Posts Tagged ‘Victorian era’

The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj

by Anne de Courcy

Harper, 2014

335 pages

To know me is to know that I am somewhat obsessed with Victorian England. I picked up a copy of A Christmas Carol at age 7, was mesmerized by the imagery and language and characters, and never looked back.

Since then, I’ve worked my way through Dickens, Trollope, Thomas Hardy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve dabbled with Elizabeth Gaskell and George MacDonald. On the American side, I devoured Louisa May Alcott because her books seemed such close kin to their British counterparts. I’ve also read my way through numerous non-fiction titles about the period, especially those focusing on Victorian domestic life and the lives of women.

So Anne de Courcy’s The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj was a natural choice for my book list. It promised to cover my favorite topics – domesticity and women’s lives – and to fill a gap in my knowledge. While India and Empire had always loomed large in the background of the Victorian stories I read (especially Trollope’s and Burnett’s), I hadn’t read much that directly covered life under the Raj.

In the event, I learned much more than I expected. Though the book focuses primarily on the 1880s-1920s, when the Raj was at its peak, de Courcy covers marriage customs all the way from the late 1700s to Indian independence in the 1940s.

The book’s title refers to the late 19th- and early 20th-century custom of sending droves of young women to India to hunt for husbands. Empire had greatly reduced the stock of eligible young men at home: many had been killed in Empire-building wars, and still more had been sent to police and administer England’s holdings overseas. So pragmatic middle- and upper-class parents simply packed up their daughters and sent them where the men were.

The practice was oxymoronic. Young middle- and upper-class women were not educated or equipped to handle life on their own – a typical well-bred girl ended her academic education in her early teens and was not taught how to look after herself or earn a living. Yet these same girls were sent off on months-long (sometimes harrowing) sea voyages to an unfamiliar country, where the climate, local population, and simple circumstances of life presented tremendous obstacles to their physical and mental health.

These were young women who had been conditioned to be weak and dependent. Society told them they were always on the verge of hysterics, incapable of functioning without the guidance and protection of a father or husband. But they rose to the occasion with aplomb.

Many turned the trip into a grand adventure. Most did get married, but they were more likely to do so on their own terms. They handled disease, natural disaster, and encounters with wild animals with admirable presence of mind. While their husbands went off on campaigns for months at a time, they took household matters in hand and sometimes traveled thousands of miles through hostile landscapes with just a servant to assist them.

England’s rule of India was far from unblemished. But there is no denying the spirit of women who were bred to be shrinking violets, yet made themselves strong as oaks. The lives they made for themselves helped me realize that, sometimes, victory comes by degrees. A step outside the box is still a step – it doesn’t lose all value simply because it’s not a leap. And it’s inspiration to do what we can with the resources we have, both around us and within ourselves.

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Here Come the Girl Scouts!: The Amazing All-True Story of Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low and Her Great Adventure

by Shana Corey; ill. Hadley Hooper

Scholastic, 2012

40 pages

I know it sounds curmudgeonly, but kids don’t get outside enough these days.

We parents are too scared of catastrophe; kids are too enmeshed in devices (also a parental failing, since we’re the ones who are supposed to set limits on the things). And don’t get me started on the lack of recess and P.E. at school.

Being constantly indoors is simply not good–for the immune system, for overall health. And it means that kids miss out on simple pleasures like birdsong and swinging, not to mention myriad opportunities for creativity, initiative, and (where children move in herds) cooperation.

The late 19th- and early 20th-century girls of Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low’s day faced similar problems, but for very different reasons.

They spent their days sitting–occasionally outside, but mostly inside–because that was all that was considered appropriate for girls of “good breeding.” Physical activity, it was said, would make them coarse, forward, and a host of other heinous things.

Not to mention that they were considered “too delicate” for play and sports, a stereotype probably reinforced by the actual physical limitations of corsets, bustles, and other body-distorting garments. Glowing, outdoorsy skin was the mark of lower-class women and girls who had either too much freedom or too much responsibility, depending on your perspective.

Daisy, however, wasn’t buying it. And as Shana Corey and Hadley Hooper show in Here Come the Girl Scouts!: The Amazing All-True Story of Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low and Her Great Adventure, her refusal to accept cultural norms gave birth to one of the most enduring and empowering girls’ movements in history.

Daisy grew up in Savannah, Georgia, part of a family whose wealth enabled her to travel extensively and indulge in expensive hobbies. With a chronic itch for adventure, she gained a reputation for stunts like ditching a dinner party to go fishing in full evening dress.

Eventually, she married a wealthy Englishman and settled in the UK, where she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes. Robert, a former war hero, had founded the Boy Scouts; Agnes led its offshoot, the Girl Guides.

