Lockdown Reads: Non-Fiction


I’m back with more of what I’ve been reading, this time with some non-fiction titles. The first two are the sort of books that make me feel oddly conflicted, because although I get really excited about reading them, merely knowing they exist makes me feel bad about myself. This happens when I see a book on a topic that I’m very interested in or know a lot about, because I feel inadequate for not writing books like this myself when I’ve really no one but myself and my sheer laziness to blame. The Wonders especially made me feel like that because the topic of my Master’s thesis was “constructions of dwarfism in 18th century England,” and one of the people I focused on was Jozef Boruwlaski, to whom Woolf devotes an entire chapter. Honestly, for parts of it I felt like he must have somehow read my thesis, since he was making the same points I was, but of course it’s only natural that someone using the same source material would come to the same conclusions I did, which is obviously what happened here (also, Woolf’s book is better written than my thesis was. I did not try that hard). I’m also super jealous that he got a Ph.D in Victorian freak shows, since I would LOVE to study something like that. But I’m not going to let my enviousness of this guy’s life turn my review into sour grapes, because I genuinely loved this book. It was so fun to read, and was the perfect combination of cultural and medical history.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Poe-Land. I’ve also read Ocker’s book on visiting Salem, Massachusetts in October, and though he also writes about the sorts of things I love, I can’t get behind his books. I just don’t think they’re very well-written – honestly, he makes Poe boring, which is pretty hard to do – and something about his tone grates on me. I would have loved the opportunity to visit all these Poe sites and write about them, and it pisses me off that someone who did have these opportunities didn’t actually seem all that enthusiastic about it (though I guess the same criticism could be levelled at me when I blog about places I don’t particularly enjoy), but such is life.


As I mentioned in my BLM post, I am trying harder to educate myself on issues surrounding race, including reading these two books (for starters!). Since I have close family members that are Trump supporters, I was really interested to read Dying of Whiteness to see if he could provide an explanation for the phenomenon summed up in the book’s subtitle, whereby white working class Americans tend to vote for parties and policies that actually make their quality of life worse. Metzl divides his book into three sections, on education, health care, and guns, focusing on a different Southern/Midwestern community for each, and he shows how these issues affect white voters, and then interviews the voters themselves to try to determine why they vote against their own best interests, and it does often come down to a deeply ingrained culture of racism, whether the voters realise it or not (basically, they would rather go without things themselves, like health care than have their taxes go to programmes that would benefit people of colour, who they consider lazy and not deserving of benefits). I still don’t understand it on a personal level, because I don’t really care who else gets to use the NHS as a result of my paying National Insurance, since I get to use it too, but it does provide an insight into a large segment of the American population, and it probably just makes me even angrier than I was already at American politics. I’m still glad I read it, though it is quite dry and almost academic in parts, with a whole chapter in each section dedicated to various graphs and charts that I couldn’t be bothered to sit there and decipher.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, although it also cites a number of statistics and studies, was a much more engaging book than Dying of Whiteness, probably because Eddo-Lodge is a woman of colour who intimately understands the topic she’s writing about, whereas Metzl comes across as something of an outsider to the people he’s interviewing, despite his upbringing in Missouri. I think Eddo-Lodge’s book might be the more uncomfortable of the two books for white people to read, as the kind of people who are likely to read Metzl’s book probably look down their noses a bit on Trump voters anyway, but even “woke” people are likely to find it difficult to confront their own biases, as implied by the title of Eddo-Lodge’s book. But I honestly enjoyed WINLTtWPaR more of the two books, because it was more challenging and passionate. Definitely worth a read!


I generally enjoy Bill Bryson – both his travel writing and his more factual titles (though I still say his audio guide to the Roman Baths in Bath is awful) – and it’s no secret that I’m interested in medical history and medicine in general, so this definitely seemed like a winner. And it was! It was sort of reminiscent of a slightly less fun Mary Roach (not intended as an insult, since I really love Mary Roach, and even slightly less fun is still pretty fun) whereby Bryson provides a comprehensive guide to everything in the human body for non-medical professionals, and even though some of it relied on references to other medical books I’ve already read, I think Bryson does a great job of compiling everything in one place and making it easy to read.

