Extra ordinary lives from our Biography Collection

This month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library gives us a holiday from the famous, the illustrious, the eminent, the idolised, the household-named, the great, the infamous and the notorious that inhabit our collection.

As well as housing many books about those we are likely to have heard of, the collection is also home to many memoirs of ordinary people with no special claim to being remarkable.  Often the only publication of a person who, perhaps looking back on a childhood in a long gone age, feels moved to record what everyday life was like back then, these books are fascinating records of the lives of ordinary working men and women.  Families, school, industry, war, immigration and emigration – all of these subjects are examined by a multitude of voices.

We can find evocations of particular times and places preserved for ever by those who, without ever intruding into the public eye, shared the lives of the man and woman in the street (or in the field, or on the mountain).

Location is often important in these kinds of books, with the authors striving to recreate a very specific corner of the world. Many London neighbourhoods feature – Lambeth in Mary Chamberlain’s record of the lives of working class women from 1913 to 1989, Bethnal Green whose atmosphere of the 1920s-40s was described by Doris M. Bailey, Blackfriars where Bella Burge ran a boxing ring from 1910, Islington where Gill Brason’s stint as a park keeper in the 70s shows us a neighbourhood on the brink of huge change.  Many regions of the UK, both rural and urban, are also given a voice – John Ackerman’s South Wales, Ralph Glasser’s Gorbals, Arthur Barton’s Jarrow, J. J. Bagley’s three centuries of Lancashire diaries; Anne Burling’s East Anglia, James Maggs’s Southwold, to name just a small sample.

 

We can also eavesdrop on ordinary lives around the world – a boyhood in Sierra Leone in the early 20th century is hauntingly described by Robert Wellesley Cole, Iris Gioia and Clifford Thurlow interview the people they meet on a trip to Eastern Europe at a pivotal moment in the history of the region, in 1990; the Dar family describe how their lives as carpet sellers are impacted by the tumultuous history of Kashmir; Forrest Carter leaves a unique record of Cherokee life in 1930s Tennessee, and Glückel of Hamelin recounts the highs and lows of her days in the Jewish community of Hamburg with such immediacy that it is hard to believe she was writing almost 400 years ago.

As usual, we have no shortage of local interest – read about Joe Nixon starting up a youth club in 1950s Notting Hill, Mary Wylde a 1930s Kensington housewife, and life at Holland Park School in the 80s as recounted by John-Paul Flintoff (I can vouch for the accuracy of that particular account, being an ex-Holland Park pupil of exactly Flintoff’s vintage)!

Again as always, our  Biography Collection yields a rich harvest – Isobel Charman’s “The Great War, the People’s Story” looks at the impact of that huge conflict on ordinary citizens, R. J. W. Selleck’s “Not so Eminent Victorians” finds 19th century immigrants to Australia building an education system to transform people’s lives, and there are socio-cultural studies of a typically progressive kind from the 60s, taking a sample of 14 year old school children or of young people in care and interviewing them about their hopes and dreams.  Many people have chosen to write about their working lives – so we have a survey of working people from Hackney in the 1930s, and stories of countless professions including taxi driver, station master, nurse, teacher, miner, shop assistant and cowboy.

It’s not quite true to say that all of the writers featured are people you’ll never have heard of.  Some of the people featured in these books later became famous, sometimes through the books themselves – Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, for example, is a classic of rural British memoir, and Jennifer Worth has become familiar to all through her “Call the Midwife” books and their enormously successful TV adaptation.  But all of them are accounts of life before fame or fortune had visited, when they were deep in the obscurity of ordinary life.

What is proven by these commonplace, everyday memoirs is that, in fact, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.  These writers are visited by extraordinary and sometimes deeply strange turns of events. Some go on to do unusual things that take them far from their beginnings. They are caught up in epic moments of world history.  But even if they simply live out their lives in relatively uneventful ways, they show that every life is in its own way remarkable, and that the voices of those who have never sat at a high table or stepped on a red carpet are often the voices that tell us most about who we were and are.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Edited to add –

If you’re interested to read more about some of the people mentioned in this post, do take a look at the eResources we have on biographies such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These are free to use with your Kensington and Chelsea library card.