Daisy was already looking for some way to turn her thirst for adventure into something that would benefit society. Her friendship with the Baden-Powells gave her a concrete idea. Returning to the United States, she founded the Girl Scouts with just a handful of girls from Savannah’s upper crust.

From the start, Daisy emphasized physical activity, practical skills, and charity. She also insisted on inclusion, both racial and socioeconomic. It was controversial from the start, but Daisy simply didn’t care–she knew it was good for girls and for society.

There’s so much to love about this book. Corey tells the story in clear, cheery prose while still communicating important concepts like individuality and courage. She makes energy, activity, and initiative seem appealing and fun–much more so than sitting on the couch all day (or accepting limitations on one’s personhood).

Hooper’s punchy, graphic illustrations add to the book’s energy, and their sly humor augments Corey’s sense of fun. There’s also a more detailed, but accessible, biography of Daisy and her organization, along with a great bibliography for girls (and grown-ups) who want to know more.

But my favorite part of the book are the quotes. Curving around the text, incorporated into the illustrations, they inspire readers in Daisy’s own words.

“Every time you show your courage, it grows.”

“The work of to-day is the history of to-morrow, and we are its makers.”

“To make yourself strong and healthy it is necessary to begin with your inside.”

They made both me and my daughter want to–made us feel like we could–run out the door and do something to improve ourselves and the world. And that, my friends, is what empowerment feels like.

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When Mindy Saved Hanukkah

by Eric A. Kimmel; ill. by Barbara McClintock

Scholastic Press, 1998

32 pages

Courage is a difficult, even counterintuitive, quality to cultivate in our children.

By definition, it requires direct exposure to danger or adversity–the very kinds of circumstances from which we try to protect our kids.

And when dealing with girls, there’s an added challenge.

In our culture, courage is usually depicted as a masculine trait–e.g., we tell people to “man up” or “buck up,” not “woman up” or “doe up.”

As if that didn’t make it hard enough to en-courage girls, we use feminine language to evoke cowardice and weakness (e.g., “You run/throw/scream like a girl”).

This is why I keep my radar up for books featuring courageous heroines–they’re a great way to counteract the courage-is-for-boys message that has a tendency to seep into our everyday language.

Eric Kimmel’s When Mindy Saved Hanukkah is that kind of book.

The title character is a miniature human who lives with her family behind the walls of New York City’s Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Like the Borrowers of classic kid lit, Mindy Klein’s family repurposes castoff, full-size items to serve their own needs.

For Hannukah, that means melting down one of the synagogue’s discarded candles to produce smaller versions for the Kleins and their friends.

At least, that’s the plan.

But when Papa Klein tries to acquire the candle, he discovers that the synagogue has a new resident: a fierce cat who thinks mini-humans are likely to be even tastier than mice.

Most of the family treats this setback as final–but Mindy insists that she can get the candle.

And get the candle she does, after a grueling and hair-raising foray into the larger world.

The story itself is incredibly engaging.  Kimmel is a master plotter, concocting a tale that shimmers with a magical blend of suspense, humor, and the warmth of a close-knit family and community.

As for the illustrations, McClintock’s paintings are the perfect foil for Kimmel’s text.  Her domestic scenes are full of creativity and humor, and her reveal of the synagogue is simply breathtaking.

The book is also a great introduction to the story of Hannukah, particularly for Gentile or secular Jewish families.  Kimmel layers the text with natural allusions to synagogue culture and the holiday’s origin, then provides an easy-to-understand glossary in the back.

But the best part of the book, of course, is Mindy’s inspiring courage, a blend of several traits that are themselves challenging to cultivate.

First, there’s her confidence.  When everyone else tries to convince Mindy to stay home, she lists all the reasons she’s the perfect person to fetch the candle–her speed, her strength, etc.

Then there’s her perseverance.  Mindy’s adventure pushes her right to the limits of her physical and mental endurance, but she refuses to quit.

And finally, there is her common sense: when Mindy ends up in a stalemate with the cat, she has the smarts to accept help and work as part of a team.

The end result is success and provision, not just for Mindy’s family but for all their friends who gather at the synagogue for Hanukkah.

So perhaps that’s what’s most inspiring about this book–the idea that one little girl’s courage can impact an entire community.

“Man up”?  Maybe I’ll start saying “Mindy up” instead.

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Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving

by Laurie Halse Anderson; ill. by Matt Faulkner

Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2002

40 pages

If you attended primary school in the United States, you probably know something about the origins of Thanksgiving–where the holiday originated, and why.  What you may not know is that, for much of the 1800s, Thanksgiving wasn’t a very big deal.

As Laurie Halse Anderson explains in Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, the holiday was quite popular in 19th-century New England (where it originated) but largely ignored everywhere else.

That didn’t sit well with Sarah Hale, the nation’s first female magazine editor and a dedicated campaigner for abolition, girls’ education, and a variety of other progressive causes.