I had my eye on A Curious History of Sex for a while, and finally grabbed it when the price dropped. This one was definitely entertaining in parts, and contained A LOT of Victorian pornographic images, which I genuinely found fascinating (in a non-erotic way), but it was very piecemeal and felt more like something to dip in and out of than to read straight through. Because I did just read it all at once (not in one sitting, but I wasn’t reading anything else in between), I probably enjoyed it less than I would have if I’d just read a chapter here and there, but it’s still worth a look if you’re interested in sexual practices through the ages, though it is VERY hetero-centric, with only a small section on gay sex that felt very incomplete. I realise that there is only so much space in a book, and obviously no text can be totally comprehensive, but considering Lister spent a tonne of time talking about obscure things like the erotic aspects of bicycling, it seemed odd to leave out an entire major dimension of sexuality.


The next two titles were equally fascinating in different ways. Whilst I adore a nice grisly true crime book, The Five was very much not this; if you go in looking for gory details on the Jack the Ripper murders, you will be disappointed. However, there are already plenty of books devoted to the murders themselves – what Rubenhold is trying to do is give the victims a voice, as so many Jack the Ripper books focus so much on the Ripper that they almost end up glorifying him, which is pretty messed up when you think about it. So this is all about the lives of these women before they were murdered, and the women they might have been. Primary sources are fairly sketchy for working class Victorian women, so some of this is speculation, but Rubenhold generally makes that clear, and the information she has been able to uncover is fascinating, albeit deeply depressing, These women had such hard lives, and she really managed to bring that sense of deprivation alive. In many ways, it felt similar to Victorians Undone, which is one of my favourite non-fiction books of recent years, and I really liked this as well. Rubenhold’s next book will be about the women associated with Dr. Crippen, and I am very much looking forward to it!

Entanglement is all about the global hair trade, and as someone who has never worn a wig or extensions, I had no idea what a big business it is! This book covers everything from the women who sell or donate their hair to the women who buy the finished wigs, and everyone involved in between in the process of transforming loose hair into wigs or extensions. I honestly never thought hair could be so interesting, but Tarlo makes it so. A surprisingly great read!


There are a lot of similarities between David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, and I got into both of their work at about the same time, but perhaps due to his difficult upbringing, sometimes Burroughs is just a bit much for even me. Case in point, Toil and Trouble, which is all about why he believes he is a witch. Now, I should say up front that I totally dabble in witch stuff on occasion (in case the witch hat in my Instagram picture wasn’t a clue), in a strictly non-theistic, non-“spiritual” way (I’m definitely not a “spiritual” person, whatever that even means), and part of me wants to think that I do I have some powers (because who wouldn’t want to be able to control stuff with their mind?!), so I can relate to Burroughs in some ways. But deep down, I don’t really take any of it very seriously, whereas Burroughs does, and some of the examples he gives as to why he believes he is a witch are a bit far-fetched. Having an owl living near your property is not evidence that you’re a witch. Having your mother, who has well-documented mental health problems, tell you that you are a witch is not proof that you are a witch. So this definitely fell more flat for me than his other humorous essay collections, though in fairness to him, there were still some laugh out loud moments, just not as many as in some of his other books, probably because he was too earnestly trying to convince the reader of his witch credentials.

And lastly, there was Swallow. God, I hated this book. The subject matter initially sounded so interesting, as it was meant to be about Dr. Chevalier Jackson, a doctor who removed thousands of swallowed objects from his patients over much of the 20th century, and kept them all in a cabinet, which now lives at the Mutter Museum. And the Mutter Museum is one of my favourite places on Earth, so I was with Cappello as she began talking about her visits to the museum, and how she was drawn to writing about Jackson and his collection. And then she completely lost me. Cappello is a literature professor rather than a historian, and it shows. This book seems to be all about emphasizing Cappello’s bizarre literary style rather than Jackson himself, and is written in an annoying flow-of-consciousness way where she keeps interrupting the Jackson narrative to talk about seemingly whatever random thoughts pop into her head, like an artist who reminds her of Jackson, or how strange she thinks it is that someone named Mary Hat (as her surname translates to in English) is writing a book about swallowed objects, or honestly who the hell even knows what, since I was just completely lost for half the damn book when she went off on these tangents. I forced myself to read to the end, because I was interested in Jackson’s story, but honestly, just read the guy’s autobiography if that’s what you’re interested in, because this book is awful. I don’t know what Cappello was thinking when she wrote it, but judging by the reviews on Goodreads, my opinion is definitely not in the minority.

