Saturday, April 14, 2012

by Julie Hedgepeth Williams

Albert and Sylvia Caldwell were two young, very idealistic Presbyterian missionaries hailing from Missouri. They had met one another at Park College which was a school to train students to do Christian work. The two of them knew that they wanted to teach and when a job opened up in Bangkok, they went for it. On September 1, 1909 (the day of their wedding), they started off on their trip to Siam (now, Thailand).
For a while, they loved Bangkok and thought it was enchanting. Then, Sylvia became pregnant and her health deteriorated. The heat of the tropics made everything worse. Sylvia went to a doctor who determined that she had neurasthenia of which the diagnosis is unknown today. The symptoms were muscle weakness, fatigue, numbness in extremities, headaches, mental breakdown. She had to stop teaching. When the baby, Alden, arrived, she couldn't even hold him. Sylvia did not get better and they knew that it was best for them to go back to America. The Foreign Missions Board did not believe that Sylvia was really ill and thought that she and Albert were trying to get out of their contract. Eventually, though, they were allowed to leave. They were supposed to go to Italy for a rest cure, but there had been a cholera epidemic the year before so that was nixed. The Caldwells ended up traveling around Europe taking different ocean liners with Sylvia constantly being seasick. When they landed in London, they bought second class tickets for the Titanic to bring them back to America.
There have been so many books written about the Titanic and most of them have not been very good. The authors list tons of statistical information about what was brought over on the big ship, too many names, the amount of money that was spent to build this huge vessel and after a while, the prose becomes deadening. Not so with A Rare Titanic Family. Julie Hedgepeth Williams is the great-niece of Albert Caldwell and she was able to use family artifacts such as scrapbooks, playbills, photos, letters, tapes, and written speeches. She is an excellent writer and she is certainly no slouch with research. The story about the Caldwell family living in Bankok is just as interesting as their Titanic adventure, so it's as if you get two unique stories for the price of one. It's definitely a fascinating read.
Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

by Helen Rappaport

Queen Victoria was married to Prince Albert for twenty years. They had nine children which is truly amazing since the the Queen didn't really like children and mostly ignored them. The Prince was never made a king even though he performed all of the functions. His title was Prince Consort. Albert was considered a foreigner (German) and was not well-liked. Ironically, Victoria had German relatives herself but that was never discussed. Their marriage was secure and happy. Victoria loved Albert with such fierce devotion and as the years went by, she depended on him much more to make decisions for the sovereignty while she was content to recede into the background.
In the late 1850s, Albert started to not feel so good having major stomach problems. He was stressed to the max with doing speeches, making policy decisions, attending public functions, writing tons of letters, going to meetings, etc. Victoria didn't think much of his complaints (he was sickly as a child) and shrugged it off. In fact, she was pretty much in denial the four years that he was ill. When Albert finally died in December 1861, Victoria was plunged into such grief that she never recovered from it and wore black until the end of her reign. Prince Albert was criticized as he lived, but in death the people realized what he had done for them and the country and he finally was recognized as the true ruler of Britain.
Helen Rappaport certainly knows how to write a superb book. Her previous work The Last Days of the Romanovs was just as good (reviewed in this blog). Rappaport used unpublished sources such as letters, diaries, and memoirs, plus archival materials to define the relationship between Victoria and Albert, his death, the invisibility of the Queen, the fumbling inefficiencies of the four Royal doctors, the interaction of the people around Victoria who tried to guide her but were afraid of stepping on her toes.
Victoria had three obsessions: Albert, mourning his death and afterwards for the next forty years, and the building of structures and sculptures that commemorated his role in her life.
Not to be missed.
Very highly recommended.