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Monday, 27 July 2015

Book Review: 800 Years of Women's Letters ed. Olga Kenyon

This book brings together dozens of letters from various points in history, separating them into the following categories: 'How Women View Their Roles', 'Friendship', 'Childhood and Education', 'Love and Sexual Passion', 'Marriage and Childbirth', 'Housekeeping and Daily Life', 'Work', 'War and Alleviating Suffering', 'Travellers and Travelling', 'Illness and Ageing', and 'Political Skills'. It's an excellent collection, allowing the voices of the letters to travel through time with minimal interruption (though there are useful notes and biographies included).

Quite naturally, the letters I enjoyed most came from women I was already familiar with. For instance, I found Charlotte Bronte's letter to a friend at her publishing house following the death of Branwell Bronte particularly moving and Millicent Fawcett's account of sitting down for dinner with an MP who had previously vilified her was amusing. The wonderful thing about this book are the various changes in tempo. You do emerge from it feeling as though you've just done a crash-course in women's history.

The extraordinary is mixed with the ordinary though, inevitably, it's the tales of women in exceptional places that linger, making the 'Travellers and Travelling' chapter one of the most memorable of the book. I also found the 'Illness and Ageing' chapter fascinating, not least because of the letters of Queen Victoria included there. In a similar vein, the letters of Elizabeth I included in this collection are excellent little pieces of national and private history.

There are too many excellent letters in this collection to name. Although it took me quite some time to read this book, I'm glad I did. I find myself thinking about snippets of the letters in my daily life, especially those between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. If I had to pick one letter from this collection as my favourite it would likely be Woolf's comments to Sackville-West following the premature death of Katherine Mansfield. The observations of a literary rivalry are extremely poignant and touching, all with Woolf's natural style. That letter will live with me for a while.

This book was read as part of the 'TBR' reading challenge, details here.

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