Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir

In Alison Weir’s new non-fiction book, Queens of the Conquest, she explores the lives of the five queens of England who followed the Norman Conquest of 1066. These five, in the order they appear in the book, are Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Conqueror), Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain (the two wives of Henry I), Matilda of Boulogne (wife of King Stephen), and the Empress Maud, Henry I’s daughter, who was never actually crowned but called herself Lady of the English. Lots of Matildas, then – Maud is also referred to in many sources as Matilda – but with each queen discussed chronologically (apart from where their stories overlap), things aren’t as confusing as you might imagine!

Apart from Maud, whom I have read about several times in fiction, I knew very little about the other queens whose stories are covered in this book. Considering the general lack of information available to us today – we don’t even have a clear idea of what these women looked like due to the absence of contemporary portraits – I think Weir still does a good job of providing as full and comprehensive an account of each queen’s life as she possibly could. There is inevitably a lot of padding – facts about medieval life, descriptions of castles and long passages quoted from letters – but if you don’t know a lot about the period, most of this should still be of interest.

I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of this book as my own knowledge is very limited, but Weir does provide references to back up most of what she says. In fact, the additional material which includes the references, sources, maps etc takes up about a quarter of the book! There are still times, though, when she is forced to speculate and make assumptions about how one of the queens may have felt or behaved, and resorts to using words like ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’. Usually I prefer more certainty when I’m reading non-fiction, but in this case, I do understand that with the primary sources being so sparse, some guesswork was necessary to round out the characters of the queens and to make this into an entertaining read rather than a dry textbook.

15th century depiction of the Empress Matilda/Maud

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was the section describing the period of civil war known as the Anarchy during which Maud (who was named as her father Henry I’s heir) and Matilda of Boulogne (whose husband, Stephen, was Henry I’s nephew and another claimant to the throne) found themselves on opposite sides. As I’ve read several novels which have this period as a setting, it was good to read a factual account this time instead of a fictional one, while still recognising some of the most interesting episodes, such as Maud’s escape in the snow from the besieged Oxford Castle.

Maud certainly didn’t seem to have made herself very popular, having a reputation for being proud, haughty and arrogant, but I have always assumed that this was probably due to the prejudice of the male chroniclers of the time against a female ruler who didn’t behave the way they expected a woman to behave. Weir points out that Matilda of Boulogne often acted in a similar way but her actions were seen as acceptable because she was taking them on behalf of her husband, King Stephen, rather than for herself, but she also suggests that Maud’s overbearing attitude and poor decision-making may have been due to mood swings caused by early menopause or a long-term illness she suffered following childbirth. This was the one place where I thought there may have been some bias creeping in, as Weir clearly seems to like Matilda of Boulogne much more than the Empress – and I couldn’t help wondering what caused the aggression and lack of judgement of some of the kings mentioned in the book!

18th-century impression of Matilda of Flanders

I was also interested to read the various theories and legends behind Matilda of Flanders’ marriage to William the Conqueror and the controversies surrounding Matilda of Scotland’s marriage to Henry I (she had previously spent some time in a convent so it was debatable whether or not she was free to marry). I felt that I learned very little about Adeliza, though; while she is described as being particularly beautiful and helping to promote the arts, it seemed that she had less power and political significance than the other queens.

Although I sometimes felt that too much time was devoted to the general history of the period when I would have preferred more analysis of the specific lives and characters of the five queens, I did find Queens of the Conquest a fascinating read. Apparently this is just the first of four volumes which will take us through the rest of the medieval queens to the end of the Wars of the Roses. I will be looking out for the next one.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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Gerald Durrell: Three Singles to Adventure; Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons

The British naturalist Gerald Durrell is probably best known for his trilogy about his childhood in Corfu (which begins with My Family and Other Animals), but he also wrote a large number of other books, many of them describing his journeys to faraway countries to bring back animals for Britain’s zoos. Thanks to Open Road Media, who are reissuing his books in ebook form, I have had the opportunity to read two of them: Three Singles to Adventure and Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons.

three-singles-to-adventure First published in 1954, Three Singles to Adventure is an account of Durrell’s animal-collecting expedition to British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1950. Using the capital city of Georgetown as a base, Durrell and his two companions, Bob and Ivan, begin their mission by purchasing three tickets to Adventure, a village chosen at random from a map because of its intriguing name. First in Adventure, then in two other locations elsewhere in the country, the three begin to gather specimens of the mammals and birds, reptiles and amphibians, which live in that area of South America. These range from lizards, frogs and anteaters to anacondas, opossums and tree porcupines.