Well, that’s it for now, but my birthday is this week, so I’ve taken the week off work and we’re renting a car, which means I’ll hopefully have something new to write about next week!

Lockdown Reads: Fiction

Since I’m running out of things to post about for the time being unless I delve into holidays of the past again, I thought I’d write about what I’ve been reading since lockdown started in March (I know we’re not officially in lockdown now, but I’m still not going out very much, so I’m going to count things I’ve read recently too). I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I tend to average two books a week, which didn’t change significantly in lockdown, since let’s be honest, I didn’t really go out that much before coronavirus was a thing either. I might not have been reading much more than usual, but what had changed was that since I was no longer able to get books from the library, I was either re-reading things I already owned or buying everything I read, so was reading a lot more things that had been on my to-read list for a long time rather than just picking up whatever the library had that looked interesting. I read slightly more fiction than non-fiction (26 vs 16), and I’m not going to make you sit through reviews of all those books, so I’m just picking out some of the more memorable ones to highlight here.


You would think that with all the scary real-life stuff going on, I would want to read something more cheerful than horror stories, but honestly, horror is my favourite genre, and I love being creeped out by a scary story, so in a weird way, I do find horror kind of comforting. At any rate, I tend to prefer things more on the spooky, unsettling side of the genre – ghost stories, yes please! – because body horror generally makes me feel sick; however, I’m ok with straight-up gore if it’s not done in a torturey way (e.g. I love The Evil Dead, but refuse to watch Hostel or anything of that ilk). Grady Hendrix has been one of my favourite horror writers since I read Horrorstor (which is about a haunted IKEA-esque furniture store, and the book itself looks like an IKEA catalogue, which is really fun), so I was very excited to read The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, which just came out a few months ago, and it did not disappoint. Most of the horror in the book actually comes from the racism and misogyny ever present in the background of the story, which is set in Charleston in the late 1980s-early ’90s, and though there was a pretty graphic dismemberment scene towards the end, I’m not really bothered by that if it’s happening to an evil supernatural being instead of a living person, as it was here (the lynching scene earlier in the book was much more difficult to read). I think this is my favourite of Hendrix’s books so far.

I also read We Sold Our Souls, which is an older book of his that I hadn’t read yet, about a heavy metal band with a member that literally sells the band’s souls to achieve fame. It wasn’t quite as good as TSBCGtSV, but I still found myself speeding through it to find out what would happen to Kris, the book’s protagonist, since I could relate to her experiences of growing up in the Rust Belt and being the only girl in a rock band (punk rock, in my case) – I wanted to see if she would get her revenge against the singer of her former band!


I also LOVE short story anthologies, and I’ve been gradually working my way through everything edited by Ellen Datlow, who seems to churn out a couple every year, each with a different horror-related theme. I’m freaked out by most things in the sea anyway, so I thought The Devil and the Deep would really give me the chills, and I wasn’t totally wrong. I find all anthologies to be a mixed bag by their very nature, and this was no exception, with probably more weak stories than strong ones, but there was still enough good ones here to hold my attention.

His Hideous Heart is technically YA, and when I saw that it contained thirteen of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories re-imagined by modern authors along with Poe’s original stories, I had to have it. If I had one minor quibble, it was in the way the book was arranged – all of the modern stories were at the front, and all of Poe’s were at the back, but I would have preferred if each Poe story was right before or after its reinterpretation, because I read them that way so I could see how the reinterpretation compared to the original (and I can’t imagine I’m the only person to do that), and it got a bit annoying to keep flipping back and forth. There was definitely a strong LGBTQ theme running through the whole book, which really put a new spin on Poe’s work. Honestly, some of these were surprisingly frightening for a YA book, especially the story about the girl who was abducted and tortured by a serial killer obsessed with the Spanish Inquisition, so I definitely think this was plenty scary for adults too!


I was sent The Silent Companions by a book subscription service I thought I’d try out (end result: not impressed, especially since they only sent two of the three months I paid for. I understand there may have been some confusion because they stopped orders for a while when lockdown started, but I did email them about it after they started shipping again, and never got a response. I should probably follow that up), and I cannot lie, the titular silent companions, which are life-size full-length portraits painted on upstanding wooden panels, really freaked me out, so much so that I dreaded having to get up to pee in the middle of the night for a week or so after in case I saw one of them gliding towards me (despite not owning any, because the characters in the book didn’t know they owned any either until one just appeared). However, the glaring historical inaccuracy that was one of the main plot points of the book really pissed me off (spoiler alert: it has to do with how witches were executed in early modern England, which regular readers will know is a real bugbear of mine) and ultimately soured me on the whole thing.

