Historical Reading

My lovely friend Suzanne from book group recently did something wonderful: she lent me almost the whole set of Drina books (there's one book missing). Nine gorgeous old-fashioned ballet books to lose myself in! So far I've read two -- I'm rationing myself -- and can't wait to get stuck into the rest.

I was asking myself this morning exactly why these kinds of books hold such an appeal for me, and I think part of the reason I enjoy them so much is because I find the incidental historical and sociological details embedded in the stories so fascinating. I love reading Agatha Christie and Noel Streatfeild for the same reason.

It's the throwaway details that are so endlessly interesting: the clothes, the meals, the minutiae of daily middle-class life. Drina's friend telephones and they have three minutes to cram in their conversation before the pips sound. A stack of newspapers arrive, each one containing a critic's review, the morning after Drina's play debuts. Noel Streatfeild's youngest children have supper on a tray -- fruit and cereal just before bed (they have to explain this to a mystified cook when they go to live in America). Antonia Forest's Marlow family have 'Mrs Bertie' from the village in to do 'the rough' -- meaning the hard physical household labour, like scrubbing floors and toilets. Drina has a cloak (!) as part of her school uniform -- admittedly, it's a ballet school!

And of course there's the dialogue, the slang, the codes of behaviour. Drina's grandmother is horrified when Drina, aged 12, breaks down while they're out shopping: 'You're much too old to cry in public!' There is the casual racism, the cautious attitude to anything 'foreign' -- Drina's fragile emotional state, her temperament, is wisely sheeted home to her half-Italian heritage.

And of course there are assumptions about gender and sexuality, often unspoken. Drina declares that she will never give up dancing. Her friend Jenny points out that of course she will have to, when she gets married -- but Drina says, no, not even then... The very fact that they feel the need to have this conversation, aged twelve or thirteen, is interesting in itself.

Someone once asked me for tips on researching a historical period, and I said, read some books written at the time. Especially books like this, where all the details are taken for granted, mere background to the plot. It's amazing how much you can pick up, little clues that the author let drop, without even intending to.

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