Review of small press and independent books.
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Women of Victorian Sussex by Helena Wojtczak
A Review by David Dennis
The award-winning author has an honours degree in social history, so you know immediately that the text will be well-researched, meticulous in detail and with comprehensive footnotes.
But is it a text-book or a book you can read for pleasure, at leisure and with enjoyment? Answer? The latter - yes, indeed. It’s full of the most fascinating (and sometimes nightmarish) detail; replete with photographs, illustrations, newspaper cuttings and Victorian advertising panels. All serve to provide an insightful window into the lives of Victorian women on the south coast. And what do we find? The horror is that almost nothing has changed. Women and female children back then were oppressed, raped and manipulated by men and this same nightmare goes on in Britain today. The book contains details of the awful life of Maria Taught, whose fisherman husband abused her dreadfully. There are also detailed descriptions of the daily employments of women by class, the missionary work, landladies-by-marriage, washerwomen, teachers and prostitutes.
Women were fully aware of their second-class and very often slavish status. A few organised protest, a few refused to comply with the wishes of men, but then, as today, women struggled to be properly equal. Back then, 90% of the paupers were female. In 2007 in Britain, some 30,000 women were sacked for being pregnant, and equal pay for equal work is a dream for 40% of women today working part-time. So this book is a salutary wake-up call to women – and men: let’s make real changes to society and not keep on going in Victorian style.
Then there are those things which seem to come in every age – the tragedies of the loss of men at work and how women had to cope. One woman was struck dumb when her husband drowned in a shipping accident. The paedophilia and attacks on children: a man told the court that a child had undressed and asked him to abuse her. Child murder and the raping of six-year olds: even today we have such crimes. Since the death of little Victoria Adjo Climbié in 2000, more than 200 children have been murdered by their parents or guardians in Britain. This sort of thing seems endemic.
I strongly recommend you buy and read this book – a salutary narrative about past times whose male-dominated legacy is still tarnishing the life of today. This book is a brilliant social document. Well done Helen.