Past times

11th December 1998 at 00:00
WHAT FAMILIES WERE LIKE SERIES. Victorian Times. Second World War. By Fiona Reynoldson. Wayland Pounds 8.99 each.

Politicians can't stop talking about families. Historians remind us of the many meanings we find for the word.

These books, adapted from older editions for children of seven upwards, show how one age's certainty is another era's strait-jacket.

Victorian Times gives us the Queen and her subjects, comfortably rich (paintings of bourgeois picnics and patrician tennis parties) and anxiously poor (photo-graphs of whey-faced street-urchins). Mutton-chopped paterfamilias look sternly or indulgently over their cowed or romping offspring. One picture needs a note: the undefined "dangerous game of snapdragon" involved pulling raisins from burning brandy. This is a fine introduction to a world founded on social injustice and vanished assurances.

In Second World War, we meet, understandably, more women and children. The children look serious with their gas masks and luggage labels; they tune in to the wireless or flock cheerfully round candy-wielding GIs. The women spot 'planes, work lathes, grow food, run buses, as well as keep households alive on love and hard toil.

Posters are admirably chosen to sound varied notes of warning, exhortation and resignation. Women, we are told, "tried to be cheerful" when writing to their absent menfolk during the blitz. That note of realism is characteristic of the tone of two well-produced, thoughtful and visually attractive books.

Tom Deveson

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