Book Review: Alone in Berlin

Alone in Berlin front cover

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada.

Hans Fallada. Alone in Berlin. Translated by Michael Hoffman. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. RRP £9.99 paperback.

I got Alone in Berlin as a Christmas present. My parents saw the 2016 film adaptation starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, and thought I would like the book. I did, and not just because it is about resistance. First published in 1947 under the title Every Man Dies Alone, the novel tells the story of the Quangels and their doomed attempt to resist the Nazi regime.

Otto and Anna Quangel are a middle-aged, working-class couple in Berlin during World War 2 who are just trying to keep their heads down and survive Nazi rule. Until they receive news that their only son has been killed fighting, and they can no longer accept the injustice and hypocrisy of the Nazi regime. They begin to carefully transcribe postcards with anti-Nazi slogans and distribute them in buildings around Berlin. Unable to tolerate even this limited resistance, the SS give Gestapo Inspector Escherich the job of hunting down the Quangels. For several years, the Quangels managed to evade capture, but it is clear to all involved that they would be caught eventually. The other residents in the Quangel’s block of flats also feature in the story, including the elderly Jewish woman on the top floor, the ardent party members on the floor below the Quangels, the mysterious retired Judge on the ground floor, and the opportunistic criminal in the basement.

Hans Fallada was an interesting character in himself, who struggled with addiction and mental illness throughout his life. A popular author in Germany before the Nazis came to power, he was no fan of Hitler’s, but decided to remain in Germany during Nazi rule. During this period he toed the line, doing just enough to satisfy the Nazis without giving in to to full scale fascism and xenophobia. After the war he was recruited by the Soviets to write an anti-fascist novel, and he apparently wrote Every Man Dies Alone in 24 days. He died soon after.

The novel is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel; this edition of the book contains photocopies of some of their postcards and other historical documents related to their case. Fallada himself found their story quite uninspiring, but he managed to turn the source material into a touching and thought-provoking narrative. The reader is encouraged to feel sympathy for some characters, and disdain, if not repulsion, for others, but they are all well-rounded characters, most of whom are just trying to survive in a violent and volatile society. In Britain, we are used to viewing World War 2 from particular angles, such as the fighting on the Western Front, the horror of the Holocaust, or the hardship and determination of the Home Front. Alone in Berlin looks at Nazi Germany and the War from a less common perspective, the German civilian. I found this alternative angle refreshing.

If you like your novels to have a happy ending, then Alone in Berlin is not a book for you. There is a small sliver of hope at the end, but from the very beginning there is a sense that the story is not going to end well, and that atmosphere of inevitable tragedy hangs over the novel like a guillotine. It’s clear Fallada was a skilled writer, who did an excellent job of exploring the actions of people who have been pushed to the very edge of their humanity.

Book Review: Queer City-Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day

Queer City Front Cover

Queer City by Peter Ackroyd.

Peter Ackroyd. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day. London: Vintage, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback. 

Peter Ackroyd is a prolific writer of books about London, both fiction and non-fiction. I have read, and enjoyed, his books before (My review of London: The Biography (2001) can be found here), so when I saw Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day, I was fairly sure it would be worth a read. It did not disappoint; like Ackroyd’s other non-fiction books, Queer City is well-written and engaging.

The book pretty much does what it says on the tin; it is a chronological history of queerness in London. It is difficult to research any section of society that has been traditionally overlooked, particularly one that was by necessity so secretive for large parts of history. A lot of the sources Queer City draws on were written about London’s queer population, rather than by them, and Ackroyd himself acknowledges that it can be impossible to tell whether these accounts are accurate, exaggerated, or even entirely fictional. Nevertheless, the book recounts an impressive number of examples, and just because researching an element history is difficult, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.

Ackroyd, 2017; p. 232.

Queer City is descriptive rather than reflective or analytical. Ackroyd briefly engages with the question of whether or not London is particularly conducive to queer culture, but I would have liked to see more of this kind of discussion. At times the book can get a bit list-y, with example after and example, and limited analysis. But that is the kind of feedback I would give when marking an undergraduate essay, so maybe I’m being unreasonable.

Most history books that cover significant periods of history tend to get more detailed the closer the narrative gets to the present. This is understandable, because of the relative availability of historical sources, but it can be frustrating. Queer City bucks this trend, with far-flung historical periods getting significantly more coverage than the recent past. This is a refreshing change, but I actually would have liked more detail about the last 50 or so years, when there has been so much dramatic change for LGBT+ people. Significant events like the Wolfenden Report, the legalisation of gay sex, Section 28, the Civil Partnership Act, and the Gender Recognition Act are all covered only briefly.

