Does Condescension Belong in Historical Non-Fiction?

To Condescend

To behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position, rank, or dignity, .to stoop or deign to do something

Soap Box 1cropped

Yes it is a return to my soap box and time for a rant.

When we take up a historical subject whether the plight of governesses, the institution of slavery or the narrative of an individual, is it an inherent condescension?

Are we the superior, educated wiser more knowing people who stoop down to explain a past culture? Do we deign to expose their shocking ignorance, cruelty or inhumanity? Is that the way it’s supposed to be?

Maybe condescension in non-fiction is the reason it has taken me so long to come around to reading it. I don’t like high handed dealing with a subject as if our current knowledge somehow  makes us inherently superior.

No group of people past, present or future can rightly condescend to another group of people on the grounds of inherent superiority.

People are not stupid just because they thought differently or believed things we now know to be untrue, because guess what in their day they were advanced and enlightened.

100 years from now some historian will scoff at what naive things we believed way back in 2016. 

Other People's Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon

I did overall enjoy this book and will be buying my own copy as a reference.

Last Monday in my Review of Other Peoples Daughters I said the book equally interested and annoyed me. The interesting bit was the content and the extensive quoting from the governesses and contemporaries themselves. I believe the book was as factual and accurate as as any historical non-fiction can expect to be.

The bit that ruffled my feathers and got my dander up was the condescension.

Now I am going to go very  un-scholarly because I could not locate a single infuriating quote or blatantly condescending paragraph, it wasn’t so overt, and maybe it was all in my reading of the text. 

However it felt like Brandon came to the material with the view point that women of the 1800’s were downtrodden, oppressed, ignorant, without hope, without prospects. The reason for this was men and religion and the governess was the tool by which women were kept in subjection.  This is the lens through which we are shown the governess.

by contrast…

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

There is mystification, there is wonderment but no condescension

Eve LaPlante in Marmee and Louisa tackles many of the same issues, women’s education,  women’s health, their rights or lack of rights in the areas of marriage, children and property but she never once sounds condescending.

Her account is written with great compassion, with understanding of the overwhelming odds women faced. She also wrote with compassion for the men who tried and failed, in what society saw as, their role as bread winner and provider.  Maybe her compassion arises from the fact that the Alcotts are part of her family history. (For more discussion of Marmee and Louisa see here )

Cane River, Lalita Tademy, Historical Non-fiction, slavery

A fantastic compassionate read!

In Cane River author Lalita Tademy tackles the equally contentious subject of slavery. (Abigail Alcott viewed women’s suffrage as the next great hurdle to leap after the abolition of slavery)

In my late teens early 20’s I had to stop reading about slavery and civil rights because I got so boiling angry at the cruelty and injustice one race of people could inflict on another. (No really my blood pressure would go up, I’d turn red, get dizzy and turn that tension on whoever was at hand)

I did not think it possible to tell a story with sympathy for both sides of the equation and yet that is what Tademy  accomplishes in Cane River.  Again she is writing from her family history so maybe there in lies the source of her compassion. (I will be reviewing Cane River in future)

LaPlante and Tademy put us in the shoes of historical people, make their world live for us, their narrative fills us with compassion, understanding and we feel the injustice without being told it was an injustice, without being repeatedly told we are lucky to live today “when life is so much better.”

Why condescension in historical non-fiction really gets my goat

And here perhaps is the crux of the matter.

Condescension in historical non-fiction really gets my goat because while ,yes we have laws that guarantee equal education, equal rights, equal freedoms it doesn’t mean everyone gets them.

Much of what happened to women, children and minority groups in the 1800’s, is still happening today!

For Example…

In Australia this year,  2016, on average one woman a week dies as a result of family violence, in the US more than 3 women a day are murdered by a current or former partner. Despite the laws, despite education hundreds of thousands of  women around the world are still in the same position as the former governess Nelly Weeton and they find it just as hard to leave as she did.

Is there really room for condescension?

Yes it is terrible that children were considered the legal property of their fathers, in  the same way slaves were the legal property of their owners, no matter how violent or neglectful the father/owner was. But here is a frightening statistic: In the US in 2015 at least 70% of abusers who fought for sole custody of their children won.

