I enjoy following the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (previously known as the Samuel Johnson Prize) because it is the one book prize which consistently picks winners I actually agree with: Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy, How to Survive a Plague by David France and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald to name a few from recent years. I had just finished ‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold when it was announced as this year’s winner on Tuesday and, once again, I think it is another book which really deserves this prestigious award. It is about the “untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper”, namely Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly who all died in 1888 in Whitechapel in east London. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Victorian
I really enjoyed reading Night Waking by Sarah Moss which told the story of Dr Anna Bennett, an academic living on the Scottish island of Colsay with her husband and young children, who sets out to uncover the mystery behind how the bones of an infant came to be buried in her garden. Her narrative is interspersed with letters written by May Moberley, a maternity nurse sent to the island to investigate the high infant mortality rate during the 1870s. ‘Bodies of Light’ is a very loose sequel which picks up the historical strand of the story focusing on other members of the Moberley family living in Manchester during the 1860s and 1870s. The novel is a coming-of-age tale of May’s older sister Ally who becomes one the first female students to read medicine in London. However, while their mother Elizabeth is a progressive social campaigner devoted to helping the destitute in the slums of Manchester, she is also a deeply repressed woman who offers no warmth at all towards her husband Alfred or her daughters. Continue reading
‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry tells the story of Cora Seaborne, a keen amateur naturalist and recent widow who moves to Colchester in the 1890s with her servant-companion Martha and son Francis and meets the local vicar Reverend William Ransome. There are rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent which once stalked the Blackwater estuary has been spotted again near the coastal village of Aldwinter, and some mysterious deaths have sent the local residents into panic. Cora and Will are both sceptical of the rumours surrounding the return of the beast but for very different reasons with Cora believing the creature could be an undiscovered species whereas Will’s concerns lie in his parishioners’ apparent lack of faith. Yet despite these differences, they start to form a close and intense bond. Continue reading
Having read some slightly silly thrillers recently in the form of I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, I thought it was time to read one of the very first “sensation” books of the mystery genre. Originally published in serial form between 1859 and 1860, ‘The Woman in White’ is Wilkie Collins’ most famous novel and also happens to be a book which has been on my reading list for a very long time. It opens with Walter Hartwright encountering a mysterious woman dressed all in white near Hampstead Heath. He is later hired to tutor Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe in watercolour painting at Limmeridge House in Cumberland. Walter falls in love with Laura but she is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde. Although Walter learns that the woman in white is Anne Catherick, a local woman who has escaped from an asylum, he notices that Laura bears a striking resemblance to her. After their marriage, Sir Percival and Laura return to live in Blackwater accompanied by Glyde’s friend Count Fosco, one of the most formidable villains in literature who concocts a cunning plan to help Sir Percival get his hands on Laura’s money. Continue reading
‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber tells the story of Sugar, a nineteen year old prostitute living in London in the 1870s in a brothel run by her mother. She is ‘bought’ by William Rackham, a perfumer, to be his exclusive mistress – a situation which takes her life in unexpected directions. The stories of William’s disturbed wife, Agnes, and his pious brother, Henry, are also woven in to this rich tapestry of a story teeming with detail on all aspects of Victorian life. Continue reading
Set in Scotland in the 1860s, ‘The Observations’ by Jane Harris tells the story of Bessy Buckley, a feisty Irish girl who is taken on as a maid at Castle Haivers by Arabella Reid. Bessy has a number of secrets and is keen that her shady past doesn’t catch up with her. But it turns out that Arabella herself also has a dark history and her obsession with her former maid, Nora, who died in tragic circumstances, proves to be a catalyst for even more mystery. Continue reading
Having read some pretty strange books recently (The Unconsoled and The Unbearable Lightness of Being spring to mind), I really wanted to read something that was based upon some good old-fashioned story-telling and a linear plot. On one hand, I wanted a book that wasn’t too taxing on the brain. On the other hand, I wanted a book that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to read in public on a train. ‘The Sealed Letter’ by Emma Donoghue was just what I needed. Continue reading
My postgraduate course is taking over pretty much my whole life at the moment. I am still finding the time to read non-academic books when I commute but I am getting very behind with writing up my reviews (also in the wrong order as I read this before ‘The Unconsoled’). I actually read ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin during Banned Books Week at the beginning of October but have only just got round to writing this blog post. Hopefully, I will catch up by Christmas…!
