Literature

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At first glance, Mrs Bennet seems to have nothing whatsoever to recommend her as a mother. Jane Austen, who had a sharp tongue when she’d a mind to, tells us that, ‘She was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.’ This harsh judgement is corroborated by Mr Darcy, in his letter to Lizzy, where he doesn’t hesitate to point out  Mrs Bennet’s ‘total want of propriety’. And poor Lizzy herself, ‘blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation’ when her mother showed up her ill-breeding when she came to Netherfield when Jane was ill.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

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The new exhibition, George IV, Art & Spectacle, at the Queen’s Gallery shows King George IV, our most ‘exuberant king’ as the tube posters have it, to be a mass of contradictions. The portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence depicts him in all his royal Majesty – and we must remember that he was the King-in-Waiting for many years. George, Prince of Wales, had finally become Prince Regent in 1811 when his father, George III, finally succumbed to madness, and stayed in that difficult position until the king’s death in 1820. George III had been King for over 6o years and the previous coronation had been forgotten. The new George IV was determined that his coronation would be of unparalleled magnificence. Perhaps he felt that, after all that waiting, he was owed something in compensation.

Sir Thomas Lawrence, George IV (1762-1830), 1821. Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

George IV designed himself a magnificent Coronation costume. – he had good legs, why not show them off?

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The short but tumultuous life of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), one of the greatest of the Romantic poets of the early 19th century, shows him to have been a man of contradictions. He disapproved of matrimony – but married twice; he was a vegetarian (rare at the time), a republican and a Radical. He was thrown out of Eton for expressing atheistic views. But he was also intelligent and highly imaginative and has been described as ‘the poet of volcanic hope for a better world’. At his best, as in his sonnet Ozymandias, he is inimitable.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) by Amelia Curran, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) was one of my favourite books as a child. The heroine, Sara Crewe, says early on: Whenever I play I make up stories and tell them to myself.’  I, too, told myself stories, and I knew at once that this would be my sort of book.

Sara was born in India and, as was usual then for health reasons, was sent to England for her education when she was seven. We first meet her with her much loved father in London, being taken to Miss Mitchin’s Select Academy for Young Ladies. She will be a parlour border, that is, she will stay there during the holidays. I, too, was at a Primary boarding school – so that was another thing we shared.

‘Oh, Papa!’ she cried, ‘There is Emily.’

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Re-reading Emma recently, it struck me that, far more than Jane Austen’s other novels, it is permeated by a sort of unease about class. On the surface, it’s a socially stable society with the Woodhouses at Hartfield and Mr Knightley at Donwell Abbey at the apex. Their wealth and status has obviously been established for many generations – that socially damning word ‘trade’ is no part of their financial inheritance. It is the heroine, Emma Woodhouse, who is the most conscious of social class and she believes that she knows to a T where everyone fits into the class structure. It is Emma who is the most unforgiving about people wanting to climb above their ‘proper’  – as she sees it – place.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870 courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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I first came across Gilbert & Sullivan operas when I was about 17 when I went to live with my aunt Dolly, who was not only a Communist, ‘Nobody’s red enough for me, dear!’ but also a commercial artist with a lot of interesting, arty friends, including Dennis, a film cameraman. Dennis and his wife were very involved with their local G & S Opera Society. Every year, my aunt and I would go to see whichever G & S opera the society were performing.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Savoy Operas, first published in 1926. I inherited this from Aunt Dolly and very useful it is.  

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Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846), artist, and author of a brilliant diary, is somewhat neglected nowadays, though he was an interesting man and counted Keats, Hazlitt and Wordsworth among his friends. He was a good portrait painter – as his 1842 portrait of Wordsworth below attests – but, unfortunately, he passionately believed in the old-fashioned 18th century notion that Great Painting should concentrate on historical and religious subjects in the Grand Manner.

William Wordsworth against a background of the majestic Helvellyn, in the Lake District,  by Benjamin Haydon, 1842. Once a staunch Radical and Romantic poet, Wordsworth, by 1842, had become an establishment figure and would become Poet Laureate in the following year. 

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Re-reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice recently, I found myself wondering why everyone in the Lucas family, calls Elizabeth Bennet ‘Eliza’, rather than ‘Lizzy’, which is what her family call her. Is she a slightly different person when she is ‘Eliza’? And why is she Charlotte Lucas’s ‘intimate friend’, anyway? Jane Austen describes Charlotte as, ‘a sensible, intelligent young woman, about twenty-seven’. Elizabeth is twenty, and we know that she has a close relationship with her twenty-two-year-old sister Jane. Normally, at twenty, one’s friends tend to be one’s own age, for example, Kitty Bennet is a close friend of Charlotte’s sister, Maria, who is more or less her own age, so we are allowed to ask what Elizabeth gets from her friendship with Charlotte that she doesn’t get from Jane.

Mr Collins accosting Mr Darcy at the Netherfield Ball by Charles E Brock

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This week I’m in Rochester, an important naval town on the River Medway which flows into the Thames. There is a huge amount to see in Rochester from Roman times onwards, but today I’m looking at one house.

Being a Charles Dickens fan, I have long wanted to visit Restoration House, supposedly Dickens’  inspiration in Great Expectations for Miss Havisham’s home, Satis House, that ‘large and gloomy’ place, full of dust, cobwebs and shadows and lit only by candlelight. It is here that the young Pip is entrapped by Miss Havisham’s desire to seek revenge, through him, for her lover jilting her so cruelly on her wedding day.

Restoration House

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