Friday 23 February 2024

Family Junk or Family Treasure? by Janet Few

Having recently moved house, for what really must be the last time, I have become acutely aware of just how much ‘stuff’ I have. Much of this has accompanied me on my life’s perambulations from south London, via the Isle of Wight, to North Devon, with a short side spell in Buckinghamshire thrown in. Other items have joined the collection more recently, since I became my oldest relative, a sobering thought. These possessions, some of whose history stretches back four, or perhaps five, generations, come with associated stories, stories that have been diminishing with each retelling. There is the collection of artefacts that great-grandad brought back from India, or was it China? Or perhaps it wasn’t great-grandad at all but his father.


 There’s great grandmother Clara’s quilt that has been worked on by five, soon to be six, generations. 

Then there is grandad Frederick’s games box, a little dilapidated round the edges but still played with. 

The mixing bowl, that was a wedding present to my parents in 1947, has less history attached but it is still in use to make the annual Christmas cake and has a significance none the less. 

I fully appreciate what a privilege it is to have these treasures and I don’t take the responsibility lightly.

What makes these items of material culture, these ‘things’, transform into precious heirlooms. Why am I moving them from home to home and giving them room in my tiny house? It is the association. An heirloom is such because it reminds us of a person, an occasion or a place. It is something that has been, or will be, handed down in the family. A thing only becomes an heirloom, only becomes something that is likely to be treasured and passed on, if the significance of that object is known and handed on too. One of the ways in which I pass my time, is to participate in a project that seeks to preserve the stories of misfortunate women, whose lives might otherwise be forgotten. I am now on a mission to encourage others to record the biographies of their precious possessions, stories that equally might easily be lost.
Acutely aware that, when I am no longer around to be their custodian, my descendants might deposit these items that I treasure in the nearest charity shop, or worse still skip, I recently set out to record the stories behind these heirlooms. At least then my family will be aware of what the are discarding and at the very least, photographs and the stories will survive. So much of the oral history associated with these objects and their original owners has already been lost, I vowed that I would allow no more to disappear. I decided that I would preserve what I knew on what is currently a fledgling website. Eventually, I will ensure that the same information is recorded in other formats too.
I have the gold fob watch, given to my grandfather, Albany, for forty-five years’ service on the railways. This is a man who witnessed serious railway accidents, who took part in the General Strike and who, after a brief spell as a railway porter, chose to revert to being a cleaner because he didn’t want the responsibility that came with promotion. My mother’s wedding dress was hand-made by her from a silk parachute, as post-war rationing was still in force. Unless I tell the story, no one but I will know that what appear to be rust stains down the front are actually blood stains where she cut her hand on the wire holding her bouquet together. Then there is Jessie’s locket. Jessie, born in 1874, was my grandmother’s cousin. She left no descendants. If I don’t tell her story, who will?



We see china, jewellery and other artefacts in antique shops and on online auction sites that were once precious to someone; sadly this is no longer the case. Their stories have been lost. This diminishes them as an object; they are now merely items of material culture, to put it bluntly, they are things. Some are attractive, some are useful, some have a monetary value but they are no longer imbued with the essence of their owner.
Of course, everyone is perfectly entitled to do what they like with their family heirlooms. Not everyone will agree with me but personally, I cringe when I see people on television programmes selling grandad’s medals or granny’s engagement ring so they can renovate the kitchen or jet off on holiday. They may well sell and may even fund that dream holiday but no purchaser will ever have an emotional connection to those items; they will not be bound to the original owners by blood, by memory, or by an invisible chain of shared heritage.

If you are not fortunate enough to have inherited any family treasures, perhaps you have siblings or cousins who have. Seek out those items and make sure their stories are shared. If you are the current custodian, perhaps you too will take on the task of record the history of the heirlooms in your possession.

Friday 16 February 2024

A Gentle Meander by Sheena Wilkinson

Like most History Girls I love reading – fiction, non-fiction, old favourites, new releases, whatever I’m in the mood for. Sometimes, especially if I’m having a vexatious time with the vagaries of the publishing industry, or if life is otherwise stressful, I tend to go ‘off’ fiction for a while. At those times, nothing appeals so much as a good dose of social history – I especially love twentieth century history about the lives of women and girls. 

my go-to bookshelf when I fancy a bit of social history 

Recently, for research for my forthcoming children’s novel set in a girls’ school, I reread Terms and Conditions, Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979. This is the first of three books by the writer Ysenda Maxtone Graham. My edition is the first, an unassuming, deliberately retro-style cloth-bound hardback published by the wonderful Slightly Foxed in 2016. That the book did well is evident by its subsequent publishing history – it came out in paperback the following year, and since then Graham has published two similar books, British Summer Time Begins, which focuses on the long school holidays, and Jobs for the Girls, about women in the workplace. All the books, which are based round the reminiscences of living people,  range in scope from the 1930s to the 80s/90s, have sold well and been enthusiastically reviewed. 

