Massachusetts by Nancy Zaroulis

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This is one of those Edward Rutherfurd/James Michener-type books which tell the history of a country, a city, or, in this case, an American state through the lives of several generations of a small number of families. In this book, it’s just one family – the Revells, one of whom arrives in America on the Mayflower. It’s always tricky to know what to say about books like this, because only so much can be fitted in and we all have our own ideas about what the most important events in history are. It’s very interesting as a history of Massachusetts, but I did find it quite insular – neither world war got more than a passing mention, the Civil War didn’t feature very much because there was no actual fighting in the area, and don’t even get me started on one of the characters claiming that the Industrial Revolution started in Massachusetts – and it might have been better to have included different families from different backgrounds rather than just the one. Gold star, however, for the focus on female characters, which is unusual in these types of sagas.

The Revells do the American Dream thing, and become one of Boston’s leading families. We follow them from the Mayflower, on to the founding of Boston, and its early days under strict Puritaan control – we see the persecution of anyone whose religious views didn’t suit the Puritans, and we see one of them falling victim to the Salem Witch Trials. Massachusetts is such a paradox – in the forefront of the fights for Abolitionism and women’s suffrage, both of which are covered in the books, and yet with such a history of religious persecution and, well into the 20th century, religious and ethnic discrimination.

The book doesn’t shy away from the negatives. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial, which saw two Italian anarchists executed for a murder of which they may well have been innocent, is covered in detail. We also see the struggles of the Shaughnessys, a working-class Irish-American family, against poverty and discrimination – although the focus is always on the Revells.

This was published in 1991, before there was so much emphasis on “diversity”; but books like this do usually include a number of different families. I assume from her surname that the author, like a lot of people in Massachusetts, has Greek heritage: there are no Greek Americans here. Sympathy is shown for Native Americans, but they only feature when they’re kidnapping one of the early Revell women, and there is only one black character, the maid of the woman who’s kidnapped, in the entire book. It’s made clear that the discrimination against Catholics and Jews and, in the early days, Quakers is wrong, but we don’t really hear their voices, except to some extent with the Shaughnessys. There’s also sympathy for the industrial workers and their attempts to form unions and win better working conditions, but, again, we don’t really hear their voices, only those of the wealthy Revell who owns the mills, and another Revell who’s reporting on it all.

On the other hand, this isn’t a textbook, so maybe I’m being unfair. If it’d been called “The Revells of Massachusetts” instead of just “Massachusetts”, I wouldn’t be criticising – it’s only because the title suggests that it’s telling the history of a state, not that of one family. And, as I’ve said, it’s not as if it doesn’t show both negative and positive aspects of the history of Massachusetts. All sorts of things are included. There’s quite a lot about transcendentalism. And it ends with an environmentalist campaign.

It’s pretty much all set in Massachusetts. We don’t follow the characters anywhere else. The Civil War doesn’t really feature very much, because there was no fighting in or around Boston. However, there is loads and loads about the Revolution. The Revells are in there at the Boston Tea Party, and they play major roles during the War of Independence. Let’s just say that that’s very much told from an American point of view. But the War of 1812 isn’t mentioned very much, and the two world wars and Vietnam only feature in passing.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this book. The characters are quite interesting and there’s a lot of information about the history of Massachusetts, especially Boston. I can’t fault the history, and, apart from the part about the War of Independence, it isn’t biased. And it was great to see so many strong female characters. But I’d like to have seen some different families – maybe a poorer family who’d also come over the Mayflower but not succeeded economically, for a start. And, whilst I fully appreciate that the book was about Massachusetts, I think that having all the action in Massachusetts meant that some crucial events, notably the Civil War, didn’t get the attention they deserved.

However, despite the moaning (sorry!), I did enjoy this – it packed a huge amount into 700-ish pages, and it was never boring. Books like this can be a really good way of learning more about a place.

