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The reality of cottage living,
This review is from: The Garden Cottage Diaries: My Year in the Eighteenth Century (Hardcover)
I spent two or three pleasant afternoons immersed in 18th century Scotland whilst reading `The Cottage Garden Diaries`.
The author begins by describing her lifelong interest in the way people used to live, in an attempt to explain why she came up with the idea of living in a historically accurate way for a year. Then she details the preparations she made, including patching up a cottage on her property as her new home. She made her own clothes, and learned how to use a tinderbox to light the range. Her model for the year was a typical 18th century schoolmaster's wife, which would have been quite a tough life - expected to maintain high standards of dress and decency on a tiny salary.
Then we're off into the experiment proper, and a chapter details each month through the year (1st January to 31st December 2005). There's narrative text describing the trials and tribulations of the month, plus recipes and the occasional instruction manual on how to do things our recent ancestors would have taken for granted - like making tallow candles. There's a list of the month's chores, nature notes from a life spent considerably more outside than ours and occasional entries from the author's diary, printed up in tiny handwriting which makes reading them a bit of a chore - especially when you come across a Scottish word you don't know and have to skip to the glossary at the back to look it up.
As you might expect, there are some grinding hardships that weigh heavy on our author. Her period clothing is cumbersome; she doesn't always have the energy to wear it. She has no transport, and walks for miles to collect milk from the village. Heating water for a wash is tricky, and she smells permanently of smoke and has ash in her hair despite her bonnet. In the winter the cottage is cold, and throughout the year she has no light in the evenings beyond her candles - which would have been a considerable household expense and husbanded very closely. A daily chore is chopping wood for the fire and the range.
Cooking is limited, but for the most part she seemed to have plenty to eat. Most months of the year her garden and the countryside contributed greatly to her diet. A certain amount of game is brought to her, and some gifts of fish and meat. But there is at least one month where she craves blackcurrants and realizes that she's short on vitamin C. And she doesn't only have to feed herself - she has a steady stream of guests to look after as well.
At the end of the book there are some good chapters about life after the experiment, including one where she confesses to all the slips out of the period that weren't mentioned in the monthly chapters. Although she was somewhat cut off from the world during her year `away', she had a modern life that she had to keep up with. A baby came into the world, there was a death in the family and she had work commitments to keep on top of. I don't think anyone would judge her too harshly for washing her hair occasionally!
There's also a list of all the food she had during the year, and the money she spent. It's a very detailed account of a year spent living a different sort of life, but more than that it's really very interesting. And it's a very well designed book too, and would make a lovely gift for anyone interested in the 18th century or self-sufficiency.