A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders

I was absolutely convinced that I’ve read other books by Judith Flanders before, and on checking my shelves, I realised that I have – I own copies of The Victorian House and The Invention of Murder, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. This is, in fact, her first book although from the looks of my copy, it’s been reissued recently. And in spite of being frequently irritated by her circle of characters, I’m enjoying this one rather a lot as well.
The sisters discussed are the Macdonald sisters, of which there were five and of which five, four played a part in history by being wives or mothers of much more famous men. Alice, the eldest, was Rudyard Kipling’s mother; Georgiana married the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones; Agatha was the wife of the President of the Royal Academy, Edward Poynter; and Louisa’s eldest son was the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. The fifth sister, Edie, never married and lived with the Baldwin family as unpaid housekeeper and governess.
It is a fascinating history covering a period with which I am fascinated anyway. I like the Pre-Raphaelites – although I like the Arts & Crafts movement more – and I enjoy political history. I’m learning to see the more radical side of Rudyard Kipling (apparently there was one) and how the British Empire permeated life during that time. It’s just that all the people in it are AWFUL. I think the only one I actually liked buggered off to America in Chapter 4 and never came back, the sensible chap. This isn’t the fault of the historian, because the book is exceptionally well written and really interesting; this is what the late Victorians were like and it’s striking just how different one’s outlook is these days.
None of these sisters could be called feminists and all of them were at least partially prepared to give up potentially promising artistic or literary careers to support their husbands and care for their families. None of them seemed to think it unusual to dump their children on friends or relatives for extended periods of time while Mummy went to care for Daddy while he worked in India. None of them seemed to think it unusual for their husbands to have affairs left, right and centre while they stayed at home. It’s hardly surprising that two of the sisters (Agatha and Louisa) essentially spent their entire married lives invalided with “nervous disorders” – what else was expected of them if they couldn’t achieve their own potential?
One interesting aside which I had missed previously is that the murderess, Madeline Smith, was employed by William Morris & Co as an embroiderer after she left Scotland under an assumed name. It was just a little throwaway fact I found tucked into a section about the early years of the Burne-Jones’ marriage. The book is full of little treats like this. It’s just a shame that the rest of the cast can’t be a little more entertaining.

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Jane Austen Will Never Be The Same Again

It was, of course, my own fault entirely for picking up the book in the library. In reading Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, I have now forever changed my view of her novels. They may look romantic and flimsy but underneath the curtseying and good manners, there are some real revelations.

I had known for a long time that Mansfield Park had one foot in the slavery question, as it is quite apparent that Sir Thomas Bertram, with his estate in Antigua, has made money probably from sugarcane and the slaves that worked the plantation for him. However, I hadn’t realised the feminist undertones of many of Austen’s novels (which I shall very briefly explore later, because I want you to go and read this book – and then read all of her novels again) and I now admire Austen’s skills as a writer much more than I did before.

I must say at the outset, though, that it is very important to read her books with this in mind, rather than simply watch an adaptation, good as it may be; every scriptwriter makes changes to the original text to suit running time, budget restrictions or whatever message the director wants to put forward. So please, go back to the novels and start from the beginning.

Northanger Abbey, possibly Jane’s first novel, was never intended for publication and as a result it wasn’t published until her death. It has made dating it a little problematic, but I was surprised to learn that Gothic novels didn’t really have very much to do with the plot. They were, however, a very clever disguise to explore infant and maternal mortality in childbirth – and Jane’s method would have been seen through by the majority of her contemporary (female) readers. I wasn’t convinced by the argument at first, I admit, but I went back to the novel and there it was – clear as day. After that, I stopped arguing and decided to learn.

Sense and Sensibility deals with the unfairness of primogeniture, but also raises questions about how trustworthy the male characters in the book are – they certainly don’t seem to have the best interests of the female characters to heart. Pride and Prejudice is a class struggle, but also mentions in passing some of the less romantic aspects of living in a garrison town at a time of unrest and upheaval. As I’ve already said, Mansfield Park has undertones of slavery, while Emma deals with enclosures and the food shortages it caused, while Persuasion explores the growing split between science and religion just before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and caused absolute mayhem.

I was quite swept away by this book. If you like Jane Austen’s novels you really must read it, Ms Kelly adds so much depth and information to the novels which, quite honestly, I hadn’t realised was there. It did encourage me to go back to the original texts, which is never a bad thing, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a fantastic read.