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Living in the Shadow of World War II – More4

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Programmes about the history of food are always interesting, and the effect of food rationing during the Second World War is still with us. Apple crumble and carrot cake, anyone 🙂 ? My fridge is full of leftover bits and pieces, even fruit that’s starting to go off, because my grandparents’ generation trained my generation never to throw good food away. This programme managed to cover all sorts of things in under an hour – glorious terms such as “National Loaf” and the “Rural Pie Scheme”, some strange revelations about the testing carried out by nutritionists, the Dig For Victory scheme, mobile demonstration vans showing people how to make eggless cakes, issues with knicker elastic, how being Land Girls made life easier for lesbians, “Doctor Carrot” (with very odd-looking shoes) and, of course, queues. You’d think they’d have mentioned that Lord Woolton, the Minister for Food (and only a “lord” since 1939) grew up just round the corner from Old Trafford, though. I mean, I’d have said that in the first few minutes.  What came across really well was what a good job the authorities did of managing a difficult situation, and how they really tried to make it as fair as possible.

I’m not sure that I really needed to know that nutritionists were analysing what came out as well as what went in, but, OK, it made the point that there was serious scientific research going on into what people needed to eat in order to remain healthy. Whilst the Nazis allowed people not considered to be part of the master race only 450 calories a day, and the Soviets prioritised the transport of armaments even if it meant food supplies running short, the government here really did try to make sure that no-one went without – even though, by late 1942, pretty much all types of food other than vegetables were on ration, and it wasn’t always possible to get certain items even if you had the coupons for them.

All that queuing! And then trying to feed yourself and the rest of your household on whatever you’d managed to get. My grandmas and great-aunts used to keep ridiculous amounts of non-perishable foodstuffs in stock, because they never quite got past the psychological impact of coping with rationing. And it was a huge amount of work for shopkeepers. The programme talked about all the detailed record-keeping that had to be done, especially when people wanted to take only part of their weekly ration and come back for the rest another day, and people remembered little arguments over things like whether or not the weight of the paper that the food was wrapped in should be taken into account. And, OK, there was a fair bit of black market activity going on, despite the large fines and two year prison sentences that could be imposed for it, but people were generally very accepting of the situation. There were no food riots, even though everyone must have got thoroughly fed up (no pun intended) with it all.

So much thought and work went into it all. What a contrast to the times of food shortages in earlier periods of time, when the less well-off were just left to suffer. Famously, even the Royal Family were subject to rationing, and we heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s account of being served off gold and silver plates on a visit to Buckingham Palace, but only getting the same amount and type of food that was available to everyone else, including “National Loaf” bread – which must have been very good for you, because it contained extra calcium and vitamins, but which apparently looked and tasted bloody awful. Price caps were put on the amount that restaurants could charge for a meal, to ensure that it didn’t become a case of the rich eating out all the time whilst everyone else had to cope on rations, and subsidies were given to the least well-off.

It didn’t mention school dinners, which was a shame, but I suppose they couldn’t cover everything. We did hear about British Restaurants, though – and how they got their patriotic name because Churchill thought that terms like “community feeding centres” sounded too socialist! It wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring something like that back. And the wonderfully-named Rural Pie Scheme, providing pies for farm workers. A lot of voluntary work was involved. Then there were the “mobile demonstration vans”, doing their eggless cake demos! Austerity food like apple crumbles and carrot cakes are still very popular … although some of the other stuff mentioned, including horse meat and (immediately after the fall of Norway) whale meat, didn’t go down very well even at the time. It seems a bit unfair that game wasn’t rationed, seeing as people in inner city areas would have had far less access to it than those in rural areas, but I suppose there was no practical way of monitoring it.

The programme talked a lot about the campaigns to help people cope with rationing and promote healthy eating, as well. There seemed to be a lot of films, which presumably people only got to see if they went to the cinema, although wireless programmes were also mentioned. Doctor Carrot, with a top hat, glasses and some very odd-looking shoes, helping fighter pilots to see in the dark!  A lot of it sounds horrendously patronising now, especially as the voiceovers were always by men, at a time when nearly all the cooking would have been done by women, and always in those terribly posh accents that all BBC announcers used to speak in, but the authorities really were trying hard to make sure people could manage.

We also heard a bit about the Dig For Victory scheme, including film of Aintree racecourse, a golf club and parts of the royal estates being dug up. It was all so well-organised. I hate to sound like some old biddy going on about how everything was done better back in the day, but imagine if the people in charge of, say, rolling out Universal Credit had been in charge of distributing ration coupons or encouraging people to Dig For Victory. Domestic food production levels rocketed. Farm labourers’ wages went way up! People volunteered to help bring in the harvest. The Land Girls did incredibly important work – some of it, especially for those in the Timber Corps, extremely physically demanding.

