Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read

Mrs Woolf and the Servants – Alison Light #20BooksofSummer

Non Fiction
4*s

I choose to read this book after being so impressed with Alison Light’s book exploring the working lives of her ancestors in Common People that I read earlier this year.

Now obviously as I’m a reader and I know the basic details about the life of Virginia Woolf, but as I was to discover, that is a world away from looking at her life in her home settings, in relation to the servants that lived with and worked for this very literary woman. This book is an intimate portrayal of a woman at home, as part of a family but most pertinently in her relations with her servants which let’s just say were more complex than the popular portrayal that we are used to.

The first servant to appear in Virginia’s life was Sophie Farrell who was a servant to Julia Stephen, Virginia’s mother. We learn about how Sophie, in common with so many girls of her background left her home to work away ‘in service’ From this starting point we chart the history of women who lived their lives serving others up to the time of WWII. Alison Light also points out the type of ‘live out’ servants that are now part of modern lives. But let’s go back to towards the end of the Victorian period where Sophie Farell is working as one of servants in South Kensington. Following the deaths of so many people who were important to her the siblings set up home in Bloomsbury to live a more bohemian lifestyle and it was here that the Bloomsbury Group was formed. However the siblings relied on servants at this time, and as the book tells us Virginia and her sister did for the rest of her lives.

So where did Alison Light get all this information on the servants from? Well the starting point is the letters between the two sisters and her own diaries where unfiltered views of the women who gave her the space to have a room of her own were indelibly marked upon page after page.

I’m going to be honest, I found the Virginia Woolf in her own words, quite a hypocritical and snobbish woman. I was constantly reminding myself that this was a different time where expectations of life were set in stone, but it didn’t stop my overwhelming sympathy for the women who served and my feeling of contempt for the author.

Although Alison Light freely admits that many of the servants could not be traced, in these instances, because they weren’t even afforded a name, she has done some exceptional work in tracing some of the others. We are given a surprising amount of detail about a few most memorably of Nellie Boxhall who was eventually dismissed from the Woolf household. And for me it is the time after they left the Woolf household that are so sad. There were no pensions; if the servants weren’t kept on as family retainers then they could end up with no security whatsoever, in some cases after devoting half a century in serving. This is just one shocking aspect, the other being the way the members of the Bloomsbury set, well into the war period seemed to pass their servants backwards and forwards between the households as if these people were no more than useful objects.

Pretty most of the women on my maternal side up until those born in the 20th Century worked in service. I’d always wondered how the young girls of 12, 13 & 14 ended up living and working so far from where they’d been born and the stories of the servants researched by Alison Light included the hiring fairs and the preference for rural maids that were thought to be more malleable than their town and city cousins.

There are simply so many fascinating facts that it is impossible to put within a short review but if you are interested in the author or the lives of servants during this time period, you could do far worse than to read Mrs Woolf and the Servants.

Mrs Woolf and the Servants is my tenth read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge It has opened my eyes to the life I would have lived if I had been born 100 years earlier and of course a less welcome insight into one of the most celebrated women writers of her time.

First Published UK: 2007
Publisher: Fig Tree
No of Pages:400
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

Wedlock – Wendy Moore #20BooksofSummer

Non-Fiction
4*s

Wedlock has an extended title How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match caught my eye back in 2009 when this book was first published but it wasn’t until August 2017 when I actually purchased a copy for myself.

Now regular readers have probably worked out I’m a big fan of the Victorian and Edwardian periods of history but I don’t tend to venture back as far as the eighteenth century too often so Wendy Moore was always going to educate me on the social mores of the time, and she did that in spades.

Mary Eleanor Bowes, who became Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne on her first marriage, was one of the richest heiresses of the time when she inherited her father’s fortune on his death when she was just eleven-years old. When she was sixteen she became engaged to John Lyon and because her father’s will stipulated that her husband should assume his family name, the Earl addressed parliament with a request to change his name from John Lyon to John Bowes, which was granted. They married on her eighteenth birthday on 24 February 1767. Over time through their children the name was combined with a hyphen and the Queen Mother was a direct descendent of this union.

