O Douglas, Priorsford Series

What if Jane Austen had been writing in the 1930s? I think it might have turned out something like Priorsford. This eponymous village in the Scottish Borders has the air of Longbourn or Hartfield. There is a small village, with the outlying estate(s) and the characters inhabiting them. In all the novels an outsider comes in to the small community of Priorsford, be it a young Scots woman who has grown up in London until she is drawn to the country of her birth (The House that is our Own). Isobel falls in love with the estate and eventually its absent Laird – sounds a bit like Elizabeth Bennett who falls in love with Pemberley. Or Lady Pamela Reston, who comes to Priorsford because her childhood sweetheart mentioned it, lodges with a village lady and is the recipient of confused looks for living beneath her station (Penny Plain). Then Pam introduces her young friend Jean Jardine to her brother Lord Bidborough and well… I’m afraid none of the novels are very good at keeping the reader in suspense.

Yet as I mentioned in a previous post, I do really enjoy social history and reading about the ways that people lived. O Douglas’s novels are mainly autobiographical and Cranford-esque. Nothing much happens but people are born, people fall in love and people die – in different times and circumstances and that is what I really enjoyed.

I have learned that this type of novel is called a novel of manners. Well, some characters might suggests that the books should be called novels about the unmannered. Yet those are the characters that are the most interesting because lovely lovely Jean Jardine is always bound to end up with the lovely lovely Biddy. But what about the wonderfully named Mrs Duff-Whalley, the social climber whose intrusions have put all of Priorsford on edge? There seems to be no solution. She must be banished to The Towers, to her own home and judged that she might have been great if she had been a man but as a woman she is unpleasant. Language like this fascinates me because at the moment we are living through another such debate. What are women ‘supposed’ to be like? Is there a ‘supposed to’? In the minds of some there is. In the minds of some, there are ‘supposed tos’ for both men and women – and any differentiation is frowned upon and, in novels, often punished by, at the very least, social ostracising. This post certainly took a little turn from my more comfortable beginning about Jane Austen and nice little Romantic towns called Priorsford. But who said nice little Romantic towns were not interesting? Just as the upper middle class lady is fascinating, so is the ‘quiet’ life of the lady in the village, the woman who is rich enough for a servant or a cook, who does not have to work but who must do something with her life. But what?


Brian Dolan, Ladies of the Grand Tour

Well, I got this book for my last birthday and it’s already almost my birthday again. It doesn’t often take me that long to read a book but this is a great book for dipping in and out of.

For those who are not entirely sure what the Grand Tour is or was, this term describes the journey British men of the upper classes made through Europe after they finished their formal schooling. The Tour was supposed to finish off their education, give them a chance to experience other cultures and make them into better politicians and members of society. In reality, the Tourists often returned having spread their seed and gathered up the art and memorabilia from famous sights in France, Italy and Germany – the main stopping points of the time.

This book is a great introduction to female travellers and travel writers in the 18th and early 19th century. Famous names include Mary Wollstonecraft, Fanny Burney, Georgiana Devonshire and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. All the women come from fairly different backgrounds, although obviously they are from what the British have termed the upper middle class or aristocracy. Nevertheless, their upbringing and their reasons for travelling are often wholly different. One woman travelled with her sister and her father, who wanted to show Europe to his daughters. Another travelled to escape a loveless and humiliating marriage. Yet others were widowed and journeyed because they finally had the freedom and the means to do so. All these women are united in the fact that they wrote about their journeys – what they enjoyed, what they saw, whom they met and what they did not like. The letters, journals and books capture contemporary events such as the French Revolution, often in more detail and more focussed on the actual surroundings than men’s writings of the period, which often focus on the politics and the less visible ideas behind it all.

