Our December display for the Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is an unashamedly nostalgic celebration of some Christmas traditions, ancient and modern, from the cosily kitsch to the highly artistic. The display falls into… More
A century ago, at 5 o’clock on the morning of November 11th 1918, the armistice which marked the end of the First World War was signed in a railway carriage at Compiègne in France. Seven hours later, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, arms were laid down and hostilities ceased. So ended four years of violence during which a million British servicemen had died and nearly two million had suffered permanent life-changing injuries. The excitement that had affected many at the outset, as they predicted celebrating victory “by Christmas”, had given way to exhaustion, disillusionment, trauma and grief. What is striking about many contemporary accounts is the absence of joy – notwithstanding the noisy celebrations that erupted all over the country’s streets, the prevailing mood expressed in diaries and letters is one of weary relief haunted by loss and, often, a terrible sense of futility.
Everyone knew that the “war to end all wars” had changed the world forever, and that the Edwardian society that preceded it was now as distant as another planet. Several ancient European empires had collapsed, including the ancien regime in Russia, swept away by revolution. Many people clearly saw in the punitive peace terms eventually imposed on Germany the seeds of another conflict – often predicting, with uncanny accuracy, the 20 year interval that would precede it.
Things had changed enormously for women. Two million women who statistics suggest would otherwise have married were to remain single due to the deaths of so many of their male peers, and this led to an influx of women into the professions (which generally excluded married women). Women were soon to be granted the vote; middle class women like Vera Brittain, whose Testament of Youth is one of the most famous of First World War memoirs, had worked as nurses at the front and seen horrors their genteel upbringings would never have acknowledged possible. They were keen to live their lives in a way that acknowledged how far their experiences had diverged from those of their mothers and grandmothers, and to participate in all arenas of politics, society and the arts.
People knew that as well as being an ending, the armistice marked the beginning of an enormous task – the rebuilding of society and the rehabilitation of individuals broken by war.
For this month’s Biography Collection display, we have a range of books which shed light on this moment of history. We have many memoirs of combatants and nurses, poignant reminders of the scale of suffering involved. We have memoirs of some of the doctors charged with trying to mend damaged bodies and minds, including Charles Myers, who studied “shell shock”, and Harold Gillies, who pioneered new treatments for the terrible facial injuries that the modern weapons of this modern war had caused. We have the accounts of the politicians and military leaders who were there when the armistice was signed, and those who contemplated how to transform Britain into a “land fit for heroes”. We have the poets and painters who revolutionised their art forms in order to describe their trench experiences. We have those who addressed the problem of how to memorialise the massive human loss – like Edwin Lutyens, architect of the Cenotaph, and Sir Fabian Ware who founded the Imperial War Graves Commission. To give a sense of the zeitgeist, we have portraits of some of the leading figures of the day in both intellectual and popular culture: as the bells rang to mark the armistice, Sydney Blow’s production of “The Officers’ Mess” was the hot ticket on the West End Stage (with its rousing number, “Handsome Herbert of the Horseguards”), the hits of Al Jolson and Irving Berlin were on every fashionable phonograph, Charlie Chaplin was already beloved of cinema audiences, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was hailed as a milestone of the biography genre (and encapsulated in its style the dismantling of the old order), and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier was one of the first novels to wrestle with the psychological legacy of war.
A century on, the scale of loss and suffering endured in the First World War still shocks. Nothing evokes what it was actually like to live through its bloody course and traumatised aftermath more powerfully than contemporary records like diaries and letters, and the memoirs of those attempting to make sense of an event that transformed and overshadowed their lives. We hope that they will bring to life for readers this critically important moment in our history, a hundred years ago.
The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library
This is an epilogue to the Chelsea reading event – Reality more astonishing than fiction, where attendees asked me to recommend the WWI books about women that I used for my research.
We read extracts from letters and diaries – which were sad, feisty and funny.
Elsie Bowerman captured everybody’s imagination. In the style of Indiana Jones, Miss Brown and Miss Bowerman clambered onto a moving train and saved the Scottish Women’s Hospital’s equipment.
Mabel Dearmer, author and illustrator, kept a diary and sent letters home from Kragujevac (Serbia) in spring 1915. She joined the Mabel Stobart’s Hospital unit. Her husband, Percy Dearmer served as a chaplain with the unit. Several women – nurses, doctors, orderlies – from various British medical missions died in Serbia during the typhus epidemic in 1915. Mabel Dearmer was one of them. See the extract from her letter from 6th June 1915.
Finally, if you would like to hear more about Scottish Women’s Hospitals and Dr Elsie Inglis, come to my talk at Women’s Library, LSE, on 9th November, 1-2pm.