I wanted to read The Saturday Night Ghost Club because it had great reviews from readers who loved that it accurately re-created the atmosphere of 1980s Niagara Falls, and I am all about late ’80s and early ’90s nostalgia, particularly where spooky things (Halloween in particular) are concerned. Unfortunately, I just didn’t think the writing was very good, and I could see the “twist” ending coming from a mile off, so the nostalgia factor wasn’t quite enough to win me over. There was also something just a little bit icky about two middle aged men forming a “ghost hunting club” with a group of young teenagers that involved them taking said teenagers to isolated locations late at night, so that put me off as well.


Last horror (sort of) books. I am definitely guilty of not making enough effort to read things by authors of colour, so I’ve been using this excellent Twitter thread recommended by Emily of Nightmare Fuel (which is also excellent for horror recommendations – I definitely advise signing up to her newsletters of book reviews if you’re as into horror as I am) to discover some more diverse horror authors than the ones I usually read, which is how I found Water Ghosts (which I also read recently, though I’m not talking about it here because I didn’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other) and indirectly, how I discovered Oyinkan Braithwaite when I had her books recommended to me after adding a load of other horror stories by women of colour to my to-read list. I was totally enticed by the excellent cover, so I had to buy it. I wouldn’t say it’s a horror story as such, because although there are murders, it’s really more a book about toxic family relationships, and I ended up really frustrated with Korede, the main character, for not doing more to overcome her past, though I know that’s much easier said than done, especially if you grew up with an abusive father, as Korede did.

Marcus bought Betty Bites Back for me because he thought it sounded like something I would like (I do go on about the patriarchy a lot), and though I think it was a great concept, most of the stories didn’t quite live up to it (I never need to read the one about scooping out eyeballs again. In fact, I wish I hadn’t even read it the first time. Blech).


Here’s proof that I don’t only read horror! Ruth Ozeki has been one of my favourite authors since I read My Year of Meats back in high school, which I have re-read many times since. Ozeki isn’t hugely prolific, as she has only written three novels to date (I also love A Tale for the Time Being), but I was hoarding this one on my shelves for years, waiting until I needed a treat, and that time was now. All Over Creation is about an elderly couple living on a potato farm in Idaho who are reconciled with their long-estranged daughter Yumi when she reluctantly comes home to care for them after she learns her father is dying, and all the things that happen as a result of Yumi returning, including a group of GMO protestors camping out at the farm. I think this is definitely the weakest of her books, as Yumi wasn’t that likeable, and there was way too much technical stuff about genetically modified crops that felt like straight up propaganda (I guess the same could be said of My Year of Meats and the American meat industry, but I completely agree with Ozeki’s views of the evils of factory farming, so it wasn’t quite as glaring to me in that book), but even a weak Ozeki is still a good read!

I’ve been into Terry Pratchett for years and years and years, and of course had read and loved Good Omens ages ago (before it was cool), but I haven’t started to get into Neil Gaiman in his own right until relatively recently. When I leafed through Neverwhere in the gift shop at the Tate (one of the last times I was in a museum before lockdown!), I knew I had to have it, since I love anything to do with secret bits of London. It’s not on the level of Good Omens or anything, but I enjoyed it well enough, even though the protagonist Richard was super annoying for most of it (why are you whining about wanting to go back to your disgusting sounding flat and your mean fiancee when you’re exploring a magical underground world?) and will look for the sequel when it comes out.


Emma Donaghue is another long-time favourite. I read her short story collection The Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits, about the real-life story of Mary Toft, well before I even moved to the UK, and Room, which is probably her most famous book, really messed me up, but in a good way, if that makes sense. When I heard The Pull of the Stars was coming out, and was about the Great Influenza, I bought it literally the day it was released. It is about a midwife/nurse working on a fever ward for maternity patients during the 1918 pandemic, and there are some very gory passages about women giving birth, but it’s also a lovely story about love and loss, and though the ending felt a bit rushed after the slow build of the relationship between Julia and Bridie in the first three quarters of the book, I really loved it. It made me so angry at what the Catholic Church did to Ireland though. Ugh!