The chapters themselves focus on different aspects of the Grand Tour – art, travel, society, sickness, relationships, politics and others. Whilst some might say that the Grand Tour must have been different for men and women, Dolan shows a fair amount of similarity between the two. Both collected art, socialised and endured the difficulties of travel in those years. Women focussed on sketching famous paintings and a well-educated and skilled female traveller would win as much admiration for her drawings as she would for her writing and perhaps more so, as drawing was an accepted feminine pastime. British women also used their travels to get to know French salon culture, a world where the women held court, presided over the intellectual scene of the day and encourage the development of the arts. Salons were places for politicians, artists and intellectuals looking for stimulating conversations – places where the woman was accepted as often the first among equals. Such as situation was unthinkable in Britain before the female Tourists introduced their countrymen to it and their writings and gatherings contributed so much to the emancipation of women in the time.

Travels also brought about interesting conflicts between politics, patriotism and personal interests. Hester Piozzi was shunned by her British friends for converting to Catholicism when she married her second husband, an Italian. Other women were accused of losing their place, of transgressing boundaries and of putting themselves in needless danger without considering their husbands or children. Yet many of the women were also unmarried spinsters or widowed – women who were often marginalised by society who found a purpose in their travels. For these women, travelling became a sort of career, replacing housekeeping and childbearing.

Attentive readers will have noticed that I do not name many women. That is because sometimes this book feels like a Russian novel – too many characters with very similar names. I often felt that as long as I called a woman Mary Elizabeth I’d probably got half of her name right. Few women stood out as Mary Montagu or Hester Piozzi did and I feel let down by my own memory that I can not remember more details about these remarkable women. Perhaps the book would have been better served with biographical chapters. Despite the short biographies at the end of the book I got inordinately confused between the women and their often similar travels. But then, I suppose, I can always go back and re-read because no doubt there are many details which I have failed to pick up this time.

Cardiff Museum, Wales Visitation: Poetry, Romanticism and Myth in Art

Warning: Massively long poem ahead! If you don’t want to read it all, skip to the bottom bit to read my thoughts on Cardiff Museum’s exhibition.

In 1967 Allen Ginsberg visited Wales, where he wrote the following poem (almost unsurprisingly, high on LSD)

Wales Visitation

White fog lifting & falling on mountain-brow
Trees moving in rivers of wind
The clouds arise
as on a wave, gigantic eddy lifting mist
above teeming ferns exquisitely swayed
along a green crag
glimpsed thru mullioned glass in valley raine—

Bardic, O Self, Visitacione, tell naught
but what seen by one man in a vale in Albion,
of the folk, whose physical sciences end in Ecology,
the wisdom of earthly relations,
of mouths & eyes interknit ten centuries visible
orchards of mind language manifest human,
of the satanic thistle that raises its horned symmetry
flowering above sister grass-daisies’ pink tiny
bloomlets angelic as lightbulbs—

Remember 160 miles from London’s symmetrical thorned tower
& network of TV pictures flashing bearded your Self
the lambs on the tree-nooked hillside this day bleating
heard in Blake’s old ear, & the silent thought of Wordsworth in eld Stillness
clouds passing through skeleton arches of Tintern Abbey—
Bard Nameless as the Vast, babble to Vastness!

All the Valley quivered, one extended motion, wind
undulating on mossy hills
a giant wash that sank white fog delicately down red runnels
on the mountainside
whose leaf-branch tendrils moved asway
in granitic undertow down—
and lifted the floating Nebulous upward, and lifted the arms of the trees
and lifted the grasses an instant in balance
and lifted the lambs to hold still
and lifted the green of the hill, in one solemn wave

A solid mass of Heaven, mist-infused, ebbs thru the vale,
a wavelet of Immensity, lapping gigantic through Llanthony Valley,
the length of all England, valley upon valley under Heaven’s ocean
tonned with cloud-hang,
—Heaven balanced on a grassblade.
Roar of the mountain wind slow, sigh of the body,
One Being on the mountainside stirring gently
Exquisite scales trembling everywhere in balance,
one motion thru the cloudy sky-floor shifting on the million feet of daisies,
one Majesty the motion that stirred wet grass quivering
to the farthest tendril of white fog poured down
through shivering flowers on the mountain’s head—