In-depth, critical historical research is important because it can challenge our perceptions of continuity and normality in society. By helping to publicise London’s queer history, Ackroyd is helping to deconstruct the argument that being queer is abnormal. As well as being a good book, Queer City is an important one.

Book Review: Of the People, For the People- A New History of Democracy

Of the People, for the People

Of the People, By the People by Roger Osborne.

Osborne, Roger (2011) Of the People, For the People: A New History of Democracy. London: The Bodley Head. RRP £14.99 paperback.

With everything that’s been going on around the world over the last few years, you would be forgiven for feeling a little disillusioned with democracy. Trump’s election in the US and Brexit in the UK are just two of the most prominent examples of a world that feels increasingly divided, antagonist, and extreme. But democracy has always been flawed. As Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” So what feels to me like impending disaster might just be the normal state in a flawed system. In this context, I found Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy by Roger Osborne to be an engaging and illuminating read.

Let’s be clear from the beginning: democracy is humanity’s finest achievement. Championed, idealised, misused, abused, distorted, parodied and ridiculed it may be…but democracy as a way of living and a system of government is the avenue by which modern humans can fulfil their need to construct lives of real meaning.

Osborne, 2011; p.1

Of the People, By the People traces democracy from its origins in Ancient Athens right up to when the book was published in 2011. One of the first points that Roger Osborne makes is that democracy is actually a relatively unusual form of government. Durimg the Roman period it disappeared for hundreds of years, and has only really become of the dominant form of government around the world in the last century or so. With this in mind, Osborne considers historical societies that we wouldn’t consider to be democratic, but which exhibited elements of democracy, in order to try and understand why and how democracy develops. The book considers what the conditions are that are conducive to the development of democracy. By extension, it also asks ‘What is democracy?’ What are its defining characteristics? Where are the boundaries between democracy, and other forms of government? Osborne doesn’t offer clear answers – these are massive questions, and I would be very sceptical of any simple answer anyone put forward, but he encourages the reader to reflect, and come to your own opinions.

Many books that claim to offer a global history have a tendency to actually focus on Western history, with perhaps a cursory glance towards the rest of the world. In Of the People, By the People, Osborne actually takes non-Western democracy seriously, devoting entire chapters to South America in the 1800s, post-Independence India, and post-Independence Africa. This genuinely global focus is refreshing.

Osborne also considers how and why democracy has been lost throughout history. On some occasions, such as in Nazi Germany, democracy was even voluntarily given up by the people’s elected representatives. Combined with the realisation that democracy is actually a very unusual form of government, rather than the permanent factor that I think many in the West believe it to be, Of the People, For the People is a powerful reminder that democracy has to be protected and defended. If we take it for granted, we may well lose it.

Of the People, By the People, is a well-written book and informative book that I genuinely enjoyed reading. If you are feeling slightly dazed and confused by everything that’s going on in modern politics, then it may well put things into context. It probably won’t restore your faith in democracy entirely, but it might help a bit.

Book Review: The Autonomous City- A History of Urban Squatting by Alexander Vasudevan

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The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting by Alexander Vasudevan.

Alexander Vasudevan. The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting. London: Verso, 2017. RRP £16.99 paperback.

Squatting has been a feature of Western urban protest since the mid-twentieth century, although it has enjoyed varying levels of popularity. Alexander Vasudevan is an Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford who has written extensively on the geographies of squatting in academic publications. The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting brings Vasudevan’s research to a popular audience. The book details the history of squatting in an impressive number of Western cities: New York, London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, and Vancouver are all covered, as well as some Italian cities.

The Autonomous City is detailed and well-researched. The broad geographical range of the book is made even more impressive when you think about how many languages the research required a working knowledge of. Anglophone geographers are beginning to acknowledge the importance of researching other places, and acknowledging research from other cultures, but many of us lack the linguistic skills to put this into practice. As such, The Autonomous City‘s international outlook is a refreshing change.

Vasudevan convincingly argues that the history of squatting is about more than standing up to excessive rents and poor quality housing. It is also about creating an alternative city. Squatters imagine a way of life drastically different from how we live now, and bring it in to being by actually living it. In this way, they demonstrate that the way things are is not the only way that they can be, that an alternative way of life is possible.

Squatting is “a form of direct action that remained first and foremost a struggle over the right to be in the city and against the commodification of land and housing.”