The programme also touched on how the war was quite liberating for those women, with particular reference to lesbians, and also briefly mentioned clothes rationing – with specific reference to painting your legs to make it look as if you were wearing stockings, and the potential issues that a shortage of elastic could cause with underwear! – and petrol rationing, but it was mostly about food. It says a lot about how attitudes had changed. I’ve got the Napoleonic Wars on the brain at the moment, because of the Peterloo bicentennial, and there were terrible food shortages then, with people just left to cope as best they could, food riots breaking out, and then, after the wars, the Corn Laws making it all worse. During the Second World War (I do wish people would not talk about “World War II”, as if it were a film franchise), things really were pretty well-organised – and, as we’re always being told, the health of the working-classes actually improved.

I don’t know why this series was shoved in a graveyard slot, on More4 rather than on Channel 4 itself, because there’s usually a lot of interest in the Home Front during the Second World War. There are two more episodes, which I haven’t had chance to watch yet. I’m looking forward to them: this was great.

Sanditon by Jane Austen (Facebook group reading challenge)

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The forthcoming ITV adaptation of this, Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, apparently includes three men skinny-dipping in the sea.  Austen did not actually write that scene 😉 .  She didn’t actually write very much of this at all, before she had to stop work due to ill-health.  I’m not sure what she’d have made of people reading her unfinished work, much less of people making up their own endings to it; but it’s a promising start, and not necessarily what you’d expect of Jane Austen.  It’s set in a Sussex seaside resort – it’d probably make a wonderful sitcom, the genuinely funny kind that we used to get in the ’70s and ’80s – and there’s quite a big cast.  It includes a mixed race character, which was a first for Austen, and a wealthy widow who’s the queen of the town of Sanditon.  Our heroine is Charlotte Heywood, who’s staying with family friends, there are various other young single people, and presumably they were all going to be paired off after various misunderstandings and revelations.  However, there just isn’t very much of it – Jane Austen set the scene, but sadly wasn’t able to get much further.

It helpfully refers to Waterloo, so we know that it’s set some time between the Battle of Waterloo, in June 1815, and early 1817, when Jane Austen had to give up writing.  It’s summer, so it must be the summer of 1816.  I do like to know when books are set, and, apart from Persuasion, her other books don’t make it clear!   So it’s set in peacetime – not that the wars ever seem to bother Austen characters very much – and it’s set during the Regency, the Prince Regent famously being very keen on Brighton.  We don’t know exactly where Sanditon is, but it’s somewhere near Brighton and Eastbourne, but, unlike them, at this point fairly undeveloped.  There are all sorts of glorious Austen sarcastic remarks … oops, I mean “ironic” remarks.  We did Northanger Abbey at school, and the teacher went berserk if anyone talked about Jane Austen being “sarcastic”.  “Ironic,” she would say indignantly.

Anyway.  There are lots of ironic remarks sending up the fad for sea air and sea bathing.  Health fads are nothing new – although most of us are unable to take advantage of any which involve going on holiday for weeks at a time!  I’m actually a great believer in sea air, but, as this book delights in pointing out, at that time there were a lot of hypochondriacs who decided that they had all sorts of ailments which sea air and sea bathing would cure, and Jane Austen did love to poke fun at people she saw as being a bit daft.

Unusually, the book doesn’t start with the heroine, but with an initially unnamed lady and gentleman whose carriage overturns in the Sussex countryside.  They turn out to be Mr and Mrs Parker: Mr Parker is an entrepreneur who’s hoping to make Sanditon the next “in” seaside place.  This is really something different for Austen: she didn’t normally “do” entrepreneurs.  They’re helped out by the Heywoods, and they, apart from having 14 children (13 of whom aren’t even named) are a more typical Austen family – gentry, but of limited means.  The Parkers take Charlotte Heywood, one of the daughters, back to Sanditon with them.  They’re desperate to get tourism going in Sanditon, and news of any new arrival is greeted with great excitement.

Charlotte was clearly set to be the main character, but the book doesn’t revolve around her in the way that Austen’s other books revolve around their heroines.  There’s a lot about Lady Denham, the aforementioned wealthy widow, and her niece, the sweet and beautiful but dowerless Clara Brereton.  Then there’s Miss Lambe, the “half mulatto” 17-year-old West Indian heiress, who like Anne de Bourgh is extremely rich but sickly.  She’s one of a group of schoolgirls spending the summer in Sanditon, but we don’t really get chance to know any of them.  Assorted other characters arrive in Sanditon, but, before Austen was able to do anything much other than set the scene, that was it: she wasn’t able to write any more.  It’s not even clear who was going to be the hero.