Durrell’s enthusiasm for his work really shines through on every page. His descriptions of the animals and birds he discovers are vivid and detailed, full of wonder, fascination and admiration; he even manages to capture the individual personality of each one. My personal favourites were the two-toed sloth who tries to escape in the middle of the night, the capybara who keeps everyone awake by gnawing on the wires of his cage and a big, lovable curassow bird called Cuthbert who gets under everybody’s feet at the most inconvenient of times!

While Bob was absorbed in the job of disentangling the hammocks from their ropes, Cuthbert cautiously approached across the floor and lay down just behind his feet. During the course of his struggles with a hammock Bob stepped backwards and tripped heavily over the recumbent bird behind him. Cuthbert gave a squawk of alarm and retired to his corner again. When he judged that Bob was once more engrossed, he shuffled forward and laid himself across his shoes. The next thing I knew there was a crash, and Bob fell to the floor together with the hammocks. From underneath the wreckage of mosquito-nets and ropes Cuthbert peered, peeting indignantly.

There’s one funny anecdote after another, many of them involving the hapless Bob, who only came along to paint pictures and finds himself joining Durrell in the most hair-raising of escapades!

As an animal lover myself, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for some of the animals, who clearly weren’t meant to be kept in captivity and were transported in sacks, boxes and cages, but having said that, I could see that Durrell did genuinely care about them and treated them in as humane a manner as he was able given the time and place. He would later become known as a conservationist, founding the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust with his own zoo in Jersey dedicated to helping endangered species.

golden-bats-and-pink-pigeons The second Durrell book I read, Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons, was originally published in 1977 and describes a trip to Mauritius in search of endangered animals to bring back to Durrell’s Jersey Zoo. Accompanied by his assistant John Hartley and secretary Ann Peters, Durrell was hoping to find specimens of the pink pigeon, of which only a few remained, the golden fruit bat of the island of Rodrigues, whose numbers had also dropped, and three types of rare reptile from Round Island, another island near Mauritius. All of these creatures, like the dodo before them, were at risk as a result of habitat change and new predators – cats, dogs, rats etc – which had been introduced to the islands with the arrival of human beings. Durrell’s intention was to take a small number of each animal to be bred in captivity and eventually re-released into the wild.

This is another fascinating read, with some lovely descriptions of the beautiful scenery – including a whole chapter which describes a swim through a coral reef. I didn’t like it quite as much as Three Singles to Adventure, though, which I think was partly because the types of animals and birds featured in this one appealed to me less. It’s not as funny as the other book either, although Durrell still has some amusing stories to tell about his time in Mauritius. I loved the episode where, on the day of their bat-catching expedition, he and his companions arrive at the airport carrying a large quantity of fruit to use as bait (including a large and particularly smelly Jak fruit), only to find that they are over the weight limit for the plane.

Frantically, we discarded all the heavy items of clothing and equipment we could manage without. It made an interesting pile. If there had been any doubts about our sanity before this, they were soon dispelled, for what sane person would discard shirt, socks, shoes and other items of wearing apparel in favour of bananas, mangoes and a Jak fruit that one was conscious of at fifty paces?

I really enjoyed reading these two books! Each of the new editions includes biographical information on Durrell and a selection of family photographs; Three Singles to Adventure also has an index of the animals and birds mentioned in the text. I would highly recommend either or both of these books and am looking forward to reading more of them.

Thanks to the publisher Open Road Media for providing review copies via NetGalley.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

a-chelsea-concerto I had a nice surprise a few months ago when I unexpectedly received two ebooks from Dean Street Press who were launching their new imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow (in conjunction with Scott from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog). The first one I chose to read was A Chelsea Concerto, a Second World War memoir originally published in 1959.

Frances Faviell lived at 33 Cheyne Place in Chelsea – one of the most heavily bombed areas of London during the war due to its location, close to the Royal Hospital and to several bridges over the River Thames. Her memoir opens in the early days of the war, a period known as the Phoney War because it seemed as though very little was actually happening. During this time, as well as continuing her work as an artist, Frances becomes a Red Cross volunteer, taking part in air-raid drills and trying to ensure that the people of Chelsea are as fully prepared as they can possibly be for whatever may follow.