Our next Reading event is on Tuesday, 11th December at Chelsea Library, (contact the library for more details), where we will visit Mr Scrooge. Come and join us reading extracts from “A Christmas Carol”.
My recommended book list: Women and WWI / Suffragists and Suffragettes
- Kate Adie, Fighting on the home front. The legacy of women in World War One.
- Lucinda Hawksley: March women march
- Simon Webb, The Suffragette Bombers. Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists.
- Elisabeth Shipton, Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War
About Flora Sandes:
- Louise Miller, A Fine brother. The life of Captain Flora Sendes, Alma Books, 2012.
- (Book translated by LAGUNA “Naš brat”)
About Dr Elsie Inglis and Scottish Women’s Hospitals:
- Leah Leneman: In the Service of Life. The story of Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Edinburgh: The Mercat Press, 1994.
- Leah Leneman, Elsie Inglis. Founder of battlefront hospitals run entirely by women, NMSE, 1998
- Eileen Crofton : Angels of Mercy: A Women’s Hospital on the Western Front 1914 1918, Birlinn Ltd, 2013.
- Mikic, translated by Dr. Muriel Heppell: The Life and Work of Dr. Katherine S. MacPhail
- Eva Shaw McLaren: Elsie Inglis. The woman with the torch.
- Monica Krippner, The Quality of Mercy. Women at War. Serbia 1915-18.
- Isabel Emslie Hutton: With a Woman’s Unit in Serbia, Salonika and Sebastopol.
- Mabel Stobart, The Flaming Sword in Serbia and Elsewhere
Most of these books can be borrowed in local libraries and some of old ones can be read online, on the Project Gutenberg Free Books website.
Websites and documentary films
- Scottish Women’s Hospitals
- Scarlet Finders – British Military Nurses.
- Novica Babovic – (YouTube, 11 minutes)
- The women who went to war – Alan Cumming
- Scottish Women’s Hospitals – A.Cumming (YouTube, 41 minutes).
- The Story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals by Scottish Parliament – (YouTube, 5 minutes).
Shakespeare’s plays aren’t just read and studied at school, college or university. Reading groups, extension courses, lifelong learning, theatre workshops, before going to see a play at the theatre – and more.
Shakespeare has inspired the work of so many creative people: from Mendelsohn, Britten, Shostakovich to Lou Reed, Dire Straits and Arctic Monkeys. From Herman Melville, John Keats, Charles Dickens to Aldous Huxley, Iris Murdoch and Ian McEwan. From Kurosawa to Polanski. From the Pre-Raphaelites to Gillian Wearing. Every age, indeed every generation seek to make Shakespeare their own.
Walk into any library and if you are prepared to explore, you can find his influence everywhere. This can be seen in the countless films based on his work.
This is a film based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District , itself inspired by Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. The film is set in the north of England during the nineteenth century, whereby the Lady Macbeth character is brought centre-stage in this alternative narrative to the Shakespearean text. Gone is the witchcraft from Shakespeare’s Macbeth – the only ‘spirits that tend on mortal thoughts’ – here in William Oldroyd’s film, arise from the emptiness of a bourgeois life, in which Lady Macbeth finds herself trapped and powerless in a male dominated environment. There are also parallels here to Flaubert’s, Madame Bovary.
As the subject of an arranged marriage deal, acquired by the father for his son, along with a small piece of land, that he describes as ‘not fit for a cow to graze upon’, Lady Macbeth is installed into a stifling and austere household, where she is abandoned for long periods of time by a callous husband. She is left to maintain the house and servants following the demands of the father, who expects a submissive and obedient daughter in-law. There are no books to be seen and many of the early film shots see her peering out of the window onto a barren landscape, or asleep for long periods on the sofa. She appears completely isolated in this new situation.
Within this repressive and patriarchal environment, we are left to speculate as to the kind of character she is and how she will respond. Her responses at first are reluctant obedience and boredom, but the performance of Florence Pugh as Lady Macbeth is captivating in that as time goes on, we witness signs of insolence: mocking facial expressions and a contemptuous intonation in her voice, when addressing her husband and father in-law. The husband then departs for an extended period, in order to sort out problems at the family colliery and Lady Macbeth is left alone with the servants. At this point, her authority is challenged by an incident among the servants, and then we see her take control.
