Waiting for the Party (the life of Frances Hodgson Burnett) by Ann Thwaite


Word PressHow the same author can have written That Lass o’Lowrie’s, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Secret Garden is fascinating. The fact that that author grew up in Cheetham Hill and Salford, and that her family emigrated because of the financial problems caused by the Cotton Famine (my university dissertation topic, about which I can merrily waffle ad infinitum!) is even more fascinating :-).   This isn’t the world’s best-written book, but the subject matter’s really very interesting, and it’s well worth a read.

I hadn’t realised that Frances Hodgson Burnett had written so many books, having only come across the better-known ones. And there are such differences in her work – everything from Gaskell-esque works about the lives of the working-class (and written in local dialect) to Victorian slush (I do feel sorry for her younger son, labelled as “Little Lord Fauntleroy” for the rest of his life!) to much-loved children’s novels which are now regarded as classics.

And her own life was pretty interesting as well. Her father owned a furniture shop in town, and the family originally lived in Cheetham Hill. It’s fascinating how Cheetham Hill, along with many other districts close to the city centre, went from being a middle-class area to a working-class area so quickly in the second half of the nineteenth century. When Mr and Mrs Hodgson were first married, they lived in Moreton Street. By the time my great-great-grandparents were living in Moreton Street, towards the end of the century, it was a poor working-class area; and the houses there were pulled down during the slum clearances after the Second World War. The Hodgsons then moved to the area of Cheetham Hill Road near where Manchester Fort is now, and Frances was born there in 1849. Then they moved further up Cheetham Hill Road, towards where Temple School is now. Quite a posh area back then!

However, Mr Hodgson died in 1853, and his widow and children struggled to manage for money. They moved for a time to the Seedley/Pendleton area – near Buile Hill Park, which local tradition says is where Frances later wrote most of The Secret Garden, although that isn’t mentioned in this book – and then to a small house near Salford Cathedral. As best as I can work out, it was between Chapel Street and Oldfield Road, near that horrible junction where Oldfield Road and Adelphi Street aren’t quite opposite each other so you have to turn left on to Chapel Street and then immediately right!   Even in the 1850s, it was a relatively poor area, certainly by the standards that the Hodgsons were used to. They later lived in Chorlton-on-Medlock for a time.

I won’t write an essay about the Cotton Famine ;-), but that finished off the family business, and, in 1865, Mrs Hodgson and her children moved to Tennessee, to join her brother. So Frances had both British and American links – and crossed the Atlantic no fewer than 33 times during her lifetime! In later years, when her books had made her a lot of money, she had bases on both sides of the Atlantic, and also did a lot of travelling in Europe in later years.

Incidentally, what on earth is “one of those tight, forbidding Manchester faces” supposed to mean?! That’s a description of Frances Hodgson Burnett given by her first biographer – who was Marghanita Laski, niece of Harold Laski, daughter of Neville Laski, and therefore herself a member of a very well-known Manchester family! OK, let’s not go there …

In addition to travelling, Frances had quite a colourful personal and social life. She divorced her first husband, which caused quite a scandal at the time – anyone who thinks that the press reporting on celebrity break-ups is a modern phenomenon, think again!! – and remarried in rather strange circumstances, saying that she’d been blackmailed into it. She also mixed with all sorts of literary types and, with several of her books being made into plays, was involved in the theatrical world as well.   And she was involved in a landmark legal case over the copyright for Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Biographers are usually sympathetic towards their subjects and Ann Thwaite tries to present a positive picture of Frances. She does seem to have been a difficult person sometimes, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for her first husband, but a lot of her issues were caused by depression, especially after the early death of her eldest son from consumption. Also, this was the Gilded Age, and there’s always something quite annoying about it in general, and that isn’t specific to any one person! And she did a lot of charity work, as many middle-class Victorian women did, and helped out friends and relatives who were struggling for money.

The book’s called “Waiting for the Party”, and that’s because of the sense that Frances was never quite in there, that she was always just missing out on things. I’m not sure that that’s entirely true. She could have lived a quiet life with her first husband, but she got out there and she got in there!   The success of Little Lord Fauntleroy, whilst it’s seen as rather a joke today (and that’s more because of illustrations than the writing), was phenomenal; and The Secret Garden and The Little Princess are still well-known today. She achieved a hell of a lot. As for Ann Thwaite’s book, it’s very entertaining, and certainly worth reading.



How the English made the Alps by Jim Ring


Word PressIn Zermatt, the beautiful Swiss village from which I’ve been up (not on foot, I hasten to add!) the Matterhorn and the Gornergrat, there’s an Anglican church. In its grounds is a graveyard. Many of those buried there died in their attempts to scale one or other of the great Alpine peaks. On a happier note, the front cover of this book shows a large cow drawing a cart containing several crates of Lyons’ tea through a snowy Swiss landscape, with the Matterhorn in the background.