Vasudevan, 2017: p.232

The Autonomous City is structured by city, which makes the narrative clear and easy to follow, but can get repetitive. In each case, Vasudevan traces the history of squatting in that city, highlighting key moments and individual squats. He dedicates two chapters to New York City, the first and the last, which brings a pleasing circularity to the book’s structure. There are clear links, similarities, and points of difference between the various cities that Vasudevan discusses, but he doesn’t make those links or draw comparisons, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Another omission that I find odd is the lack of images–there are no pictures. I understand that this may have been the publisher’s decision rather than the author’s, but they are noticeable by their absence, particularly in a book that is aimed at a more popular audience.

The Autonomous City is a well-researched, well-written book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in squatting, urban resistance, or radicalism. It will also appeal to those with an interest in urban history more generally, as it looks at one way in which urban form is negotiated and contested.

Book Review: The Village in Revolt- The Story of the Longest Strike in History

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The Village in Revolt by Shaun Jeffery.

Shaun Jeffery. The Village in Revolt: The Story of the Longest Strike in History. Higdon Press, 2018. RRP £14.99 paperback.

I recently went to Tolpuddle in Dorset, to find out more about the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs. In the gift shop of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, there were a number of books about the martyrs, but also about other examples of rural strikes and trade unionism. The Village In Revolt: The Story of the Longest Strike in History appealed to me largely because I had never heard of the Burston School Strike before. My research is focused on urban protest, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about an example of rural dissent.

The Village in Revolt tells the story of the Burston School Strike. Tom and Annie Higdon were well-loved teachers in the rural village of Burston in Norfolk. On 1st April 1914, the Higdons were fired based on a series of exaggerated and unfounded accusations. The Higdons were socialists, and since they had arrived in Burston in 1911, they had been in an escalating conflict with the village elites, particularly the rector, the Reverend Charles Tucker Eland. The Higdons were good teachers, and the school children and their families decided to support them. 66 out of 72 children went on strike, refusing to attend the village school unless the Higdons were reinstated. An alternative school was established on the village green, which would last until 1939. The strikers received support from around the country, and by 1917 had raised enough to build a Strike School, which still stands to this day.

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The Burston Strike School still stands to this day, and is now a museum (Photo: Out_of_Station).

Shaun Jeffery tells the story of the Burston School Strike with creativity and sympathy. Whilst obviously admiring of the Higdons and the strikers, Jeffery doesn’t shy away from their flaws, admitting that Tom Higdon could be quite a difficult man to get along with. The Village in Revolt is obviously the result of significant historical research; as well as the strike itself, the book also provides detailed discussion of the Higdons’ and Reverend Eland’s origins, and the history of rural trade unionism. The connection between a school strike and the unions of agricultural workers may not be immediately obvious, but Tom Higdon was a dedicated trade unionist, and the atmosphere that union activities created helped to give the striking students and their families the confidence to stand up to local elites.

My main criticism of The Village in Revolt is that the balance between context and the discussion of the strike itself feels off. Jeffery spends so much time discussing the background to the strike and the biographies of the people involved, that the section about the strike feels short by comparison. I understand that context is important, but it not more important than the story itself. As a result of this imbalance, the ending of the book feels quite abrupt.

If you are interested in the history of Norfolk, British education, or rural protest, then I think you will find something of interest in The Village in Revolt. It certainly is an inspiring story, and Burston is now on my list of places to visit!

Book Review: Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25

Guilty and Proud of it Front Cover

Guilty and Proud of It! by Janine Booth.

Janine Booth. Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25. Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2009. RRP £12.00 paperback. 

In 1921, 30 Labour councillors for Poplar in East London were imprisoned for 6 weeks because of their refusal to participate in a local government system that was unfair. They knew that they were breaking the law, but willingly sacrificed their freedom in order to challenge a law that they firmly believed was unjust. Despite strong opposition, including from within the Labour Party itself, their stand was successful, forcing the national government into an embarrassing climbdown. In Guilty and Proud of It!, Janine Booth tells the story of what has become known as the Poplar Rates Rebellion, as well as the longer conflict between the national government and the socialist Labour councillors that lasted from their election in 1919 until 1925.

Poplar council chose not to concede but to fight. And by fighting, it won. Poplar’s story – of defiance, of protests, of mass participation, of prison – has to be told. It deserves its place in the list of historical struggles that each generation of socialists and labour movement activists learn about, alongside the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the General Strike, Grunwick, the Miner’s Strike, the Poll Tax.