No imperfection in the budded mountain,
Valleys breathe, heaven and earth move together,
daisies push inches of yellow air, vegetables tremble,
grass shimmers green
sheep speckle the mountainside, revolving their jaws with empty eyes,
horses dance in the warm rain,
tree-lined canals network live farmland,
blueberries fringe stone walls on hawthorn’d hills,
pheasants croak on meadows haired with fern—

Out, out on the hillside, into the ocean sound, into delicate gusts of wet air,
Fall on the ground, O great Wetness, O Mother, No harm on your body!
Stare close, no imperfection in the grass,
each flower Buddha-eye, repeating the story,
Kneel before the foxglove raising green buds, mauve bells dropped
doubled down the stem trembling antennae,
& look in the eyes of the branded lambs that stare
breathing stockstill under dripping hawthorn—
I lay down mixing my beard with the wet hair of the mountainside,
smelling the brown vagina-moist ground, harmless,
tasting the violet thistle-hair, sweetness—
One being so balanced, so vast, that its softest breath
moves every floweret in the stillness on the valley floor,
trembles lamb-hair hung gossamer rain-beaded in the grass,
lifts trees on their roots, birds in the great draught
hiding their strength in the rain, bearing same weight,

Groan thru breast and neck, a great Oh! to earth heart
Calling our Presence together
The great secret is no secret
Senses fit the winds,
Visible is visible,
rain-mist curtains wave through the bearded vale,
gray atoms wet the wind’s kabbala
Crosslegged on a rock in dusk rain,
rubber booted in soft grass, mind moveless,
breath trembles in white daisies by the roadside,
Heaven breath and my own symmetric
Airs wavering thru antlered green fern
drawn in my navel, same breath as breathes thru Capel-Y-Ffn,
Sounds of Aleph and Aum
through forests of gristle,
my skull and Lord Hereford’s Knob equal,
All Albion one.

What did I notice? Particulars! The
vision of the great One is myriad—
smoke curls upward from ashtray,
house fire burned low,
The night, still wet & moody black heaven
upward in motion with wet wind.

Allen Ginsberg, 1967

Cardiff Museum uses this poem as the nucleus for it’s current modern art exhibition. Whilst I am not really an art connoisseur, I do have a passing interest in impressionism and expressionism – an interest which goes hand in hand with my interest in David Jones. What therefore grabbed me about this exhibition was the presence of two of my favourite poets – Allen Ginsberg and David Jones. In the main entrance to this exhibition was a large screening of Ginsberg reading the poem above and Ginsberg reading a poem is always an experience.

I do not feel qualified to comment on most of the paintings in the exhibition; however, the installation/screening of A Setting by Anthony Shapland (2010) was very interesting. It’s hard to describe but the installation is a film of twilight. Yet looking closely one can see a man at his table reading a newspaper and drinking tea. As with Ginsberg’s and Jones’s poetry, there are many layers to this particulat work of art which I find fascinating.

The other part of the exhibition which I really liked consisted of a series of paintings by David Jones, including Trystan ac Essyllt, Capel-y-ffin, Crucifixion and St Dominic. I had not seen any of these paintings before and so it was a real treat. Jones is interesting because I find that his poetry and his art correlate somewhat. Both have layers, both treat a topic but neither the poem nor the painting can be taken in completely in the first reading/viewing. As one re-reads the poem or looks more closely at the painting, I find different references, different techniques and little hidden things. I found this idea especially applied to Trystan ac Essyllt, probably my favourite painting in the series. I love Jones’s Arthuriana anyway, but here Essyllt (or Isolde as most reader will probably know her) almost fades into the boat. In a very impressionist way, the brushstrokes which paint the boat and the people blend into one and the same, almost hiding the characters in plain sight.

