Posts Tagged ‘Victorian England’

Living Books: Victorian England

Dear Reader,

We took a slight detour from our study of American history recently do look briefly at Victorian England. I’m amazed by Queen Victoria, how she managed to have a healthy marriage, a whole passel of kids, and run a country and win the love of her people. She was quite a woman.

When it comes to kids’ books set in or about Victoria’s reign, there is no shortage of wonderful choices. In fact, there really are too many to choose from and we were dealing with a fairly short time-frame.

Let me start by talking about some of the books we didn’t read — though they are some of the best kids’ books ever. The cream of the crop, of course, is Charles Dickens. We have actually been reading Great Expectations as our lunch-time read aloud (a wonderful practice that I highly recommend, by the way; meals make for captive audiences). We have also read “A Christmas Carol,” Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield so I didn’t feel we needed to add any more Dickens at this time. But our goal is a Dickens’ book a year and that is another practice I would highly recommend. Don’t wait too late either. Kids can appreciate the stories earlier than you think. My youngest was 8 when we first read a whole Dickens novel and she was able to enjoy the story despite its length.

Speaking of Dickens, you might also want to check out Dodger by Terry Pratchett in which Charles Dickens is a character. I have only read a few of his books, but Pratchett is becoming a favorite author. Dodger is one I read for myself some time back. It is a wee bit raunchy though the morals of the main character are good. It’s probably better for high schoolers more because of content than reading level.

Next up is a category I am calling “wonderful authors but they are apparently actually Edwardian.” In this group we can include Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and Little Lord Fauntleroy, and E. Nesbit of The Railway Children, The Phoenix and the Carpet and many more classic children’s books. Because we have read a lot of these in the past and because they technically aren’t quite the right period, we didn’t do any this time (with one exception from Nesbit; keep reading to find out what it is).

Other books to consider on this period but which we haven’t used recently (I told you there were a lot on or from this period):

  • Books I’ve never read but which are on my to-do list: Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling, Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain
  • Books I couldn’t lay my hands on: The London Child and Country Child, Dream Days by Kenneth Grahame
  • Books I have on my counter and am going to get to soon: The Eleventh Orphan by Joan Lindgard and Montmorency by Eleanor Updale
  • Books we listened to in the car which were pretty good if somewhat fanciful: the Bogle books by Catherine Jinks
  • A Victorian era author to consider: George MacDonald — lots of Christians love him. I have liked a few of his books but found others not to my taste.

Now, on to the books we actually did use. In the realm of non-fiction, I already gave  a preview when I posted on how I choose living books. You can read that post here. Of the three mentioned in that post, I chose not to us Becoming Victoria by Lynne Vallone because, as I said, it didn’t appeal to me early on. I also, regretfully, set aside Edward Ormondroyd’s All in Good Time mostly because it is the second in a series and I’d like to do the first one first.

I did end up having my ten-year-old read Sally Glendinning’s Queen Victoria: English Empress.


She seems to have enjoyed it and to have appreciated Victoria’s family life. I think she made even more of a connection, however, with the other book she read, At Her Majesty’s Request by Walter Dean Myers:


This is the story of an African princess who lived in Victoria’s court and seems to have been quite an engaging one.

My 12-year-old read Queen Victoria by Dierdre Shearman:


It was not the best living book but was alright.

My 9th-grader read The True Story of Queen Victoria: British Monarch by Arthur H. Booth:


It was a little simple for her and is probably better for middle schoolers. In her words, “it was not really a good book but it wasn’t bad either.” I should say she is a very harsh critic of anything she knows is for educational purposes.

I thought about having my daughter read In the Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap. It is a novel about Florence Nighingale which I loved the idea of, but a cursory examination led me to believe that it had way too much girly, romance stuff in it for my tastes.


I had my 10th-gradre focus in a little more and read The Crimean War by James Barbary:


I don’t know if he enjoyed it but he did a good job narrating it and it seems to have given a good introduction to the Crimean War. I consider it one of my better picks this time. I would definitely look for Barbary’s books in the future.