Can we rightly condescend to the Victorian’s?

In the course of historical research we come across infuriating view points, inflammatory beliefs and ludicrous reasons to support those beliefs.

But people haven’t changed.

With the advent of the internet, social media and (gasp!) blogs,there are even more infuriating, inflammatory and ludicrous beliefs at large in society today than in the Victorian age.

Life then and now is complicated made up of many layered narratives. That is why I love Historical Fiction, it humanizes history, helps us put ourselves in their shoes because in the end we are all hopelessly flawed.

In summary:

No,  condescension does not belong in historical non-fiction.


How do you feel about Condescension in historical non-fiction?

Does it get your goat and ruffle your feathers?


A Review: Other People’s Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess

Other People's Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon

Other People’s Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess by Ruth Brandon

This book both interested and annoyed me.

For today we will focus on the interesting bit.  You see my knowledge of governessing was pretty much limited to literary references, the same references which Ruth Brandon quotes from in this book, namely Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, a few comments in Jane Austen and even Little Women gets a mention, though the book is about the English governess not her American counter part.

The Women whose lives Brandon captures are:

  • Agnes Porter
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Eliza and Everina Wollstonecraft
  • Claire Clairmont (Byron’s Mistress and mother of his daughter Allegra)
  • Nelly Weeton (the only subject with no great connections)
  • Anna Leonowens (of the King and I fame)
  • Emmeline Lott (briefly mentioned)
  • Anna Jameson
  • Bessie Rayner Parkes
  • Barbara Bodichon

With every non-fiction book I read I am amazed by my own ignorance. For instance I had heard of Mary Wollstonecraft but had no idea who she actually was.

I loved getting acquainted with these remarkable women of the past, having a little window into the world they inhabited, feeling their pain and frustration with a system that at once saved and condemned them.

The best part of this book was Brandon’s extensive quoting of the governesses themselves, their letters, journals and published works. She admits in the first chapter that the women discussed in this book are not “average” which is why we still have a record of them. Most governesses lived and died in obscurity which was the great tragedy of the whole system.

Brandon also uses fantastic words like obstreperous, you have to admire a writer who throws around words like that.

From her I learnt new words like bathetic. At first I thought it a typo, as pathetic would have worked equally well in context. But after the 3rd or 4th use I looked up.

For your edification:

Bathetic–displaying or characterized by bathos.

Bathos-a ludicrous descent from the exalted or lofty to the commonplace; anticlimax. In sincere pathos; sentimentality; mawkishness (mawkishness is another great word)

Claire Clairmont’s life was most bathetic, from her youth spent in merry independence mistress of Byron, companion to the Shelley’s to a governess exiled to Russia.

–Amber Seah

(I couldn’t find the quote I wanted so made one up)

Obstreperous–Resisting control or restraint in a difficult manner; unruly. Noisy clamorous, or boisterous.

“Edward Trelawny, drawn as ever to obstreperous women, welcomed her (Anna Jameson) to the progressive fold, which he alone of the Lerici survivors still stoutly inhabited.”

–Ruth Brandon

This book is as Frances Wilson proclaims, “Beautifully told” but I like to think Brandon put a great deal of effort into her “thoughtful study” of the life and times of the English governess

Not withstanding the value of the information and the engaging way it is told there was much in the commentary that annoyed me, but that is a topic for another day…

Marmee and Louisa

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

I have not dear reader as you may have supposed fallen off the face of the earth. Indeed I have been indulging in a few very Victorian past times namely sketching, paying calls and the cultivation of the domestic arts. I have also suffered from a nervous complaint, a common malady that tends to hit mothers during the school holidays.

Here is one proof of my occupation…


A very Victorian pastime but not such a Victorian subject, at least not for a lady.                                   But all the same isn’t it cute?

But I am back and ready at long last for commentary on Marmee and Louisa, which I finished July 2nd so almost making it during the Louisa May Alcott challenge.

What can I say but that the real Marmee, Abigail May Alcott, was more kind, more patient, compassionate, intelligent and inspiring than her fictional counterpart, Mrs. March.