How very frustrating!   I’m sure Andrew Davies has done a good job of it, but we’ll never know what Jane Austen intended to happen – and that’s a shame, because it was shaping up to be very good, and also a bit different from her other books.  I’ve read them all so many times that I practically know them off by heart, but, for some reason, I’d never read this one before.  The Sunday night 9pm slot, the famous Downton Abbey slot, always gets people talking, so, once the ITV series gets going, I’m sure that Sanditon will be being talked about everywhere!  But, in terms of what Jane Austen actually wrote, there isn’t really very much to say.  Unfulfilled promise!

 

The Queen’s Lost Family – Channel 4

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The title of this programme was very misleading – none of George V’s children were “lost”, with the arguable exception of Prince John, whom the programme never even mentioned – but it was quite an entertaining hour of serious talk about the changing role of the Royal Family, combined with a fair amount of gossip and scandal. OK, it didn’t really say anything new, despite making a big deal of having access to the newly-released letters and diaries of Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood, and it jumped around a lot; but still, I do love a bit of royal talk! It also made some good points about life in the Britain of the 1920s in general. It was too light on the gossip element, though: it never even named any of Prince George (the future Duke of Kent)’s alleged celeb lovers!

I’m not entirely sure what it was aiming to do, especially given the confusing title. Explore the relationships between George V’s children? It was lovely to see, from the letters, how close Mary was to her brothers, and especially to her eldest brother. She’s known to have been quite supportive of him over the Abdication Crisis. Make a point about how all George V’s children suffered from his strictness? I think he gets a bit of a raw deal, TBH. Many fathers of his class and generation were quite remote from their children – although he does, to be fair, seem to have been exceptionally strict. If they were trying to do that, they should really have said more about Bertie’s stammer: it wasn’t mentioned once. Nor was Prince John, which really was weird. There was just no reference to him at all, even in passing. Trace the lives of each of the children (well, except from John)? Maybe. Very little was said about either Mary or Bertie after their marriages, but I think it was focusing on the more glamorous and more scandalous siblings. It was a shame, really, because both Bertie and Mary did a lot of charity work, much of it in unglamorous places, and I think they deserved more attention than the programme gave them. But I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour. Minus adverts.

Or was it meant to be about the changing face of the Royal Family in the 1920s? That was certainly how it started. With the Romanovs murdered, and the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs sent packing, the newly-renamed Windsors must have been more than a bit worried – and it’s to the eternal credit of King George V and Queen Mary that the British monarchy came through this period so strongly.  The programme made it sound as if the country had gone straight from the pre-1832 world of only the upper-classes being able to vote to the post-1918 world of all men and most women being able to vote, which was hardly accurate; but the general point that Britain in 1919 was a very different world to Britain in 1914 was fair enough. The independence movement in India was also covered, although, for some strange reason, Ireland wasn’t mentioned at all.

There were clips of the princes and princess carrying out royal engagements in all sorts of different places. Edward/David got to go on tours of the Empire: Bertie got to visit factories at home. There was also some interesting talk about Mary, and how she was stuck at home whilst her brothers were away at school or naval college, not really allowed to do anything and with no hope of escape other than marriage. Being a princess sounds so glamorous, but it really wasn’t … until Princess Margaret came along, and showed that princesses could go living it up on the town just as well as princes could! A good point was also made about how it was Mary’s wedding, the first time the daughter of a sovereign had married in Westminster Abbey since Edward I’s time, that set the tone for modern royal weddings, with huge crowds in the streets and widespread coverage in the media.

Edward/David missed it, because he was away on a royal tour. He came across as being incredibly annoying. There’s this image of him as the people’s prince, because of his “something must be done” talk after the famous visit to mining areas of the North East, but comments he made after the 1922 General Election and during the General Strike make it pretty clear that he wasn’t actually that keen on “the people” at all. And he did a lot of moaning about how hard his life was, but was quite happy to be a prince when it came to getting into all the best nightclubs and pulling plenty of attractive women. He even moaned about being expected to return from a tour of Kenya when his father fell seriously ill. Bertie, meanwhile, was living a life of eminent respectability, and genuinely trying to help the working classes by running his Boys’ Camps – which the programme didn’t mention.