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50th anniversary of the moon landing

Fifty years ago, the relationship of people to the moon changed forever in a way our ancestors could scarcely have imagined.  For millennia, people all over the world had watched the moon, worshipped it, immortalised it in poetry and song, attributed all kinds of influences to it, and acquired scientific understanding of it.  On 21 July 1969, hours after landing their spacecraft on 20 July, two human beings actually walked on it.

This moment has become iconic, and it’s not hard to imagine the impact it must have had at the time.  Twenty per cent of the world’s population watched the ghostly glowing images of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong taking those “giant steps for mankind” (and this at a time when there was far less electronic imagery in people’s lives than there is now).  It was the subject of the BBC’s first ever all-night broadcast, and even fifty years later still boasts the fifth largest TV audience of all time.

Knowing that the mission of Apollo 11 was successful, it is hard to remember that at the time this success was far from taken for granted; President Nixon’s speech writer prepared a just-in-case address to be read if the two astronauts failed to get back safely to their craft and had to be abandoned to a lunar death.  In the event, the joy of the interplanetary phone call in which Nixon congratulated them as they stood on the moon was sustained by their safe return.

The cumbersome movements of the heavily-suited men on the moon’s surface was the culmination of the 15-year-old Space Race, one of the key battles of the Cold War – after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter outer space in 1961, the USA was determined not to lose out on another extra-terrestrial “first”.

As always, our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library doesn’t disappoint, and has yielded a host of astronauts, cosmonauts, astronomers, space engineers and astrophysicists for this month’s display.  We can read Buzz Aldrin’s own descriptions of his moon walk in his evocatively titled “Magnificent Desolation”, in which he also writes movingly of the painful struggles of his life on earth.  We have some books produced (in English) in the Soviet Union – a 1962 edition of the memoirs of “Hero of the Soviet Union – Soviet Cosmonaut no. 1” Yuri Gagarin, and another from 1979 with the story of the Soviet side of the Space Race described in dramatic prose.

We have some fascinating biographies of some of the men and women whose scientific work helped pave the way for the moon landing  –  like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, sometimes called “the greatest woman astronomer of all time”, and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983, who was still a teenager when his formulation of the “Chandrasekhar Limit” led to the discovery of neutron stars and black holes.

Placing the moon landing within its context in the history of science, we have some wonderful books on the great minds who moved forward understanding of the universe in previous centuries – find Newton, Einstein, Corpenicus, Kepler, Galileo and Hawking in biographies that illuminate all their faces and phases.

Space exploration will continue to develop – and, despite having been walked on by mere mortals, the moon retains its mysterious beauty, and continues to inspire love songs.  That hazily-filmed moment in 1969 still haunts all those who witnessed it live, and still resonates with the sense of how tiny we are, and how great we can be.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Victorian diaries in our Biography Collection

Our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is home to many different kinds of biographical book, and that includes a large number of diaries.  These provide a very special kind of insight into a people’s lives.

Some diaries have become vital parts of the world’s heritage and have been read by millions, like those of Anne Frank and Samuel Pepys.  Some are the private jottings of ordinary people, whose experience of key moments in history have made them invaluable witnesses.  Others, kept by the famous, may have been written with at least one eye on posterity, or may have been intended to be private, and now afford a glimpse behind the public mask.

Diaries can mix records of hugely significant events and musings on enormous philosophical questions with the minutiae of everyday life – so the Pre-Rapahelite artists documented by William Michael Rossetti debate the meaning of art one minute and complain about faulty stovepipes, sore throats and toothache the next (many diaries reveal the chronic discomfort of life in earlier periods), and George Bernard Shaw meticulously records the prices of the train tickets, newspapers and ginger beer he purchased on the way to lecture engagements at which he speculated about the future of humanity.