What follows, of course, is the Blitz, which Faviell describes in vivid detail. Night after night, people living in Chelsea are subjected to one bombing raid after another, emerging from the shelters each morning in fear of what they might find: their home destroyed; a friend or neighbour dead; the roads blocked; an unexploded bomb in the street. With her work as a volunteer, Frances is often at the centre of the action, experiencing and witnessing the most horrifying things, while throughout it all, the Green Cat – her most treasured possession – sits in her window as a symbol of safety and prosperity.

Serene and aloof he sat in the window in the sunlight, surveying with contempt the activities in the street. Everyone begged me to put him down in the cellar with some of the paintings which I had stored there now. But I would not move him. Was he not the Guardian of the Home? He must be treated with respect.

Before the war, Frances had travelled widely and learned to speak several languages, something which enables her to offer help and support to the refugees who have fled to Britain as the Nazis sweep across Europe. There are some real characters amongst the refugees – in particular ‘The Giant’, a large and outspoken Belgian fisherman – and some funny moments, such as the story of Monsieur D, who is suspected of being a spy when mysterious lights show from his window during a blackout. Many of these people, though, are frightened and traumatised and look to Frances for advice and protection. She becomes particularly close to Ruth, a Jewish refugee from Germany, who attempts to kill herself, leaving her young daughter in need of Frances’ care. Nineteen-year-old Catherine, who arrives in London pregnant and unmarried, is another troubled young woman whom Frances finds herself taking under her wing.

Despite the terrible things going on around her – and the terrible things she experiences herself – Frances keeps her sense of humour and often manages to see the funny side (when she remembers a government information leaflet on what to do if German parachutists land, for example, or when she talks about her dachshund, Vicki, known as Miss Hitler).

The wording of the pamphlet which we knew was designed to try and avoid the same panic flight as in Belgium and France caused such hilarity everywhere that every current show included some skit on the arrival of parachutists. In the FAP we went about chivvying one another with the words of the clauses about seeing anything suspicious and “Be calm, be quick, be exact” became a joke in every place of work or exercise which we had to carry out with the Civil Defence.

Most of her memories are quite harrowing, though, such as when she describes the horrors of trying to reassemble pieces of bodies blown apart by bombs and the time she was lowered headfirst into a hole in a collapsed building to assist an injured man. But the most vivid and dramatic episode of all comes near the end when Faviell’s own home is bombed – and although we know that Frances must have survived to be able to write this book, the tension and the sense of danger come across so strongly in her writing that we worry for her anyway.

I haven’t read many wartime memoirs and I couldn’t help comparing this one to the few that I have read. It didn’t have quite the emotional impact that Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth had on me, for example, but I still found it a fascinating and moving read. Frances Faviell wrote several other books which are also available from Dean Street Press; has anyone read any of them, and if so, which would you recommend?

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

a-room-of-ones-own For Phase 5 of Heavenali’s #Woolfalong, we are asked to read some of Virginia Woolf’s non-fiction – essays or diaries. As I hadn’t read any of her essays or diaries at all until now, the choice was easy for me: A Room of One’s Own, her 1929 classic and possibly the book for which she’s best known. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction books so I wondered what I would think of this one. Well, I thought it was fascinating! The edition I read had just over 100 pages but so much is packed into those pages that I feel quite overwhelmed trying to write about it all.

A Room of One’s Own is Woolf’s famous extended essay based on a series of lectures she gave at two women’s colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928. In the essay, Woolf uses a fictional narrator – whom she refers to at various points as Mary Beaton, Mary Seton or Mary Carmichael, names taken symbolically from a 16th century Scottish ballad – to explore the subject of women and fiction. As a starting point, she states that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” and then goes on to explain why she believes this statement to be true.

For many women living in the modern day and experiencing a level of equality women in the past could only dream of, it may be hard to imagine a lack of money or a room of our own preventing us from writing if that is what we wish to do, but in Woolf’s day – and especially in the decades and centuries before that – these things could be very real obstacles. I’m not sure I completely agree that women must have a certain amount of money and their own room to be able to write, but Woolf’s arguments are very thought-provoking and make a lot of sense.

