History

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Every now and then my local library has a book sale and some years ago, whilst eagerly scanning the book titles, one of Virago’s familiar dark green covers caught my eye. It was High Albania by a woman I’d never heard of, Edith Durham, (1863-1944). First published in 1907, it was an eye-witness account of her hair-raising travels in the mountains of Albania. Intrigued, I bought it.

High Albania by Edith Durham

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This year is the poet William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday. So why should we celebrate him?

From a 21st century point of view, the problem with William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is that it’s difficult to label him neatly. He was an early Romantic poet who held radical views. His fellow-poet contemporaries, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, who knew him personally, all predeceased him by at least twenty-five years. We cannot know how Byron, Keats and Shelley would have turned out if they had lived, but Wordsworth, unromantically, became an Establishment figure, one of the nation’s most loved and respected poets, and ended up as Poet Laureate.

William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1842. The poet is standing under the brooding mountain, Helvellyn, as darkness falls. Photo, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. 

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I first met the quagga when I was about seven in an aquatint dating from 1804 by the painter Samuel Daniell in a book in my grandfather’s library called African Scenery and Animals. There was something about it which appealed to me – it looked a noble animal, standing in the South African veldt with wildebeest in the background – almost a creature of legend. I liked its unusual name, for a start. And it wasn’t quite like anything else I’d seen; almost a zebra with stripes at the front but becoming a sandy colour at the back, with a white underbelly, legs and tail.

Quagga by Samuel Daniell, 1804, in ‘African Scenery and Animals’

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I have often wondered where the archaeologist Howard Carter, of Tutankhamen fame, actually stayed whilst excavating in the Valley of the Kings on the trail of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922. I imagined a dusty tent, perhaps with a flickering hurricane lamp, and mosquito nets over an uncomfortable camp bed somewhere nearby.

 Howard Carter (1874-1939) Courtesy of the 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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By 1938, to many thinking people, the triumphant rise of Fascism in both Italy and Germany was an ominous portent of another war. To others, yes, the situation in Europe was worrying and Fascism was certainly on the rise but another war? Surely not.  Wasn’t the Great War supposed to be ‘The War that ended Wars?’

 

St Leonard’s Court, East Sheen

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‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very Heaven!’

So wrote the poet, William Wordsworth, about his arrival in Paris in 1790 when he was young, in love, and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. But Wordsworth’s words could equally describe being young in the 1960s, a similarly heady period when the old social mores were chucked out, and a revolutionary, youth-led counter culture in fashion, ideas, music, and much else, swept in.

Swinging London; note the new Post Office tower – with a slowly-revolving restaurant at the top

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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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