Thankful countries are great countries, she believed.  And, as the nation careened toward civil war, she saw a national day of thanks as a way to help unify a divided people.

So she wrote letter after letter after letter, and motivated her readers to do the same–for thirty-eight years.

First she convinced the states, which issued individual Thanksgiving proclamations, then she set her sights on the White House.  Five presidents turned her down before she found a sympathetic audience in Abraham Lincoln.  In 1863, he established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

It’s a truly inspiring story, and Anderson and illustrator Matt Faulkner tell it in a way that even the littlest kids can understand.

Anderson sticks with short but engaging sentences and clear, uncluttered language.  She repeats several times, like a refrain, that Hale was “bold, brave, stubborn, and smart.”  For his part, Faulkner embellishes the text with energetic watercolors that cleverly combine realism and metaphor.

Together, text and illustrations convey both the tremendous challenges Hale faced, both as a woman and as a concerned citizen, and her cheerfully unflagging spirit in the face of those challenges.

But what does all this mean to the little girls in our lives?

I think Anderson answers that question best.  At the end of the book, she points out that Sarah Hale effected major change at a time when women operated under tremendous legal, social, and cultural restrictions.

Today’s little girls still face some of those same restrictions.  My daughter has more (legally protected) opportunities than ever crossed Hale’s radar screen, but she’s still a rung down the ladder from the boys around her.

She’s barely six, and already I see her encountering the message that certain pastimes, toys, or interests are off-limits to or “not normal” for her because she’s a girl.  Or, worse, the message that boys are the active ones, the ones who make change and get things done.

But not according to Thank You, Sarah.

This is a book that tells girls to focus on passions, not restrictions.  To act, not shrink back.  To confront challenges, not fear them.

Thank You, Sarah tells girls that they can be women and still make waves.  That, like Sarah, they don’t have to order their lives around others’ (under)estimates of them.

As Anderson points out early in the book, Hale looked “like a dainty little lady.  Never underestimate dainty little ladies.”

That’s a message I can be thankful for.

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by Barbara McClintock

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002

32 pages

I still have my first doll, a cloth Raggedy Ann handmade for me by a neighbor.

I don’t remember much of what I did with her, only that she went almost everywhere with me.  Later, I passed her on to my own daughter, who played with dear Raggedy until she literally fell apart.

She’s now on the top shelf of my closet, footless, one embroidered eye rubbed away, bald patches scattered through her red yarn hair.  I’m trying desperately to figure out how to fix her, but my sewing skills are sorely lacking.

The funny thing about all this?  As a child, I wasn’t that into dolls. While other girls in my class brought their “babies” to school and played house at recess, I played handball and foursquare with the boys.

One of my teachers was so concerned about this apparent lack of feminine interests that she actually pulled me aside one day.  “You know, you don’t have to play with the boys all the time,” she said conspiratorially.  “I bet the girls would play with you, too.”

So I tried playing with the girls.  That lasted for about two days–make-believe tea parties just weren’t my thing.

I’m sure that’s why Barbara McClintock’s Dahlia immediately caught my attention.

Set in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, this is the story of Charlotte, a budding naturalist whose favorite pastimes include hunting for birds’ nests and making mud cakes with Bruno the teddy bear.

One morning, Charlotte receives a package from her Aunt Edme.  Inside is a prissy blond doll, dressed in a feathered hat and ruffly, lacy dress.

Charlotte takes one look at the doll and issues an unapologetic warning: “We like digging in the dirt and climbing trees.  No tea parties, no being pushed around in frilly prams.  You’ll just have to get used to the way we do things.”

“The way we do things,” it turns out, involves fishing, digging in the garden (Charlotte names the doll after her mother’s flowers), beating the local boys at wagon racing, and just generally getting dirty and rumpled.  All in all, a glorious day.

But when they return home for dinner, they find Aunt Edme waiting for them.  She’s the very picture of delicacy, attired in pristine lace, linen, and silk.  And she wants to see what Charlotte has done with her new doll.

The elderly aunt’s reaction to Dahlia’s ragged condition is the book’s crowning moment.  Instead of scolding Charlotte for ruining the doll, Edme suddenly smiles and confides, “I thought she needed to be out in the sunshine, and played with, and loved.  I knew that is just what you’d do for her.”

This is one reason I love McClintock’s book: Edme’s affirmation of Charlotte the Adventurer, Charlotte the Bold and Fearless (and Dirty).  I think young girls crave–need–this kind of validation from older women.  At least, I know I did.  It meant the world to me when my female teachers, relatives, even just the babysitter, said, “I understand who you are, and I love it!”

I still carry those moments of affirmation with me.  They’re like the picture inside a locket; most of the time, they hang hidden in my mind.  But I can take them out and look at them whenever I need encouragement to take some bold and unusual step, the path that’s right for me but a mystery to those around me.