Henry, Duke of Gloucester, is usually seen as the one who kept a low profile, but he created a bit of scandal of his own, getting involved with an unsuitable woman and installing her as his mistress in a house close to Buckingham Palace – whilst she was heavily pregnant with someone else’s child. He did make a career for himself in the Army, though. And then there was George, who ran wild. The programme was very unsympathetic towards him – OK, he did run wild, but saying that it was “irresponsible” to have homosexual affairs and get addicted to cocaine was a bit much!  “Irresponsible”?!

It was all very bitty, and the title was very silly, but there was some good stuff in it, both about the Royal Family and about the social and economic issues facing post Great War Britain.  Also, whereas the BBC would have spoilt this by shoehorning in their own political agenda and making a load of irrelevant references to modern political events, Channel 4 just talked about the period that the programme was about, and I appreciated that.   Not bad at all!

As the Poppies Bloomed by Maral Boyadjian

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This is a novel about the Armenian Genocide, but it focuses on the home and community lives of a group of people in an Armenian village. We don’t see the death marches: we do see some of the main characters being murdered in their own homes.  I’ve head people question the popularity of The Diary of Anne Frank, because it doesn’t show the concentration camps or the Einsatzgruppen massacres; but the whole point of that book is that it reminds us that the victims of the genocide to which it relates were just ordinary people, leading ordinary lives, with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else.  This one’s the same.  The author uses the word “dehumanisation”, and, when there’s just been yet another mass hate killing, this time in El Paso, and when a frightening number of people seem to think it’s OK to dehumanise anyone who votes for a different political party to them, holds different views on a particular issue, or has a different ethnicity, religion, gender, socio-economic background, sexuality or sexual identity, it’s critically important to remember where dehumanisation can lead.  The author’s grandparents all survived the Armenian Genocide.  Up to one and a half million people didn’t.  The book also gives a very interesting insight into Ottoman Armenian culture and traditions.

I was quite disturbed by a comment I read on Facebook last week: someone had written that “[supporters of a particular political party] are not people”.  OK, you probably shouldn’t get too wound up over things that ignorant people write on social media, but there’s so much of it around these days.  It’s about anything and everything.  Often it’s the usual “hate crime” areas – race, religion, sexuality, politics.  Sometimes it’s targeting groups of people for the most bizarre reasons, like which football team they support, or even which newspaper they read.  All right, obviously I’m not suggesting that anyone’s about to try to massacre people who read a particular newspaper, but when you spout that sort of hatred, when you label people, when you dismiss them, lump them together, when you dehumanise them … it’s a slippery slope.

Anyway.  This book’s set mainly around the time just before and after the Siege of Van in the spring of 1915, when Ottoman forces attacked the city of Van and were beaten back by the Armenian resistance.  Exactly what was going on, especially whether or not the Armenians had Russian support, is still unclear – but what is clear is that horrific atrocities were carried out against the Armenian civilian population of the area, before, during and after the siege.  The region had already seen massacres of Armenians in the 1890s and 1900s.  The book’s centred on the Sassoun area, closely linked to Armenian nationalism, and the scene of massacres in 1894, 1904 and 1915.

It’s a fascinating portrayal of life in an Ottoman Armenian village. There’s a lot of very interesting detail about the structure of family and community life, and about food, drink, clothing, farming, the treatment of illnesses, and the rituals surrounding births, marriages and deaths. There are romances that work out, and romances that don’t. It’s a book about a group of relatives and friends leading their lives. It’s so important that there are books like this, fictional or non-fictional, about the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, or any other genocide, as well as accounts of death marches and concentration camps and mass shootings, because it’s so important to remember that the victims were just ordinary people They should have just lived their lives out in peace, but they had the bad luck to be part of a demographic group that was the target of other people’s politics and hatred.

This was a long-running thing, though. There’d been some talk internationally back in the 1890s about tackling the issue of the Turks’ treatment of the Armenians, but nothing was done about it. The older generation of characters well remember what happened then. Several characters are involved in political movements. The fear of the Turks hangs over them at all times. And then we see the killings, in several of their guises. We see women, children and old men massacred in their homes. We see other women taken away, their fate unknown: we know that mass rape was a big part of the Armenian Genocide. We see young men conscripted into the army to fight in the Great War, but killed by their supposed comrades. We see other young men killed in clashes between Armenians and Turks.

