Valerie Green's love of history and journalism shine forth in Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper-Class Victoria 1843-1918. She has taken on a mammoth challenge, that of broadly surveying the history of Victoria specifically, and Vancouver Island across to the greater Vancouver region of British Columbia in general, with a focus on showcasing the lifestyle of eight carefully selected founding families of Victoria. The task is a complex one that she rises to valiantly. Green depicts interaction between the rough, untamed wilderness with all its attendant challenges, and the steely temperaments of the men and women who arrive to transform it into a citadel of English culture.
In pursuing her topic, Green has constructed a sort of virtual museum, showcasing each family individually in Part One, then cutting across family lines in Part Two with topical descriptions of more intimate life details. Above Stairs is illustrated throughout with photographs from historical archives, though unfortunately the page size required many of the original images to be reduced so much that little detail is discernible.
I've long been fascinated by Victoria's mystical beauty and English influence and although I visited Victoria once several decades ago, I knew almost nothing about the place. Above Stairs gave me more understanding of the region and how it came to be.
Green's "museum model" allows her to focus on one family at a time, giving a broad-brush overview of their lifestyle and surveying their contributions to the development of Victoria and the region. Her carefully selected tidbits of information were enough to arouse a hunger to learn more, which I could easily do via her immaculate documentation in endnotes and bibliography. The story does become a bit confusing as the families overlap and intermarry, and timing jumps around from one family to the next. A timeline would have been helpful, and I found it useful to keep a map of the area at hand as I read.
Although details of daily life are sparse in Part One, some of the gaps are filled in Part Two, as Green documents diversions like balls and banquets, costumes, conveyances and conversation. She describes their homes and tells of various rituals such as tea parties and the Victorian era scrapbooks many of the ladies kept. Although she often writes in generalities, it's easy to see that the women spent a good part of each day simply changing clothes to be appropriately attired for each activity, often food-centered.
While a sweeping novel inferring passions and tension might be more gripping and vivid, I admire and respect Green's dedication to sticking to documented material. She has richly set the stage for readers to fill in the "blanks" as they may be inspired.
Valerie Green was born and educated in England with a background in journalism, English literature and history. She has lived in Victoria, BC, since 1968, where she works as a freelance writer, writing the Pages from the Past column in the Saanich News as well as other magazine and newspaper articles. Valerie is the author of many historical books set in the Pacific Northwest, including family biographies and mystery-suspense fiction. Visit her website.
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