Happy New Year, lovely readers! The last month of 2016 has been an absolute whirlwind: I graduated from my Master’s with Merit, ate three Christmas dinners in a week, drank an astonishing amount of beer, and set myself a rather ambitious amount of homework over the Christmas holidays which is slowly but surely being finished. December was rather exhausting but as I make a slightly bigger dent in my reading I’m feeling a little more positive about my PhD.
Of course, it wasn’t all Chartism and mince pies! Here are some of the other delights I’ve been feasting my eyes, ears, and eyes and ears on of late:
Rohan McWilliam, ‘On Reviewing,’ Taylor & Francis (2016). As someone who has yet to write a book review, it made sense to get the lowdown from the grandaddy of reviews at the Journal of Victorian Culture, and it’s an excellent checklist for how to critically evaluate a colleague’s work for publication – least of all, ‘read the book.’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Americanah (2014). It took me a couple of attempts to finish this before, but Adiche’s writing is so rich and welcoming that once I’d finished volume 1, I felt sad when I wasn’t reading it. Adiche’s third novel explores two high school sweethearts as they individually leave Nigeria and experience, for the first time, racial tensions in their respective journeys through the United States and England, before returning home.
‘To Walk Invisible,‘ BBC (2016). Sally Wainright’s much-anticipated biopic of the Brontë sisters aired on the 29th December and my little nerd heart wept. Incredible casting and a well-researched script made for wonderful viewing as the sisters began to prepare their writing for publication, living in secrecy while caring for their alcoholic brother Branwell during the last years of his life. I’ll share a review soon, but the tl;dr version is ‘stop reading this and watch the thing.’
‘Victorian Bakers at Christmas,‘ BBC (2016). My two favourite things are Victorian studies and food, so I was enthralled by the initial run of Victorian Bakers. The Christmas Special brought to light how strongly the Victorians changed Christmas into the commercial event we are familiar with now, including the different incarnations of Santa Claus (from an American pronunciation of St. Nicholas) and the disparity between aristocratic Christmas feasts and the scanty fare that would have been eaten by Bob Cratchit and his contemporaries. Most importantly of all, it showed that life as a baker and citizen of Victorian Britain was hard for most people, a rather unsubtle nod to present ‘austerity Britain.’
Stuff Mom Never Told You, ‘The Cost of Fast Fashion‘ (2016). I’ve been a huge fan of SMNTY for a couple of years now and was heartbroken to hear that Cristen and Caroline have now left the series, and this episode was one of their best. ‘Fast Fashion’ dates back to the Industrial Revolution and although finding new + cheap clothes is a recipe for a great dopamine high, it’s one tainted by the industry’s continued exploitation of women of colour in manufacturing, as well as the negative environmental impact of disposable fashion. It’s made me confront my own shopping behaviours and encouraged me to attempt to not buy new clothes in 2017.
In Our Time, ‘The Gin Craze’ (2016). Melvyn Bragg is joined by historians Angela McShane, Judith Hawley, and Emma Major to examine the origin of the ‘gin craze’ that swept eighteenth century Britain, from its origins in protestant loyalism (as opposed to supporting Catholic French Brandy) to attempts to control the problem, and the satire behind Hogarth’s famous illustration.
Today it’s the first day of December, and I’m now officially two months into my PhD. Here are some things that have happened in November:
I’m getting the hang of managing my own time (i.e. finding a happy middle between my hedonistic jazz pianist boyfriend’s absurdly late bedtimes and the fact that the university is only open 9-6 on weekdays).
Started making my lit review and critically evaluating secondary works (written by people much, much cleverer and more practiced in history than I).
Onwards and upwards! Here’s what my eyes, and ears have feasted upon this month:
Jennifer Worth, Call The Midwife (2002). Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of her time as a young midwife in London’s East End is beautifully written and wonderfully inviting, offering snapshots of cases she worked on and the families and lives she was, for professional purposes, sharing. Fans of the BBC adaptation will enjoy the book – my only complaint is that it was too short.
Dr. Susannah Lipscomb, ‘On and Off Script,’ History Today. Having seen Lipscomb speak briefly on public history at Senate House’s History Day workshop this year, I very much enjoyed her article about the day to day realities of television consultancy work. Given that historical dramas and documentaries are the main point of entry for non-specialists in history, it pays to be sure that they are as accurate as possible while remaining engaging and entertaining. I spent my first PhD supervision discussing the historical inaccuracies of ITV’s Victoria – what Lipscomb asks is how do we balance these facts while ensuring good telly? At the end of the day, it’s a dialogue between historians and the public, which, Lipscomb argues, is worth the work.
Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016), BBC. I’d never heard of David Olusoga before, and what a wonderful presenter he is! This series is a timely (i.e.extremely delayed) consideration of Black British identities, stretching right back to the Roman empire. Each episode is comprised of many case studies of both remarkable individuals and group adversities faced by Black people in Britain, each ending with celebrations and memorialisations in the local communities today. Watching this made me angry that I’d never heard of most of these figures before, and exposes the sheer extent of whitewashing in the British school history curriculum.
‘San Junipero,’ Black Mirror (2016), Netflix. Part of the latest of Charlie Brooker’s technological dystopias, San Junipero was wonderfully optimistic for a change, enabling two queer women to meet in a cloud-based shared memory and live the lives denied to them by ‘real life’ circumstances. Furthermore, it’s a wonderful story about two femme women which both explores and rejects the ‘dead lesbian’ trope of contemporary television. TL;DR: I cried with joy.
The Victorian Slum (2016), BBC. A recent example of the ‘living history’ trend of recent years, the Slum shows several 21st century families tracing their family histories and taking stock of how times have changed. My boyfriend described it as a ‘historical privilege check,’ and what better way to draw our attention to the importance and necessity of the welfare state than to experience life without it? Still, one wonders at the participants’ shock and awe that a recreated slum was filthy – they didn’t even live that accurately. None of them were prostitutes…
Virago: Changing the World One Page At A Time (2016), BBC. Interviews with current and former Virago staff and authors trace the history of this revolutionary publisher, and explores its future. I particularly enjoyed the discussion on Virago Modern Classics, a project to re-release works by women ‘lost’ throughout history, making a case for their popularity today.
Back in Time for Brixton (2016), BBC. The most recent of the BBC’s living histories, this time the Irwin family are invited to live through forty years of Black migration to Britain, experiencing first hand some of the hardships of their ancestors who arrived on the Windrush in 1954. It’s an engaging and accessible part of the #BlackandBritish series, and a welcome change from the previously very white, middle class ‘Back in time for…’ series.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016), Netflix. As an avid Gilmorean (last week I got a respectable 65/78 on a GG pub quiz), this has been the television event of the year. Though parts of it felt gimmicky and several favourite characters were absent (looking at you, Sookie), it felt like being welcomed home. I laughed, I cried. The whole series really did feel like a tribute to the cast and writers who worked so hard during the original run, not least the sadly missed Edward Herrman, following his death in 2014.
See you next month for another round up of things I’ve been doing that aren’t my PhD!