks to NYU Press, Edelweiss and the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling!

Categories
Book reviews New books

#Bookreview ORPHANS OF THE CARNIVAL by Carol Birch (@CarolBirch) The sad story of an incredible historical figure and an exploited woman

Hi all:

As you know on Friday I bring you new books and/or guest authors. Today I bring you a book by a well-known writer although I hadn’t read any of her books yet. I’ve read and reviewed this extraordinary book, but it got me thinking, so this is a bit more than ‘just’ a book review. It’s one of those topics one can’t stop thinking about.

But first, let me tell you about the novel (sort of).

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch
Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch. 

Canongate Books Literary FictionHistory

Description

The dazzling new novel, evoking the strange and thrilling world of the Victorian carnival, from the Man Booker-shortlisted author of Jamrach’s Menagerie
A life in the spotlight will keep anyone hidden
Julia Pastrana is the singing and dancing marvel from Mexico, heralded on tours across nineteenth-century Europe as much for her talent as for her rather unusual appearance. Yet few can see past the thick hair that covers her: she is both the fascinating toast of a Governor’s ball and the shunned, revolting, unnatural beast, to be hidden from children and pregnant women.
But what is her wonderful and terrible link to Rose, collector of lost treasures in an attic room in modern-day south London? In this haunting tale of identity, love and independence, these two lives will connect in unforgettable ways.

Advance Praise

Orphans of the Carnival is a rich and wonderful book. Carol Birch can see a world in a grain of sand – and then furnish it for you, vividly and unforgettably.’ M.R. CAREY, author of The Girl With All the Gifts

‘In this dazzling novel Carol Birch paints an extraordinary portrait of an extraordinary woman. Orphans of the Carnival encourages us to wonder what is revealed by the way a society treats those people who are unusual, who look different or who have their own unique view of the world.’ CATHERINE CHANTER, author of The Well

Praise for Jamrach’s Menagerie:
‘An imaginative tour-de-force encompassing the sights and smells of 19th-century London and the wild sea . . . Gripping, superbly written and a delight – The Times
Riveting. Birch is masterful at evoking period and place . . . A teeming exhibition of the beautiful and the bizarre – Sunday Times
One of the best stories I’ve ever read . . . A completely original book – A. S. Byatt

Here my review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Canongate book for providing me with a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Although I’ve never been to a circus I’ve always been interested in stories, books, films and artworks about the circus. And I’ve never forgotten the movie Freaks (1932) directed by Tod Browning, that is as beautiful and touching as it is horrifying (not because of the ‘freaks’ of the story, but because of the way they were exhibited and exploited) , since I first saw it many years back. Human beings have always been fascinated by the unknown and by those who are similar but different to us (not only from a different country and race, but sometimes truly different, something that Freud tried to explain when he defined the ‘uncanny’ as something that is familiar and strange at once  and can cause attraction and repulsion at the same time.

This is the first novel by Carol Birch that I read, and although I was interested in her literary career, what made me pick it up was the subject matter. The author writes about Julia Pastrana, a woman born in Mexico in 1834 with two severe genetic malformations that resulted in her body being covered in hair and in her having a protruding mouth and lips with two rows of teeth. There circulated strange stories about her origin (still available nowadays), and she was spotted in a Mexican house by somebody in showbiz and ended up in the circus and carnival circuits, first in the US and then throughout most of Europe. The novel tells her re-imagined story, although, as the writer explains at the end, she used the basic known facts of her life as scaffolding that allowed her to fill in the gaps and create a fictionalised account of her short but intense life.

Julia’s story is interspersed in the novel with some chapters about Rose, a woman of our time (or thereabouts) who lives in a small apartment in London and who is could be defined as a hoarder. But more than a hoarder, she seems to feel an affinity for the objects she finds, no matter how broken and tatty, as if their stories called to her and she feels she has to rescue them and give them a home. When she finds a strange and half-destroyed doll at the beginning of the novel we don’t know yet what the link with Julia is. We don’t find that out until the very end (or close enough, although I missed one of the clues, so intent I was on following Julia’s story at that point) and it’s sad but somehow it offers a sense of closure. The mention of the island of the Dolls that also exist in reality adds another layer of strangeness and creepiness (or enchantment, it depends on one’s point of view) to the story.

