Review | Toksvig’s Almanac – Sandi Toksvig

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I received a small pile of books for my birthday last month, and Toksvig’s Almanac was the one I wanted to get stuck in to first. As I only knew of the almanac genre as being something from the 1700s/1800s, I sort of assumed they had been rendered obsolete by the internet, so first I went to a dictionary to check that I knew what an almanac actually was.

Here’s the history lesson for anyone who wants it: an almanac is a usually-yearly publication that holds information about multiple subjects at once. Ancient almanacs contained information about all sorts of topics that farmers, sailors, and astronomers would need. They were like a focused encyclopedia that covered what those readers would need to know in the year ahead. This included planting dates for crops; dates for natural events like eclipses and cultural events like holidays; plus celestial information like when stars and constellations could be seen. Modern almanacs still exist, though they expand the concept beyond farming and calendars into statistics, history, and collections of facts.

As a reference book, Toksvig’s Almanac isn’t really meant to be read from beginning to end (although it can be). It also isn’t meant to be a exhaustive dive into any of the individual people featured, which Toksvig makes clear in her introduction. Toksvig’s Almanac is a collection of jumping-off-points, a signpost pointing readers to the existence of hundreds of names, stories and events so that they can learn more about the ones that interest them. Its main focus is a chronological tour through the year, which highlights a different woman on each day. (To do this, it also has a good introductory explanation of the Gregorian and Julian calendars, and of why September-December seem to be in the wrong place in our calendar – short version, blame Augustus Caesar!).

The entries for each date are supplemented by quotes, poems, information about worldwide holidays and festivals, and longer entries about stories that connect multiple historical figures. The entry about how suffragists began to use cookbooks to spread political education and information about the suffrage movement to women was the most novel of these for me, as its a connection that I would never have thought to look into without being informed about it from outside.

Although the book mentions some of the horrible circumstances and terrible treatment that many of the people featured faced, it keeps the warm and friendly tone that characterised Toksvig’s YouTube series Vox Tox. (The series was the inspiration for this book, and so the book has a similar presentation and feel). The barriers put in front of the women in this book were huge and often spiteful, and the number of women who had to disguise their identity, endure forced marriages, or even uproot to new countries entirely just to work or get an education was staggering. Bessie Coleman, the world’s first African-American pilot, had to move to France to learn to fly because in the USA “no white instructor wanted to teach a black person, and no black pilot wanted to teach a woman”.

Toksvig gives her opinion on the strangeness and cruelty of many historical beliefs, but she always does so humorously and never maliciously. For example, she describes Almroth Wright (an immunologist who wrote books arguing that women should not be able to vote) as “it seems that he was terribly clever about the human body and antibiotics, but never really understood the uterus”. She makes clear that even though some of the people featured here have done things that she doesn’t condone or support, the point is about recording history, not about recording “nice” history.

Toksvig is also appropriately careful and sensitive when it comes to recording people’s actions without pasting modern assumptions about their motivations on top. She discusses how:

“…history records many women who dressed as men. From this distance it is impossible know if these women dressed as men simply to take advantage of the opportunities that were only offered to men, or if they were what we would now call trans men.”

This is a point that’s often contested for historical doctors and soldiers, such as Dr James Barry or pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Its great to see Toksvig call special attention to the ambiguity here for anyone who might not be aware.

One of my favourite elements is the ending, which is less of a wrapping-up and more of an invitation. In many of the individual entries of the almanac, Toksvig mentions that the historical records give varied or incomplete information about the women involved – in many cases they are described only in relation to their husbands or fathers, or entirely excluded. The ending follows this aspect of the almanac, and talks about how women are still left out of current events and history as it is being recorded. But she doesn’t make this point to despair; she makes this point to encourage people to record what they see so that it doesn’t become lost to time.

“Whole swathes of the world are being excluded from the historical records, and if we don’t do something about it then this present capturing of history will become accepted as unchangeable fact. We can all do something about it”.

Toksvig encourages an approach that I’ve not seen put in a printed book before – editing Wikipedia to add articles and information about historical (and current) people who are often overlooked. Usually, people either talk about Wikipedia as either an unreliable playground or as the saviour of the internet, so seeing Toksvig discuss Wikipedia as something that is powerful and very good but also flawed in a way that can be worked on, was surprising.

Conclusion

Like most documented history, almanacs often reflect the passions and interests of their writer. I would say that this is true of Toksvig’s Almanac; the content here is interesting regardless of whether you’re familiar with Toksvig, but the style is entirely hers. As such, one of the quickest ways to work out if you would enjoy reading Toksvigs Almanac is to watch some Vox Tox episodes. Some entries within the Alamanac, such as the books written about the dangers of women being allowed to read (yes, really…), are expansions of ideas originally mentioned in Vox Tox, but the majority of entries are all-new.

Overall, I would strongly recommend Toksvig’s Almanac. It holds an incredible number of stories, people, and connections that I never knew about, and now I know that those people exist I can find out more about them.

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