The couple lived an extravagant life, Mary often left alone whilst John concentrated on restoring the family seat, Glamis Castle, found amusement with other men but she was proud to announce that all five of their children were legitimate. Sadly, or perhaps not that sadly from Mary’s point of view as she wasn’t well-treated by John, he caught TB and died in 1776.

What happens next absolutely proves the saying fact is stranger than fiction with the “worst husband” being Mary’s second foray into marriage. We go from illegal abortions to duels to imprisonment and all manner of horrible happenings which I’m not going to recount at length because that would spoil the revelations of the book itself, if you haven’t already read it.

This book is billed as reading like fiction, and for a book that is so jam-packed with information which has clearly been meticulously researched (there are pages and pages of references at the end), it does. It’s always hard to fully put yourself in the shoes of someone whose life is of a different style to your own, and Mary Bowes was incredibly rich, she originally inherited over a million pounds and that was in 1760! It is even harder when society was so very different and I’ll be honest, when she was young Mary played to her strengths and whilst I wouldn’t suggest that she deserved all that happened next, she didn’t treat potential suitors well and so it’s not altogether surprising that she didn’t come up smelling of roses. She also wasn’t a maternal woman, and even given the times I was shocked that she openly wrote how much she despised her eldest son. But what I couldn’t help but admire was her tenacity in making sure her second husband John Stoney didn’t get away with his dastardly deed, and she did it! John Stoney was a cad, he spent money that he didn’t have and one of the more random facts I learnt while reading Wedlock was that his name is the reason where the saying ‘Stoney broke’ originated. As often happens when you learn something like that the next three, yes three, books used the phrase and each time I had a little smile about it.

This really is a remarkable piece of writing, the book is long, but so entertaining and let’s be honest shocking; I wasn’t being overly dramatic with my fact is stranger than fiction assertion. If I didn’t know this was a true account, I wouldn’t have believed some of the things that were revealed.

Wedlock was my third read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge and this exploration of the life of albeit one very rich wife and mother in the eighteenth century made me very glad to have been born much later when society no longer saw the woman as property of a man, either her father or her husband.

First Published UK: 2009
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
No of Pages: 521
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane – Paul Thomas Murphy

Non-Fiction 4*s
Non-Fiction
4*s

This historical true crime happened in 1871 in the Greenwich are of Victorian London. Poor Jane Coulson had been found in a terrible state with her face bashed in on a footpath by a policeman following his beat in the area. The girl was at last unidentified so extreme were her facial injuries and in the week or so that it took to discover who she was a few other girls, sadly of disrepute, were named as the victim. Eventually the truth was discovered but Jane Coulson didn’t, couldn’t, survive her injuries.

This is a well-researched book of a crime that I hadn’t come across before and doesn’t just concentrate on the police’s investigation into the murder but also the three trials the suspect underwent with the accompanying views of both the media and the local population at the time. With a sense of the place impeccably reconstructed for the reader as well as a detailed look at the various stages of the investigation and the trial I was absorbed by this reconstruction. With enough doubt to whether the right person had been arrested from the outset the author has pieced together the details including those that didn’t appear at the trial. Of course, after such a long period of time, there is little hard evidence to re-examine but that didn’t stop the author applying principles known today that were not at this time, being used to make a reasonable assessment of the case.

The author also captures the characters who make up the background to the story. From the reluctant witness of the shop-keeper who was unable to identify the man who bought the hammer which was the alleged weapon to the righteous Mr Henry Pook who defended the alleged perpetrator Edmund Pook, no relative. Edmund Pook was supported by his father a grandly named Ebenezer Pook along with his brother and other family members. The victim, Jane Coulson had worked as a maid of all work for this middle-class family and as a result we get to see how the Victorian class system operated at that time. Maids of all work were by far the most common servants of the time with middle-class families keeping one to do long hours as a status symbol as much as anything. The Pooks were not so well-off that Jane even had a pokey attic for a room, she actually shared with the victim’s cousin!

