Literature

We’ve just past November 30th, St Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Scotland, so it feels appropriate to celebrate the 19th century transformation of that beautiful country.

Flatback Staffordshire figure: Highlander with deer (45 cms. high)

My parents lived in Invernesshire, in the Scottish Highlands, for many years and their house contained a number of things unmistakably inspired by Scotland, one of which was this large flat back Staffordshire figure of a kilted Highlander  with his arm around what looks like a small deer. I’ve always liked it – partly because it looks so absurd. There is a gun dangerously positioned beside the highlander’s left leg pointing upwards, (my brothers and I had to learn the ‘Never, never let your gun/ Pointed be at anyone’ rule before my father, an excellent shot, would allow us anywhere near a gun), and the figure has a horn at his waist. Why? To summon a gillie? Or does it contain gunpowder for the gun, though that seems unlikely.

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Open House weekend in London happens once a year, in September; when all sorts of buildings which you can’t usually see inside, both public and private, are open to the public – for free. This year, my niece and I decided to visit the tomb of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), Victorian explorer, soldier, linguist (he spoke at least forty languages), scholar and prolific author and translator who had long been a hero of mine.

Sir Richard Burton’s tomb in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen’s in Mortlake

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Lord Byron (1788-1824), Romantic poet; a man fatally attractive to women; a friend of many literary figures of his day, including the atheist poet, Shelley; a fighter for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire; and an intrepid traveller, was a man who tended to leave scandals in his wake. In 1809, when he was twenty-one, he left England for the continent on what he called a ‘pilgrimage’. In effect, it was a Grand Tour, taking in Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Albania and Greece, and it seems to have involved a lot of drinking, stupendous scenery, and sex.

Ancient Apollonia, the Agonothetes Monument; a reminder that Albania was once part of Greece  

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Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes(1936) was one of my favourite books as a child and I suspect that many other girls have also loved it because, eighty-two years later, it is still in print. My own, very worn, copy has the original illustrations by Ruth Gervis (1894-1988) which I’ve always thought were just right.

Noel Streatfeild (1895-1986) Courtesy of Wikipedia

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In every film or television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many) Mr Bennet comes across as a sympathetic character; a man we could like. We enjoy his irony with regard to the oleaginous Mr Collins: ‘It is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?’

He finds Mr Collins ‘as absurd as he had hoped; and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance…’ And we laugh with him.

But there is a less admirable side to Mr Bennet, one which leads to a great deal of unhappiness for his elder daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, and near disaster for the flighty Lydia who runs off with the caddish (though handsome) Wickham.

19th century reticule

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I’ve just collected a box containing nine books from the library of a ninety-three-year-old cultured and elegant lady I’d known for many years who died last year. She left a number of her books and runs of architectural magazines to various museums and institutions, and the rest were to be shared out among her many friends. A few months after the funeral, I got a book list of well over 1500 books – I could choose as many I liked and it was, more or less, first come, first served.

The experience of looking through the huge list, printed in minute 8pt, was a bit like exploring Aladdin’s cave, with dash of delving into a bran tub. All I had were the titles and author; I had no idea whether the book was large or small, paperback or hardback. They were divided into sections covering the Contessa’s areas of interest: Architecture, Italy, History (social and cultural), the Arts, European Royalty, etc. and a small selection of fiction.

THE ETRUSCANS: History and Treasures of an Ancient Civilization

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Jane Austen’s niece, Anna Austen Lefroy (1793-1872) was, as far as we know, her only relation who was also a novelist – though, in her case, an aspiring one. When she was nineteen, Anna asked her aunt various questions regarding her own novel Which is the Heroine? For example: does Dawlish have a decent library? Jane’s answer was that it was ‘pitiful and wretched’. What I found interesting was that Jane understood her niece’s concern to get things right. Both wrote contemporary novels and they both knew that accuracy was important.

 

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery

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When I was fifteen, my mother gave me Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost for Christmas. It was a book she’d loved as a child and she thought I might like it, too. First published in 1909, it was republished sixty-one times, and, by the time the author died in 1924, more than 10 million copies of her various books had been sold. A Girl of the Limberlost was also turned into a Silent Film.

Gene Stratton Porter, courtesy of Wikipedia

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On a cold winter’s morning, in the 3rd century A.D., a centurion called Parnesius of the Ulpia Victrix stood on Hadrian’s wall and gazed at the bleak, heather-covered hillside to the barbarian north. This was not a posting he’d wanted, and he missed the olives and wine of his native Tuscany, but he had a job to do and he must make the best of things.

Mithras slaying the sacred bull, Ostia museum

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