We also see that a lot of the killings were carried out by Kurds. That’s something that’s rarely spoken about, although it is acknowledged by some Kurdish groups.

Some characters survive. At the end, we see one of them in America, telling his grandchildren what happened. That’s based on the experiences of the author, who was born in Lebanon and now lives in Canada: all four of her grandparents were survivors. She mentions that many of her friends had never heard of the Armenian Genocide. The Turkish government won’t acknowledge that it happened. Most other governments don’t recognise it either – not because they don’t believe that it happened, but because they won’t risk upsetting modern Turkey, a major player in the complex politics of the Middle East.

Unusually, it was in the news in the U.K. recently, when respected academic surgeon Lord Darzi, whose grandparents fled the Armenian Genocide and lost many relatives and friends during it, resigned from the Labour party. He said “As an Armenian descendant of a survivor of the Armenian genocide I have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other discrimination against religion or race”.  In the U.S., Kim Kardashian West – not someone I thought I’d ever be writing about!! – has drawn attention to the subject, calling on the American government to recognise the Armenian Genocide.  It won’t happen, but at least she’s raising awareness of a subject that isn’t spoken about enough.

This is a very interesting book.  It’s not heavy-going or difficult to read, and it tells the reader a lot about Armenian culture.  There’s a lot of romance and family life in it.  But, essentially, it’s a novel of the Armenian Genocide, and that makes it important as well as interesting – both because the Armenian Genocide isn’t given the recognition that it should be, and because the world seems to be increasingly poisoned by hatred and we need to stop and remember where that can lead to.  This is a book about ordinary people leading ordinary lives.  And most of them end up being murdered.  Everyone who posts some nasty comment on social media, or shouts abuse at someone in the street, should bear that in mind – and, after what’s just happened in Texas, this is a particularly good time to do so.

Ann the Word by Richard Francis

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Shakers are a lot more interesting than Transcendentalists.  They do not worry about cold showers or manure.  More importantly, there’s the local connection.  Whilst obviously I knew that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, even I wouldn’t have claimed that “American’s most important and successful utopian community” had been deeply influenced by a fight over potato prices on Shudehill.  I’m not sure that I’d have claimed that Ann Lee, the first leader of the Shakers, was the most influential working-class woman since Joan of Arc, either – although I can see the point.  This isn’t a particularly good book, and it says nothing about the influence that Shakers had on architecture, furniture and education, not to mention bonnets, but it makes some very valid points about how the authorities couldn’t handle the idea of a religious community being led by a woman.  And it goes into quite a lot of detail about the geography of 18th century Manchester – which will probably mean nothing to New Englanders, who are presumably the intended audience, but is very interesting if you’re me.

To be fair, it’s meant to be a biography of Ann Lee, not a book about Shakerism; and she died before the Shakers had established their reputation for being skilled farmers, craftspeople and educators.  It’s a shame that something wasn’t said about that, though, especially as the author was quite negative about Shakerism.  OK, it’s hardly most people’s thing, but each to their own!  There aren’t many sources about Ann, other than those written by people who lived and worked with her, so most of what the book says about her time in America is just an account of conversions of different people, and it reads like a novel, with a lot of dialogue and detailed accounts of who took whose arm and who got upset and so on.

The part about her early life in Manchester is much more interesting – probably because there were virtually no sources about it, so it’s mainly about Manchester!  There’s an account of the Forty-Five, and also an account of food price riots in 1757, notably the one on Shudehill – along with comments about how this was all linked to working-class assertiveness.  If you go back to the Civil War era, and look at the Levellers and the Diggers, there’s certainly a link between working-class assertiveness and radical Protestantism: I’d never really thought about it in connection with the Shakers, but it’s a fair point.

Ann was born in Toad Lane, which is now Todd Street – by the side of where Cathedral Gardens, Chetham’s and the National Football Museum are – and, of course, that was the heart of town in those days.  The Infirmary, where Ann worked as a cook, and the “house of correction”, where she was imprisoned for a while, were all in that area.  So was the grammar school, which the author annoyingly doesn’t mention!  The descriptions of town in the mid-18th century are the best part of the book!   Ann’s early life is interesting, too, especially how she suffered from what would now be recognised as depression and eating disorders, and spent some time in an asylum: it was after that that she really got into the religious stuff.