She survived marriage to a most eccentric, erratic and insolvent husband, to raise her daughters more or less single-handed. And what women they grew to be.

Abigail went from being the much petted youngest daughter in a well off family, to a life of hardship and at times extreme poverty, yet she did not become mean, miserly or embittered. Not to say she never had bitter words, she was after all very human and many times deplored her husbands inability to support their family but that is not the same as being embittered.

She was among Americas first paid social workers, a position created for her by friends in Boston to save them from destitution. However the long hours and exposure to every kind of disease and squalor almost led to the death of the whole family. And yes her daughter Elizabeth (Beth) did contract scarlet fever from a family she was helping, some years after her time as a social worker.

She encouraged each of her girls in their specific talent from an early age, especially did she encourage Louisa in her writing and story telling.

On her turning ten Abigail wrote:

“Dear Daughter…I give you the pencil-case I promised, for I have observed that you are fond of writing and wish to encourage the habit. Go on trying, dear, and each day it will be easier to be and do good.”



When Louisa was 14 she wrote:

 “I am sure your life has many fine passages well worth recording,” she advised, “Do write a little each day, dear, if but a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won.”

Encouragement to be good, to be victorious in noble pursuits is very old fashioned, but for me it was such a relief to find the inspiration for Marmee was even more worthy of admiration than the fiction.  And as Abigail recommends I have long used my writing as a “safety valve” to deal with the ups and downs of life.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Louisa May Alcott but also to those interested in the history of abolition, woman’s suffrage, women in education and work in Victorian United States or the history of women in publishing.

I also recommend a study of Louisa May Alcott’s life for  aspiring authors today, there is more to learn about the writing life and practice than I can possibly include in a blog post.

But see here for my top 10 picks.

Oh, and the best part the author Eve LaPlante has a direct family link to the Alcotts through the May cousins.

3 Reasons to Read Wonderstruck- even if you’re an 1880’s girl

Wonder Struck by Brian Selznick

An amazing book for everyone

Today I digress from the 1880’s and go beyond the reign of dear Victoria. Why? I hear you ask.

Because when a book is as captivating as this one it passes beyond the bounds of time and place. As the cover proclaims Wonderstruck is by Brian Selznick the author/illustrator of Hugo Cabret, which I enjoyed but it did not engage and intrigue as this one did.

And it is historical.

At least half of it is. Really it is! See…

Isn't this an illustration worthy of digression?

Isn’t this an illustration worthy of digression?

This is two stories, interwoven until the threads merge to a heart satisfying climax.

Main Characters

Ben-1977 (I don’t call that historic), a young boy who has just lost his mother and never knew his father.

Rose-1927(1880’s Girl begrudgingly allows the 1920’s to be called historic) a young girl who uses movies as an escape from her reality.

The Plot

Unfortunately that is about all I can tell you without giving away the best parts…

Let us say both Rose and Ben search for solutions to their unhappiness by running away from where life has taken them.

Rose’s Story begins in pictures while Ben’s begins with words. Actually his also begins with pictures then switches to words. Their stories alternate, masterfully woven and perfectly placed until the parallels in their journeys become almost indistinguishable.

Three Reasons for any 1880’s Girl or die hard Victorian to read this book

No. 1   Pictures

The Pictures! The pictures draw you in and really are worth a thousand words so make sure you take time over them. This is one of my favourites.

I love well illustrated hands and keys so how can I resisted such a fine illustration containing both?

I love well illustrated hands and keys so how can I resisted such a fine illustration containing both?

No. 2    wonder

It inspires wonder. And everyone needs a good dose of wonder in their life.

It is full of intriguing tidbits, and opens lines of inquiry that very much interest this 1880’s girl.

For example: Did you know that in 1869 a young Teddy Roosevelt opened the first museum in New York City. It was on the back porch of his parents house.

Have you heard of “Cabinets of Wonders”? These most definitely have to do with the 1800’s so it is not a total digression after all and you will see more about them soon. You have to read the book to open your eyes to all these wonders.

