Dec 12th: The Butchering Art by Lindsay Fitzharris

“In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows how it was transformed by advances made in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875. She conjures up early operating theaters—no place for the squeamish—and surgeons, who, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than patients’ afflictions, and they were baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high. At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more hazardous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister, who would solve the riddle and change the course of history.

Fitzharris dramatically reconstructs Lister’s career path to his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection and could be countered by a sterilizing agent applied to wounds. She introduces us to Lister’s contemporaries—some of them brilliant, some outright criminal—and leads us through the grimy schools and squalid hospitals where they learned their art, the dead houses where they studied, and the cemeteries they ransacked for cadavers.

Eerie and illuminating, The Butchering Art celebrates the triumph of a visionary surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The Butchering Art?

butchering artHmm. Why do I want to read this book? I’m drawn to some of the gruesome stuff in history, I’ll admit. I’ve read some pretty grim stuff about torture and executions that I’ve used in my novels. But I think this appeals because of my roots in Edinburgh and growing up on stories of Burke and Hare grave-robbing and murdering to supply the anatomist, Robert Knox.

Lindsay Harris is someone I follow on twitter and her book has received some great reviews and prizes since it came out last year. Definitely on my Christmas list.

Day 10: The History of Underclothes

“Underwear — practical garments with a utilitarian function or body coverings that serve an erotic purpose? As this fascinating and intelligently written study shows, the role played by underclothing over the last several centuries has been a varied one.
In a well-documented, profusely illustrated volume combining impressive scholarship with an entertaining, often humorous style, two distinguished clothing historians consider undergarments worn by the English over the past 600 years. Beginning with the Middle Ages, the authors cover centuries of clothing history, including the Tudor period, the Restoration, the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the twentieth century up to the eve of World War II. Drawing on extensive, research, the Cunningtons illuminate the role and function of underwear: it protected the wearer against the elements, supported costume shapes, served as an erotic stimulus, symbolized class distinctions, and fulfilled other social, sanitary, and economic functions.
Enhancing the detailed, comprehensive text are more than 100 period illustrations and photographs depicting a laced-up bodice of the twelfth century, embroidered linen drawers of the sixteenth century, a hooped petticoat support in bentwood (c. 1750), footed long drawers (1795), nineteenth-century bustles, early nineteenth-century corsets for men, “Frillies for the Tiny Lady” (1939), and much more. A bibliography, appendix, and index complete a valuable reference work that will appeal to costume historians, sociologists, and other readers.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The History of Underclothes?

history of underclothesDo I even need to answer that? I can’t wait to read this book. Even if I’m not planning on mentioning my character’s underwear, I really think I ought to know what’s going on (or not) in this department. I’ve recently ‘jumped’ period and been writing a novel set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries so I’ve had a lot of new stuff to learn. One of the things I like about this new book is that the two time periods – although only thirty years apart – are quite different. Think cars, the telephone, electric light. But also think goodbye corsets and hello bras. I’ve had a lot of ground to cover and definitely think I could do with this book to make sure I’m not making any major gaffes. Plus what if I jump period again? Maybe back in time, I’m thinking. Way back. Watch this space…

Dec 6th: Inseparable: the original Siamese twins and their rendezvous with American History

“In this “excellent” portrait of America’s famed nineteenth-century Siamese twins, celebrated biographer Yunte Huang discovers in the conjoined lives of Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874) a trenchant “comment on the times in which we live” (Wall Street Journal). “Uncovering ironies, paradoxes and examples of how Chang and Eng subverted what Leslie Fiedler called ‘the tyranny of the normal’ ” (BBC), Huang depicts the twins’ implausible route to assimilation after their “discovery” in Siam by a British merchant in 1824 and arrival in Boston as sideshow curiosities in 1829. Their climb from subhuman, freak-show celebrities to rich, southern gentry who profited from entertaining the Jacksonian mobs; their marriage to two white sisters, resulting in twenty-one children; and their owning of slaves, is here not just another sensational biography but an “extraordinary” (New York Times), Hawthorne-like excavation of America’s historical penchant for tyrannizing the other―a tradition that, as Huang reveals, becomes inseparable from American history itself.” (Amazon blurb)

changandengWhy read Inseparable?

I’ve a big interest in anything to do with P.T. Barnum and his American Museum where Chang and Eng were ‘exhibited’ in the 1860’s. I’ve also had the dubious pleasure of seeing their conjoined liver on display in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. The Mütter is the museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and is well worth a visit. Where else could you go to see slices of Einstein’s brain?

Theirs is an extraordinary story by anyone’s reckoning. Born in Thailand in 1811, Chang and Eng came to America when they were in their late twenties. In 1843 they married two sisters, Sarah and Adelaide Yates, and between them they had twenty one children. According to wikipedia (of course I need to read the book to see if this is confirmed) they each had a house which they lived in for three days at a time. During each man’s three days in his own home the other would remain silent and allow his brother to make every choice about how they spent their time.

There is a novel about them Chang and Eng that I also want to read. Not enough hours in the day.