As someone who writes fiction about the lives of girls and women, at work, at school and at play, these books have been wonderful research material, but also a great joy. Ysenda Maxtone Graham writes with humour and warmth, and the books certainly appealed to those who love a bit of nostalgia, but they are very sharply observed too. 


I particularly enjoyed Jobs for the Girls, where we meet women – and many teenage girls – at work in factories and offices of all sorts, often giving those jobs up on marriage as was expected. By writing about this aspect of women’s lives, Graham is really shining a light on society more widely. 


I’ve always loved reading and writing about women at work; my favourite bits of my novel Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau (Harper Collins, 2023) were the scenes set in the back office of the eponymous bureau. As a lifelong fan of the Chalet School series, I always loved the glimpses of the staff at rest in the staffroom, gossiping, smoking and eating chocolates. (The years I actually spent in a school staffroom, in my former life as a teacher, were less relaxing.)


In my adult reading, too, I love the little details of life in offices, on farms, in hospitals and factories. One of my go-to comfort reads (I am not alone in this) is the Cazalet saga by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and much as I love the relationships and adventures of the central characters, I also relish the domestic minutiae – how will the cook feed all those people and how can she stop the meat from spoiling in the heat? It’s the same instinct that takes me often to my granny’s old recipe books, even though I know I will never cook brains or rissoles.

Of course Howard was writing about the years of her own childhood, and Graham is mining the memories of her interviewees. What I love best are the incidental details in the fiction from earlier decades – how people lit their fires and polished their furniture and cleaned their typewriters and spent their wages at Woolworth’s. Dorothy Whipple’s books are all delightful, but one of her earlier novels, High Wages, though not generally seen as one of her masterpieces, appeals to me because the heroine works in, and gradually rises to own, a dress shop. 


This isn’t  a learned essay; it’s a gentle meander through some favourite books, but I make no apology for that. I’m a History Girl because I love those small domestic details, and always have done ever since I first read about the Fossil sisters saving the penny and walking to see the doll’s houses in the V & A, or about Laura Ingalls curling her bangs with a hot poker, or the Chalet School girls hemming sheets ‘sides to middle’ to increase their lifespan – the sheets’, not the girls’.


I was sad to finish the Ysenda Maxtone Graham books, and I do think many History Girls would enjoy them too. She has written about people, mostly women, at school, in the summer holidays and at work; I wonder where she might go next? Wherever it is, I can’t wait. 


Friday 9 February 2024

Great Minds: 2500 Years of Thinkers and Philosophy (Haig, Lennon, Ducci) - Joan Lennon

I joined the History Girls as a writer of historical fiction for 8-12 year olds, way back in 2012. 

And now I write historical non-fiction for 8-12 year olds. It's not as different to writing historical fiction as I used to think. You still do the research - you still get that big grin on your face when you unearth the diamond detail - you're still telling a story. And you're still spending time with compelling characters who quickly become as real, or realer, than your own family. They certainly occupy a lot of brain space.

In Talking History: 150 Years of Speakers and Speeches, the pattern was laid for the collaboration between the writers - Joan Haig and me - and Andre Ducci the illustrator. 

Our second book is about philosophy. In Great Minds: 2500 Years of Thinkers and Philosophy we spread the historical net even further. 

If you want to talk about philosophy, the 8-12 year old group is the way to go - low on preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices, high on curiosity, energy and questions. Which is perfect for an area of human endeavour based on looking at questions and then looking at answers. Questions like:

What does it mean to be good?

Who am I?

What is time?

How can we tell if something is true?

What makes something beautiful?

And dozens more.

In the book we looked at questions and answers from different countries, cultures and times. And we introduce the reader to the people who have shaped the way we see the world. 

Fascinating is an overworked word, but the back stories of these people are just that. 

Of course, each story is different, but it was interesting how many of them start with being mediocre at school, described as too shy, only average, messy, female or black or both (and therefore really shouldn't be schooled at all). A goodly number, like Gandhi and Marx, had terrible handwriting, though a notable exception was the Ethiopian philosopher Zera Jacob who made a living by his beautiful calligraphy. As often as not, they came from poverty or lived in war-torn times or experienced colonialism. But not always - there is no template for a philosopher!

