Saturday, January 03, 2015

Books read 2014 #5

#21 Matt Haig The Radleys
This was a chance find from the quick picks section at the library. Ostensibly it's about a middle class family living in the suburbs but it turns out things are not quite what they seem. I won't give away the plot, but it's all about secrets and repression, and finding a balancing act in life. I'm not actually sure what I thought about it. It's definitely not the book I thought I was going to read (I can't say why, as that will give it away). It was kind of quirky, kind of funny. Easily readable though.

#22 Emma Donoghue The sealed letter
I picked this book up in a little bookshop in Salisbury, where everything seemed to be discounted. I thought it looked quite interesting, but underestimated how much I'd get sucked into it, after a rather slow start. It's based on real-life happenings, the Victorian court case around the divorce of Helen Codrington, and her friendship with Emily Faithfull. The action is portrayed from various points of view, giving an insight into the motivations of all the characters - I was interested to find I could feel sympathetic towards Helen, even though her behaviour was often unbelievable. It is also a good reminder of how much things have changed for the better - Helen's husband retains control, "ownership" in those days, of their children after their divorce, and the children's welfare simply isn't taken into account.

#23 Lucy Lethbridge Servants: a downstairs view of twentieth-century Britain
Another purchase from the same little bookshop in Salisbury, this covers the history of being a servant, and attitudes towards servants, throughout the twentieth century. The chapters are in chronological order, but with some overlap, as obviously circumstances changed in servants' situations depending on whether they were employed in a big or small house. Some traditions in big houses continued long after things had changed in the rest of the country.  It was a fascinating insight into attitudes towards class - how employers often couldn't understand why someone would rather work in a factory and live independently, than be in service, and how the changing demographics caused by the world wars gave more opportunities outside of service. The minutiae of the servants' lives was also fascinating. At the beginning of the century, the sheer number of people required to sustain the lives of the rich, who often didn't do a thing for themselves, was incredible. I also hadn't known about the 1911 Unemployment Insurance Act, which made it mandatory to have medical and unemployment insurance (the precursor to the NHS and the Welfare State), and the uproar this caused amongst both servants and their employers, with much misinformation doing the rounds. And, yet without this insurance, any ill servant was entirely dependent on the goodwill of their employer and was at serious risk of ending up in the workhouse. A really interesting insight into twentieth century history.

#24 Elizabeth Jane Howard The light years
And the last book provided a lot of background to this one! I originally read Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles about twenty years ago and decided to revisit them, after enjoying the Radio 4 adaptations over the last couple of years. This is the first novel, and I found a lot there that I either missed the first time round or just hadn't remembered. I don't think I had appreciated how she delves into the different aspects of so many people's lives, both servants and the family. I think, on first reading, I had assumed the family were upper-class, but they are actually somewhere in the middle, and earn their income from 'trade', so aren't hanging out with the poshest of the posh. You get to see events from a lot of different perspectives, and I love how she captures all the point of view, particularly that of the children in the years leading up to the Second World War. Have now got the next one reserved at the library.

So, that's 24 books read in 2014. What did you enjoy reading last year? I hope I've inspired some people to go and read some of the books or authors I've mentioned.

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