This year’s Cityread London showcased the fictional London diary of a young Muslim woman in Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Ayisha Malik.  We wanted to plan an event to link our Biography Collection to this, and were also mindful of the fact that it was the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth, down the road at Kensington Palace, on 24 May.  The idea of having a look at some of the diaries in our collection that were kept by diverse London residents and visitors during Victoria’s reign gave me a great opportunity to dip into some wonderful examples of one of my favourite kinds of biography, eventually selecting thirteen different voices to try to give some snapshots of London life between 1837 and 1901.

Given that most diaries in this period – and certainly most of those published – were kept by the well-to-do, it was a challenge to find the voices of those in more humble circumstances, but the diary of Hannah Cullwick gives a unique insight into the life of a domestic servant, and the struggles of the destitute were shockingly recorded by minister’s daughter Helen G. McKenny as she made philanthropic visits in the Old Street area.

I was fascinated to read about Keshub Chandra Sen’s visit to London to promote links between British and Indian social reformers, and to discover that Leo Tolstoy’s visit to a school in Chelsea as part of research into setting up schools for the peasant children on his Russian estate, left a legacy of 24 individual school boys’ accounts of a single day in 1861, on which they studied, played, fought, had boating accidents and acted as fences for stolen goods, amongst other things.

Local Kensington detail gave Marion Sambourne’s diaries an especial charm, and the fact that Malik’s Cityread book continues the genre of the humorous fictional diary which has given us Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones, allowed me to look at a Victorian fictional diary – Happy Thoughts by F. C. Burnand – which graced the pages of Punch 20 years before its more famous successor The Diary of a Nobody, (which Burnand edited), and which is still laugh-out-loud funny over 140 years later.  Of course, Queen Victoria herself was a prolific diarist, and extracts from her own writings revealed a remarkable juxtaposition of the stately and the intimately domestic.

The bulk of our Biography Collection dates from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (although of course it comes right up to date with some very recent publications, and our oldest book dates from the early seventeenth century), so this was also a good opportunity to look at some of the physical aspects of our Victorian books.  The late Victorians loved the glamorous glitz of gilding on their bindings, and many biographies of this period sport beautifully detailed medallion portraits of their subjects.

It’s always very evocative to look at the handwritten inscriptions, personal bookplates, school prize labels and typically ornate library stamps of this period – in the spine of one book I found part of a Victorian newspaper advert, and the wonders of the Internet allowed me to reconstruct the full text.

This unique collection contains a treasure trove of insights and knowledge, not only in the content of the books, but also in their physical fabric, which gives a fascinating sense of the Victorians who wrote, published, bound, decorated, inscribed, catalogued and kept them, preserving them in private and public libraries until they found their way to our collection, where we can enjoy them today.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

May’s displays from the Biography Collection

Throughout the month of May we will have two displays of books from our special  Biography Collection.

To mark the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth, just up the road at Kensington Palace, on May 24th 1819, we have a range of the many biographies of her in our collection. We have coffee table books beautifully illustrated with portraits, and detailed analyses of her relationship to the huge changes that took place during her reign – politically, socially, industrially and culturally.

Every aspect of her unique life has been documented by a biographer at one time or another, making use of the incredible resource of her copious diaries, so you can read about her role as a mother, her celebrated love affair with her husband Prince Albert, her childhood, her sense of humour, her leisure pursuits, her health, and her relationships with the politicians and statesmen of her day, as well as with her royal relations all over Europe.

Her six and a half decades on the throne spanned the transition from one world to another, and her qualities as an intelligent and curious woman make her a fascinating observer of her own life and times.

Our second display is on “Londoners’ Diaries”, and is linked to Cityread London, whose choice this year is Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Ayisha Malik, the funny and touching fictional diary of a young woman negotiating the Muslim dating scene in present day London.

