Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…

The Literary-Agent Hyphothesis

A great blog (here) by ‘The Contented Librarian’ (and a great blog-name!), listing 40 literary terms ‘you should know’. I’m not quite sure who the ‘you’ is, since the list seems to veer from the latinate rhetorical terms I was expecting from the title (meiosis) to what seem to me to be everyday common-or-garden speech for people who read (bowdlerize).

But of course a list, any list, is fun, and one where you can score yourself is even better. I didn’t know four, which I think is pretty good. The one I like best, however, is a new one on me: ‘the literary-agent hypothesis’. Contrary to my immediate Paranoid Author Response, this does not indicate that my agent is planning to sack me, or that all the literary agents in London are in a room, and they Are Laughing At Us, but is instead a lit. crit. concept that the author is only the agent for the characters, who are in fact writing the novel, or, as I feel certain the people who discuss this theory say, the ‘text’.

‘Purple prose’, I would have thought, didn’t need a definition. It’s like porn, and everyone knows it when they see it. (In my own case, it is easily identified by the fact that my eyeballs roll so far back in my head that I can see my tonsils whenever I stumble across some.) But perhaps the Contented Librarian’s definition is better: ‘Any text referring to eyes as “orbs” without any sort of irony is automatically guilty of this linguistic sometimes-offense. No matter what. No exceptions. Also, every romance novel ever written. Even if a long-lost manuscript attributed to Bukowski ever materialized and proved a romance novel, it would still be made of purple prose.’

Works for me.

As Any Fule Kno: 50 Books Children ?Should Read

The Independent (god bless its little prescriptive heart) has listed the 50 books every child should have read. As we know, the Education Secretary has said every child should read a book a week (with two weeks off for good behaviour, apparently). So this is only a year’s list.

But is it? Some of the books I don’t know — blame a North American childhood for my lack of Michael Morpurgo and Moomins; other books are after my time. But some just seem odd — two books by Benjamin Zephaniah? Is he really that good? And at the expense of, say, Madeleine L’Engle’s masterpiece, A Wrinkle in Time? Or the Little House on the Prairie series? Or one of my childhood read-it-to-deaths, E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler? No Noel Streatfeild (I’d go for White Boots over Ballet Shoes, though), no What Katy Did, no Pippi Longstocking, or Rumer Godden? My own favourite for months and months one year was William Pene du Bois’ The 21 Balloons (I was astonished as an adult to learn that Krakatoa was a real place, and had truly gone up in a volcanic explosion). And, as a good Canadian, I must put in a plea for Susannah of the Mounties (although you can keep that twerp Anne of Green Gables).

Well, here is the list, but I defy anyone to read it and not miss their own favourites. Because there is nothing as evocative as childhood reading recollected in tranquillity. Or even middle age…

1.      Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

2.      Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

3.      Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner

4.      Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

5.      Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

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Lists, glorious lists

The Guardian today had a promising headline, ‘The Seductive Power of Lists’, which I fell on, because lists are one of my favourite things — magic, incantatory. The Guardian‘s piece, however, is about Booker lists, prize lists, books-to-read-before-you-die lists. Not what I think of when I think of lists at all.

Lists are the shipping forecast: Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Trafalgar, Fitzroy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes, Southeast Iceland.

And of course poor old Finisterre, long gone…

But lists are everywhere, if you look. In Milton Meltzer’s A Book About Names, there are the Puritans who named their children Much-mercy, Increased, Sin-Deny, Fear-not; Safe-on-high, Free-gift, Dust, Ashes, Obedience, More-trial, Discipline, Praise-God and Live-well; Repentance, Lament, Forsaken, Fly-fornication and of course the pariah of the nursery playground, Misericordia-adulterina.

And then there are indexes: Joe Queenan’s If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must be in Trouble lists ‘Aiello, Danny, a fixture in movies that make no sense;  Cher, grooming influence on James Earl Jones; Schwarzenegger, Arnold, influence of Wuthering Heights on’. Julian Barnes’s collection of essays from the New Yorker refers in the text to an unnamed author who is ‘unavoidably detained’ and fails to appear at an event. The index reads: ‘McEwan, Ian, unavoidably goes skiing’.

Or there is, instead of comic, the heart-breaking. Raul Hilberg described the fourteen centuries of increasing persecution of the Jews as a list:

‘You may not live among us as Jews.

You may not live among us.

You may not live.’

Workhouse saved

The good news has just come through that the Cleveland Street Workhouse, one of the very few surviving 18th-century workhouses, has been listed, and gained therefore a stay of execution. Instead of being turned into another (yawn) block of ‘luxury’ flats (does anyone ever put up flats that are projected to be ‘ordinary’?) we will have preserved one of the few reminders of the hated Poor Laws, to which our beloved government seems to be hoping to return us (but that, my pets, is another story).

This workhouse, and the excellent work done on its history by Ruth Richardson and the Cleveland Street Workhouse group, is an amazing nexus of historical goodies. Thomas Hardwick, the Georgian architect who renovated St Paul’s, Covent Garden, and Inigo Jones’s St James’s, Piccadilly, designed part of it; Giles and Gough (architects of the Langham Hotel nearby, on Portland Place) later updated a pavilion behind the building.


Cleveland Street in the 1930s, with the workhouse (both images courtesy of Cleveland Street Workhouse group and website)

Every bit as thrilling is the Dickens connection. Dr Richardson has done some astonishing detective work to discover that the house Dickens lived in as a child at 10 Norfolk Street , previously thought to have been destroyed, is in fact still standing, renumbered as 22 Cleveland Street, a mere nine buildings away from the workhouse.

