The best books about women, birds, and nature

Tessa Boase Author Of Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds
By Tessa Boase

Who am I?

I’m an investigative journalist and social historian who’s obsessed with ‘invisible’ women of the 19th and early 20th century, bringing their stories to life in highly readable narrative non-fiction. I love the detective work involved in resurrecting ordinary women’s lives: shop girls, milliners, campaigning housewives, servants. . . The stories I’ve uncovered are gripping, often shocking and frequently poignant – but also celebrate women’s determination, solidarity and capacity for reinvention. Each of my two books took me on a long research journey deep into the archives: The Housekeeper’s Tale – the Women Who Really Ran the English Country House, and Etta Lemon – The Woman Who Saved the Birds.


I wrote...

Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds

By Tessa Boase,

Book cover of Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds

What is my book about?

Etta Lemon is the formidable woman who built the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Her surname suited her. She was bitter in her opposition to the plumage trade, acid in her scorn for women’s vanity. Her RSPB colleagues called her ‘The Dragon’, but to the public, she was simply ‘Mother of the Birds.’ Where she led, the Audubon Society would follow. Her legacy is Britain’s biggest conservation charity. But she has not been remembered by history.

Etta’s bird protection crusade was eclipsed by the more glamorous campaign for the vote, led by the elegantly plumed Emmeline Pankhurst. This fast-paced book shines a light on the interlinked (and often fractious) movements for women's rights and animal rights, showcasing two formidable heroines and their rival, overlapping campaigns.

The books I picked & why

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Birds Art Life Death: The Art of Noticing the Small and Significant

By Kyo Maclear,

Book cover of Birds Art Life Death: The Art of Noticing the Small and Significant

Why this book?

A perfectly formed, intimate epiphany of a book about birdwatching, by a non-birdwatcher. Unmoored by her father’s illness, Maclear tries to find a way of making life make sense. She experiments with calligraphy; she wrestles with writer’s block. One day she meets a birdwatching musician, who explains how the activity helps dissipate his worries and daily pressures. Intrigued, she asks if she can tag along. Reluctant at first, and almost despite herself, the author begins to find peace and unexpected beauty in the urban landscape. She discovers that simply being still triggers introspection. This is also a book about the tension between freedom and confinement – something that resonates particularly for me, as a writer with children.


Women Against Cruelty: Protection of Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain

By Diana Donald,

Book cover of Women Against Cruelty: Protection of Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Why this book?

Victorian women were at the forefront of Britain’s animal protection movement. We owe our compassionate reflex to their hard-fought battles against cruelty. Women founded the Battersea Dogs’ Home, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the many groups that opposed vivisection. They lobbied for better treatment of animals, both through practical action (demonstrations, gruesome shop window displays, pamphleteering) and through writing, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Yet their male opponents dismissed their efforts as sentimental and hysterical. For an overview of women’s struggles under the patriarchy (eg, patronisingly menial tasks dished out by a male RSPCA council) this is a fascinating read.


Women on Nature

By Katharine Norbury,

Book cover of Women on Nature

Why this book?

‘What would happen,’ Norbury writes in her introduction to this anthology, ‘if I simply missed out the 50 percent of the population whose voices have been credited with shaping this particular cultural form?’ (ie, the ‘lone enraptured male,’ as writer Kathleen Jamie once memorably put it). The answer is a compulsively readable and constantly surprising anthology: a magpie curation of glittering treasures.

One of the many things I love about this timely book is its arrangement by alphabetical order. So you have contemporary nature blogger Nic Wilson next to Virginia Woolf, and Monica Ali rubbing shoulders with Elizabeth von Armin – and Enid Blyton next to Tessa Boase. This feels oddly apt: the writer who got me reading. Her entry illustrates Norbury’s inspired eye for what counts as ‘nature writing’: here, Philip mansplains a slow-worm to silly Dinah.


On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging

By Nicola Chester,

Book cover of On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging

Why this book?

An unusually honest, rural memoir by the RSPB’s longest-serving female columnist. Chester’s writing has a lovely elasticity, dancing between wonder, introspection, and anger as she moves from the particular to the universal. I learned a lot about how Britain’s countryside is managed. I also enjoyed her more eccentric impulses, such as lying down in the snow on the edge of a field one night, just to see what might happen. She belongs to the disappearing English rural working class, and is intent on handing this baton to her three children. Chester also explores the familiar tension between wanting to write and being needed at home. The heady ecstasy of time carved out alone, in nature. The scrabble to earn a precarious living, and the insecurities of occupying a tied cottage. The idea of ‘home’ lies at the heart of this fierce, beautifully written, immersive book about one’s place within the landscape.


Fledgling

By Hannah Bourne-Taylor,

Book cover of Fledgling

Why this book?

Here’s how an intense, almost obsessive focus on wildlife can bring solace from chaos and alienation. Young bird-lover Hannah Bourne-Taylor moves to Ghana as a ‘trailing spouse,’ and it’s the fauna that keeps her going as she struggles to rebuild her identity. Two stray dogs leap into her life; a pangolin needs saving from someone’s dinner table. But it’s the act of saving a swift and a mannikin finch, nurturing and releasing the birds back into the wild, that provides the key to this closely observed, touching story. At first, the finch doesn’t want to re-wild – and Hannah realizes with a shock that she’s humanized it. Explores interesting dilemmas about intervening on nature’s behalf, and whether one act of compassion can really make a difference. A book full of hope.


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