Book Reviews · Life · Reading

Non-fiction favs & a little life update

Almost exactly one year ago today, I started my MA in Historical Research at Birkbeck, University of London. I was jittery and nervous, buzzing with excitement and I had ZERO idea what I was letting myself in for.

What followed was the most challenging and rewarding year of my life so far. I’ve spent hours flicking through old newspapers in the British Library, carried bag loads of books from Bloomsbury to Kings Cross, wrote and re-wrote essays a billion times, had no money and cried quite a lot.

Here’s a lil bit of backstory. I’ve always been a history geek. But my first degree is in Law. So with my Masters, I kind of combined the two–I looked at the legal ramifications for prostitutes in Elizabethan London, I analysed Victorian women’s sexuality, I investigated the media reaction in the women’s suffrage movement. IT WAS BLISS.

Along the way, I also read a lot of popular history. In fact, I kind of fell in love with historical non-fiction. So here are a few of my fav reads of the last year, and one that’s high up on my TBR:

The Victorian Guide to Sex: Desire and Deviance in the 19th Century by Fern Riddell

91Wii8aEO6LAn exciting factual romp through sexual desire, practises and deviance in the Victorian era. The Victorian Guide to Sex will reveal advice and ideas on sexuality from the Victorian period. Drawing on both satirical and real life events from the period, it explores every facet of sexuality that the Victorians encountered. Reproducing original advertisements and letters, with extracts taken from memoirs, legal cases, newspaper advice columns, and collections held in the Museum of London and the British Museum, this book lifts the veil from historical sexual attitudes.

This book is interesting on so many levels. Firstly, our preconceived attitudes towards sexuality and the Victorians are fascinating. They are ‘prudish’ in our minds. This book shatters those illusions, and explores a myriad of Victorian sexual practices. Secondly, the narrative structure of this book is so unique. It’s written in a series of articles from fictional Victorians, which makes the reading experience that much more fun. This book is well written and informative, and great reading for anyone interested in the history of sexuality, within the context of the 19th Century.

Also, if you don’t follow Fern Riddell on twitter, I’d highly recommend you doing so. Firstly, her thoughts and analysis on current events are highly perceptive, but her threads on history are HIGHLY informative and interesting. Plus, she is releasing a book on suffragette Kitty Marion, titled A Dangerous Woman, which I am extremely excited for.

S.P.Q.R: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

28789711In SPQR, an instant classic, Mary Beard narrates the history of Rome “with passion and without technical jargon” and demonstrates how “a slightly shabby Iron Age village” rose to become the “undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean” (Wall Street Journal). Hailed by critics as animating “the grand sweep and the intimate details that bring the distant past vividly to life” (Economist) in a way that makes “your hair stand on end” (Christian Science Monitor) and spanning nearly a thousand years of history, this “highly informative, highly readable” (Dallas Morning News) work examines not just how we think of ancient Rome but challenges the comfortable historical perspectives that have existed for centuries. With its nuanced attention to class, democratic struggles, and the lives of entire groups of people omitted from the historical narrative for centuries, SPQR will to shape our view of Roman history for decades to come

Mary Beard is probably one of the most well known female historians in the UK, an unparalleled expert on Ancient Rome. Now, apart from devouring the Horrible History books as a kid, I know absolutely zilch about this area of history. So I went into this book with a degree of trepidation. However, this is written so wonderfully and clearly I had nothing to worry about. A detailed and informative exploration of the rise of Rome, that I had trouble putting down. This is a brick of a book, and I read it in about a week. I highly recommend this, if you, like me, want to know more about Ancient Rome.

The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray

33781567In the 19th century, a revolution took place in how we ate – from the highest table in the land to the most humble. Annie Gray’s book is both a biography of Britain’s most iconic monarch, and a look at the changing nature of cooking and eating in the Victorian era.

From her early years living on milk and bread under the Kensington system, to her constant indigestion and belligerent over-eating as an elderly woman, her diet will be examined, likes and dislikes charted, and the opinions of those around her considered. More than that, though, this book will take a proper look below stairs. Victoria was surrounded by servants, from ladies-in-waiting, to secretaries, dressers and coachmen. But there was another category of servant, more fundamental, and yet at the same time more completely hidden: her cooks.

From her greed to her selfishness at the table, her indigestion and her absolute reliance on food as a lifelong companion, with her when so many others either died or were forced away by political factors, Victoria had a huge impact on the way we all eat today. Annie Gray gives us a new perspective on Britain’s longest reigning monarch, viewing her through the one thing more dear to her than almost anything else: her stomach. 

I love love love books that look on a well trodden subject with a fresh perspective, and this is exactly what this book does. Queen Victoria is one of the most famous historical figures ever, with countless books, TV shows and movies about her life. However, this book analysed the food she ate. Thus, this was an thoroughly fascinating analysis of 19th Century upper-class eating habits, and impact food had on the life of a Queen. I also really enjoyed the recipes dotted throughout the book!

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

32809816A vital re-examination of a shared history, published to accompany the landmark BBC Two series.

In Black and British, award-winning historian and broadcaster David Olusoga offers readers a rich and revealing exploration of the extraordinarily long relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa. Drawing on new genetic and genealogical research, original records, expert testimony and contemporary interviews, Black and British reaches back to Roman Britain, the medieval imagination and Shakespeare’s Othello.

It reveals that behind the South Sea Bubble was Britain’s global slave-trading empire and that much of the great industrial boom of the nineteenth century was built on American slavery. It shows that Black Britons fought at Trafalgar and in the trenches of the First World War. Black British history can be read in stately homes, street names, statues and memorials across Britain and is woven into the cultural and economic histories of the nation.

Unflinching, confronting taboos and revealing hitherto unknown scandals, Olusoga describes how black and white Britons have been intimately entwined for centuries. 

I was UTTERLY enraptured by the TV series this book was based upon. It was endlessly interesting, and I am desperate to get my hands on this book–I might treat myself to it next payday! This one is v high up on my TBR.

So, now I’ve rambled about history and books for goodness knows how long, you might be wondering what the point of this blog post is. I have loved doing my MA, and I realised that I wasn’t quite done with learning yet. So, I start my PhD at the Open University this month. I’m going to be looking at the links between the first women lawyers and the women’s suffrage campaign. I’m VERY excited.


5 thoughts on “Non-fiction favs & a little life update

  1. I’m kinda curious to read what you have wrote for your masters too! The Victorian Guide to Sex sounds so interesting. Also The Greedy Queen, as I always liked learning about the Female British Monarchs, but never about what goes down their gob! =P

    1. That’s what I loved about it — food is such a massive part of our lives, and it’s so interesting to go through her live from that perspective!

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