Near the beginning of the book, we see the narrator attempting to enter a library and being turned away because it is for men only – ladies aren’t admitted unless they are accompanied by a man or have a letter of introduction. This is just one illustration of how women in the past were denied the same rights and freedoms which were available to men. Obviously this made it more difficult for them to bring the same depth of knowledge and experience to their writing that a man would have – and also much more difficult to become financially independent. Living in poverty, Woolf explains, meant that women were more likely to be deprived of a private space in which to sit and write and the spare time in which to do it.

Here I am asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night. They had no money evidently; according to Professor Trevelyan they were married whether they liked it or not before they were out of the nursery, at fifteen or sixteen very likely. It would have been extremely odd, even upon this showing, had one of them suddenly written the plays of Shakespeare…

The narrator then goes on to imagine that Shakespeare had a sister, Judith, who was just as talented as her brother but had no opportunity to use her ability. She wasn’t sent to school, was given no encouragement to read and write, and ran away from home when her father tried to force her into an early marriage. Judith’s story is tragic, and Woolf uses it to show that talent alone isn’t enough; without equality and opportunity, it would have been impossible for Shakespeare’s sister to achieve Shakespeare’s success.

Another aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed was Woolf’s discussion of the work of four female authors I love – Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, George Eliot and Jane Austen – exploring and comparing the ways in which their lifestyles and the opportunities open to them may have affected their writing. She talks about Jane Austen’s lack of a separate study to work in and how she tried to hide her manuscripts when a visitor walked into the room, and about Charlotte Brontë’s anger at being interrupted during the writing of Jane Eyre and how this influenced her writing:

She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience — she had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world. Her imagination swerved from indignation and we feel it swerve.

As I’ve mentioned, this is a short book, but despite that I decided to read it slowly – the six chapters over six evenings – because I wanted to have time to think about what I’d read and to digest all the ideas and issues Woolf raises in each chapter. I would definitely recommend this approach to reading the book – and I would also recommend keeping a pen and paper beside you as you may find yourself desperate to make a note of your favourite passages as you read!

So far this year I’ve read three books by Virginia Woolf; To the Lighthouse just wasn’t for me, but I loved this one and Flush. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll be taking part in the final phase of the #Woolfalong – I’ll try to, if I have time – but if not, I’m sure I’ll be exploring more of Woolf’s work eventually anyway. I’ve already read Orlando, which I enjoyed, but any other recommendations would be welcome.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

The Wicked Boy It’s July 1895 and Robert and Nattie Coombes could be any two young boys enjoying the hot summer weather. They go to see a cricket match, they play in the park, they take a trip to the seaside and they go fishing. Their father, a ship’s steward, is at sea and the boys tell anyone who asks that their mother is visiting her sister in Liverpool and that a family friend, John Fox, is staying with them while she’s away. However, there is more to the situation than meets the eye and it’s not long before the neighbours grow concerned. Why did Emily Coombes not mention to anyone that she was going away – and what is that horrible smell drifting down from the bedroom upstairs?

When the police are eventually called to the house at 35 Cave Road, they make a shocking discovery: it seems that Emily Coombes has been there all the time, her dead body decomposing in the summer heat. Her eldest son, Robert, immediately confesses to stabbing his mother to death ten days earlier. In the trial which follows, the court attempts to make sense of this terrible crime. Robert is only thirteen years old (one year older than his brother, Nattie); what would make a boy of this age commit such a cruel and cold-blooded act?

This may sound like the plot of a crime novel, but it’s not – it’s actually a true story and the events I’ve been describing above really did take place in London’s East End in 1895. In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale gives an account of the murder, the inquest and the trial, exploring some of the factors which may have led to Robert’s actions before going on to look at what happened to him after he was found guilty.

This is the third book I’ve read (or attempted to read) by Summerscale. I loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which was also based on a true crime, but I found Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, about a Victorian divorce scandal, difficult to get into and I abandoned it after a few chapters. I’m pleased to report that I liked The Wicked Boy much more than Mrs Robinson, though not as much as Mr Whicher, which had a stronger mystery element. There’s really no mystery at all about the Robert Coombes case; we know almost from the beginning what the crime is and who is responsible for it. Of course, this doesn’t mean there are no more questions to be asked. The official verdict was that Robert was “guilty but insane” and no clear motive was ever identified, but Summerscale does devote a large portion of the book to discussing Robert’s childhood and family background in an attempt to understand what could drive a thirteen-year-old boy to kill his mother.