No. 3    Bibliography

Other than being a fantastic story well told this book has an excellent Bibliography (including where to find out more about Cabinets of Wonder). You may remember way back ages ago I mentioned in passing that historical fiction written in our day can be a good source for research if it contains a bibliography or links for further research. (If you can’t remember check it out here: 5 Ways to Use Novels as Research)

This is such a book! The acknowledgements section gives insights into the research process and how much goes into writing/illustrating such a book, very important for the amateur historian and writer of historical fiction.

Go on and read it! You won’t regret it.

It just might change the way you look at the world around you.

Gleanings of An Old-Fashioned Girl

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

My Alcott Reading Challenge Book of Choice

I am so enjoying this reading challenge. For those who haven’t heard or missed that post please see here. And I would say it is never too late in the month to indulge in a bit of Alcott.

I am almost half-way through An Old-Fashioned Girl  and enjoying it immensely.  I can clearly see why at 12 or 13 I related so well to Polly. I loved the idea of wearing simple clothes that made me look like a child not a miniature adult, a devotee of Peter Pan I was not ready to grow up. While there might be those who consider her a milquetoast it actually takes a great deal of determination follow your conscience and stand out from the crowd.

The Synopsis

The old-fashioned girl whose adventures we follow is Polly Milton, a simple country girl whose family, while very respectable is  on the poor, by the Shaw’s standards. Polly leaves her happy country home for a month of early winter city fun with her friend Fanny Shaw, who is two years her senior, very sophisticated and rich enough that her six year old sister has a French maid to dress her.

The Shaws consider themselves very fine indeed and try to make Polly conform to their ideals. Polly finds she doesn’t fit in at all with their fashionable ways but slowly and quietly finds her place among them, all the while trying very hard to follow her mother’s wise directions. By the end of 6 weeks they none of them want to see her go.

The Characters

  • Polly Milton-at 14 years old is the old-fashioned girl and herroine elect
  • Fanny Shaw– at 16 she considers herself a young woman, wears her hair up, promenades in the park and has daily meet ups with her ‘set’ of young ladies and gentleman of whom her father disapproves
  • Tom Shaw-also 14 and the red headed plague of the girls lives
  • Maud-spoilt tantrum throwing 6 year old who can’t pronounce her ‘r’s and cant decide which little boy should be her beau.
  • Mrs. Shaw-a semi-invalid who suffers from nerves, attacks are mainly brought on by her children
  • Mr. Shaw-a man of his time so engrossed in the business of making money he has very little time for his children
  • Grandma (Madame Shaw)-who lives quietly upstairs sadly looking on at the state of her sons family

Some people will consider the story “preachy” or a little “too good”, not me. I like stories about children who try to be good who sometimes fail and  other times succeed, but then I always was a little odd.

The difference between me and Polly was that all the grown-ups around me as well as my peers wanted me to get my ears pierced, wear lipstick and try to be that bit more fashionable and “feminine” or at least cut off that “dreadful mop of hair”. (Like Jo I rather fancied my hair was my one beauty and resented any suggestion that it should be chopped off, of course it wouldn’t have hurt to brush it a trifle more regularly)

I was dreadfully dull preferring old fashioned girlish things like patchwork and embroidery, both of which I tried to teach myself using as my guide such descriptions as could be glean from Laura Ingalls, Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery, to varying degrees of success.

My chin was every bit as white and set as Polly’s and the more people tried to push me into the modern mold the more I fought to break it. Which I fancy I did rather well.

I spurned boy bands, teen magazine and make-up guides. Oh horror of horrors what to do with a girl who wasn’t pining after the New Kids On the Block!  Give me Newsies any day. 

Gems of Old-fashioned wisdom

Polly shut her door hard, and felt ready to cry with vexation, that her pleasure should be spoilt by such a silly idea; for, of all the silly freaks of this fast age, that of little people playing at love is about the silliest.

“Yes; i love to cut.” And Maud’s face brightened; for destructiveness is one of the earliest traits of childhood, and ripping was Maud’s delight.

Polly had a spice of girlish malice, and rather liked to see domineering Tom eat humble-pie, just enough to do him good, you know.

How about you? Are there any other Old-Fashioned girls out there who can relate to Polly Milton?

And don’t forget it’s never too late to join the challenge!