All in all a fascinating and immensely readable account of the crime, its investigation both into the identity of the victim and the murderer, the trials that followed and just as intriguingly the reaction of the public both on the streets and through the media of the day. In some ways this reaction was split along class lines but not entirely which in itself was interesting.

In the end my conclusion ties in with the authors but read the book yourself, you may well think that another scenario is equally as likely as to who did kill Jane Coulson.

I’d like to thank the publishers Head of Zeus who allowed me to read an advance copy of this book. This unbiased review is my thank you to them.

Published UK: 14 July 2016
Publisher: Head of Zeus
No of Pages 352
Genre: Historical True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US – Not Available

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale

Non-Fiction 5*s
Non-Fiction
5*s

I do love Victorian true crime and Kate Summerscale managed to stumble across a fairly obscure one in 1895 West Ham, that of a young boy, thirteen year old Robert Coombes who was accused of murder and stood trial at the Old Bailey on just that charge.

The beauty of Kate Summerscale’s books are the minutiae of detail that surround the actual substance of the book, and this one is no different. The crime in this instance isn’t the puzzle that we met in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, rather this is a book about the attitudes of the day both in the media and those in the legal profession. It also looks at the contemporary view of the medical profession on inherent wickedness including a fairly popular one that considered children little more than wild animals to be tamed.

Robert and his younger brother Nattie Coombes had gone to watch the cricket at Lords in the aftermath of the murder as well as going to the seaside and playing in the vicinity of their home. However as the accused they could not defend themselves in court:

The law barred defendants from testifying, but since Fox, Robert and Nattie had no legal representation they were entitled to question the witnesses that Baggallay called.

Can you imagine boys of thirteen and twelve who had never been in court before having the wherewithal to question witnesses that accused them of murder? I can’t!

The media was less concerned with this fundamental flaw in the proceedings and were instead highly concerned in the ‘penny bloods’ that Robert devoured. When one journalist at St James’s Gazette was tasked with reading the publications he stated the following:

The task was ‘repulsive and depressing’, he said; the writing ‘brutalised my whole consciousness’, reviving ‘the fundamental instinct of savagery inherent in us all It disgusts, but it attracts; as one reads on the disgust lessens and the attraction increases. ‘The Coombes boys, he concluded, ‘with their intelligence scientifically developed at the expense of the ratepayers, had been wound up to regard murder as a highly superior kind of ‘lark’ by a sedulous study of the worst kind of gory fiction and cut-throat newspaper’.

This of course was one of the first generations of children who had been educated at the Board Schools set up in each district. It seems from this piece that there was a general feeling that this money was wasted on the poorer members of society. The biggest concern however was around the number of the publications of penny bloods that were found in Robert and Nattie’s home, their influence was considered by some as the chief catalyst in the murder – not so very different to our own newspapers in recent years lamenting various films and games that were also a big attraction to teenage boys. In fact there were a number of media reports in this book that could quite easily be transported to today’s press with only minor alterations needed to update them!

This book isn’t just about the murder and the trial though it goes on to follow Robert through his life to see what life for a child murderer looked like in Victorian England. The answer may not be quite what you expect! All through this time Kate Summerscale draws comparisons to other happenings of the day, other crimes that filled the courts, the life of those who lived in the same area as the Coombes boys. Nuggets of priceless information abound the pages with subjects quite wide-ranging while always linked the central story but give lovers of historical facts like me a treasure chest of facts to wonder upon.

Each male patient was allocated an ounce of tobacco a week, drawn from the government stock of contraband seized by Customs & Exercise officer.

