My name is Danielle and I graduated last summer from UK with a Ph.D. in British History. Why British History? I get this a lot, and the answer is that I just decided at like age 10 that I wanted to tell people about England for a living and I never really came up with a better plan. As you might imagine, jobs for professional anglophiles aren’t exactly plentiful, so I’ve since found an equally satisfying career in development at a private school in Louisville and I still get to talk about England by teaching evening classes at Bellarmine University. Jessica asked me to share some of my favorite non-fiction reads with you all and I couldn’t be more excited, both because I think the world of Jessica and her blog and also because no one has ever actually asked me this question before and it was really fun to come up with this list!
Honestly, almost everything I read in grad school was miserably boring; I had to carve out time in my schedule for accidental naps when a book got too tedious. This boredom mostly came from that fact that, for a very long time, history books were mostly written by stodgy old white guys who wrote about other dead white guys. In the last few decades though, historians have discovered marvelous, exciting, horrifying, eye-opening things about all different types of people. And yet, a lot of this exciting stuff is still written by people trying to emulate the old boring historians by using tangled academic jargon in order to get tenure. In fact, this is seriously how most academic history reads: https://phrasegenerator.com/academic (See - you want to nap too now, right?)
I often felt at odds with the jargony, competitive culture of grad school (and Jessica’s post on academia explains this culture far more eloquently than I ever could). But, I still love reading non-fiction because, when someone writes about life well, it’s funny and tragic and quirky and brilliant. My very favorite non-fiction books also have one thing in common: they’re all cultural histories.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what culture is or what it looks like (now or in the past), but I think of it as all the stuff that makes up reality in a given moment. While Queen Victoria was flirting with Prince Albert or explorers were off conquering Africa, what was everyone in England else doing? What did they wear, eat, talk about, listen to, or do for fun? Did people feel the same emotions and describe them in the same way? Did we think the same things about sex or relationships or find the same things attractive? The answers to those questions start to capture cultural history. Cultural history is also the stuff that can be the hardest to find, because few people bother to write down the things they accept as ordinary or routine. So, today I’m going to focus on the cultural history books that, like my favorite works of fiction, made me see the world in totally new ways or understand myself a little better.
1. Lynda Nead's Victorian Babylon. You know the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy wakes up in Oz, leaving behind her black-and-white life in Kansas and entering this lush, technicolor world? That’s kind of what happened when I read this book. Nead’s introduction is heavy on the academic jargon, but the rest of the book beautifully recreates the world of Victorian London. Before I read Victorian Babylon, I hadn’t ever imaged what Victorian London looked or smelled like or what I’d hear walking down a Victorian street. I didn’t realize what an assault on the senses the very first industrial city would have been.
It turns out that creating a modern city requires a massive amount of destruction, and Nead’s chapter on how Londoners struggled to come to grips with these dramatic changes to their environment forever changed how I saw urban history. London in the Victorian period was the largest city the world had ever known, so urbanization came with a host of problems that no one had ever really had to solve before. Nead looks at how urban planners tried to solve these problems by creating new technology to move things (water, waste, traffic, and people) around the city more efficiently. In the process, Nead dips into the history of maps, porn, the Underground, and about a million other cool topics.
I didn't really know what cultural history was when I first read this, so Nead opened my eyes to the reality that fashion, literature, and pop culture were all legitimate objects of historical study. If you aren’t sold yet, at the very least, the pictures of life in Victorian London in this book are incredible. Keep this thing in the bathroom or on the coffee table and I promise it’ll start some conversations.
2. Stephen Johnson's The Ghost Map traces how a contaminated well in Soho led to a huge Cholera epidemic that ravaged London and killed more than 30,000 people. Johnson shows just how hard it was for scientists to convince the public that germs weren’t fake news (many scientists at this time struggled to let go of a belief that invisible vapors called “miasmas” spread disease), and he follows the struggle urban planners faced as they tried to make government officials prioritize municipal improvements. Mostly though, this book taught me that living in the past would have meant dealing with a LOT of poop. Like, everywhere.