Dickens' home in 1830, now numbered 22 Cleveland Street

It is impossible to imagine that Dickens walked past the workhouse on his way to and from home, without taking some note of it. (One only has to read Sketches by Boz to realize how much the city meant to Dickens.) Thus, there is almost no doubt that when it came time to create a fictional workhouse in Oliver Twist, although it was located outside of London, this daily site was not utilized in some degree.

Dr Richardson’s 1987 book, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (apart from having one of the greatest titles ever) is a tour-de-force of readable scholarship opening up an entirely new subject to general readers. For that alone, she has always been one of my heroes. Now her work on discovering Dickens’ early home, and in the campaign to save the workhouse, shows just how important serious scholarship is: not just an ivory-tower pursuit, but transforming and preserving the fabric of our daily lives.

An algorithm for friendship?

Goodreads is a website that was set up so people could share their views about books. In web terms, it is just a larger group of friends, all with a common enthusiasm. So far, so uncontentious. But now Goodreads has decided that 4.6m ‘friends’ is not enough. It has bought the website Discovereads, which promises it has ‘the best book recommendation system online’.

So suddenly friendship, common tastes, shared passion for a subject has become a ‘system’. Amazon already does this — if you loved xx, you’ll love y, the website merrily tells you. So does Zappos after you buy a pair of shoes. But do I want to share my passions for books with an algorithm? I really don’t think so.

Amazon is wrong more often than it is right. I bought a copy of My Secret Life, by ‘Walter’, for a book I’m writing — ‘Walter’ was (perhaps) an anonymous Victorian who had a, shall we say, ebullient sex life. I needed to know about prositution in 19th-century London, and Walter is, more or less, all we have of (possibly) first-person narration. But becuase I bought Walter, Amazon now has it firmly in its little head, or algorithm, that I ‘loved’ My Secret Life, and therefore recommends porn, and Victoriana, to me with cheerful impartiality. Well, thanks a heap, Amazon, but a real friend, not an algorithm, would actually know that I didn’t ‘love’ Walter, I read it (a very different kettle of porn).

Zappos may suggest that if I ‘loved’ my furry slippers, I will ‘love’ a pair of Uggs. Somehow I don’t take that so personally, because I don’t really love my slipppers; indeed, I have never held an unspoken passion for any of my shoes, even the ones I really like. They just aren’t that important.

But I do have passions for books, and I object to that passion being cheapened by mechanized ‘loving’. Even books I truly do love, with real passion, I couldn’t produce an algorithm for. I ‘loved’ Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a deeply ungirly love; I also loved Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, an equally deeply girly love. Is there an algorithm that encompasses both? A real friend, a person, not an online algorithm, in fact gave them both to me, with the booklovers’ immortal line: ‘Here, you’ll love this.’ And I did. But my (real) friend has known me for 25 years. The computer’s algorithm has never met me. And that’s why one hands me Neal Stephenson, while the other recommends porn.

I think I know which one is my friend.

Teens love The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Really?

According to Renaissance Learning, an ‘education company’ (no, I don’t know what that means either. They sell books? Blackboards? Teachers?), who surveyed over 150,000 children’s reading habits in primary and secondary schools, the twelfth favourite book of 14-16-year-old girls was The Very Hungry Caterpillar, that cardboard-backed thriller for the ankle-biter set — Will the Caterpillar Turn into a Butterfly, or Will it Get Squashed First?

Wuthering Heights, teen-angst weepy extraordinaire, has vanished; so has To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead it is caterpillars ‘n’ Harry Potter.

Yet I wonder how true it is, and how the reading was assessed. Was it via self-reporting? Were the girls just taking the piss? (I think I would have.) It will be interesting to see how the Guardian‘s new children’s book website fares faced with these Caterpillar findings. I suspect rather well, and that Renaissance (whatever its business interests may have been in doing what must have been a very expensive survey) may have been blindsided.

The Guardian site is not only for children, but by children, encouraging kids able to sign up and become involved. There are no indications of caterpillar-mania on the teen pages, but many of seriousness (and jokiness), of breadth, depth and respect for reading and for each other — indications that were less apparent in the doom-and-gloom survey.

Did Twemlow live in the London Library?

In Our Mutual Friend, Twemlow (who is, it is my firm contention, the real hero of the book) lives in Duke Street, St James’s, over a livery-stable.

The London Library now backs into Mason’s Yard, which is indeed in Duke Street, St James’s. I’ve looked at maps of the period (mostly from Lee Jackson’s wonderful Victorian London site), and can’t find a specific yard marked, but Mason’s Yard is a good size, and might easily have contained a livery stable (the two exits to the yard were surely helpful, and the pub on the corner seems to indicate thirsty stable-men).

So, was Mason’s Yard the home of Twemlow? It is pleasant to think of him lurking in the stacks…

BBC Book Challenge asks ‘Are you Average’?

The BBC has provided a list of 100 books, and asks how many you have read, adding the helpful suggestion that the average person will have read 6 out of the 100. Which doesn’t sound very average to me.

And what is with this list anyway? The Complete Works of Shakespeare at no.14 — not ‘a’ book, but let that pass, until you see ‘Hamlet’ at no. 98. Did the list compiler not know that this is a duplication? Maybe s/he thinks Hamlet is by a different Shakespeare? Joe Shakespeare? Sam Shakespeare? And ditto for the Chronicles of Narnia and ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’.

Pedantry aside, here is the list: how did you do?

Re: The BBC 100 Book Challenge-Are you average?

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
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