Barbara the Slut is a bit of a fun one to end on, because how could I resist that title? It’s actually a short story collection about a number of different women, including the eponymous Barbara, who actually reclaims the “slut” label after it’s spray painted on her locker in high school and uses it to empower herself and take down a guy spreading nasty rumours about her. This is Holmes’s only book thus far, but I will definitely be hoping for more in the future, because I loved this one as well.

This is certainly not all the fiction I’ve read lately, but I don’t want to drone on and on all day (you’re probably already bored out of your minds), so I’ll leave it there and talk about some non-fiction titles next week!

London: “Cats on the Page” and P.G. Wodehouse @ the BL

Everybody likes cats, right? Hell, even I like cats, and I’m allergic to them (and I hate most things, but let’s ignore that for now). I also like P.G. Wodehouse – I was even a member of the P.G. Wodehouse Society for a while until I got sick of paying the (modest) membership fee – though I wish he could have just spelled his damn name Woodhouse and saved everyone some trouble. So I wanted to make sure I got up to the British Library to see both “Cats on the Page” and the small display on Wodehouse in the “Treasures of the British Library” gallery before they came to an end. I also really wanted to get a piece of bakery from Outsider Tart’s stall at the market that’s normally at King’s Cross from Wednesday-Friday, so I specifically timed my visit to correspond with that, only to find no sign of the market with no indication of why that might be on social media. I assume it was because of the shitty windy rainy weather, but at least have the courtesy to mention that to people who might have made a special trip! So I swallowed my (considerable) annoyance, and headed to the BL, since I was already there, after all (and I totally made my own blondies when I got home, but it would be nice to have cake I didn’t have to make myself for a change).

“Tabby’s Breakfast Time”

I started with the Wodehouse display, which was even smaller than I expected – just one case. But it was free, along with the rest of the “Treasures” gallery, so I can’t complain too much. It contained a very brief biography of Wodehouse that seemingly spent most of the time defending him from accusations of being a Nazi sympathiser (because he agreed to make a series of radio broadcasts over German radio during the war about his time in an internment camp), and rightly so, because I really don’t think he was, based on his delightful send-up of Oswald Mosley and his idiotic Blackshirts via the medium of Roderick Spode, but devoting so much space to it in such a small display made it look a bit as though they were protesting too much. Nonetheless, I enjoyed seeing some of Wodehouse’s personal correspondence and manuscripts of some of his books, so it was still worthwhile for a Wodehouse fan, just probably not enough to justify a special trip. But the rest of the “Treasures” gallery is great (even though I think by putting the name in quotation marks, it makes it look as though I’m being sarcastic). I don’t think I’ve blogged about it before, probably because they don’t allow photography, and I’m pretty sure the displays change frequently, but highlights of what was there when I visited included Durer prints, some of Da Vinci’s sketches, an entire Shakespeare section, and even Magna Carta.

“Cats on the Page” was also a free display, and was located on the first floor of the entrance gallery. Photography wasn’t allowed of the objects here either (presumably for copyright reasons), but I’ve tried to include some I could find online. It was about various beloved cats from children’s literature, and some perhaps more unfamiliar books about cats, including a great (and creepy) one about a bunch of cats dying and coming back to life, because they still had eight lives left (it even included a drawing of their tombs, which of course had cats on them, though sadly I’ve not been able to find it to show you). I’m not that familiar with T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, though I know it inspired the musical Cats, which is not the kind of musical I enjoy (I love musicals, but not Andrew Lloyd Webber ones), so I was surprised to see that the original illustrations were actually rather charming, and nothing like the terrifying costumes from the stage musical.

This exhibition made me think that perhaps cats are more common in British children’s literature, because I don’t remember reading that many books about cats in my own youth (other than Tom Kitten, which is of course by a British author, and those books of Garfield comic strips that I loved for some reason, even though I don’t really find Garfield funny at all as an adult. That cartoon from the ’90s was pretty good though, and don’t get me started on those Garfield fruit snacks that they stopped making years ago. So delicious!), but maybe that was more because my mother doesn’t like cats so didn’t get those picture books for me, rather than any lack of American cat books. At any rate, I had certainly never encountered beloved British cat characters like Mog until after moving to the UK.

