20 August 2017

The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume 2 1920 - 24

My Rose Macaulay book has been put aside for the moment, in favour of Virginia Woolf's diary entries.  With Monk's House still on my mind since my visit there, I placed an inter-library hold on Caroline Zoob's beautiful book Virginia Woolf's Garden.  Once it arrived, the pressure of a due date loomed so a good bit of spare time has been spent on the patio enjoying it.

As National Trust tenants, Caroline and her husband lived at Monk's House for ten years, beginning in 2000.  I enjoyed and so appreciated the intricate embroidery that illustrates various locations of the property before realizing they were all done by Caroline herself.  A loving tribute that I would love to see as an exhibit in itself one day.  Could it ever happen?

The Woolf's purchased Monk's House in 1919.  A date that reminded me of owning a volume of Virginia's diary (a more decrepit copy you'd be hardpressed to find) that begins in 1920.  One peek at entries describing the comings and goings at Monk's House in Rodmell, Gordon Square in London and Hogarth House in Richmond and I couldn't stop.  While sympathizing with Virginia's fragile mental health and physical ailments, the ability to switch back and forth between city and countryside sounds appealing.  Although, there were times when the feeling of being settled took days, and then the guests appeared.  Sometimes stimulating, but also intrusive for someone wanting a quiet mind in order to focus on work.

Reading this volume of Virginia's diaries before venturing too far into her fiction has widened by view of her situation and mindset.  It's also incredibly readable!  Nothing missed her gaze and sometimes the remembrance was both brutal and vivid, such as describing soldiers at Waterloo station, missing limbs, as 'spiders propelling themselves along the platform'.  But with wonderfully restrained humour she wrote ' Lytton stays at home with Lady Strachey, who has taken to fainting on the floor'.

No other author seems to consume Virginia Woolf, at least in this volume, as Katherine Mansfield.  She praises her work, then cuts it, and questions a feeling of relief at her death...'a rival the less'.  Virginia continues to mention Katherine at intervals throughout the diary but I was shocked by a comment towards the end of this volume.  Despite being dead almost two years, Katherine was still hovering in Vriginia's consciousness as something of a threat or competitor....

'The thought of Katherine Mansfield comes to me--as usual rather reprehensibly--first wishing she could see Southampton Row, thinking of the dulness (sic) of her death, lying there at Fontainebleu--an end where there was no end, & then thinking, yes, if she'd lived, she'd have written on, & people would have seen that I was the more gifted--that wd. only have become more & more apparent.'

Usually I would find that sort of arrogance off-putting but the many facets of Virginia Woolf make me want to learn more about her.  For all of the images I've had of this remarkable author, not one of them involved her in the kitchen making bread but she was quite good at it.  Thinking of Virginia as having days of happiness while enjoying the garden, walking the fields in Rodmell with their dogs, canning fruit from their trees balances the stories of a complex writer struggling under the weight of depression.  Now to track down the other volumes of her diaries.

The experience of visiting Monk's House has certainly lingered and if I could, I would line up today to take it all in again.

Leonard and Virginia at Monk's House

9 August 2017

Larking About on the Thames

The history of mudlarking goes back hundreds of years when people, particularly children, would scour the shore looking for anything to sell on or use themselves.  For me it was an opportunity to connect with the past - to hold something that was once in a Victorian home, or perhaps even a pin that held a young girl's hat in place.

In less than an hour on the shore of the Thames I found a handful of bits and pieces lying among the pebbles.  As each wave rolled in and out, making an almost chiming sound as bits of rock went back and forth, my eye was drawn to something new.

Over the past few weeks I've spent some time trying to find out more about my bits of treasure.  What I initially thought was the broken lip of a bowl (lower right side) turned out to be a horse's tooth!  The bit of shoe leather I thought might be no age at all, is possibly over one hundred years old.  There's a saying that clay pipe stems littering the foreshore are the cigarette butts of the seventeenth century - so true.  But it's fascinating to hold a piece of clay that once soothed someone in a moment of leisure.

The button has a brass pin shank and I'm still trying to figure out if it's Bakelite, celluloid or lucite.  I don't think it's casein because that doesn't hold up well in water.  In any case, it's quite likely my button was holding a garment closed at some point between 1930 - 1950.

The piece of brown pottery at the bottom is quite pitted and only glazed on one side (not showing).  Initially thinking this was a bit of roof tile, a bit of digging around on the internet has shown it to possibly be a bit of medieval pottery.  You can't help but think of the person who formed it, carted it about, and what it was used for.

The threaded piece at the top looks like a bit of piping.  When it dried and I took a closer look, it's more like tooled leather.  I have no idea what it could have been used for...as decoration on a trunk?  And the very ugly green bit of glass to the right of that....when it's wet you can see through it, but what was it from?  Perhaps it wasn't anything - a piece of melting glass cast off as waste.  Anyway, it looks like an old slug.

My husband and I have a glass container for the lake glass we find while playing with the dogs over the years.  The difference between the shores of Lake Ontario and the Thames are a world apart - literally.

1 August 2017

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

While browsing the display tables and shelves of London's bookshops, I was hoping to find another story like The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.  Not a replica of the characters, setting or plot, but something matching its tone of fresh mixed with nostalgia.  Something well-written and atmospheric.  When Rachel (Book Snob) mentioned she was reading Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, I asked her if it was good.  Little did I know just how perfectly it would fit the bill.

The prologue reveals two characters, the first is a woman scanning the landscape through a cottage window.  The second is a woman on the verge of freedom outside the gates of Holloway prison.

The story begins during the summer of 1940 in rural England, on the edge of the Downs.  The family farm is being solely run by Elsie, the last member of her family willing or able to do so.  Being something of a gentle soul, the calmness of empty lanes and rolling hills provide the perfect setting for Elsie.  The extra help supplied by Land Girls is necessary but the idea of sharing the space and view is far from relished.  The next recruit, Rene Hargreaves, is about to arrive.