So. How did the English make the Alps? The author explains that he’s used the term “English” rather than “British” because that’s what people in Alpine areas would have done in the 18th and 19th centuries. I’m not really getting why that means he couldn’t use “British”, but anyway. He then goes on to say that the Alps were feared and disliked until the 18th century. I’m not entirely convinced about that. Look at how many times Italy’s been invaded, and the importance of Italy in medieval and early modern trade. Yes, a lot of that was by sea, but the Alps were hardly seen as some sort of impassable barrier. There are also various comments about the Alpine peasantry historically being afflicted by goitre and “cretinism”, which, whilst I can imagine that sort of comment being common in a Georgian or Victorian guidebook, sits very uncomfortably in a book written within the last twenty years.

Moving on to the good stuff! After the Seven Years’ War came the heyday of the Grand Tour. Ring says that interest in the Alps was stimulated by the Enlightenment, and in particular inspired by Rousseau. The Social Contract is one of the most boring books I’ve ever read in my entire life, and consequently I’ve never read anything else by Rousseau and can’t imagine him inspiring anyone; but, yes, the Enlightenment with its interest in both science and nature did get people interested in mountains. And then came the Romantics. Hooray! I love the Romantics! Wordsworth! Ruskin! Yay! And Byron and Shelley as well. We all love lakes and mountains! Well, mountains, anyway: the beautiful Alpine lakes scarcely get a mention in this book, which is a shame.

Of course, all this gets interrupted by the wars following the French Revolution, but Napoleon has to be given credit for improving the roads through Central Europe. And along come the railways and the steamers – and it was the British who brought these to most of the Alpine areas. How amazing were the Victorians? A bit more interruption, due to the 1848 Revolutions (which everyone always says didn’t affect Britain, but actually they did, because there was a revolution in Ashton-under-Lyne. Well, sort of. Anyway, that’s beside the point), but the middle decades of the 19th century, with Britain full of industrial-era confidence, saw more and more British people heading for the Alps. Even Queen Victoria went: she made her first visit to the Alps, to Lucerne, in 1868.

This period is the crucial part of the story, and there’s an awful lot to think about. Despite what the author says, this isn’t the entire reason that English has become the international language – but it certainly played a part in it. And we get hotels catering to British tastes springing up across Switzerland, and parts of Italy, France and Austria. There are a lot of amusing quotes involving the poor quality of both the tea and the toilets on the Continent: some things never change!   And, of course, there are all sorts of class issues. We get the likes of Arnold Lunn (of what became Lunn Poly) setting up Public School Alpine clubs, and wanting to keep it all to Old Etonians and Old Harrovians, and then we get Thomas Cook – who really ought to feature in some of those “Greatest Britons of all times” lists – making trips to the Alps available for the lower-middle-classes.

In the middle of all this is the actual climbing. There are debates over whether or not it’s appropriate to put yourself in danger. The endless questions over why people climb mountains. And the organisation of sport – which, as the author points out, is a very British thing.   Or English thing. First it’s the Alpine clubs. Then, later, it’s ski-ing, tobogganing and ice-skating as well, and the development of winter holidays from the 1870s onwards And, of course, the idea of health resorts, and the establishment in the Alps of sanatoria for TB patients.

There are still interruptions by political events. Thomas Cook had planned to take trips to the Passion Play at Oberammergau in 1870, until the Prussians and the French decided to have a war. And, before that, there were all the clashes between Italy, France and Austria over Italian independence. But, generally, it’s onwards and upwards.   I think he exaggerates the role that tourism played in the development of the countries involved – I don’t think you can really say that the Swiss banking system developed in order to finance decent toilets and nice afternoon teas for British tourists, and I’m sure that the good people of Milan and Turin would have something to say about the idea that tourism pulled Lombardy and Piedmont out of poverty – but, as with the spread of the English language, it certainly played an important role.

But, as with everything else, other countries were getting in on the act. The book is called “How the English made the Alps” … and, by the 1890s, a lot of tourists were coming from elsewhere as well. Then, of course, came the First World War, the Depression, and the Second World War. And all the social change too: the old British Alpine clubs were seen as stuffy and snobby. The book ends rather sadly and abruptly, focusing on the fact that most tourists in the Alps now come from Germany and elsewhere, rather than on the fact that so many British people still go to the Alps and have such a wonderful time there, and also focusing on the eternal problem of tourism, that beautiful places become overcrowded and overdeveloped.

It’s not the cheeriest of endings, but there’s a lot in this book. I think he could have written more about Victorian attitudes generally, the whole Muscular Christianity and a Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body thing, but the tales of conquering the Alps are still inspiring, all the tea and toilets stuff rather amusing, and the whole story of the development of tourism and winter sports in the Alps fascinating.