Letter by Edward Lear

This display was actually slightly bigger than expected, with fairly detailed captions and of course lots of illustrations spread throughout the whole middle section of the main hall, and there was even a small interactive station where you could try to identify different cat noises or sit and read one of a selection of cat books. The BL are also running a series of cat themed lectures to tie in with the display, though it looks like most of the interesting sounding ones are sold out. The main exhibition at the BL is still the Saxons one I saw a few months ago, but I did notice a King Edgar (with weirdly long crossed fingers that are never explained. We have the same drawing of him with the same creepy fingers in the museum where I work, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to search for an explanation, and found nothing) all set up for photo ops, so I had a picture with him in the end, despite feeling very self-conscious because of a bench positioned immediately opposite full of people staring at me. The cat exhibition is a nice little display worth seeing if you’re in the area before 17th March (the Wodehouse display is already gone at time of posting), but definitely don’t make a trip expecting to buy a blondie from Real Food Market King’s Cross, because you will probably be disappointed. 3/5 for “Cats on the Page” and a big fat 0/5 for the Real Food Market’s lack of communication. What’s the point of having fifty different social media channels if you don’t use any of them to tell people you’re closed? Boo-urns.

Oh, and to end on a positive note, I saw Hanson last week for the first time ever (despite being OBSESSED with them I was 12, then not listening to them for about 17 years because I thought I was much too cool for that, and re-discovering them as an adult after I no longer cared if people thought I was lame, and I realised they’ve been putting out catchy albums the whole way, and oh yeah, grew up to be pretty hot, which definitely doesn’t hurt), and they were amazing! I’ve been missing out all these years, and will 100% catch them again the next time they’re in London.

London: “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” @ the BL

Spong Man, Wikimedia Commons. So adorable!

The museum I work for is very keen on Anglo-Saxons (they’re one of the few things our borough is known for. Well, that, and Korean food), so even though Saxon Britain is not one of my favourite periods of history, I’ve been looking for opportunities to learn more about it. (And I am VERY partial to our wax figure of Athelstan, who I’ve started dressing up for various holidays, though that has more to do with the fact that he’s a wax figure than any specific traits of the real King Athelstan, who seems to have been fairly pious and boring.)  So it was with some interest that I headed to the British Library’s latest exhibition: “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War” which runs until 19th February 2019.

Woden, British Library.

Admission is £16 (half off available with Art Pass) and I saw there were plenty of spaces available online, so I didn’t bother to book in advance. Like all exhibitions at the BL, we could not take photos, so I’m relying on photos of some of the objects there that Marcus kindly found online for me. It was a similar layout to most of the BL’s exhibitions, which meant a crowd built up in the initial, narrow part of the exhibition, than dissipated as the galleries widened (you’d think they would have sorted that out by now, but no); but it was much less atmospheric than most of the exhibitions I’ve seen here, as the only real theme seemed to be “dark.” This was unfortunate, because like at everything I’ve been to at the BL except Harry Potter, 80% of the visitors were extremely elderly people. Now, I’ve got absolutely nothing against older people (I certainly like them more than young people most of the time), but most of the ones that patronise the BL clearly cannot see a damn thing when the gallery is dark, and I really wish the BL would realise this.

Domesday Book, with stain from medieval spearhead, British Library.

I understand that the galleries have to have low lighting in order to preserve these very rare objects, but maybe they could consider providing some kind of miniature, non-damaging (LED?) torches for those visitors who need them so they wouldn’t have to bend completely over the cases to see them, making it so that no one else can look at the objects (also, I think it’s kind of rude to block a case with your body when other people are clearly trying to look at it, but that’s another story). This happens every single time I come here, and it’s really starting to get to me.

Meister des Evangeliars von Echternach, Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, annoyances aside – I should talk about what was on display! The galleries were arranged roughly chronologically, though because so many of the manuscripts that survive today were the result of monks copying even earlier manuscripts, most of the texts here could be grouped into one of a few different themes that repeated throughout the galleries (mainly religious ones. There were about four nearly identical drawings of St. Chad, which is fine because they amused me, but c’mon, maybe vary the saints a little bit? I know there had to be more saints than that, even back then, like St. Guthlac from Lincolnshire, for example, as seen near the bottom of this post). The exhibition started with Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, which is the source of much of our knowledge about the Anglo-Saxons (I believe Bede’s original manuscript no longer exists, but the BL has a copy from the 8th century, made just a few decades after Bede’s death), ended with the Domesday Book, and included a hell of a lot of things written by monks along the way.

