Monday, May 28, 2007

Tales of Another Time

Over the course of the past month or two, I have been dipping in and out of four non-fiction books:

1. The Titled Americans - Elisabeth Kehoe
2. The Perfect Summer - Juliet Nicholson
3. The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman - Mark Girouard
3. A Woman's Place, 1910-1975 - Ruth Adams

The commonality of the four is a glimpse of life as it was lived in another time and another place. All pertain to British history during the latter half of the 19th century and into the earliest decades of the 20th century; I was reading of life roughly a hundred 100 years ago.

The first book, The Titled Americans, is a family biography of the three Jerome sisters. Prompted by the Persephone tea back in April, I decided to learn a little more about Jennie Jerome, later Lady Randolph Churchill and mother of Winston Churchill. Anna Sebba had indicated that Frances Hodgson Burnett had used the experiences of the American-born Lady Churchill as fodder for her story, The Shuttle. Having only the shallowest of knowledge of the woman, I picked up this biography of Jennie Jerome and her two sisters, Clara and Leonie, to see what parallels I might encounter.

The three sisters, daughters of a wealthy American financier, had the misfortune of picking three British aristocrats as husbands who were not their equals -- not in terms of intelligence, backbone, or talent. Of the three males, one died of syphilis, another had a positive gift for picking bad investments, and the third was emotionally distant. By contrast, the three sisters were known as "The Good, the Witty, and the Beautiful". The sisters were close (even to the point of owning houses on the same street) and supported each other through their adult lives, both financially and emotionally. They hobnobbed with the rich, the famous, and the royal (two became royal companions, perhaps even mistresses). Their lifestyles offered the appearance of fabulous wealth and yet all were frequently fighting to make ends meet and fend off the bill collectors. One example was the sister who had to hastily dress to go to the bank on the day of her daughter's society wedding in order to withdraw cash to pay for the girl's wedding gown. The seamstress wouldn't leave the dress without payment and had instructions not to accept the family's check. The history of the three American women touches on most of the major issues of British life at the time (Irish home rule, land reform, wartime efforts, etc.) The Titled Americans is substantive biography and interesting reading for the educated layperson.

The second title above, The Perfect Summer, focuses on the summer of 1911. This volume takes a magnifying glass to the behaviors of the aristocratic class in Britain on the eve of the First World War. Nichols picks a few personalities -- the season's leading debutante, a butler, leaders in art, ballet, and literature, the prime minister, and the newly crowned Queen -- and follows their lives over the course of four months (May - September). It's the most readable form of social history, weaving together society news and details of daily life taken from diaries and letters, set against the broader concerns of the day. Imagine the temperature being 95 degrees (Farenheit) but being constrained by tight fitting and cumbersome clothing, even when trying to cool off down at the seaside. There were strikes all over England as workers rebelled against the conditions under which they labored. A threat of war was present.

The Titled Americans is a serious work of history that omits some of the social tidbits that might engage us in the interest of sustaining an objective tone; The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before The Storm is a lighter, entertaining book that brings a vanished lifestyle to life.

The Return to Camelot and A Woman's Place are more general in tone. Camelot (Yale University Press, 1981) is written by Mark Girouard, an architectural historian who offers a descriptive time-line regarding the period fascination with legends of Arthur and ideals of knighthood. From the 1830s up to 1914, the volume presents the waves of artistic, literary and architectural efforts, demonstrating how that myth fueled social expectations and behaviors to such disastrous ends during World War I. The text is accompanied by wonderful photographs.

A Woman's Place, published by Persephone Books, is perhaps the least detailed of any of these books but offers a specific perspective on the issues faced by women in this period; Adams touches on the problems of superfluous women (like Susan in Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary) during this period and the appalling treatment of women fighting with Prime Minister Asquith over the issue of the vote for women. (I confess that while this is a good educational overview, I did find it the dullest of the four titles.)

So having read romantic works such as The Shuttle (March) and Lady Rose (April), I have spent May wandering off into works that offered more of a reality check. It was not a simpler time; it frequently was an unforgiving social environment. We're better off where we are and would do well to remind younger women that they ought not to forget that our status quo is another generation's hard-won progress.