There are also references to Shakers in the Cheshire area – mainly in the Marton area just north of Congleton.  There’s a really nice café there: I sometimes stop at it on my way home from Little Moreton Hall and Biddulph Grange!  And a reference to groups of “prophets” meeting in Great Budworth.  There’s a nice ice cream place there.  Sorry, food on the brain!

The parts about her life and work in America are, as I’ve said, mostly about converting different people: there are a lot of names, which I doubt will mean anything even to someone who’s very au fait with Shakerism.  However, the accounts of how the Shakers were persecuted by the authorities are fascinating, and disturbing.  They were accused of being British spies, this being the period of the American Revolution, and, as they refused to swear an oath of allegiance because they said it was against their faith, many of them were imprisoned.  Suspicion about a woman leading a religious group meant that Ann was horrifically persecuted. OK, there’d have been hostility towards anyone seen as claiming to be some sort of Second Coming, but Ann was seriously sexually assaulted.  It wasn’t just the authorities: the Shakers were attacked by mobs as well.  Think about the treatment of the Yazidis by ISIS.  Was the treatment of the Shakers by other Christians so different?

It’s not the greatest of books, but I very much enjoyed reading what it said about 18th century Manchester, and it made some very good points about hostility towards the idea of women as religious leaders.  It also said a lot about attitudes towards religious minorities in both Britain and America – not just Catholics and Jews, but minority Protestant groups as well.  I think we tend to forget that it’s only very recently that that’s changed, and there are still some issues now.  Anyway, I think that’s enough reading about New England Utopian groups – on to something else now!

Fruitlands: the Alcott family and their search for Utopia by Richard Francis

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I have *not* taken to Transcendentalism: this is for research purposes only.  Fruitlands was the short-lived commune set up by Bronson Alcott, Louisa M Alcott’s father, and his London-born associate Charles Lane. They had an interesting range of ideas, from the admirable, notably supporting Abolitionism and, to some extent, women’s rights, to the offensive – some of their ideas about producing a perfect new generation came unpleasantly close to eugenics – and all sorts of other things.  Opposing organised religion and political parties – wouldn’t life be so much more peaceful …?   Following a vegan diet. Trying to avoid cooking anything.  Opposing individual property ownership. Drinking nothing but water, not using artificial lighting, showering and bathing using only cold water, not using any form of animal labour, not using even natural fertilisers (they said that manure upset the weather), practising celibacy except as “necessary” to procreate; and one of them was into nudism because he thought that clothes stifled the spirit.

Some of it seems rather extreme; and their experiment didn’t last very long.  After only a few months, Lane and Alcott fell out, Lane joined the Shakers – everyone knows that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, yes 🙂 ?!  – , Mrs Alcott put her foot down, and Fruitlands was abandoned. But certain aspects of their theories and practices held some appeal at the time and afterwards, and do resonate in our own age of concern about environmental issues and religious and political extremism.  But, as so often happens, it wasn’t thought out properly – trying to live entirely off natural products on land that wasn’t really arable wasn’t the greatest of ideas – and those in charge were so repressive and dictatorial and determined to force their views on everyone else that they created more discord than harmony.  Louisa wasn’t impressed … and yet there are certainly some aspects of Fruitlands in Plumfield.

This is for research purposes, as I’ve said – it’s not really bedtime or holiday reading.  But there’s some interesting stuff in it – plenty of food for thought.

Transcendentalism’s usually said to be an offshoot of Romanticism, combined with religion, and then taken off in the direction of separating yourself from wordly things and sticking closely to nature. I get myself all tangled up with Romanticism. It’s a Lancastrian thing – we’re very proud of the Industrial Revolution, but we also want to keep the Lake District unspoilt so that we can wander about dreaming of hosts of golden daffodils!

I do not get tangled up with religion, but some of the Transcendentalists did – Eve eating the apple was apparently a bad thing because, although apples work with veganism, she was looking for knowledge instead of just looking for an apple. This is not my department. If someone says “The Fall”, I assume they mean the late, great, Mark E Smith & co. It had links to aspects of Unitarianism, and also to the Shakers – who’ve always interested me because of the local connection.  I’m so parochial!  It’s linked to Hinduism and Jainism as well, and I find those links easier to follow, because they don’t get everything mixed up with the creation story.  Anyway, this is not my department, as I’ve said: I’m just doing some research into the history of New England, and this particular area of it appealed because of the Alcott connection.