There is something uniquely intimate and vivid about reading the private thoughts a diarist put on paper perhaps centuries ago, and we invite you to share the excitement of travelling back to the London of earlier eras through their observations. We’ve included some of the greatest diaries ever written, like those of Samuel Pepys and Virginia Woolf, as well as the diaries of less famous Londoners like the nineteenth century schoolboy John Pocock, and contemporary diaries whose writers celebrate different aspects of life in the capital – dog walking with Edward Stourton, ambling and observing with Tim Bradford.

We can learn how Londoners experienced huge historical moments through the immediacy of daily records, like Joan Wyndham hilariously juggling her love life during the Blitz, or Kate Parry Frye, a young Kensington woman pursuing her cause as a tenacious and passionate suffragrist. Come and meet your fellow Londoners of ages past – you never know, it might even inspire you to start keeping a diary of your own!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

 

A world of writers from the Biography Collection

As we look forward to celebrating World Book Night on Tuesday 23 April, this month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library brings together biographies of great twentieth century writers in languages other than English. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Han Suyin who wrote in English but whose autobiographical works are considered some of the greatest records of modern Chinese history and Wole Soyinka whose Anglophone work is pivotal to African literature.

Including many winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this is a parade of some of world literature’s greatest voices, some of whom waited many years to be translated into English. Some are household names, some less well known outside their own continents; all open worlds of artistic beauty and cultural insight, and their biographies allow us to follow the experiences of how great writers develop in very different cultures and environments.

In a departure from our usual displays, which include only books from our Biography Collection, we have this month included some of the fiction by these writers alongside their biographies and memoirs, in the hope readers will discover some less familiar gems.  From Chile’s Isabel Allende to Austria’s Stefan Zweig, including Finland’s Tove Jansson (better known as an artist, her exquisite short stories were not available in English until decades after she wrote them); India’s Rabindranath Tagore, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, Japan’s Junichuro Tanizaki, Isaac Bashevis Singer who brought his native Yiddish from Poland to the US and became the custodian of a vanished culture and many, many more, discover a world of writers on our shelves.

Happy World Book night from us to you all, happy reading!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Christmas memories from our Biography Collection

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 two halves. First there are the memoirs of Christmasses past. Published in 1955, Mary Clive’s Christmas with the Savages is a hilarious reminiscence of an Edwardian childhood Christmas staying with the Savage family of upper class eccentrics, like a kind of surreal, unruly version of Downton Abbey. Suzanne Lambert’s Christmas at the Ragdoll Orphanage is a heart-warming tear-jerker set in 1930s Newcastle; perfect for curling up by the fire with a mince pie. With chapter headings including “Near Collapse”, “An Awful Smell” and “Difficult Guests”, Hazel Wheeler’s Crackers at Christmas records a half-century of Yorkshire Christmases between the 40s and the 90s with a stoic misery that combines Eeyore and Scrooge, and paradoxically manages to be immensely cheering for those of us with mixed feelings about the festivities. From 1908, Queen Alexandra’s Christmas Gift Book was designed to look exactly like a personal photograph album belonging to the royal family, featuring intimate snaps and homely captions.

The second half of the display focuses on some of the people who created or invented rituals and experiences we cherish as part of Christmas. Their Christmas contributions may only have represented a small part of their achievements, but provide a good starting point for looking more closely at their lives. As you would expect, there are some Great Victorians – Henry Cole, who as well as founding the Victoria and Albert Museum, gave us the first commercially produced Christmas card; Isabella Beeton, who perfected the recipe for what we now know as Christmas pudding; Christina Rosetti, whose poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” has become one of our most popular carols – and of course, Dickens, the man who probably did more than any other to create the dream of a London Christmas in the mid-nineteenth century to which our imaginations have returned for generations, with his surprisingly scary and moving, life affirming A Christmas Carol. (Did you know he was involved in a court case about a plagiarised version of it? We include an account of this extraordinary footnote in literary history). No Prince Albert, I’m afraid, as it seems the idea that it was he who introduced the Christmas tree to Britain is erroneous – in fact we owe that to his wife’s grandmother, fellow German Queen Charlotte, and have included a fascinating biography of her.