Booth, 2009; p. ix-x.

In the 1920s, Poplar (now part of Tower Hamlets) was one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. At the time, local governments had to pay unemployment and poverty relief benefits out of the local rates (like council tax today). The more poor and unemployed people in a borough, the more money had to be raised from the local residents. It was an unfair system which meant that the richest boroughs, where people could most afford higher taxes, actually had the lowest rates. In Poplar, Labour won 39 out of 42 council seats in November 1919. They set about using this impressive majority to make genuine improvements to the lives of working-class Poplar residents, which upset local elites, including employers and landlords.

For the next 6 years, the council would struggle with these local elites and central government, taking a defiant stance that became known as Poplarism (not to be confused with Popularism!) In 1921 the councillors demonstrated just how far they were willing to go, refusing to back down over their demands for a fairer rates system even when they were sentenced to prison indefinitely. The government backed down and the councillors were released after 6 weeks, winning significant concessions over rates.

Guilty and Proud of It! is a lucid account of a fascinating episode in London’s rebellious history. Janine Booth is a trade unionist and socialist herself, and her admiration for the rebel councillors and the stand that they took is evident. The book is less neutral than an academic book would be able to get away with, but Booth does not allow her politics to cloud her judgement. The concluding chapter of the book contains a thorough and balanced analysis, making convincing arguments about why the Poplar councillors were successful, why other councils were so reluctant to join them in their stand, and how Poplarism is relevant today. A lot of history books aimed at a popular audience do not contain this sort of critical analysis, so it was a pleasant surprise. This chapter also helps the reader link the book to wider contexts. Some may describe a book on such a short period of local history as niche, but Booth demonstrates Poplarism’s relevance to ongoing conflicts between local and national governments.

Guilty and Proud of It! is an accessible, engaging book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in London’s history, protest history, or local government.

Book Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage Front Cover

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans.

Lissa Evans. Old Baggage. London: Transworld, 2018. RRP £8.99 paperback

I love reading fiction, but I have an unfortunate tendency of reading books in one sitting, so I try to avoid it during the week because otherwise I end up a sleep-deprived mess. A few weeks ago, I dedicated my Friday evening to Old Baggage by Lissa Evans, a novel about Mattie Simkin, a former Suffragette who is struggling to deal with her past and come to terms with her present. I must admit to picking this book up because of my interest in protest history, but Old Baggage is a wonderful book that will charm and engross you whether or not you are a history nerd like me.

Old Baggage is set in 1928, ten years after the right to vote was won for women over the age of 30 who owned property. Mattie Simkins is living in on Hampstead Heath with her devoted friend and former comrade Flea. Although her militant suffragette days are behind her, Mattie is still a vibrant character, quick to anger at injustice, slow to compromise, and fiercely loyal to her ideals. When Mattie realises that young women have little interest in, or knowledge of, politics, she sets out to change that by starting a group that combines physical fitness, intellectual debate, and female empowerment. The group is a resounding success, but Mattie’s single-mindedness causes conflict with the people she cares about the most, and she has to swallow her pride in order to put things right.

Some of you may know Mattie from Lissa’s first novel, Crooked Heart (2015), set during the London Blitz. I had no idea that Mattie wasn’t a new character when I read Old Baggage, and as it is a prequel you don’t need to read the older novel in order to understand this one (although I have heard that it is very good!). Old Baggage strikes a delicate balance between poignancy and humour (there were some sections that made me laugh out loud), and the fictional characters fit well into the historical events and context. It is not often that you come across a book where the two main characters are middle-aged women, and Mattie and Flea’s fierce, if a little dysfunctional, friendship is the wonderful heart of the book.

We don’t often think about what happens to activists after the cause has been won, or after they decide to stop fighting. Many of the women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage put their energies into other causes; for example, Dora Montefiore was elected to the provisional council of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 at the age of 69. Some, such as Adela Pankhurst and Flora Drummond, became active in right wing politics. Others settled down to ‘normal’ lives; Jessie Kenney, younger sister of the more famous Annie, became a steward on cruise liners, and Rosa May Billinghurst retired from activism. Most of these outcomes are represented in the characters of Old Baggage (including the suffragette-turned-fascist), so as well as being an enjoyable read, it is also a thoughtful reflection on what happens next. When you have dedicated your life to a cause that was dangerous and all-consuming but also thrilling and empowering, what do you do when it ends? Old Baggage asks questions about moving on and making sense of a different life that don’t have easy answers. But it’s the books that make you think that tend to be the ones you remember.