She begins a passionate love affair with the groomsman. As time goes on, like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, her ‘vaulting ambition’ leads to a murder – in this case, the husband. Again, there is excitement in Pugh’s performance, never being quite sure if she is a victim of circumstance, responding perhaps naively as the repressed bourgeois housewife to events spiralling out of control, or whether there is a more psychopathic vein running through her actions. This loss of control is something we witness in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – was he (Macbeth) ever really, ‘full of the milk of human kindness’? or have circumstances conspired around him to bring about a tragedy? – a key concern in Shakespeare’s play. Here too, innocence and guilt seem to play out, side by side. Casting a black maid who, rarely speaks and a mixed-race actor as the groomsman, adds a racial tension to the power dynamics of repression and rebellion that are described by the shifting loyalties among the principal characters of the film.
The visual look of the film focuses on textures: the tactile feel of starched fabrics on soft skin, rain on slate and stone and naked wooden floorboards sounding to the pressure of impatient male footsteps. There is also a clearly defined soundscape to the film, that captures the rustle of fabrics, the chink of chinaware and the howling winds on the heath outside the house – all these effects build a formal language that serves to emphasize common themes of vulnerability and violence, power and submission.
In addition to this film, you can find other adaptations on Shakespeare’s work in our libraries and of course most of his plays and poetry including some of the literary criticism that goes with them – Shakespeare is, of course, a huge industry. The children’s library also has some of his plays translated into short stories, Manga comics etc.
Richard, Brompton Library
This is a classic fantasy-political thriller in graphic novel form, written by the titan of comic writing, Alan Moore, with drawings by David Lloyd. Written in 1983, the book is set in the then near-future of 1997. A dystopian Britain emerges after a nuclear war, but where Britain is spared (the hypothetical Labour Government of 1983, got rid of American Nuclear missiles).
As the world around them is collapsing, society begins to fall apart, and out of the power vacuum fascism takes over with the promise of security and order- but as you can imagine, the new authoritarian society isn’t for everyone. Hence, the book’s anarchist protagonist, ‘V’- a unique and nuanced (anti) ‘hero’ character, comes into the classic narrative of the underdog fighting for justice and truth, and isn’t afraid to use violent means to obtain it. V symbolically wears a Guy Fawkes mask (“the only person to enter parliament with honest intentions”) and wig while on operations- and there he rescues Eve, the other main character, a naïve young girl who suddenly finds herself on the wrong side of the law.
The book really captures the feeling of foreboding political despair of nineteen eighties politics, of the Cold War, and of authoritarian conservatism tightening its grip on society. Another character- a police detective, is hired by the government to stop V and his misdemeanours, but while doing so starts to question the morality of the government he has sworn to serve. What makes the book so captivating, is that it has an entertaining narrative but within a thought-provoking context. The drawing is great of course, although I didn’t like all of it and some of the colour choices were awkward. Nevertheless, this is a great introduction to more sophisticated graphic novel fiction.
It’s not often that films match up to the books they are based on, but the movie does a pretty good job in my opinion. It’s unfair to say which is better as they are quite different in style- the film is set in the near future from when it was made; in 2006. Of course, then as it is now, the major threats to the world had changed, and the film absorbs them. In this changed narrative, the United States has fallen apart into chaos and civil war after stretching its empire too thin (of course, 2006 was when the Iraq War was still ongoing), and in Britain and Europe, jihadist militants are alleged to have committed a mass atrocity by poisoning the water supply, leading to the landslide election of a fascist party in Britain and the end of parliamentary democracy.
Other than the context, the main story doesn’t differ too wildly to the book, although there is more play on V’s fighting skills and swashbuckling action, which is done well and obviously adds to the entertainment value and mainstream appeal. There are also a few characters and side stories that have been cut out, probably for practical reasons- but the film doesn’t suffer too much as a result. In a political sense, V’s character has been a little watered-down for Hollywood, with liberalism replacing anarchism as V’s portrayed ideology.
Author Alan Moore, who rejects all film adaptations of his books, said of the script: “there wasn’t a mention of anarchy as far as I could see. The fascism had been completely defanged. I mean, I think that any references to racial purity had been excised, whereas actually, fascists are quite big on racial purity.” The only actual blatant reference to ‘anarchy’ in the film is when V manipulates chaos into the general population in order to overthrow the regime- a man robs a shop wearing the (now ubiquitous) Guy Fawkes mask, shooting his gun into the air, and referencing the Sex Pistols, shouts: “Anarchy, in the UK!”. So it seems the wider political themes were indeed a little ‘dumbed down’.
I enjoyed the film but that bit did make me cringe, because as explained by a politically informative line in the book, V states: “Anarchy means ‘without rulers’; not ‘without order’- with anarchy comes an age of ordung, of true order, which is to say voluntary order… this is not anarchy eve… this is chaos”.