I also love Charlotte’s aggressive immunity to cultural expectations.  She knows they exist; she even knows what they are.  But she’s not buying them, even for a minute.

To borrow Walt Whitman’s beautiful phrase, she’s already learned to dismiss whatever insults her own soul.

Finally, I love McClintock’s elegant watercolors, full of expressive faces, period detail, and little gems for the observant reader.  Reference, for example, Charlotte’s tongue-in-cheek resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s prim and proper Alice.  Or the hallway in Charlotte’s home–she’s obviously not the only adventurer in the family.

Ultimately, this is an incredibly satisfying book, proof that picture books can have just as much “meat”–and inspiration–in them as novels.

With whom would you share this book, and why?

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A Christmas Like Helen’s

by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, ill. by Mary Azarian

2004: Houghton Mifflin Company

32 pages

Christmas always puts me in a historical frame of mind. From soon after Thanksgiving until past Epiphany, stories and trivia and memories flow constantly through my mind like a silent soundtrack to everything I do.

I think about historical figures associated with Christmas, about the history of the holiday itself and its traditions, about Christmases from my own past or that of my parents or grandparents.

So it’s no surprise that A Christmas Like Helen’s struck a chord with me. Centered around the author’s grandmother Helen, the book explores daily life and Christmas customs on a Victorian-era New England farm.

Kinsey-Warnock’s spare, poetic text beautifully conveys the realities and joys of Helen’s life, her bond with her family, and her family’s bond with the land and with their neighbors. Woodcuts by Caldecott winner Mary Azarian (Snowflake Bentley) are darkly evocative, capturing the weight and shadow of winter along with the color, energy, and emotions of Helen’s large, active family.

On the surface, this is the story of a girl who likes to go snowshoeing with her cousins, sing Christmas carols, and eat peppermint sticks and popcorn balls.  Between the lines, it’s much more–and that’s where it’s inspiring.

Helen lives without electricity and helps build a barn for a neighbor in need.  She walks to school in the snow “even on days when it’s forty degrees below zero” (yes, people really did that), helps harvest the family’s crops, and stubbornly survives a bout with scarlet fever.  In other words, she’s strong, capable, and very, very brave.

I’m wholeheartedly glad that my daughter’s life is safer, cleaner, and easier than Helen’s. I like not worrying that she’ll die from scarlet fever (or measles, or polio, or diphtheria).  I’m OK with the fact that her chore list consists of tidying her toys and sorting the silverware when it comes out of the dishwasher.

At the same time, however, that cushion of safety and cleanliness and ease can obscure what she’s really capable of.

Helen’s story is a great reminder–for me and my daughter–that even very young girls have deep wells of strength, competence, and courage. Especially when surrounded by loving families, there is very little they can’t dream or do.

Do you have a favorite Christmas or holiday book to read with the girls in your life?

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We just returned from a family vacation to the Florida panhandle, where we spent more than a week hanging out with my lovely–and lively–in-laws.  Thirteen people (9 adults, 1 teenager, and 3 kids under age 8) in two small beach condos.  It was glorious chaos.

But one morning, looking to start my day with a little peace and quiet, I stepped out onto our balcony and closed the hurricane-proof door behind me.  As I looked up and down the beach, I noticed that it was full of holes.  My daughter and her cousins were responsible for a couple of them; the rest had been dug by other kids from our building.  They were all within a few yards of the waves, where just a little excavation will bring water oozing up from under the hard-packed sand.  As I stood on the balcony, I suddenly remembered a poem from my childhood:

When I was down beside the sea/A wooden spade they gave to me/To dig the sandy shore./My holes were empty like a cup./In every hole the sea came up,/Till it could come no more.

That’s “At the Sea-side,” from one of the cornerstone works of children’s literature, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  It’s the first book I remember reading independently, somewhere around age 4.  For years, that poem was my favorite thing to read; I still remember the way the words looked on the page, with the adjacent watercolor painting of a small child crouched in the sand.

I think it resonated with me because I went to the beach a lot as a child, and I was fascinated by those water-holes in the sand.  Sand is the driest dirt there is; yet, no matter how far up the beach I went, the water would appear if I just dug deep enough.  Digging water-holes at the beach–and reliving the experience every time I read Stevenson’s poem–was my first taste of the Eureka! that still sparks in my mind every time I learn something new.

Stevenson wrote his poem almost 150 years ago, yet here I was digging the same kind of holes in the sand with my daughter and niece and nephew–and kids all up and down the beach were doing the same with their families.  That’s the power of good children’s literature: the kindling of the Eureka! spark, the lingering memory, the capture of something universal about childhood and its watershed moments (good or bad).

A Child’s Garden of Verses was the first book to inspire me.  What about you?

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