Something that shone out for me particularly was how often these philosophers were also polymaths. The specialism of the present day is so sure of itself that it can blind us to how this has not always been the case. Ibn Rushd was also a medical doctor, a musician and an astronomer; Gandhi was a lawyer who also hand-spun cotton; Mary Midgley studied animal behaviour and raised children. Philosophy speaks to every part of life.

P.S. We've had some lovely reviews - thank you! And to learn more about Andre's fabulous work on the book, visit My Book Corner's Meet the Illustrator interview with him here.

Joan Lennon website

Talking History: 150 Years of Speakers and Speeches Templar Books (2022)

Great Minds: 2500 Years of Thinkers and Philosophy  Templar Books (2023)

The Slightly Jones Mysteries - Victorian detective stories for 8-12 year olds

The Wickit Chronicles - Medieval adventure stories for 8-12 year olds

Friday 2 February 2024

THE LANGUAGE OF FANS ... by Susan Stokes-Chapman

It exercises the office of the zephyrs, and cools the glowing breast. It saves the blush of modesty by showing all we wish to see, yet hiding all that we desire to conceal. It serves the purpose of a mask, covering the face that would remain unknown. It keeps off the rude beams of the uncourtly sun ... or from the fiercest ravage saves the brilliant eye and blooming cheek. It hides bad teeth, malicious smiles and frowns of discontent; stands as a screen before the secret whisper of malicious scandal; expresses the caprices of the heart, nay sometimes even speaks; in a word it has a thousand admirable qualities, and may justly be entitled one of the nobelest inventions of the human mind. 
Extract from: The Grand Magazine, London, November 1760

A fan is a lovely thing to have in hot weather or when you're cooped up in a stuffy room, but according to The Grand Magazine a fan had many other uses - it was the perfect foil for a woman who wished to hide themselves, whether that be because they were shy, or hoped to conceal bad breath and teeth, or simply avoid attention altogether! It was also said that the fan could be a powerful tool in other ways, enabling a lady to speak without forming the words on her tongue. In the edition of The Spectator published on 27th June in 1711, Joseph Addison stated that ‘women are armed with fans, as men are with swords’. One might presume from this rather pert comment that fan-wielding ladies could be extremely brutal in vanquishing an unwanted suitor. For instance, placing the fan on the left ear would indicate she wished to be rid of him; carrying the fan in her right hand would state the suitor is too willing; and to really hit the point home a woman might draw the fan through her hand which would very bluntly mean I hate you.

There were more positive forms of fan-made communication - making eye contact whilst carrying the fan in the left hand (but in front of her face) would suggest a lady was desirous of an acquaintance. If the handle was pressed to her lips she would be saying (rather forwardly) kiss me

These 'secret' communications have come to be known as The Language of Fans.

Lady Holding a Fan by Francesco Bartolozzi

It seems, however, that the likelihood of a gentleman actually understanding this vast mode of vocabulary is rather slim - there were, after all, over two dozen different moves and gestures to become familiar with - and it was Parisian fan maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy who ultimately sought to reveal the secret code. In 1827 he published a leaflet which revealed a comprehensive list of fan etiquette, which proved to be vastly popular.

The concept is rather romantic, isn't it? The Language of Fans. But the more unglamorous truth of it is that Duvelloroy hoped to  boost the sale of fans after they had fallen out of fashion following the French Revolution, and it appears the ploy worked for he later became a supplier of fans to Queen Victoria herself.

Artists Unknown

Still, it might be fun to try and master the code if you ever find yourself carrying a fan at formal gatherings (a Jane Austen re-enactment or a Bridgerton-themed ball) - just try not to inadvertently call someone cruel, or say you're engaged when you're not!

If you have an interest in 18th & 19th Century fans, The Fan Museum in Greenwich is the perfect place to visit. There you can view fans of all shapes and sizes in a glorious catalogue of designs - fans carved form ivory and tortoiseshell, leafs made from silk and gauze, embellished with embroidery or paint.

You can even find out how traditional fans were made (which was really useful for the short story I wrote for The Winter Spirits). Here are just a few of my favourites which I photographed during my visit back in August '23:


My short story 'Widow's Walk' (set in the Georgian period) featuring a troubled fan maker, can be found within The Winter Spirits, published in hardback October 2023, and out later this year in paperback. You can order a copy by clicking the image below:

Twitter & Instagram: @SStokesChapman