Book Review: Triumph of Order- Democracy and Public Space in New York and London

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Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London by Lisa Keller

Lisa Keller. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. RRP £24.00 paperback.

Cities are incredibly complex systems, made up of hundreds of interconnecting networks. Sanitation, transportation, power, housing, local government, and public order, amongst others, all have to function successfully in order for a city to thrive. The larger the city, the more complicated and chaotic it gets, and by the end of the nineteenth century London and New York were the two largest cities in the world. The governments of these two cities, and their residents, had to strike a balance between order and liberty. Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London traces the struggle to find a balance between these two, frequently conflicting, concepts in the nineteenth century.

Liberal democracies such as the US and the UK place a strong emphasis on liberty and individual freedom. However, the fact is that we are all willing to give up some of that liberty so that the government can maintain order and protect us and our property. Exactly how much of our individual freedoms we are willing to sacrifice in order to feel safe is a matter of constant debate. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller argues that in London and New York during the nineteenth century the balance between liberty and order tipped towards order. Using a combination of examples, archival sources, and analysis, Keller makes a convincing argument that liberty, particularly freedom of speech, was curtailed in favour of minimising the risk of disorder and violence on the streets of two of the world’s greatest cities.

The legacy of the nineteenth century was a new structure for public order, in which liberty was expendable. Great Britain and America retained a framework for free speech and assembly, but democracy as an ideal became tempered by realities of city life. The principles and practices established in the nineteenth century yielded long-lasting societal parameters affecting public space, free speech, and assembly.

Keller, 2009: p.223

Although I read academic books as part of my research and teaching, most of the books I review on Turbulent London are aimed at a more general audience. Triumph of Order is written for an academic audience, and is therefore less accessible than most ‘popular’ history books. This is not a criticism, however, just an observation; Triumph of Order is a good book, but if you are looking for something to take on holiday with you, I wouldn’t suggest this. A small criticism that I do have is that Keller is often careless with chronology. The book is structured chronologically, with the first half looking at London and the second focused on New York, but within individual chapters there is a tendency to jump back and forward between different events and time periods that can be confusing.

As someone who studies London and has visited New York, I have always been curious about how the history of the two compares. Triumph of Order highlights the parallels and differences between the two cities. Some of them are relatively obvious: London, for example, was the first major city in the world to have a professional civilian police force (1829), which had clear implications for the way free speech and protest was controlled (New York City followed suit in 1845). Other insights Keller provided are less familiar to me as a British reader, such as the idea that Americans have always been more tolerant of bodily violence and loss of life than British people. Many people have died during riots in London, but it is mostly due to accidents and the violent tactics of authorities; in New York, rioters themselves are more likely to kill people. In Triumph of Order, Keller does a good job of comparing the two cities in a way that also provides insight into them as individual metropolises.

The balance between liberty and order is a difficult issue. In Triumph of Order, Lisa Keller has produced a book that illuminates the historical structures that underpin that balance in two of the most significant cities in Western liberal democracies. That’s no mean feat.

Book Review: Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Death in Ten Minutes Front Cover

Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

Fern Riddell. Death in Ten Minutes. London: Hodder, 2018. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Thanks to the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018, there has been a significant amount of books, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the campaign for women’s suffrage over the last two years (see all of my blog posts on the topic here). It is no easy task, therefore, to come up with something that stands out from the crowd. I have been looking forward to reading Death in Ten Minutes since its publication last year, but I have been waiting for the paperback to come out. I am pleased to say that it was worth the wait.

Death in Ten Minutes is a biography of Kitty Marion, a German-born actress and singer who came to live with her aunt in Britain as a young girl to escape an abusive father. During her time in the theatres and music halls she was subjected to sexual assault and mistreatment by men who held power over her career. She became increasingly disillusioned with the way women were treated by society, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) proved to be an ideal outlet for her frustrations. She became one of the group’s most militant suffragettes, responsible for multiple arson and bomb attacks around the country. During the First World War Kitty was forced to leave Britain because she was German, despite living in the UK for most of her life. She took refuge in the US, where she became heavily involved in the birth control advocacy movement. She continued to fight for what she believed in until her death in 1944. In her later years, she wrote an unpublished autobiography, which Fern Riddell draws heavily on in Death in Ten Minutes. The result is an account of Kitty’s life that is vivid, engaging, and feels like it is told from her perspective.