Brazil by Errol Lincoln Uys


Word PressThis is an Edward Rutherfurd/James Michener type book, telling the story of Brazil through the histories of two fictional families, the Cavalcantis and the da Silvas.   My paperback copy was 1,000 pages long, so there was a lot to read, but it was worth the effort.

As with all books of this sort, everyone will have their own opinions about what should have been included and what should have been left out. There wasn’t a great deal about Brazil’s history before the arrival of the Portuguese but, unfortunately, not a great deal is known about it, and there was still enough to give the reader a picture of the traditions of some of the native tribes. The main families were of Portuguese origin, but the da Silvas also had African ancestry and, as is typical of Brazil, there were many mixed race relationships and descendants.

There was quite a strong focus on the period in which the Dutch held part of Brazil – possibly of particular interest to the author because he’s of South African origin?   Complete with some rather stereotypical comments about the Dutch being better at trade and commerce than the Portuguese. Later on, in the period of the pre-independence rebellions, there were some interesting observations about how, if more attention had been paid to industry, Brazil could have become a leading supplier of cotton … I’d never really thought of that before! Anyway, to get back to the earlier colonial period, part of the book was set in Portugal, particularly in the 18th century during the time of the Lisbon earthquake and the Pombal reforms, and parts of it were also set in Portugal’s colonies in Africa, but I think that that was necessary to understand the history of Brazil, especially with regard to slavery.

Brazil becoming independent was missed out, which was rather odd! The end of the rule of the Brazilian branch of the Braganza dynasty, and the birth of the republic, was covered, but not the crucial period of South American history in which Spanish South America became several different independent countries and Brazil became an empire independent of Portuguese rule. However, there was a long chapter about the Paraguayan War. It was a tragedy from which Paraguay’s never recovered, but I’ve never thought about it much from the Brazilian viewpoint before, but I suppose it was that which really made Brazil the biggest player in South America, and which – along with British pressure to end slavery – prompted social reforms. But poor Paraguay.

The book ended with the founding of Brasilia, which was presented as a statement of Brazil’s confidence and national identity. If asked to name a Brazilian city, I should think that over 90% of people would say Rio de Janeiro and the rest would say Sao Paulo, but never mind! I’d have been inclined to write more about Brazil winning the 1958 World Cup :-). No offence to Brasilia: I’m sure it’s a very nice place!

All sorts of things were covered. Mining, sugar, the Jesuits, immigration from different parts of the world … it’s a very long book, and there’s a lot to read about. And to cover the history of any country in one book is a big ask, especially when you’re talking about a country like Brazil which is such a complex mixture of different ethnic groups. But this book tells you a lot about Brazil. It’s not easy to find novels about South America. Most of them are either about the Spanish and Portuguese conquests or else written in the semi-mystical style that seems to be popular there, so I was really pleased to find this. It took a lot of reading, but it was worth it.

Anne of Green Gables – ITV 3


Word PressI got rather confused about this, because there’s a new Anne of Green Gables mini-series coming out, and I thought that this was the first episode of it … whereas in actual fact it was a one-off “TV film”.  I hope the mini-series is as good as this, because this film was a wonderful adaptation of the first book in the series.  Ella Ballentine was brilliant as Anne (although the red hair and freckles were very obviously fake – I’m sure they could have been made to look more natural!) and the rest of the cast were all very much true to the book.  It followed the plot of the book very closely, and it came all across very well.

I was going to say that I was confused by Marilla having an Irish accent but, having done some research (I haven’t yet made it to the Maritime Provinces), I’ve found that the Prince Edward Island accent is very close to an Irish accent.  So now I’m just wondering why everyone else didn’t sound Irish as well!

My one quibble was that Anne’s class at school sang “God Save The King”.  That puts events into the reign of Edward VII (1901-1910).  The book was published in 1908, which was indeed during Edwardian times, but, later on in the series, Anne’s grown-up sons and the sweetheart of one of her daughters go off to fight in the First World War.  Anne’s nearly 50 when war breaks out, so she must have been at school in the 1870s.  However, no-one’s quite sure when the earlier books are meant to be set, and it’s very unlikely that L M Montgomery wrote the first book with the intention of bringing the First World War into a book set nearly 40 years later!   So never mind :-).

Oh dear, I feel so old now – it seems like about five minutes since I was watching the 1980s series, and reassuring my sister, who hadn’t read the books, that there was no need to worry, Anne and Gilbert would definitely end up together!  Having read some of the previews of the forthcoming new series, which I gather is due to be shown in Canada at some point in 2017 and will hopefully been taken up by one of the British channels very soon afterwards, I’ve got a horrible feeling that it isn’t going to stick to the original storylines.  Boo!  So watch this film, and enjoy it.  It’s great!