‘The Awakening’ tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a young Creole woman trapped in an unhappy marriage who is capable of (shock horror) independent thought and marital infidelity. Her modern views on motherhood and femininity even cause her husband, Leonce, to seek medical advice. During a holiday, she meets Robert and falls for him. Inevitably, there are tragic consequences. Continue reading
I have been meaning to read ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ for absolutely ages – as I’ve mentioned, I find it easy to take classic literature for granted, knowing that it will always be easily available especially in electronic format, so it tends to get pushed down to the bottom of my TBR list. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ should have been bumped up to the top of my list sooner. The novel tells the story of a young man named Dorian Gray, who has a portrait painted of him by Basil Hallward. Dorian meets Basil’s friend, Lord Henry (Harry) Wotton, who believes that youth and beauty are the only things which really matter in the world and Dorian subsequently becomes heavily influenced by his ideas about aestheticism. However, the story takes a sinister turn when Dorian makes a wish that only his portrait should age and wither while he would look young forever, thus selling his soul for eternal youth. As you can imagine, the moral of the story is something along the lines of ‘be careful what you wish for’… Continue reading
Although lots of people may say that you should never judge a book by its cover, in the case of ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern, I think it’s acceptable to do so. I love this book cover not just because it is very pretty but because I think it matches the story so well too. Lots of adjectives like ‘dazzling’, ‘enchanting’, ‘spellbinding’, ‘imaginative’, ‘captivating’ and ‘magical’ have already been used in the critics reviews on the cover to describe this book. I would like to add that it is also highly original especially for a fantasy story. Continue reading
I had planned to read ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker when I was studying ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley at school but never got round to it. This chilling story begins with a young lawyer called Jonathan Harker visiting Count Dracula in Transylvania to conclude a real estate investment only to find he is effectively a prisoner at his castle. He survives his ordeal but the nightmare does not end there – several strange events are occurring back in England involving Jonathan’s fiancée Mina and her friend Lucy. It is up to Doctor Van Helsing to try and stop Dracula before it is too late… Continue reading
‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris tells the story of Harriet Baxter and her close friendship with the Gillespie family in Glasgow in the late 1880s while the International Exhibition was being held. However, when tragedy strikes the family, their relationship with Harriet quickly unravels and deep secrets are revealed. Harriet tells the story as she looks back on events whilst writing her memoirs in 1933 at the age of eighty but the story is not over as it soon becomes clear that a figure from Harriet’s past has re-emerged in her life.
I think the book’s real strength lies in Harriet’s biased narrative and the way in which Harris builds suspense and subtly manipulates the reader’s expectations and perceptions of the characters. The first 100 pages or so definitely lull you into a false sense of security because of the supposed innocence with which they are written. I love unreliable narrators and this one does not disappoint. Continue reading
Having read all of her other books, I finally got round to reading Sarah Waters’ début novel ‘Tipping the Velvet’ this week. This picaresque coming-of-age tale set in the 1890s sees Nancy Astley, an oyster-girl from Whitstable run off to London with music hall performer Kitty Butler who later becomes her lover and co-star on the stage. When her career comes to an abrupt end, Nancy journeys through London exploring her sexuality and experiencing plenty of love, lust and heartbreak along the way.
Although much of what has been written about ‘Tipping the Velvet’ focuses on the presence of lesbian characters, the fact that Sarah Waters is a master of good old-fashioned storytelling must not be overlooked. She knows how to weave an intriguing plot with believable characters. As with all of her other books, the level of historical detail is impressive and blends into the story effortlessly without being either overwhelming or irrelevant – and that even goes for the detailed descriptions of Victorian sex toys. Continue reading