Autodidact: self-taught


The Match Girl and the Heiress

by V. L. Craven

Match Girl and the Heiress

The premise of Seth Koven’s The Match Girl and the Heiress sounds like the worst sort of contrived Victorian social commentary. Well-to-do young woman (soft white hands and all) gives it all up to venture into the slums of London and befriends a factory working match girl who, in her turn, idolizes her. Together, they try to change the world.

It’s non-fiction, however, so I was very excited. It sounded like romantic friendship , which is one of my favourite topics. As is the Victorian era. So I thought, ‘real life romantic friendship in my favourite time period?’ Result!

Alas, it was not to be. While the book was very well researched. It was, at times, dry even for an academic work. I learned a great deal about the way World War I shaped Britain’s view of pacifism and other social causes. And the rise and clash of different sorts of feminism was quite interesting. But other parts were something of a slog.

The best sections (though few and far between) were analyzing the unequal relationship of the women–Muriel Lester (the heiress) and Nellie Dowell (the match girl), which were nearly perfect mirrors of the way well-meaning middle class whites in the U.S. try to help poor people, especially blacks in the present day. There’s a genuine desire to provide assistance but due to a lifetime of wearing the blinders of privilege they make mistake after mistake.

Unfortunately, I can only recommend this for those specifically interested in class and social issues of the time. 3/5

[I received a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]


The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

by V. L. Craven

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls


[Trigger Warning: This is a review of a book that includes suicide, anorexia and cutting. All of these things are discussed to some degree in this review.]

Here is a wallpaper of Emilie Autumn playing the violin if you’d like a moment to decide if you’d like to continue reading.

Emilie Autumn Wallpaper wall.alphacoders

Wallpaper by wall.alphacoders

All right then.

After a suicide attempt our heroine checked into a hospital in L.A. where she was told she would be held no longer than 72 hours. What that meant was, ‘You will be held for 72 hours after we begin treatment, which will happen after we find a bed for you in the Psych Ward and bother getting around to you.’

No one told her that, though.

Whilst waiting for bed upstairs, she’s given her very own Spartan room in the ER, where a kindly nurse allowed her to have a red crayon. This makes her very happy because at least she has something to do now. (She’d arrived with a bag containing some books and her notebook and those had been confiscated, leaving her with nothing to occupy her mind. Nothing is a better idea than leaving a suicidal person alone with their thoughts.)

Asylum Red Crayon

image from

The book is written from the notes she took with her crayons (she gets others later).

Then! She’s finally taken upstairs and given a bed in the actual psychiatric ward. Frabjous day! But there are two areas–one for the ‘normal’ crazy people and one for the criminally crazy people–the violent ones. But crazy is crazy, right? And they needed to put her in a bed. So…

Did I mention it’s co-ed, too? And the hits just keep coming.

The nurses decide to let her have her notebook, during the day, at least, and then they put it away overnight. And Emilie with an ‘ie’ begins finding letters from Emily ‘with a y’ every morning.

Emily with a y’s story remarkably mirrors Emilie’s except she lives in Victorian England and circumstances have landed her at the Asylum for Wayward Girls, which is where young women with mental illnesses wind up.

It’s nice to have something to occupy her mind, but something distinctly odd is going on. Is someone on the nursing staff gaslighting her or has the madness of the others infected her, as well?

A lot of the pages have very small text.

A lot of the pages have very small text.

Though she is confined in the genteelly named Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, Emily with a y’s time is no less fraught. It is run by the imperious Dr Stockill, who is clearly up to something nefarious, and his straight-out-of-Dickens mother Prudence Mournington, who has sorrows of her own.

The girls–of which there are thousands–are helpless at the hands of the doctor, another one called Dr Lymer and a surgeon brought on later who has all the gentle kindness of a slurry scraper.

Emily’s story is just chock full of information about what mental asylums were like back in the day. Hydrotherapy, deplorable hygiene, forced hysterectomies (since the uterus was the cause of female insanity) and of course…

Leeches! Don't forget to bleed!

Leeches! Don’t forget to bleed!

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Emilie shares with us the anxious boredom of life in a mental ward. She shows us her diaries on cutting, suicide and drugs (she’s only ever taken prescription pills for mental disorders–not recreational pharmaceuticals).

The staff are convinced she’s anorexic and there’s a delightful foray into her trying to explain exactly why she can’t eat what they are providing her and it has nothing to do with an eating disorder. But that’s what an anorexic would say so they watch her anyway.

Her diaries are honest and I suppose they’d be heart-breaking if you’d never experienced the compulsion to cut or been suicidal, but from the point of view of someone who has it was more like reading my own thoughts finally expressed perfectly.

For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone easily sent back down the dark rabbit hole. Autumn herself offers a disclaimer saying she doesn’t advocate suicide or self harm but that the book is meant to educate and I would definitely recommend it to a person who loves someone struggling with mental illness.

Asylum Diary pages

Speaking of rabbit holes, there are nods to the Alice in Wonderland books, as well as some of the characters of Autumn’s stage shows like the Plague Rats. I am unfamiliar with her music, though I’ll be rectifying that posthaste. Her two pet rats Sir Edward and Basil play important roles, as well, in the Victorian side of the story, where they can speak and help out Emily with a y.

There is artwork on nearly every page–drawings and illustrations done by Autumn herself. There are only a few photographs taken by other people. Many of the illustrations are placed on the page in a way that looks three dimensional.

Asylum camera

This little photography booklet, for example.

The physicality of this book is to be considered, as well. It’s described as weighing ‘nearly five pounds’ which sounds like a lot, but until you hold it and realise just how light most books are… Well, I like books that can double as blunt weaponry. The pages are heavy-weight, glossy stock that I found myself absent-mindedly stroking. I was surprised it didn’t have a sewn-in, blood-red, silk bookmark, but I’m not bothered. It’s one of those books you have to keep smelling. I molested this one quite badly, I’m afraid.

