Book Reviews

MAUREEN SUTTON:  WE DIDN'T KNOW AUGHT: A Study of Sexuality, Superstition and Death in Women's Lives in Lincolnshire during the 1930s, '40s and '50s.  (Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1992.  £9.95)

            The recording of people's recollections and experiences, oral history, has developed greatly in the last twenty years.  It is, of course, sad that it didn't develop well before that, as new universities and history departments blossomed after the second world war.  It didn't, and the sources available to researchers then have gone for ever, while the documents they worked on then have remained.  But it is still too easy to be complacent, to take it for granted that our relatives and elders will always be around to tell their story. 

            Maureen Sutton has concentrated on recollections from the 1930s to the 1950s, but what makes it especially interesting is that she managed to get people to talk about taboo areas, the "forbidden" aspects of life: sex, superstition and death.  She points out that all three have changed markedly since then.  We have become much more open about sex, whereas when most of the people quoted in the book grew up, sex and  related areas, such as contraception, illegitimacy and menstruation, were talked about with embarrassment, if at all.         

            Superstitions, passed down through generations, had a powerful effect on people's lives: Don't hang up the mistletoe before the holly; Never cross knives on the plate when clearing away or you'll have a quarrel.  But in the space of a generation or two, the force of these beliefs has largely been lost and many of the beliefs themselves are unknown to their children.

            As talk about sex became more open, a part of life that is more freely discussed in the media and as part of everyone's education, attitudes to death have shifted in the opposite direction.  From being an experience shared by the community it is much more a private affair now.  So the public display of mourning, through mourning dress and then half-mourning, has disappeared.  Deaths occur in hospital.  They are less of a social event.

            All this Maureen Sutton documents in a book which I would strongly recommend.  It is not an academic book: the commentary which links it together is interesting, informative, but light.  (An example of an academic's approach to oral history can be seen in Jacqueline Sarsby's excellent study of women in the pottery industry, "Missuses and Mouldrunners" (Open University Press, 1989).)

            Maureen Sutton's book should stimulate others to record the history of their relatives and friends.  Certainly, family historians should be looking to preserve the knowledge of older members of the family for future generations.  But it needs doing now, before it is too late.  Documents are much easier to preserve than people!

             

JULIAN LITTEN: THE ENGLISH WAY OF DEATH: The Common Funeral Since 1450.  (Robert Hale, paperback edn 1992.  œ14.95)

            Not much oral history in this one(!), but with the publication of our own first books in 1995, the monumental inscriptions of the parish churches of Audley and Talke, Litten's book is helpful background information.  I remember one reviewer of this book saying that Julian Litten is much in demand as a speaker and I'm not surprised - he clearly enjoys his subject and has some good stories to tell.  It was worth the price of the book to read of Van Butchell's enthusiastic account of the embalming of his wife in 1775, her body becoming "one of the sights of London".  (It was unfortunately destroyed in an air raid on London in 1941.) 

            The book is concerned with all things to do with the funeral: the organisation of the funeral trade, embalming, the use of winding sheets and shrouds, the coffin, transport to the grave, forms of the funeral and finally, "the eternal bedchamber", the burial vault.  By "common", Litten means the non-royal funeral, rather than the funerals of the lower orders.  Not surprisingly, the records and remains of the poorer people are far fewer, so that the book is really mainly about the  "uncommon" people up to and including the aristocracy. 

            Though I found the first chapter, on The Trade, a bit slow, the remainder is fascinating.  It is well written and informative on an area I knew almost nothing about.  The text is well supported by many equally fascinating illustrations, including 30 in colour of excellent quality.  Changes in coffin design over hundreds of years are clearly shown, usually in place in their burial vault.  The photographs of these were - I can't resist the term - amazing.  The two Poulett vaults, for example, at Hinton St George, Somerset, present quite a contrast. One contains a stack of coffins from around 1574-80; the other has a much neater arrangement of shelves built in 1814.

            It is an enlightening book.  And then there was Sir John Pryce (1698-1761) who kept the embalmed bodies of his first two wives by his bed...

Ian Bailey

 

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