Where the murder and the trial themselves are concerned, Summerscale sticks to the facts and doesn’t resort to too much speculation or personal opinion. However, she also spends a lot of time looking at what life was like in general for working-class Londoners towards the end of the Victorian era. Robert and Nattie Coombes would have been among the first generations to be educated at the new Board Schools which were established after the Elementary Education Act of 1870, but there were many people who believed that making education available to everyone was a bad idea. It meant that more children were able to read and therefore had access to ‘penny dreadfuls’, cheap adventure novels aimed at boys which were thought to be a bad influence on impressionable minds. Robert Coombes had a collection of these sensational stories, something that was seized upon in the same way that people sometimes blame violent video games for encouraging modern day teenagers to commit crimes.

I found all of this fascinating to read about, but was slightly less interested in the second half of the book which covers Robert’s time at Broadmoor, the asylum where he was sent after his trial, and what happened after he was released. I understand why the author wanted to follow Robert’s story through to its conclusion, but I just didn’t have enough interest in him as a person to want to read such a long account of his later life. Apart from this, I did enjoy reading The Wicked Boy and am glad I gave Kate Summerscale another chance after my disappointment with Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier by Charles Spencer

Prince Rupert As someone who prefers to learn through fiction, I often struggle to find the motivation to start reading a long non-fiction book, especially one by an author I’ve never tried before. I’ve had this one on my Kindle since last year waiting until it was the right time to read it – and that time came a couple of weeks ago after I read The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge, a novel in which one of the main characters fights alongside Prince Rupert in the English Civil War. Rupert has a relatively minor role in that novel, and in others that I’ve read, but I thought it would be interesting to find out more about him.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, as he is usually known, was born in Prague in 1619. His mother, Elizabeth, was the sister of King Charles I of England, while his father, Frederick, was the Elector Palatine and – briefly – the King of Bohemia. When Frederick lost his crown to the Habsburg Emperor, his wife and young children were forced to flee Prague and take refuge in The Hague. Growing up in exile, Rupert gained military experience in the Thirty Years War before coming to England and joining his uncle, Charles I, at the beginning of the Civil War.

As the commander of the Royalist cavalry, Rupert was one of the most colourful characters of the Civil War. When most of us think of a ‘cavalier’ we probably form a mental image of someone very like Prince Rupert: young, tall and handsome, with long, flowing hair and dressed in the latest court fashions. To the Parliamentarians, however, the cavaliers were villains, guilty of theft, rape, drunkenness and all sorts of debauchery. As the most iconic of the cavaliers, and the King’s most famous general, Rupert was the main target of enemy propaganda – he was even accused of witchcraft and his beloved white poodle, Boye, was suspected of being his familiar.

Rupert Earlier in the conflict, Rupert led the Royalists to some impressive victories, before suffering defeats at Marston Moor and Naseby. While Charles Spencer’s portrayal of Rupert is generally very favourable, I do think he does a good job here of showing why the Royalist cause ultimately failed and why rivalries and divisions between Rupert and his fellow commanders, as well as some very poor decisions, contributed to their downfall. Spencer does seem to like and admire Rupert (which must be an advantage when writing historical biography) but at the same time, he is aware of Rupert’s negative points and not just his positive ones.

The Civil War years only take up about a third of the book, but Prince Rupert’s military career continued after his part in the war ended. After being banished from England in 1646, he became a Royalist pirate, attacking Parliament’s shipping in the Caribbean. Then, following the Restoration of his cousin, Charles II, in 1660, he returned to England and fought in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars as a senior naval commander. Both of these episodes of the Prince’s life are given a lot of attention in this book, as are his final years (he died in 1682).

I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating biography – Charles Spencer’s writing is clear and easy to follow, and I even found the descriptions of battle tactics and military strategies compelling, which is unusual for me! The only time I thought it began to drag a little bit was during the naval sections (I always seem to struggle with books set at sea, which I accept is usually my fault rather than the authors’).