With so much to absorb, particularly as my maternal ancestors moved to West Ham around the turn of the Twentieth century and in particular one of the newspaper reports featured in this look at crimes at this time involved distant relatives of mine, there was much to keep me entertained and engaged from beginning to end. The End notes are a delight all of their own:

The sun rose at 3:53 a.m. that morning according to the London Standard of 8 July 1895 and set at 8:15 p.m. The Standard of 9 July reported that the temperature on Monday rose to 81 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.

leaving me in no doubt at all regarding the quality of the research undertaken by Kate Summerscale.

I am very grateful for the publishers Penguin Press for allowing me to read a copy of The Wicked Boy ahead of publication on 5 May 2016 although I’m equally excited to receive my own copy which is on pre-order so I can cross reference the end notes side by side with the main chapters for ease. This review is my own, unbiased opinion.

Other Books by Kate Summerscale

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Last Woman Hanged – Caroline Overington

Non-Fiction 4*s
Non-Fiction
4*s


On 8 January 1889, Louisa Collins, a 41-year-old mother of ten children, became the first woman hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol and the last woman hanged in New South Wales.


Caroline Overington has researched the story behind Louisa Collin’s four, yes you read that correctly, four trials for murder. One of the three trials was in relation to the deaths of her first husband Charles Andrews in January 1887, the cause according to the doctor who signed his death certificate was Acute Gastritis, three were in relation to her second husband Michael Collins the man she married just three months after the demise of the first. Michael Collins died on 8 July 1888 of what the post mortem indicated was arsenic poisoning.

This book not only takes us through the suffering of both men as they writhed for days in agony with stomach pain but the job of the somewhat incompetent hangman – Nosey Bob, those who presided over the trials and most importantly the clamour of women’s voices to commute the death sentence passed when Louisa was finally declared guilty in respect of the death of Michael.

As with all these reconstructions of historical crimes one of the main questions is was Louisa guilty of the crime that meant ‘that she hanged from the neck until she was dead.’ It’s certainly far from clear cut, but that isn’t the main thrust of the book which is far more about women’s rights at a time they were treated as children. Louisa hanged on order of laws made by parliament of which she had no say in. She lived a life forever in the fear of abject poverty; if her husband didn’t work, she, and her children, wouldn’t eat and there was no way out of the never-ending cycle of child-birth, the last of Louisa’s babies had recently died when just a few months old.

Louisa isn’t the most sympathetic of characters, but once the death sentence had been passed those women who did have a voice, through their husbands and fathers, began clamouring for the sentence to be commuted. Although some of these were unconvinced of her guilt, by no means all were. There was after all the unpalatable truth that whilst thirty-six men had been unable to reach a consensus of guilt, Louisa was hung on the verdict of the final trial. Al of this carried out in the space of a few short months with a dwindling population of suitable jurors. Quite why there was so much will to retry this woman until the verdict of guilt was reached is unclear,but e can assume that powerful men were clearly determined that their presumption of guilt was the right one.

There is a fair amount regarding the politics of New South Wales at the time of the trials which to be honest meant little to me sitting as I do well over one hundred years later on the other side of the world, but they sound very similar to politics everywhere with the distinction that Australia was at this time trying to move away from being a penal colony to a fully-fledged independent country.

This was a fascinating read although at times I felt that I was bludgeoned by the repletion of information that this was a man’s world and Louisa had no say in the laws. I understand the argument but if Louisa did set about to murder two husbands in such an agonising fashion, she probably understood that if her crimes were discovered that the law was going to act. After all hanging wasn’t a rarity, although in New South Wales the last women prisoner had her sentence commuted.

The afterword takes us through the next few years where due to their vociferous campaigning Australian women were the first in the world to get the vote and spread the word to the rest of the world, including Britain. We also catch up with what happened to Louisa’s children and other key members of the case. A satisfactory ending to a book which gives a factual account of Louisa’s life and trials while bringing to the forefront a fight that would live long after her body had been cut down from the scaffold.

Last Woman Hanged is from my own collection of books, chosen not for the historical factor of this true crime but following my read of the author’s I Came to Say Goodbye which I thoroughly enjoyed.