Thursday, 30 March 2017

A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders

"Four women connect four men by a slender but steely thread. One man is an earl, and three times prime ministers; the second a Nobel prizewinner who turned down a knighthood, the Poet Laureateship and the Order of Merit; the third is a baronet, who has been both director of the National Gallery and president of the Royal Academy. The thread is the Macdonald sisters - four women who were the mothers of Stanley Baldwin and Rudyard Kipling and the wives of Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter. "
Alice, Georgiana, Agnes, Louisa and Edith Macdonald, five sisters of which four of them married into  the history of the Victorian cultural age.


The Macdonald sisters came from the lower middle classes without any great prospects of social advancement. However, they made their name, as wives and mothers, to some of the most famous men (yes, they were all men) of their times. The sisters received an education and through their one surviving brother, Frederic, who studied at University, they came into contact with people from the higher, social classes. The father was a Methodist preacher and they moved frequently during their childhood. Their mother had the sole responsibility to raise the children and take care of the household, which she did with a firm hand. It was only when they moved to London, where the future artists and writers gathered, that their life took a turn. With their charms they met the men they came to love, and whom they supported in their future careers. Not all of them were happy, but they created a big family and kept tight all through their lives. The youngest sister, Edith, did not marry and lived with her sisters all her life, as well as helped them with their families. Not all of them were very organised and their lives were at times rather chaotic.


As often, with big families, you get a spectre of life through its members. Their life consisted of happiness, sadness, depressions, adultery, separations and what not. But what a fascinating set of people that made their imprint on the latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th.

Alice married John Lockwood Kipling and the couple spent most of their life in India, where Lockwood was an art teacher. She became the mother of Rudyard Kipling and daughter Alice. Georgiana married the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, and their marriage was rather turbulent with him having affairs outside the marriage. They had two surviving children, a son and a daughter. Agnes married Edward Poynter, later on the director of the National Gallery and president of the Royal Academy. They had two sons. Louise married Alfred Baldwin a very successful businessman and became the mother of Stanley, future prime minister. Louise was depressed and withdrawn most of her life, quite an unhappy character, without anyone really knowing why.

Judith Flanders has managed to make all these various character come alive in a vivid and fascinating account of their lives and deeds.  Excellently and well written account of an era and personalities that has made an imprint of the cultural history. Not only do we follow the story of the family, we are also treated with a description of the Victorian times in which they lived.

I really enjoyed the bits and pieces of Victorian living, whether it be how to do the laundry, the lighting situation or how long it took to send/receive a letter.  One thing that stuck out for me was her description of how the coal burning affected the cleanliness of the houses at the time.
"A large house could use up to a ton of coal a month, in as many as fourteen fireplaces. Oil lamps were most commonly used, and the lamps needed 'winding up' and trimming at least twice in an evening, depending on draughts. The globes that surrounded them had to be washed with monotonous regularity, as the oil gave off a sooty black vapour that gradually covered the glas. It was estimated that the fires and lights could keep a single servant occupied full-time. The amount of coal dust and dirt from the lights meant that spring cleaning was a necessity after a long, dark winter. Mrs Beeton noted that spring cleaning did not just mean an extra-good clean. It included 'turning out all the nooks and corners of drawers, cupboards, lumber-rooms, lofts &c. . . Sweeping of chimneys, taking up carpets, painting and whitewashing the kitchen and offices, papering rooms, when needed. . .'"
Judith Flanders is a historian, journalist and author and has specialised in the Victorian period. This is very clear when reading this book on a fascinating set of sisters. So readable.

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