Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 7: Lesley Hall

Pleasures of reading and viewing, 2011
by Lesley Hall

This was a year in which I was obliged to undertake a great deal of scholarly reading to bring myself up to date on the current state of history of sexuality in the UK during the C19th and C20th: much of this was really excellent and worth reading for less imperative reasons. Works I was particularly taken with, and had not previously read, were Katharine Holden's marvellous study of singleness, The Shadow of Marriage: Singleness in England, 1914-1960 (2007), Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher's Sex before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963 (2010), Frank Mort's Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society (2010), and Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair, Public Lives: Women, Family, and Society in Victorian Britain (2003) (this in fact focuses on C19th Glasgow and thus forms a contribution to the gradual shift from metrocentric perspectives). Although I didn't read it cover to cover, I found Stephen Cretney's Family Law in the Twentieth Century: A History (2003) an invaluable guide to the intricate evolution of British marital legislation.

I also read a number of other academic/non-fiction works outside those parameters that I found compelling and thought-provoking. Julie-Marie Strange's Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1870-1914 came out in 2005 but only fairly recently became available in paperback and ebook editions. This is an absolutely brilliant study that weaves together personal narratives, evidence from official documents and the records of cemeteries, and accounts by middle-class observers, both medical men and C19th social observers/philanthropists. Strange persuasively argues that the idea that the Victorian poor faced family deaths with resignation or relief is very misleading and that although they might not respond in ways that the more prosperous would identify as grief or articulate their sorrow in words, emotional reactions were expressed in many different ways. Working-class cultures of funeral wakes were not just, as observers claimed, an excuse for drunken indulgence, and the deaths of children were not simply welcomed as opportunities to cash in on burial insurance. Nonetheless, the experience of bereavement was deeply embedded within situations of economic extremity which might well, especially in the case of widowed women, be exacerbated by the loss of a breadwinner. The conclusion analyses responses to the mass deaths of the Great War in the light of these longer traditions of mourning and commemoration. A wonderful book that sheds light into numerous neglected historiographical areas.

A rather different work was Jane Shaw's Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and her Followers (2011). I heard Shaw present on this fascinating work in progress some years ago and had been ardently awaiting this book ever since. It deals with an extensively documented and extraordinary religious group founded in the early twentieth century by 'Octavia' (formerly Mabel Barltrop), in which women predominated, based on the millennial writings of the earlier 'female messiah' Joanna Southcott. The 'Panacea Society' was a curious blend of radicalism (in its foregrounding of women) and conservatism (in their general social attitudes and many of their practices). A fascinating (and well-written) story with lots to offer about women and religion, class, modernity, and the wider penumbra of fringe and marginal belief systems.

I also managed to consume a fair amount of fiction. Perhaps even more impressive on a re-read than on the first devouring when it came out was Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) - I was incited to this re-read by the BBC mini-series that appeared earlier in the year, which was good in its way but I felt left out a lot of what I remembered from the book, which certainly repays a second reading. In the realm of television adaptations of novels, however, the rushed and skimpy 2011 version (in a meager three episodes! focusing on the romance plot which in the original is just one of many intertwined threads) of Winifred Holtby's wonderfully rich 1934 novel South Riding is not worth wasting one's time with - I strongly advocate trying to get hold of the infinitely superior 1974 Yorkshire TV adaptation which gave it thirteen lengthy episodes of appropriately leisurely and expansive development.

There were few new discoveries in fiction, although I did get turned on to Megan Abbott's wonderful female-centred noir thrillers - Queenpin, Die a Little, The Song Is You and Bury Me Deep. There were a number of very strong works by writers I already like - any year in which two of Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January mysteries come out is a good year! I don't normally particularly go for short stories (or horror, come to that), but I was completely stunned, in the best of ways, by Sarah Monette's Somewhere Beneath Those Waves as well as by the limited edition chapbook of several of her uncollected Kyle Murchison Booth stories.

Another area of reading that gave me pleasure during the year was seeing several very nice reviews of the biography I published, The Life and Times of Stella Browne, feminist and free spirit. It was rewarding to feel that people had been made aware of a neglected figure of significant interest, and appreciated that although less well-known than many more-biographized contemporaries, her life was worth the task of recovering.

In other art forms, while I don't seem to have seen many movies that have stayed with me this year, the production of Terence Rattigan's Flare Path in the West End this spring continues to resonate, and while I had some problems with the final outcome of J B Priestley's They Came to a City this was a striking production of a seldom-seen play at the Southwark Playhouse, located under one of the arches in the entangled and labyrinthine railway bridges around London Bridge and making imagination use of the space.

During my three weeks in the USA in May and June I managed to spend some quality time with Louise Nevelson sculptures in several cities, even though I was a bit miffed that museums which I know hold several of her works didn't have them on display. I was particularly glad to have made it to her eponymous Plaza in NYC.

Another pleasure that I should perhaps mention was eating - I visited some excellent restaurants in the course of this year, and the one that took the crown was undoubtedly Heston Blumenthal's new London flagship, Dinner, which lived up to all the hype. My only regret was that I wish I had dined there before the nights drew in in order to get the benefit of the view over Hyde Park.

Lesley A. Hall is a London-based archivist and historian, and author of several books on the history of gender and sexuality. She has also published the Aqueduct Press Conversation Piece, Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of Her Life and Work (2007). Her biography of a pioneering British feminist sex radical and campaigner for reproductive freedom, The Life and Times of Stella Browne, feminist and free spirit was published by IB Tauris early in 2011. Lesley's website can be found at

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