I read Victoria and Her Court by Virginia Schomp aloud to my younger two:


Again, it was not really a living book. It gave us a very general overview of the queen and her time. I would say it had more about her private life than about public events.

We also squeezed in a couple of  picture books, Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan (a good author to look for) and A Picture Book of Florence Nightingale by David Adler (he has a number of such books and they tend to be good):

Both were quite enjoyable.

The big winners of my “must-read” prize, however, were two books which each give a picture of life in Victorian England.


Long Ago When I was Young is by that old favorite author, E. Nesbit. Unlike her other books, it is not fiction but an autobiographical (or semi-so?) account of her childhood days. It is an absolutely charming book. I couldn’t put it down. I wish I had had time to read it to all my kids, but I did have my 10-year-old read it. (Note that while I said the novels of the grown-up Nesbit are Edwardian, her childhood would have been Victorian.)


Fanny and the Monsters by Penelope Lively is actually a collection of 3 shorter stories about a young girl with a large family living in Victorian times. You get a feel for her life with nursery maids and governesses, she visits the fanous Crystal Palace, and you even get a taste for the controversy over Darwin. And it is very amusing.



Picking Living Books

Dear Reader,

My method for homeschooling history is to get a stack of books on our topic — usually whatever comes next chronologically — from the library, to skim them, and to pick one or two for each child to read (as well as possibly some read-alouds). If there is a lot in our library system, one trick I use is to sort the results by publication date, from oldest to newest, and to request the older ones first.

Next up for us is a brief detour from our study of American history to touch on Victorian England. I need to get more books still, but I have a few here sitting on my counter so I thought I would share a paragraph from each to show how I pick a living book.

“One Friday in August, late in the morning, Susan Shaw came into my life again, more than a year and a half after she had vanished from Ward Street and the twentieth century.” (All in Good Time by Edward Ormondroyd)

“Almost one hundred years after her birth in 1819, ad novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie slyly points out, Queen Victoria’s image might have called to mind pocket change rather than pomp and glory, and the place of her birth was merely an architectural backdrop to promenade and play. From this perspective, the old queen signifies little to Edwardian children. In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the narrator compresses the widely known facts and fancies of Victoria’s life at Kensington Palace from birth to accession — her solitude, love of dolls, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s audience with the newly made queen, and her public coronation — into a child’s version of Victoria’s life-story: ‘She was the most celebrated baby of the Gardens . . .'” (Becoming Victoria by Lynne Vallone)

“‘I will not learn my lessons!’ Princess Victoria stamped her tiny foot. ‘I want to sing and dance and playa s other children do. If my father were alive. he would not make me spend all of my time in the schoolroom!'” (Queen Victoria: English Empress by Sally Glendinning)

So which of these three would you pick? I find the first and third most engaging. Their first paragraphs make me want to know more. The first, if it isn’t obvious, takes a modern child and, by some stratagem, I don’t know what yet, has them travel back to Victorian times. I find this plot device a bit overdone and it tends to make me skeptical of the book as a whole. Nonetheless, the story still sounds intriguing and I want to read more.

The third strikes me as not being overly well-written, but, on the other hand, it also makes me want to continue reading. And in the first few sentences it has given me a taste for Victoria’s personality and a fact about her: her father is dead.

I couldn’t even bring myself to type out the whole first paragraph of the second book. I was bored reading it and I was bored typing it. It’s not that it’s completely dry, it is trying to be interesting. But it is also slipping in too many facts in too small a space without really giving me an interest in the subject. It does make me want to find and read Barrie’s book though 🙂

An key point here, I think, is that while there are some guidelines for living books, there are no hard and fast rules. One book may be living for me and not for you or vice-versa. This is important to keep in mind as we pick books for our children especially — just because I like a book doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for my child. On the other hand, we do want to gradually challenge out children’s reading and understanding skills so  one needs to use discernment and not let them off immediately if they squawk about a particular book.

As for me, I am back to the library because I have only two books I like so far and 4 children.