There are lots of things I like about Death in Ten Minutes. One of the main characteristics of the book that surprised me is that Riddell uses Kitty’s story to make a broader argument about the way that women’s history in general, and the suffrage movement in particular, has been sanitised in popular memory and dominant historical narratives in order to (re)produce a particular patriarchal understanding of women. Riddell also critiques the way that the suffragettes are idolised in popular memory, glossing over violent and life-threatening acts of terrorism to present a picture of perfect women. But no one is perfect, and it is just as important to acknowledge that about our admired historical figures as it is about ourselves. In most historical biographies aimed at a popular audience, I do not expect the kind of critical analysis found in Death in Ten Minutes.

The second major strength of Death in Ten Minutes for me is that it doesn’t end in 1918. Many of the women involved in the suffrage campaign went on to use their skills for other causes and social movements, and Kitty was no exception. She worked for the birth control advocacy movement for just as long, if not longer, than she campaigned for the WSPU. Social movements and political campaigns in the twentieth century were empowering experiences for many women, allowing them to develop skills they never anticipated, and the confidence to use those skills (the 1984-5 miner’s strike is another good example). Death in Ten Minutes contextualises the suffrage campaign within Kitty’s life, and shows that there was much more to her than being a suffragette.

Death in Ten Minutes is a well-written and thoroughly researched book that gives Kitty Marion the recognition she deserves as a fierce and passionate, but flawed, campaigner for women’s rights. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Italian Boy- Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London

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The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise.

Sarah Wise. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London. London: Pimlico, 2005. RRP £7.99 paperback

Most people have heard of Burke and Hare, the infamous Edinburgh murderers. Fewer people know that London had its own episode of ‘burking’ in 1831. In the early 19th century, London’s anatomists and medical schools needed many more bodies for dissection than could be provided by legal means. A lucrative trade in corpses developed, and ‘Resurrectionists’ could make a good income by digging up the recently buried and selling them to hospitals and medical schools. In late 1831, two Resurrectionists in Bethnal Green decided to cut out the middle man, and began murdering London’s poor and neglected in order to sell the bodies. They were caught trying to sell the body of a young boy to the anatomy department at King’s College. The ensuing court case, and eventual conviction and execution of two of the men, John Bishop and Thomas Williams, caused a morbid scandal that enthralled London. It led to the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which eventually put an end to the illicit trade in corpses. In The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-robbery in 1830s London, Sarah Wise tells the story of the murderers, their apprehension, trial, and execution in impressive detail. She also uses the story as a springboard, branching out to look at many elements of London in the first half of the nineteenth century, including poverty, housing, healthcare, and even animal welfare. The result is an interesting account of a gruesome story that captures London on the verge of rapid and dramatic transformation.

The case of the Italian boy (it was quickly decided, although never decisively proven, that the final victim was an Italian street performer) captured the public imagination in a way that only an incredibly gory crime can. As such, a significant amount of archival material about the case, largely court records and newspaper articles, has survived. As such, Wise is able to provide an incredible amount of detail about the events surrounding the case. At some points, it was almost a little too much detail; I got distracted trying to keep track of the sheer number of pubs that the men visited in the days before they were arrested at King’s, and the order in which they visited them. Despite all this detail, there are still many elements of the case that are unknown, and will never be known. It will never be possible to confirm exactly how many people were killed, for example, nor to find out what happened to John Bishop’s children after their father was executed. Wise was able to trace the some of the children to Shoreditch workhouse in 1835, but then they disappear without trace.

It is a well-known frustration amongst researchers who use archives that the voices of the poor rarely get preserved. In the Preface of The Italian Boy, Wise argues that she saw this story as an opportunity to find out about the poorest residents of nineteenth century London: “The story appeared to me to be a window on the lives of the poor at a period of great change: a window that is badly damaged – opaque in places, blocked out or shattered in others – but offering a glimpse of those who have left little authentic trace of themselves” (Wise, 2005; p. xvii). It is true that you have to use archives creatively in order to find out about the lives of the poor in the past, but this might be the most creative method I’ve come across. Whilst I’m not sure it is representative of the lives of the vast majority of London’s poor, it does provide an insight into the society in which they struggled to survive.

The Italian Boy strikes a good balance between academic rigour and popular appeal. Wise tells the story of the London burkers well, but also uses it to look at broader themes in a way that is more common in academic journal articles or books. If you are interested in the history of London, crime and the criminal justice system, or indeed the development of modern healthcare, then I recommend you give it a go.