I think I will need to go back again and make proper notes this time because this post does not do justice to Jones’s paintings. I promise an update.

As of today, I will be posting every ten days. This should give me enough time to finish a book and write a post. It also gives me a deadline which is always handy. Next post will be on the 11th June.

Ruth Goodman, How to be a Victorian

Self-help manual for people interested in steam punk or social history of the Victorian age. I reckon this book could be either.

What grabbed me was the illustration on the dust-jacket about wearing a corset, including the sage advice that breathing might be difficult especially once liberated from the corset. Ruth Goodman is an academic but, in a similar way to Dr Lucy Worsley, seems to enjoy trying things out for herself. For some, it might be grating and frustrating to almost lose the history in the ‘faff’. However, I have always been interested in social history more than military or political history. I’m interested in why people acted the way they did, how they lived and how those lives influenced history, culture and, most especially, literature.

The life of the upper middle class and aristocratic woman has always interested me in particular because the life of the working class woman has been well researched and documented, as have the lives of the gentlemen. Yet I find that the upper class lady has been forgotten – probably because their lives appear vapid and subsumed in fashion and parties. But precisely these things fascinate me. In these ladies’ lives we find a return to medieval sumptuary laws, if only implicitly. Women found different outlets for their energy which they were not, by society, allowed to exert elsewhere. The rules and regulations of upper class society are fascinating and complex, I find, and (naturally) differ from country to country.

Ruth Goodman’s book is not a history of women, nor a history of the upper class. It is a broad social history of the Victorian age with additional tidbits such as the best Victorian toothpastes which actually work and are all organic – and which make-up is best to avoid because of its toxic contents.

The writing is very engaging and I really liked the structure of the book, because it starts in the morning and ends in the evening. It’s a very good way of avoiding confusing excursions from a chapter. However, I did miss, in the leisure section, an in-depth discussion of the theatre. This is where my interest in the upper class comes back in again because the theatre is a social circle in its own right with its own rules and its behaviour. I appears I have found my next book – but maybe I need to finish the book on the Grand Tour first.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

You know when you see a book in the library and think ‘Hmm… this is supposed to be a really good book so perhaps I should read it’ or something along those lines? Well, that was the reason I borrowed The Sense of an Ending. It won the Booker Prize in 2011 and as I saw it on the shelf just after I’d finished Keri Hulme’s Bone People, I hoped for another winner.

And it was but only sort of.

It is a very interesting book. It’s a very clever book. It seemed very calculated and mathematical which made it very interesting. The story itself was a bit bland – it wasn’t sensational or radically different. It was the perspective and the thoughts of the narrator which fascinated me. In that reminded me of another book which I still haven’t worked out. Perhaps Tom McCarthy’s Remainder? Or maybe even Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means? David Lodge perchance. I don’t really know.

Strangely, though, I don’t have very much to say about it which in itself is very interesting. Usually, as you will know from previous posts, I ramble a lot about sometimes very different aspects of a book. Yet here, with a book which won such accolades as the Booker Prize and the Costa Prize, I’m a bit stuck for words.

You read – and tell me what you think, seeing as the impression I got was obviously not worth talking about.

Eileen Crofton, Angels of Mercy

Well now first of all – apologies for the long absence! Perhaps, you think, I might just not have had time to write about all the books I’ve read. Yet to be perfectly honest, I haven’t had the time or the energy to actually finish a book in a long while. And now there will hopefully be two or three posts in fairly quick succession because I have finally finished some books!

After a brief foray into light reading or the modern novel, I returned to my interest in history. As this year marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, I had wanted to read a book related to this subject. However, it appeared to be hard to find a book which doesn’t just deal with the more well-known Western Front in the usual manner. Imagine my glee when I discovered a book about women on the front!