What I found particularly interesting was the information on Rupert’s other accomplishments away from his army and navy career: his scientific work and the part he played in the founding of the Royal Society; his role in the development of the mezzotint printing technique; and his governorship of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Rupert’s Land in Canada was named after him). I wasn’t aware of any of this and hadn’t appreciated just how much Prince Rupert had achieved in his lifetime.

I would be happy to read more non-fiction by Charles Spencer but I’m not sure that any of his other books really appeal to me. He is the younger brother of the late Princess Diana (something I didn’t know when I first started reading) and most of his work seems to be concerned with his family history. If anyone has read any other books on Prince Rupert, though – either fiction or non-fiction – I would love some suggestions.

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

“On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like black beetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances.”

The Road to Wigan Pier I am working very slowly through George Orwell’s books, having read Keep the Aspidistra Flying last year and Coming Up for Air the year before, as well as 1984 and Animal Farm as a teenager (I should probably re-read those two one day). The Road to Wigan Pier is the first example of his non-fiction I have read.

Published in 1937, this book was commissioned by the publisher Victor Gollancz, who wanted Orwell to write about the living conditions of the unemployed in the north of England, particularly in the industrial towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Orwell spent several months in 1936 living in Wigan, Sheffield and Barnsley while he researched the book…which turned out to be not quite what Gollancz had hoped for. When it was issued by the Left Book Club, Gollancz was concerned that members would be offended by some of the ideas expressed in the book and added a foreword in which he distanced himself from Orwell’s views.

The Road to Wigan Pier is divided into two very different parts. The first half documents Orwell’s time spent in the north, staying with working class people and studying the way they lived. Orwell’s observations are honest, vivid and non-judgmental, and this is by far the most interesting section of the book. Although he was originally asked to write about the unemployed – which he does – he also writes about those who are employed but still living in poverty, and he devotes a lot of time to describing the working conditions of one sector of workers in particular: the miners. Orwell went down a coal mine himself as part of his research, in an attempt to understand what it was like, and the respect he gained for the miners is clear.

I found it fascinating to read Orwell’s descriptions of the houses he visited and stayed in: the layouts of the buildings, the furnishings and amenities (or lack of them) and the sleeping arrangements. The levels of squalor in which families with young children were living is shocking to read about. Here is one of the many examples Orwell gives of the notes he made while inspecting these houses:

1. House in Wortley Street. Two up, one down. Living-room 12 ft. by 10 ft. Sink and copper in living-room, coal hole under stairs. Sink worn almost flat and constantly overflowing. Walls not too sound. Penny in slot gas-light. House very dark and gas-light estimated at 4d. a day. Upstairs rooms are really one large room partitioned into two. Walls very bad — wall of back room cracked right through. Window frames coming to pieces and have to be stuffed with wood. Rain comes through in several places. Sewer runs under house and stinks in summer but Corporation ‘says they can’t do nowt’. Six people in house, two adults and four children, the eldest aged fifteen. Youngest but one attending hospital — tuberculosis suspected. House infested by bugs. Rent 5s. 3d., including rates.

The Penguin Classics edition I read includes a selection of photographs so you can see what these homes looked like (although, curiously, most of them are pictures of buildings in Wales and London rather than the northern towns discussed in the text). Being from the north myself I feel I should point out here that, thankfully, things have changed drastically since the 1930s! The slums were cleared long ago and towns and cities have been regenerated; some areas are still suffering from the loss of heavy industry, and poverty still exists, of course, but not on the scale or of the type Orwell describes in this book.

The second half of the book takes the form of a long essay in which Orwell talks about his own upbringing as a member of what he calls ‘the lower-upper-middle class’ and how this affected the way he felt about the unemployed and working classes (he grew up, he says, being told that working class people smell). He goes on to explain how his attitudes began to change and to discuss his theories on socialism, the class system and left-wing politics. He also takes the opportunity to criticise the views of his fellow socialists, which is what sent Victor Gollancz into a panic. While I found this part of the book much less compelling than the first (I have to confess that I found my attention wandering a few times and had to force myself to concentrate), it was still interesting to read.

Because Orwell puts so much of himself into this book, it has given me a better appreciation of what he was trying to say about class and capitalism in novels like Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I’m now looking forward to reading Down and Out in Paris and London!