Mrs Haverfield has just asked me to go out to Serbia at the beginning of August to drive a car. May I go? … I’ve been dying to go and drive a car ever since the war started… It is really a chance to go to the front. They want drivers so badly so do say yes. It is too thrilling for words.
To celebrate Halloween, we are having a party at Brompton Library this Saturday 27 October, 2 to 3pm.
We will be making skeletons, playing spooky games, blowing up balloon ghosts and telling Halloween jokes with our own jokebox! We have some great prizes and lots of special treats so why not come along? Book your free place here on Eventbrite
Here is our Halloween jokebox that you can print out and play with at home –
How to make the Halloween jokebox:
- Print out the image above
- Cut along the dotted line
- Turn over so that pictures are on the table are face down
- Fold all corners into the centre
- Turn back over so that the pictures are facing up and fold the corners into the middle again
- Fold in half so that the pictures are on the outside and the questions are on the inside
- Put your fingers in the corners to open out.
We hope you enjoy making that and hope to see you at our party this Saturday!
Fiona, Brompton Library
Philippa from Brompton Library has reviewed three of the six books that were shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker prize, including Milkman, which was announced last week as this year’s winner.
The Long Take defies easy classification as it is both a novel and a poem. It is the story of a World War II veteran who travels through America, rather than return home to Nova Scotia after the war. He describes in vivid detail his experiences of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
There isn’t a lot of plot but I enjoyed the compelling descriptions of city life and the memorable characters he meets along the way. It explores the crippling mental impact the war had on him and the deep divides in society at this time. I found it quite a challenging read but I think I was hindered by my lack of knowledge of 1940s America. However, I enjoyed the language and each chapter or section could be enjoyed by itself as a poem.
George Washington Black is an 11-year-old slave in Barbados in the 1820s. His life is changed forever when his master’s brother takes him on as an assistant. He tells Washington to call him Titch and teaches him about nature, science and his inventions. When Washington finds himself suddenly in danger they escape Barbados together in Titch’s invention, the cloud cutter.
Out of the books I read from the shortlist, this had the most straightforward structure. However, the story is captivating and strange. It is faced paced and we rush about with Washington all over the world, which took me by surprise. Although there are only a few main characters, it covers a lot of countries, topics and themes. There are horrific scenes of brutality, but touching moments too. I found it an odd but enjoyable read.
Middle sister lives in a world where it is dangerous to be interesting, dangerous to have a name or to name others; a world where what is said or unsaid can have devastating consequences. Middle sister tries to keep to herself but when Milkman takes an interest in her the rumours begin to spread.
When I started this it felt like science fiction or dystopia but as I learned more about Middle Sister’s world I started to think perhaps this was closer to home than I thought. It cleverly exposes the absurdity of what we are willing to accept as normal. It has an unusual structure as it is written almost as a stream of consciousness and the story jumps around a lot chronologically. It is so original that it doesn’t really remind me of anything I’ve read before. I think one of the most striking things is how current and of the moment it feels and so I was not surprised it won.
If you’d like to read any of these titles and can’t get into the library – don’t worry as they’re all available as eBooks via Cloud Library All you need is your Kensington and Chelsea library card.
2018 marks 100 years since women were legally able to vote and to celebrate this we are reviewing one book a month by an inspirational female author. So far we have reviewed Nobel prize winners, women forced to publish under male pseudonyms and some trailblazing feminist novels.
For this month I have chosen Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. It is a vision of near future America where abortions and IVF are illegal. It shows how these new laws affect four main characters: the Biographer, the Mother, the Daughter and the Mender. The Biographer is despite to have a child, but her biology and the new laws are working against her. The Mother is struggling with two children and the breakdown of her marriage. The Daughter finds herself pregnant at fifteen with no idea what to do next. And the Mender lives alone in the woods and offers treatments to the women that seek her.
This is a powerful novel that explores motherhood and a woman’s relationship to her body. All the main characters are introduced to us not by their names but by their role to someone else, for instance mother or daughter, so it also considers the various “roles” women play. The world Zumas creates is frighteningly realistic and close to our own.
I loved the subtly unique voice of all the characters and how we gradually learn how they fit together. The plot is unpredictable and doesn’t take any easy ways out. It also doesn’t offer any easy answers to the many issues it raises.
It reminded me of The Power by Naomi Alderman, which was the first book I reviewed for the inspiration women series in March. You can read the review here. You can also see the other previous reviews for April, May, June. July and August.
See you in November for the next review.
Philippa, Brompton Library
This month, Fiona from Brompton Library is reviewing Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger which has just been released as a film and will be read and discussed by the library’s reading group in November.