Beowulf, British Library.

As you might expect from the British Library, the vast majority of artefacts in here were old books and texts, but there were a few swords and crosses and Alfred’s Jewel, which was quite exciting because there’s an image of it in the stained glass in the museum where I work (the actual thing was probably intended to be a pointer, and may have been included with a copy of Alfred the Great’s book, Pastoral Care (or more accurately, Alfred’s Old English translation of Pope Gregory I’s book. Alfred’s version is the oldest surviving book written in English), which, contrary to what I was initially expecting, is not about taking care of sheep, but about the responsibilities of the clergy (still involves a flock, but I prefer sheep!)). I took a class on Anglo-Saxon literature as an undergrad, so it was pretty cool getting to see the oldest surviving copies of Beowulf and “The Dream of the Rood” – without these, we never would have known they existed (which I guess some people might not necessarily see as a bad thing, but I quite like Beowulf. I dig kennings)!

Alfred Jewel, Ashmolean.

But I have to admit that some of the other books in here were more interesting to look at because they had illustrations. And what illustrations! You’ve probably gotten a good idea of the wonders here already by this point in the post, but man, derpy animals, rather adorable saints, and teeny perfect elaborate little black ink illustrations – this exhibition had it all!

Lindisfarne Gospels, Wikipedia.

Honestly, there was a lot of information here about the Anglo-Saxons, but the names of most of the kings (other than Athelstan) kind of just all blurred together since I knew virtually nothing about them before coming in, and frankly, despite my best efforts, Anglo-Saxons just aren’t interesting enough for me to retain a significant amount of information on them in my brain (I just really don’t care about religion or war. I need some social history to pique my interest, which is why this post is thin on actual historical facts). But I did like the few medical texts in here, and I thought it was neat that they’ve recently re-created the recipe for an eye salve from one of the botanicals and have found it effective against MRSA (the main ingredients seemed to be garlic and leeks).

Blemmyae from Wonders of the East, British Library.

I think my favourite thing on display had to be the book about exotic creatures, including giants and the race of people with a face on their chest that I seem to remember still cropping up centuries later in some early modern text I read for my Master’s (maybe Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels?), clearly based on this much earlier illustration. So so great. I also love the little demon being exorcised, below (I think I’d be tempted to keep him as a pet after he was expelled from my body), but everything in here was striking simply by virtue of being so damn old.

Scene from the Guthlac Roll showing Guthlac exorcising a demon. British Library.

I can’t get over how incredible it is that these books still survive over 1000 years on, and I think getting to see them was probably worth the price of admission (or the half price admission I paid anyway, dunno about the full £16), despite my brain’s failure to absorb any of the information in here except trivia and amusing illustrations (isn’t that always the way though?). I was also disappointed that there wasn’t more about the development of the English language, given all the manuscripts on display (there was a bit of information of this, and it could also be seen in the progression over time from mainly Latin manuscripts to mainly Old English ones, but I think the Weston Library’s exhibition was more comprehensive). So I’ll give it 3/5 – not the best I’ve seen at the BL, but still pretty impressive by virtue of the artefacts on offer, though they really need to sort out a solution to the problem the low lighting appears to cause for the bulk of their visitors.

Combined images from three Psalters: Utrecht Psalter and two based on it, British Library.

Oxford: “Sappho to Suffrage” and “Designing English” @ Weston Library

We didn’t have any trouble finding our next destination, the Weston Library, as it was across the street from the Museum of the History of Science.  I was planning on going anyway to see “Designing English,” which was a display of some of their collection of medieval manuscripts (I’m not gonna lie, I was hoping for butt trumpet marginalia), and then it turned out that there was a suffragette display there too, so that was a nice surprise.


The Weston is a branch of the Bodleian Library, but isn’t actually in the Bodleian, so it is just a nondescript building compared to the magnificence of the Bodleian (or so I imagine, since we didn’t have time to visit the actual Bodleian on this trip), but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that, so I was still eager to see their displays, even though the interior was kind of blah and dominated mostly by a very crowded cafe. The exhibitions were both free to visit, so after taking a moment to admire a large, tapestry-style map of Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties (being from Stratford-upon-Avon, Marcus was a bit miffed that it wasn’t included (Update: Yes, it is, listed as “Stretford.” He found it on the photo in this post.)), we headed in (fortunately, the Weston is one of those chill libraries that lets you take your bag into the exhibition galleries, unlike the National Archives, who still stick in my craw).