Louisa M Alcott’s own take on it was that the men did a lot of waffling whilst the women tried to keep body and soul together.  I feel so sorry for Abigail Alcott, Louisa’s mother. Some observers commented that the Transcendalists – like 17th century Puritans – thought that no-one should be allowed to be happy; and remarks made in Abigail’s letters and diaries suggest that that was how she felt. Bronson, like a lot of idealists, conveniently ignored the practicalities of real life, so they were always in debt. He also nearly ended up in prison for refusing to pay his tax so that he could distance himself from the state – a bit like that Australian couple who were in the news recently, for refusing to pay their property taxes because they said that their property actually belonged to the Good Lord. (Presumably they were quite happy to use all the public services paid for by everyone else’s taxes.)  And he didn’t want to get a job because he thought that being a wage slave was bondage, but he thought it was fine to tap friends and relatives for money because that was encouraging them to be charitable!  A very far cry from Jo March writing penny-dreadfuls in order to pay her way in life.

Abigail suffered from both physical and mental health problems, as well.  A vegan diet is obviously fine if you’re getting the proper nutrition, but they didn’t have the requisite knowledge about that and so she was existing on fruit, bread and water, and consequently felt ill for a lot of the time. And the ideas about producing perfect offspring meant that Bronson blamed her when they had a stillborn baby. Even the domestic postbox idea, which she introduced and which sounds like such good fun when Laurie introduces it in Little Women, came about not as a bit of fun but as a way of trying to relieve domestic tension – write your issues down instead of bottling them up or yelling at each other about them. I don’t wonder she had enough. It can’t have been very nice for either her or the children … although it’s interesting that the Bhaers’ Plumfield, which was supposed to be so wonderful, was probably named after Plum Tree Meadows, the previous name for the area where Fruitlands was situated.

On a more positive note, the Anglo-American links are fascinating. I always think that with 19th century movements. Considering that letters must have taken quite a while to cross the Atlantic, the amount of communication and sharing of ideas is fascinating. The nudist guy was British, incidentally.  There was even an Alcott House, predating Fruitlands, in Surrey, named after Bronson Alcott. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea that American women were better than British women, though! That probably explains the rather offensive way that Louisa portrays Kate Vaughn, which always annoys me. And their contacts, or at least Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s contacts, with some very well-known names on both sides of the Atlantic, are worth nothing – Carlyle, Hawthorne, Thoreau. Louisa M Alcott’s probably better known than any of them these days: I wonder what Bronson would have made of that!

If Bronson Alcott were around today, he’d probably be one of those people who, whilst some of his ideas would be too extreme for most people, would have many ideas which made a lot of sense, especially with all the current concerns about the environment … but who alienate others with their lecturing tone, their refusal to respect or even listen properly to other people’s views, their lack of humour, their failure to consider practicalities and their constant attempts to guilt-trip everyone.  I don’t know why it always seems to get like that.  It’s a great shame.

Also, as the author points out, they didn’t really get involved with the Abolitionist movement, and they didn’t seem very concerned about all the other social and political issues of the day.  Marmee and the girls taking their Christmas breakfast round to the Hummels (this is my comment, not the author’s!) might not have changed the world, but at least they tried to help people in need!

It seems very likely that Plumfield was Louisa’s attempt at showing a gentler side of it – one which might have worked.

There’s a lot of philosophy in this book, so it’s quite heavy-going, but the author’s done a very good job with the subject matter.  Some of the ideas are quite outlandish, and he’s very critical of how self-obsessed they were, but he doesn’t mock them – yet, at the same time, he shows the impracticability of Alcott and Lane’s particular experiment, and its negative impact on Abigail Alcott and others.  And he gets a few Little Women/Little Men references in there, whilst resisting what must have been a strong temptation (well, it would have been to me!) to include dozens of them in a book which isn’t actually about them.  I wouldn’t say that this was an entertaining book, but it was quite interesting.

And, whilst I’m certainly not suggesting that we all start running around starkers, or avoiding eating potatoes because they grown downwards rather than upwards, some of the ideas are certainly relevant to today.  Avoiding buying clothes or other items known to have been produced unethically.  Being careful when it comes to artificial substances getting into the food supply. Not being cruel to animals.  The Fruitland experiment just wasn’t viable, and I don’t think I’d have liked Bronson Alcott or Charles Lane very much, but, as I said, there’s some food for thought here!