Set in post-war rural Warwickshire, Dr Faraday is called to attend a sickly maid at Hundreds Hall who believes that the house is haunted. Faraday has a sentimental attachment to the house as his mother had been in service their as a maid and once took him there when he was a child to a garden party where he was presented with a medal by the lady of the house, Mrs Ayers. As Faraday gets closer to the Ayers family, events start to unravel. Strange and inexplicable happenings that suggest a ghost from the past is haunting the family and as their financial situation worsens and the house starts to fall apart around them, the “haunting” intensifies.
Behind the story of the house is also a love story between Caroline Ayers and Dr Faraday and behind all of it is the story of post-war Britain, the introduction of the NHS and how that changed the lives of ordinary people. There is a strong contrast between the lives of the Ayers family at Hundreds Hall where, in the decaying house, guests dress formally for dinners served to them by a maid while local people, still wary of modern medicine, are dying young from curable ailments and too poor to be able to pay the doctor.
The book is a gripping read. I read half of its 500 pages on a flight and was completely engaged by the writing, the atmosphere and the story. The relationship between Caroline Ayers and Dr Faraday is beautifully written and touchingly awkward and I liked the way the book dealt with several themes at once while remaining a really good story well told, and very creepy in parts. At one point, Dr Faraday says “All this house needs is a dose of happiness”. You get a sense that they are both so lonely in their different ways and that everything could change for them if they could make it work. I felt that the more a I read the book the more I also wanted the house to be rescued and saved from ruin as the Dr does. It works really well that Waters does not use tricks to build up the adrenalin of the story and the overall pace is one of gradual decline, so if you are wanting to read a ghost story this may not be for you, and the end has a twist that creeps up on you so quietly that you almost can’t quite believe it.
The film brings the book to life visually. It really captures how I imagined the house to look – its interiors are perfectly done and the view of the house from the road leading up to it were very evocative of the book. The house is very grey and you get a sense that the seasons change outside while the house is stuck in time. Although billed as a horror, the film leaves out much of the references to ghosts that are made in the book, but is more like a ghost story. As the film is much shorter than the book, the suspense builds much more quickly and there were some chilling moments, but on the downside it meant that we didn’t spend much time with the characters or see their relationships develop.
Charlotte Rampling is perfect as Mrs Ayers while saying very little, she appears icy and fleeting throughout the house. Ruth Wilson is great as Caroline Ayers, bringing to life the earthy and practical daughter of the house who holds the story together. The casting of Domhnall Gleeson let the film down a bit for me. Dr Faraday is in his 40s in the novel which lends a fatherly aspect to the middle-aged, unmarried doctor that would not be possible between Gleeson and Wilson as they are of a similar age (he may even be younger than her). He came across as cold and remote at the same time but lacked the warmth and drive of the Dr Faraday of the book and I wasn’t rooting for him like. Overall it’s not a bad adaptation with some great acting, a few chills and shocks and is visually very true to the book.
Brompton Library’s reading group will be discussing the book on Tuesday 6 November so why not join us? You can borrow a copy at any of our libraries.
Fiona, Brompton Library
A researcher working for a BBC World Service series, The Why Factor, contacted us to meet a book group for their latest programme “Why we forget the things we have learned“.
The Why Factor is a BBC Radio magazine programme, a series of 25 minute shows that mixes vox pop and academic specialists, brought together by a presenter.
We arranged for the show’s producer to talk to local book group members (who kindly agreed to participate), and we all met in Brompton Library’s Meeting Room .
Rather shyly, members of our group answered questions fired by the producer who held a huge microphone attached to a tiny recorder. A couple of us (blink and you miss us) were edited into the first couple of seconds of the programme before the show segued into the main essay.
But what was most important, Brompton Library got a mention – and the programme itself was quite interesting.
I was greatly encouraged by some of the observations about forgetfulness made in the programme. Apparently forgetfulness can be the result of a creative brain flying around taking in all sorts of sensory information which can later be selected from, unless it has been forgotten …. When we are in our book group, reading novels, we are turning over the plot and sharing feelings about the characters, etc., but we are also using our creative brains, employing our memories to add snippets of our own knowledge and experience. We are finding new ways of seeing – being curious. In this way, though discussion, people can renew their interest in the novel, go back and re-read it or, if they had not quite got to the end, decide to try again and even finish it!
Quite often a good book encourages interest in the author. For example, recently, having read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, members of the group were able to take their interest further by accessing and reading Hermione Lee’s fascinating account of Fitzgerald’s personal and literary life – which is available from our wonderfully maintained biography store at Kensington Central Library.
With a good public library service everyone can be a researcher! Please try to remember that ….
To find out more please visit the BBC website
Penny, Brompton Library