We started with “Sappho to Suffrage: Women who Dared,” which sounded pretty great from the name alone, and I wasn’t disappointed by the choice of artefacts or women featured here. There was a nice mix of stuff from big famous names and also lesser-known but equally interesting women. So of course Jane Austen’s teenage diary was amazing, as was Mary Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein (even though the copy on show was only a facsimile), but I also loved learning about women like Mary Lacy, who was probably the first woman to take an exam as a shipwright and receive a pension from the Royal Admiralty (she served in the navy whilst posing as a man, but applied for a pension in 1771 under her real name, and was granted it!); and Marjory Wardrop, who fell in love with Georgia (the country) after her diplomat brother travelled there, so she learned Georgian and eventually translated the most famous Georgian epic poem, though sadly didn’t think it was fit for publication, so it wasn’t published until after her death (it totally was fit for publication, by the way, and has become the standard by which Georgian to English translations are measured).


There were many more wonderful artefacts, like a drawing by Ada Lovelace, the only surviving copy of a board game called Suffragetto, as seen above (a game of suffragettes vs police where suffragettes try to occupy the House of Commons whilst also defending Albert Hall against the police, while the police try to defend the House of Commons whilst occupying Albert Hall), a scrap of one of Sappho’s poems, and lots of books and illustrations by various female pioneers in medicine, botany, photography, etc. etc. (I wish I had more pictures to share, but the lighting was poor and we didn’t know we were allowed to take them til the end.) How rad is that Oxford Women Suffrage poster though?!


We finished looking around the exhibition just in time, as a large group of students (ironically all male, though I suppose they were high school age rather than from the university) filed in just as we were about to leave.  Fortunately, “Designing English: Graphics on the Medieval Page” only had a handful of people inside. This was also a really amazing exhibition, filled with lots of beautiful manuscripts; though sadly, almost none of the marginalia I was hoping for (one of the books had a little monster in the margins, and I’ll certainly take it, but of course I wanted to see a butt trumpet or at least an aggressive snail).


However, what the exhibition lacked in hilarious marginalia, it made up for with the quantity and quality of the pieces on display, as well as the accompanying text, which was both interesting and informative. There was even a giant piece of vellum stretched across a hoop so we could see exactly how it was made in the display about book production.


My favourite book was probably one where one monk had started to lay down the notes for a religious song (a “nowell” which had me singing “The First Noel” in my head (for an atheist, I do really love Christmas carols) though of course this song would have pre-dated that by centuries), for which he promised the lyrics would follow, but then another monk stepped in and wrote down the lyrics to a drinking song instead. But so much of this was deeply fascinating, like a book with a poem that had every rhyming couplet written in a different colour ink, so the reader would understand that it was supposed to rhyme (which shows how poetry has evolved); and a fold-up vellum manuscript for an astrologer or doctor (really, there wasn’t much difference back then) to carry around and diagnose various ailments based on the astrological sign active at the time.


I suppose the exhibition was meant to be showing the evolution of graphic design, but I found the evolution of English itself much more interesting, both in the aforementioned poetry book, and in prayerbooks that show the transition from Latin into the vernacular.  For example, there was a book that quoted a poem by Caedmon, the earliest English poet, who was a possibly illiterate animal husbandman who had songs appear to him in dreams – the book was in Latin, but when it got to Caedmon’s poem, it switched to English that was slightly set-off from the rest of the text. They explained the reasons for this in a more detailed way that I can’t remember, but take my word for it, it was neat.


It was awesome getting to see all these beautifully preserved books and manuscripts that were hundreds of years old, and I learned a lot too (though have clearly forgotten some of it – I should have written this post first thing!). I think these two exhibitions were probably the best things we saw in Oxford (Pitt Rivers is amazing, as you’ll see it in the next post, but I had seen it before, so it wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring this time around), and I recommend seeing them both, if you can (“Designing English” is only on til 22 April, but “Sappho to Suffragette” will be there until 2019). 4.5/5 for “Designing English” and 4/5 for “Sappho to Suffragette.”