The book is written in the third person from the various main characters’ points of view. The historical account is mostly from Julia’s point of view (and giving her a voice, after so many years of being the object of the gaze is a great decision), although later when she meets Lent the points of view alternate between the two and I feel that the author makes a good job of trying to get into the mind of her husband, a man difficult to empathise with or understand, especially from a modern point of view (although I’m sure people at the time wouldn’t have been comfortable with his behaviour either, at least the most enlightened ones). Rose’s chapters, although far less numerous, are told from her point of view and later from Adams’s, a neighbour, friend and lover. The novel is beautifully written; it does not only manage to create a sense of place and of the historical period, but it also succeeds at building up a psychologically consistent portrayal of both Julia and her husband. I felt there was far less detail about the contemporary parts of the story and although I did appreciate the eventual confluence of plots (so to speak, but I’ll avoid giving away any spoilers), I’m not sure that the two parts fit perfectly well, enhance each other rather than distract from one another, or that we get to know or understand the contemporary characters other than superficially. To be fair to the author, I can’t imagine many fictional stories that could compete with Julia’s real life (and afterlife).

This is a book where those who are deemed less than human run rings around the self-professed echelons of society, and I’m sure I’ll keep thinking about this story that touches on colonialism, misogyny, exploitation, issues of race, disability, diversity… Yes, I felt compelled to check the story of Julia Pastrana and other than some discrepancy about the date of her marriage, the novel is accurate regarding the facts, proving the adage that reality is stranger than fiction. And history for sure.

This is a book that will interest people who enjoy Victoriana and historical fiction of the era, and anybody who likes to read a well-written novel with great characters. It is a sad story (and I cried more than once) but it deserves to be told and read. Perhaps we don’t have carnivals or shows of the style described in the book any longer, but we shouldn’t be complacent because we are not as enlightened as we might like to think. A fascinating novel about a fascinating human being and the society of her time.

Links:

e-book:

https://www.amazon.com/Orphans-Carnival-Carol-Birch-ebook/dp/B01CGI005S/

Hardback:

https://www.amazon.com/Orphans-Carnival-Novel-Carol-Birch/dp/038554152X/

Paperback:

https://www.amazon.com/Orphans-of-the-Carnival/dp/1782119299/

Audiobook:

https://www.amazon.com/Orphans-of-the-Carnival/dp/B01IRX8WM4/

As I said at the beginning, the story of Julia Pastrana fascinated me and I found quite a few articles talking about her, some in more detail than others. If you’re not familiar with the kind of images and pamphlets around these shows you might be surprised at the objectification and descriptions, but see what you think.

Links about Julia Pastrana:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Pastrana

https://www.buzzfeed.com/timstelloh/behold-the-heartbreaking-hair-raising-tale-of-julia-pastrana?

http://pictorial.jezebel.com/the-life-and-death-of-julia-pastrana-bearded-woman-on-1695330616

http://www.thehumanmarvels.com/julia-pastrana-the-nondescript/

http://www.sideshowworld.com/110-Mummy/Julia/Pastrana.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/12/arts/design/julia-pastrana-who-died-in-1860-to-be-buried-in-mexico.html

It made me think about how museums sometimes contained (I hope no longer do) actual embalmed human beings of faraway lands that were considered educational displays. This is a particularly strange example (and yes, although I don’t think I ever saw him, I visited Banyoles quite a few times).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negro_of_Banyoles

A link to the Isla de las muñecas (Island of the Dolls) in Mexico, that’s also mentioned in the novel:

http://www.isladelasmunecas.com/

And as I mentioned Freaks in the review, I thought I’d leave you a trailer, in case you’ve never watched it.

Thanks so much to NetGalley, the publishers and the author for the novel, and for bringing to my attention Julia Pastrana (I’m pleased she’s finally back home), thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, like, share, comment, and CLICK!

 

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