Christmas in Hollywood has always been a sparkly affair, so you can find Frank Capra, director or It’s a Wonderful Life, Irving Berlin, composer of “White Christmas”, and a host of singers including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Nat King Cole, who have provided the soundtrack for countless “Merry Little Christmasses”.

The story of Kensington’s own Peter Pan was the first great Christmas “show for all the family”, so J. M. Barrie is included – as is Tchaikovsky, whose Nutcracker ballet continues to enchant. Composers of some of the most magnificent Christmas music are also here – Handel (The Messiah), Bach (Christmas Oratorio), Britten (A Ceremony of Carols and St. Nicolas) and Vaughan Williams (Fantasia on Christmas Carols). All of these works are available through our website via the Naxos Music Library  (There’s free access to this for library members)

So turn down the brussels sprouts, retrieve the tinsel from the dog, turn off the TV for a while and enjoy a biographical glimpse at some of the people who have sprinkled a little sparkle over Christmasses we have loved.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Armistice Day

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

Lives at sea

We are an island nation, and throughout our history the sea has been inextricably mixed into our lives, whether we experience it as part of our immediate environment, learn about its place in our history, or trace its many marks on our language and literature. Images of the sea and seafaring metaphors sparkle and surge through our poetry and our idioms, and the sea exerts a pull of mystical romance.

To mark National Maritime Day on 1st September, our Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library features memoirs of lives at sea. There are books tracing how the sea influenced artists and writers including Conrad and Turner, and books recording the experiences of sailors and fisherman struggling to maintain a livelihood in often pitiless conditions.

Many have been drawn to engage the sea in battles for supremacy, leading to amazing feats of endurance and will – these are the loan yachts-people, circumnavigators and channel swimmers who lead us through their life-changing struggles. There are intimate and personal records of how the sea effected changes in relationships and the sense of self (my personal favourite is Gwynneth Lewis’s Two in a Boat, an account of how the superficially crazy idea of going to sea became a jumping-off point for profound insights into the nature of moods, marriage and metamorphosis).

Our naval history is inevitably linked with painful themes of colonialism and war, and we have books on how projects of land conquest and trade depended on the conquest of the sea from the Elizabethan period onwards, and on how the protagonists of terrifying sea battles understood their experience.

And of course, there are pirates, with brutal realities often far stranger than the romantic legends we have inherited.

We hope you will dive in and find something to interest you.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Great names of British comedy

It’s fifty years since the first broadcast of that classic of British comedy, Dad’s Army, and this month our Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library showcases the life stories of some of our funniest men and women. We have a truly enormous number of books celebrating the comic genius of stand-ups and sitcom stars. With intimate glimpses of the highs and lows of their real lives, we find that the tears of a clown are often a real phenomenon, while some stars have brought their comic talents to their own memoirs so that their trials and tribulations cause tears of laughter as we read.

The vintage funny business is all here – from the Victorian double entendres of Marie Lloyd and the silk dressing-gown cool of Noel Coward, to the surreal capers of ITMA (It’s That Man Again), Round the Horne and The Goons and the even more surreal and subversive – and perhaps also quintessentially British? – comic kaleidoscope of Monty Python.

