I am a review junkie. Before an anticipated purchase I will be found scouring other people’s opinion. Often the project is then abandoned and money is saved. However, I glean an insight into new characters who produce their praise or venom often sans punctuation, sans capitalisation. I visualise those who say, ‘I loved it so much I bought it in every colour. I haven’t worn it yet,’ with their wardrobes, colour-coordinated, of course, awash with identical outfits.
Then there are book reviews. Reading some, I feel I know the story and so why bother? But recently, for the first time in a long life, I immediately ordered two books, both non-fiction. The Butcher, The Baker, the Candlestick Maker by Roger Hutchinson is an account of the British decennial census since its conception in 1801 by John Rickman. Fascinating for anybody who has dabbled in family history or is interested by the changing demography of society, it is a book of facts and figures amongst which are snippets of interest and amusement.
In the 1841 census in Liverpool, four families gave Ireland as their place of birth: their surnames, McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starkey.
There are accounts of well-known families, among them Marks, Macmillan, Flora Thompson, and the unknown: the bigamist and those who truthfully gave their occupations as prostitute, brothel keeper, beggar. Later the suffragists would enter “domestic slave” or simply “slave” as a protest at being disenfranchised.
In 1881 when women were recruited as enumerators they were satirised by imaging a conversation between the female enumerator and the lady of the house. Neither could keep to the point, but discussed the carpet, their clothes and pudding recipes. “I must be getting on. I haven’t done but three families all the forenoon.”
The second book is Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWess who, eagerly, awaiting a dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice, was devastated to find where she had “seen erudition, subtle wit, and quiet country vistas the director had seen flirtation and farce”. This set her on the quest to discover the now, but not in their own time, lesser-known contemporary female writers of Jane, Charlotte and Emily. (Anne, “the forgotten Brontë sister, who refused to wear rose-tinted glasses”, she places in another category.) Invariably the seven authors whose lives and works she describes turned to writing for economic reasons, usually caused by feckless husbands. Denied the cosy corner of a paternal vicarage, they laboured to feed children and to liberate husbands from a debtors’ prison. No longer household names they were once highly-regarded by William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Dr Samuel Johnson. Now “They are not remembered, they are not canonized….What I came to understand was that, first and foremost, the game of lasting fame is an inherently unfair one.”
Skipper, of the canine literati, unprompted, reviewed a dog-training manual. His opinion was entirely subjective.