I liked this book so much that when I was last in London I actually made a pilgrimage to this infamous well pump in Soho. I was, unsurprisingly, the only person there that day. If you ever decide to make a similar pilgrimage, there’s a pub named for the doctor who discovered cholera (Dr. John Snow) just across the street and it’s definitely more interesting than the pump.
3. Erika Rappaport (Shopping for Pleasure: Women and the Making of London's West End) and Lindy Woodhead (Shopping, Seduction, and Mr. Selfridge) both showed me that the history of shopping was a real thing. I really love shopping, but I used to think that my love of shopping and my love of reading were never really going to merge, unless you count reading Instyle or the Anthropologie catalogue. Then I discovered these books. These authors revealed how women in the past used shopping to assert power, challenge authorities, and carve out supportive female spaces in the city. Victorian city planners could literally keep women at home by refusing to build things like restroom facilities for women, but department stores helped to change all of that by offering bathrooms, places to eat and drink, and sometimes even classes or reading rooms for women (along with great shopping, too). Women back then also made the connection between shopping and power; suffragettes broke hundreds of shop windows all over central London in 1912 as a way to protest the lack of political support for granting women the vote.
If you don’t want to commit to reading an entire book on the history of shopping, catch the PBS show Mr. Selfridge instead. The show is over the top in a great way, but it also covers many of these issues about female empowerment and the creation of shopping culture. Plus, Jeremy Piven makes a really attractive Gordon Selfridge.
4. Bill Bryson's At Home. I think Bill Bryson is a national treasure. He’s written on everything from hiking the Appalachian Trail to the life of William Shakespeare to the creation of the universe, and he makes it all funny, interesting, and just really damn charming.
At Home tackles the history of the modern house and each chapter is divided into a different room. One of my favorite chapters, “The Bedroom,” looks at the history of beds themselves. Bryson spends like eight pages talking about different kinds of bed fillings (hint: they’re all terrible) and his descriptions of the critters that were attracted to these fillings proved that the time I woke up in bed with a centipede crawling across my face was actually not that bad.
In keeping with the idea that the bedroom is the room where the “magic” happens, Bryson also covers changing ideas about proper sexual behavior. In one of my favorite parts, he notes that some (clearly demented) inventor in the 1850s created a “penile pricking ring” that was supposed to be worn at bedtime to deter from any nocturnal impulses. The moment the wearer “woke up,” prickly thorns on the inside of the ring quickly brought things back down to normal. I’m going to stop here and just say that Bill Bryson’s books - especially this one - are worth adding to your reading list soon.
Note: Bill Bryson’s latest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, was disappointingly filled with cranky old man lectures about how England changed since he wrote his last (SUPER CHARMING!) travel memoir on Britain, Notes from a Small Island. Treat this like the last Sex & the City movie and pretend it never happened.
Lastly, I can’t recommend these personally yet, but I do have two non-fiction reads on my bookshelf that I’m really excited about. My boyfriend, Dary, recently gave me Christine Corton’s book,London Fog: The Biography. She explores the role London’s famous fogs have played in art, history, literature, and pop culture and I’ve heard wonderful things about the book. I’ve also heard that Paul Thomas Murphy’s book, Shooting Victoria, is supposed to be really suspenseful and fun. The book investigates the eight unsuccessful attempts by various people/organizations to kill Queen Victoria. Murphy thinks these assassination attempts could actually be responsible for the monarchy’s enduring popularity today, so I’m intrigued to see how that argument plays out.
If British history isn’t really your cup of tea (was that too corny?), ignore all of these suggestions, but don’t discount keeping an eye out for books that deal with cultural history. The story of ordinary people doing ordinary things can actually be a lot more exciting than you’d imagine.
More information about Danielle: My dissertation, “Minding the Gap: Uncovering the Underground’s Role in the Formation of Modern London, 1855-1945” argues that the world’s first subway redefined how Londoner’s moved through, understood, and imaged their city. How we move through a city determines a lot about how we see ourselves, and I use the Tube’s history to show how spatial behavior (like “minding the gap”) can become connected to one’s identity. I also demonstrate how Londoners used public transportation to bridge other gaps - like those between rich and poor, men and women, and what seemed respectable and dangerous in the city.