I wonder if I am alone in finding Private Frazer’s mournful cry of “We’re doomed!” strangely reassuring – it’s interesting that over the years we have loved so may characters who express comic despair at life’s frustrations, with a special place in our collective psyche for the hapless melancholy of Tony Hancock, the car-thrashing frenzy of Basil Fawlty, the tightlipped defeatism of Victor Meldrew and the wailing lament of Steptoe junior as his father greets another faux pas with a malevolent toothless grin. There’s that traditional strand of social competitiveness, snobbery and one-upmanship to relish in many of our best loved characters too (Fawlty and Steptoe’s anguish has a lot to do with this, and think also of Hyacinth Bucket, Rigsby,and Margot). The “saucy” humour of the seaside postcard resonates in the Carry On era and Benny Hill, and British comedy has also always had a healthy disrespect for the institutions of authority, taking the wind out of the sails of power in Yes, Minister and of the criminal justice system in Porridge.

Through the alternative scene of the 80s, shows like The Kenny Everett Video Show, Not the Nine O’ clock News, The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents and Three of a Kind all represented seismic shifts in comedy styles and pushed the boundaries of what made us laugh.

More recent faces feature in our display too, like Walliams and Lucas, Mitchell and Webb, Miranda Hart, Michael McIntyre, Sarah Millican and James Corden – and there is no shortage of hilarious women – Wood, Windsor, and Walters; Lipman, Tate, French and Saunders, and many more.

There are so many, many great names of British comedy, that I am already wondering how I could have written this blog piece without mentioning by name, for example, Tommy Cooper, Kenneth Williams, Spike Milligan or June Whitfield – and you will doubtless have your favourites who you can’t believe I have not included! I am glad to say this embarrassment of comic riches is reflected in our Biography Collection, with our display representing the tip of an iceberg of hundreds or comic biographies. If you can’t find your favourite, just ask.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Women in medicine

Female medical students currently outnumber their male counterparts in the UK. This is a situation that would have seemed incredible to the earliest female doctors.

In 1865, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first British woman to qualify to practice medicine. (The first woman, that is, since Dr James Barry, who though born female, lived her adult life as a man so that she could practice medicine from 1815, her secret only being discovered after her death.) Even with her qualification, Anderson was excluded from work in any hospital. She set up her own practice and launched a remarkable career in medical work, and in the furtherance of women in the profession and in wider society.

However, the battle for women to become doctors was very far from over. It is difficult for us to appreciate how strongly, and with what sometimes vicious misogyny, women’s entry into the profession was resisted well into the 20th century. A medical career was considered by the male establishment to be far too physically arduous and intellectually rigorous for any woman’s capabilities. All kinds of quasi-medical theories were propounded in support of this view – all the more bizarre when you consider that these were often expressed by highly educated men in the scientific community: they included the idea that too much study would cause a woman’s womb to atrophy.

These prejudices were enshrined in the regulations of the most important medical institutions. During the first half of the century, women were still barred from training at the major hospitals – with the sole exception of the Royal Free, where Garrett Anderson had established the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. Although for some women, the shortage of men during the First World War around the time that they qualified provided a timely career-boost, allowing them access to institutions that were forced in desperation to admit them. Between the wars, it was still common for job advertisements in the British Medical Journal to specify that women need not apply.

In 1911, Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Apparently unmoved by her achievements, Sir Henry Butlin, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, delivered a lecture in the same year in which he stated unequivocally that he believed women to be unsuited to medical research. An indication of how slow attitudes were to change is that 30 years later, in 1941, Sir Robert Hutchison, President of the Royal College of Physicians, told female medical students “medical women make excellent wives, while their qualification is always a second string to their bow.”

Against this background, the achievements of the early female doctors are all the more impressive, and we are pleased this month to be able to display fascinating biographies and memoirs of many of them (from our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library), as well as those of contemporary women doctors writing about the stresses and joys of their chosen career.

We are also delighted to tell you about an exciting event linked to this display: on Monday 18 June, 6 to 7.30 pm here at Kensington Central Library, Dr Abby Waterman will be discussing her compelling memoir “Woman in a White Coat”. This is a wonderful read which describes with great humour and honesty her journey from an impoverished girlhood in the East End to a wide-ranging medical career.

You can book a free place to this event via Eventbrite 

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library