Miss Hargreaves background is more complex than Elsie's.  Breaking free from a marriage to a man with a gambling addiction meant housing her children with relatives.  To walk away from a marriage is one thing, but to walk away from small children is akin to one of the harshest crimes committed by a woman.  With her past kept as a closely guarded secret, Rene begins a new phase of her life as an independent woman and Elsie's partner.  A relationship soon flourishes between the two and they become inseparable.

A promise to return the favour of help when it's needed most brings the past flooding back to Rene with dire consequences.

In one of those fabulously lucky circumstances, part of this story is set in Winchester.  As descriptions of the city centre are mentioned I'm reminded of my time spent there only three weeks ago.  My day in Winchester was sunny and bright but Malik paints a picture of dreary and relentless rain.

'Ventilation was poor and the damp atmosphere held on to every smell: there was a heady whiff of breakfast fry and strong, sweet tea. fresh tobacco and late-night booze along with the tang of curious chemical compounds:  mothballs and Coty, Camay and hair oil'.

It would have been easy to sensationalize the story of Elsie Boston and Rene Hargreaves, but there is none of that here.  It's a beautiful story with a bite; a slow simmer that turns into something of a boil.  And to learn that it's based in reality adds to the fascination - Rene Hargreaves is the author's grandmother.  Blending fact with fiction, Rachel Malik has produced a wonderful debut novel that ticked all sorts of boxes and I certainly hope she's going to keep writing.

Thanks for recommending this book, Rachel (Book Snob)...I loved it!

   Train Landscape by Eric Ravilious, 1939

22 July 2017

London: The Books

The days before luggage with wheels must have been a nightmare for the book-mad anglophile visiting London.  Still, thoughts of wheeling my luggage through Russell Square on my way to the tube station forced a lid on my enthusiasm.  It didn't stop me from making a bee line into every bookshop along the way though because, as we booklovers know...it's a compulsion.  The second-hand shops on Charing Cross Road, the creaking steps of Hatchards, the freshness of Foyles, and the vast selection at Waterstones is just as I left them two years ago, but it was so nice to be back.

Back with me from London is....

The Fox Book by Jane Russ - A perfect combination of beautiful photos, illustrations, and poems combined with research about the beautiful fox.  A section focusing on the fox in art and literature looks particularly good and sealed the deal for me.  Ever since reading Lady into Fox by David Garnett last year I've been gripped by a fascination for this creature.

The Sea Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard - Bought at the Oxfam shop in Highgate Village and one of the new editions reissued by Picador.  A like-new book for a mere £3.  An exploration of four characters in the setting of three countries...sounds epic and perfect for reading on the patio.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard - It really can't put it off any longer, I'm jumping into the world of the Cazalet family.  There has been many incredulous looks and comments from people when they find out I haven't read this series yet....that does it, I'm in!

A Dangerous Innocence by Artemis Cooper - There's a theme here, isn't there.  It's a bit like discovering the writings of Elizabeth Taylor - you can't stop once you've started.  Elizabeth Jane Howard keeps coming up in articles having to do with twentieth century fiction and authors.  Her name even came up at the book talk I attended at Waterstones in connection with an affair, of which I suspect there was a few....this is going to be a book to keep me up at night.

The Greedy Queen:  Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray - I've been looking forward to this book since hearing Gray discuss it on a podcast last winter.  You can almost feel gluttonous and full just imagining the daily requirements of such a robust monarch.  Also, the social aspects of food during the Victorian era are fascinating.  I suspect there will be loads of information about puddings, but I'm not looking forward to anything having to do with aspic...blech.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik - While gathered around a table at the London Review Bookshop, I asked Rachel (Book Snob) what she was reading.  She mentioned this title with enthusiasm so I whipped out a pen and made note of it right away.  When Mary, Simon, Rachel and I made our way to the Oxfam shop nearby, a proof copy was on the shelves.  Technically, these are not for resale but when it comes to a donation for Oxfam surely that must be alright.  It's an excellent read so far!

Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf - Couples strolling through the garden during a hot afternoon in July as described by one of the best.  A well-timed gift as I had been to Monk's House only the day before I received this beautiful edition.  Thank you, Mary!

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf - There's a passage from this story in my copy of Everyman's Stories from the Kitchen that made me want to read more.  Knowing I would be visiting Monk's House, I put off buying or borrowing a copy so it could be a souvenir of my visit.

Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay - 'Bitingly funny, elegantly written comedy of manners....'.  I had already bought a book by Macaulay from the Oxfam bookshop in Bloomsbury but Simon (Stuck In A Book) said that this was his favourite by the author, and now I can see why.  So this is a gift from Simon....thank you!

Messalina of the Suburbs by E. M. Delafield - Rachel (Book Snob) presented me with this book, but the title isn't one I was familiar with.  I've since learned it's based on a real-life case in which a woman was hanged in 1923 for being an accomplice to her husband's murder.  Most definitely not at all like the Provincial Lady series, but I'm very intrigued!  Thank you, Rachel!

The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple - Another generous offering from Rachel, who knows that an autobiography by Dorothy Whipple must be housed with just the right person, and that person would be me.  This is not an easy book to come by so I'm very grateful for the opportunity to own a copy without searching the earth.

Keeping up Appearances by Rose Macaulay - Someone must have stopped into the Oxfam shop in Bloomsbury with their collection by this author.  There were at least five editions sitting together on the top of a shelf, just waiting to be spotted.  I was drawn to this title because I adore the antics of Hyacinth Bucket but then I read a line that described a character buying cami-knickers on Oxford Street.  That's all I needed to know....sold!