The rather naff title (sorry!) disguises a really fascinating story of the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont, France. This hospital was situated directly on the front line from late 1914 and was staffed and run entirely by women – with the exception of the occasional male helper and the French chef. Women had only been allowed to qualify as doctors since the late 19th century and the Royaumont staff included many of the early pioneers – surgeons Francis Ivens, Agnes Savill, Ruth Nicholson, bacteriologist Elsie Dalvell and radiographer Edith Stoney.

The women did everything – the more obvious nursing tasks such as dressing wounds and cleaning wards, but also the cooking, carrying the injured men up and down stairs on stretchers and collecting the wounded from the clearing stations. The chauffeurs faced great dangers as they often had to drive at night through German shell attacks, especially in the final months of the war.

The hospital was on the front line during the battles of the Somme and in 1917 the women were asked by the French government to establish an outpost at Villers-Cotterets, even closer to the front line, to be used as a clearing station for the wounded. This outpost had to be evacuated as the Germans suddenly advanced in early 1918 and the last women only just escaped after all the wounded and the staff had been evacuated.

The hospital remained in action until May 1919, when it was finally closed. Many of the women who started out as orderlies or nurses went on to become doctors and surgeons. The women of Royaumont and the other Scottish Women’s Hospitals opened up the field of medicine for their fellows as women had previously been almost completely confined to gyneacology – apart from the few, like Elsie Inglis and Frances Ivens who had dared to be different.

These incredible women helped the French soldiers, whose own government was unprepared for the horrors of the injuries in the trenches – even more unprepared than the British and the Germans. By the end of the war, these doctors had contributed pioneering research into gas gangrene, radiology, surgery and bacteriology.

Whilst I did not necessarily always like Ms Crofton’s style of writing, her book was absolutely fascinating and is definitely worth a read.

John Julian Norwich, A History of England in 100 Places

This is another recycled post but I enjoyed the book so much I thought I’d share it!

When I got the book for my birthday I thought something like ‘hmm – wonder if I’ll actually finish that’. Then I started reading it and found it very easy to read. Norwich has a style of writing that lends itself to historical anecdotes and this book is basically a collection of well-researched connected anecdotes. The author himself is aware of the restrictions of the book; it concerns only England and many places mentioned are used as a gateway to a period of history rather than the history of a specific place. Thus, the story of Battle Abbey is the story of the Norman Conquest, the events leading up to it and most of King William’s reign – not just the story of the Battle of Hastings. However, this does mean that although Lord Norwich was restricted to 100 places, the reader actually gets an insight into many more places and much more history than the title itself suggests.

The places chosen are an eclectic mix of ‘serious scholarly stuff’ and, if you will, ‘pop history’. For example, the places chosen for Anglo-Saxon England are Sutton Hoo, Lindisfarne, St Peter-juxta-Mare in Essex and Offa’s Dyke. Sutton Hoo has been popularised in recent years thanks to the discoveries and new findings made there. Lindisfarne has always seemed to me to be a bit like the Isle of Avalon – mystical, mythical, not quite real, but I’d at least heard of it. The church of St Peter’s is, Norwich conjectures, the first one in England (ca 653) and Offa’s Dyke – well, to most people it’s probably a great walk. So we have two places that people not generally versed in historical literature might have heard of and two places which are lesser known or known for other things. Such a pattern continues until the twentieth century when the places include the Lizard Marconi Wireless Station, Coventry Cathedral, Watford Gap Motorway Services and Mendips (otherwise known as the childhood home of John Lennon if you didn’t know – I didn’t).

Two things I particularly liked about the book. I was really glad of the photos – and I think 98 of the places chosen for the book have a photo. Nevertheless, some show only a part of the building or place which is, occasionally, disappointing but it fits with the necessity of brevity displayed throughout. The other thing I found very helpful was that all the places are presented in bitesized chunks. It is as easy to dip in and out of this book as it is to read a whole period in one go. Great bedtime reading and definitely for anyone with a passing interest in British history.