Asylum Lithium

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls is half memoir and half Victorian fantasy. It’s all wonderful. To paraphrase Nick Hornby: This book wasn’t just up my street–it was on the front step, peering in the letterbox to see if I was in. It’s a cross between Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and Tim Burton if Burton went somewhere really dark. Like, REALLY dark. And without a torch. This dark:

I had to put a caption around this so it wouldn't blend in with my theme.

I had to put a caption around this so it wouldn’t blend in with my theme.

It’s available from Emilie Autumn’s website . On sale as of this writing, it would absolutely be worth full price. Two thumbs up and 5/5. I raise my teacup to you, Ms Autumn.


Ripper Street

by V. L. Craven

Ripper Street transparent

It’s London. 1889. Jack the Ripper hasn’t struck in a few months and Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) is certain he’s gone for good. Members of the public need a bit more convincing when a the body of a woman bearing marks similar to those left by the Ripper is found in Whitechapel–his old haunt.

That’s where the series gets its name, though Jack doesn’t come up again. Rather, each episode is a self-contained one-hour mystery solved by Reid, his Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn) and his American police doctor–the Victorian version of  medical examiner–Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg).

Each of the main characters (and some of the secondary characters) have their own back stories–tragic, of course–and get their own episode to be tragic at us. While they have their problems, the crime du jour is more interesting, given the means and motives of the day.

Speaking of the day, the show will be of interest to fans of Victorian history, as there are the women’s libbers, the arguments over the superiority of AC or DC current and a rather heavy-handed episode about the sodomy laws. Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man, brilliantly portrayed by Joseph Drake) plays an important role in an episode of the second series.

The Tube was being built in one episode and, my, how it was going to change things. But the show isn’t as pleased with itself about emerging technologies as Murdoch Mysteries . Rather, we get to see the scheming and backstabbing that went into making our present lives convenient.

It’s a good show for people who like to say, ‘Everyone was so much nicer back then.’ Yes, those slums and the way people who lived there were treated was the picture of politeness. And the police! If you were being taken to the police station, you were getting the piss kicked out of you. Everyone was so much nicer back then.

Though the main characters are tragic in their own way they’re both likable and unlikable. They’re human that way. Reid is interesting in that he’s a detective without a crippling vice. He has problems, he’s just not constantly crawling out of a bottle or from under a pile of women for once.

The show does a good job with the guest stars–particularly in the first series. Including two of Jerome Flynn’s Game of Throne’s castmates Kristian Nairn (if you want to see Hodor in a suit saying words, here’s your chance) and Iain Glen (Jorah Mormont).

I’d recommend Ripper Street for Victorian history fans–the sets and clothes and whatnot are lovely. Beyond that, it’s fairly standard in terms of crime shows.

The third series is currently airing. This review is for the first two series, which I’d rate 4/5.


Excuse Me, is It 1880 Outside?

by V. L. Craven

I spent my three-day weekend cleaning. [Labour Day weekend, which is sort of the unofficial end of summer and one of the few bank holidays in the States.] But now that my house is practically immaculate I can really get some reading and commonplacing done. Currently reading The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Dalhquist, which is a steampunky sort of Victorian tome. I’m not very far in, but I’m enjoying the various points of view–I do like it when novels are told by different characters. The novel is sprawling and intriguing and all those good things, but it could do with a little editing.

Also still reading and loving Great Expectations and My Wars Are Laid Away in Books , which is a biography of Emily Dickinson. I read Tom Bedlam by George Hagen last week and enjoyed it very much–it was quite Dickensian. It’s rather Victorian around my house these days–it’s interesting how you occasionally get into reading … not ‘rut’ really, just when you wind up unintentionally reading quite a few books in a similar vein. Or perhaps that only happens to me.

[This is a post from a previous blog. Original post date: 4 September 2007]


Games of the Victorian Variety

by V. L. Craven

My current favourite distraction is Arcane Empires , a strategy game with a Steampunk feel. A pretty typical strategy game, the goal is to build a city and grow an army in order to continue building your city and growing your army. You mine and farm resources as well as learn magic in order to advance your goals. There are alliances (which are good) and a global chat feature, that takes up valuable screen real estate and cannot be shut off (which is bad). It’s free and would be fine for all ages if you could turn off the global chat. Currently I’m levelling up so I can train armoured mammoths. Very looking forward to that. Available for Android and iOS devices.

For those that prefer their Victorian a little less parallel-universe-y, I recommend Blackwood and Bell Mysteries & Gardens of Time . They’re by the same company and look extremely similar. The game play is the same, as well: you’ve just come on as a new detective and you earn coins and points by doing hidden object scenes in order to find clues. You then use those coins to buy things for your London street in Blackwood and Bell or garden in Gardens of Time. It’s the sort of game where you have to wait for your energy to refill so that can be frustrating. Also, you can’t really decorate your garden or block the way you’d like, as you have missions where you have to have a certain number of items before you can level up. So your screen winds up being cluttered with the multiples of the most high value items rather than a mix of what looks best. Still, they are a bit of fun. Both are free and can be played on Android and iOS devices, as well as on Facebook.

Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles
. I was really looking forward to this one, but there was a load screen between every scene and sometimes when trying to do something within a scene. The graphics were good, as were the hidden object scenes and minigames. The storytelling was fine from the preview I played, but the load screen issue gave me too much time to think, ‘Why am I doing this when I could be doing something productive?’ Really good hidden object games should make you regret wasting that five hours after you’ve done so, as you were too engaged at the time to notice. I opted not to purchase the full game, but it’s $2.99USD


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