Literature

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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I’ve just returned from visiting ‘Yeats Country’, namely, Co. Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, following in the poet William Butler Yeats’ footsteps. Yeats had a very varied life; he was: a poet and a playwright; interested in theosophy and the occult; a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; appointed Senator in the first Irish Senate in 1922; a lover of Irish myth and folklore; and passionately involved with a number of women. Any of these would make an interesting post. However, today, I’m looking at places which stirred his imagination as a child.

W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) by George Charles Beresford

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I’m sure I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that novelists choose the surnames of their characters with great care. I certainly agonise over mine. I was reminded of this when reading Maggie Lane’s brilliant Jane Austen and Food. In it, she makes the perceptive point that Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park is ironically named – from the French nourrice, a nurse. She behaves in the most un-nurturing way towards Fanny Price and seems to take every opportunity to put her down.

‘My dear Sir Thomas, Fanny can walk.’ says Mrs Norris. Illustration by Hugh Thomson for Mansfield Park

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I have long been fascinated by Jane Austen’s choice of first names for her characters, and today I’m looking at how the early 19th naming system worked. The 1800 name pool was, by modern standards, surprisingly small, and this is echoed in Jane Austen’s constant reuse of the same names. Take the name Mary; there are two Marys in Pride & Prejudice (Mary Bennet and the heiress Mary King, pursued by Wickham); a Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park; and Mary Musgrove in Persuasion. According to research done by The Names Society, Mary was the most common girl’s name in 1800, closely followed by Anne and Elizabeth, so perhaps we should not be surprised. Jane Austen even calls two major characters by her own Christian name, Jane, which comes in at number 5 in the 1800 list. There is Jane Bennet in Pride & Prejudice and Jane Fairfax in Emma.

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Recently, I saw the Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill exhibition at that extraordinary Gothic extravaganza, Strawberry Hill, the summer villa of the author, letter writer, and passionate collector of the Fine Arts, Horace Walpole (1717-1797). Horace was the son of the politician and statesman, Sir Robert Walpole, and rich enough to do what he wanted: travel in Italy, buy art and antiques, and live the life of a cultivated man of leisure. His tastes were unusual and original – and he had the money to indulge himself.

Strawberry Hill: note the Gothic windows, tower and chimneys

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John Ruskin (1819-1900), an art critic and a man who held strong views on what values a society should hold, was one of the most influential men of his generation. For example, when Lucy Honeychurch, heroine of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) visits the church of Santa Croce in Florence, she’s desperate to know which tombstone was praised by Ruskin. This is her first trip abroad and she’s unsure of her own taste; she needs the reassurance that she’s admiring the right one.

However, I think it’s fair to say that Ruskin is not always an easy person to appreciate in the 21st century. Nowadays, we like to view ourselves as liberal-minded and tolerant, particularly in sexual matters. An intellectually very gifted only child, Ruskin was brought up on strict Puritanical principles and cossetted by both parents. His mother had high moral standards and was a very controlling parent. It is not surprising that Ruskin turned out to be obsessive, sexually inhibited and highly-strung.

Watercolour sketch of a coastal scene with fortress by John Ruskin, 1841

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I have been re-reading Jenny Uglow’s In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 in which she demonstrates very clearly how the Napoleonic Wars permeated every aspect of life for twenty-two long years and affected everybody – including Jane Austen’s characters  – as the country faced the urgent need for men for the armed forces, military supplies, ships, a modern transport system, efficient banking, and so on.

Captured Napoleonic Eagle of the 105th by the Royal Dragoons at the Battle of Waterloo,1815, in the Household Cavalry Museum (copy)

This post is a refutation of those critics who assert that Jane Austen’s novels concentrate only on domestic everyday life as lived by the English upper-middle classes.Jane  Austen, they say, ignores the wider picture and fails to mention the Napoleonic Wars. This, in my opinion, is simply not true. In fact, the war is a constant, and important, background to her novels; the problem is that most modern readers fail to recognize her references to it.

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Visiting the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire in January with my daughter was a slightly spooky experience. Set in a field next to an ancient ridgeway with a wood nearby, these prehistoric stones still exude an air of power. The most important are ‘The King’s Men’, a Neolithic stone circle of over a hundred stones weather-worn into fantastical shapes (the exact number is unknown – legend has it that they are uncountable), dating from around 3000 BC.

Me, standing by one of the King’s Men stones

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Last year, a friend gave me Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes for my birthday. I knew who he was, of course, but although I had seen and enjoyed The Young Victoria, I hadn’t watched Gosford Park because I feared I’d find gaffes which would either infuriate me or make me cringe. Past Imperfect was, therefore, something of a revelation for its wit, acute social observation and terrific storytelling. As I read, I realized, with a sense of shock, that I knew exactly where Julian Fellowes was coming from because the story’s social background, as told by his anonymous narrator, was, in many respects, painfully similar to my own. He didn’t pull his punches and his depiction of the late 1960s amongst what rather too many reviewers patronizingly called the ‘toffs’ was spot on.

‘Past Imperfect’ by Julian Fellowes

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Princess Mary, the Princess Royal (1897-1965) was seventeen when World War I broke out in 1914. In normal circumstances, Mary would have been kept under wraps until she was eighteen and come out in Society, but, the outbreak of war changed everything. The House of Saxe-Coburg began to be accused of being far too German, and King George V and Queen Mary found themselves with an image problem.

Princess Mary by J. J. Shannon, R.A. 1914

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