Friday, August 22, 2014

An English Summer: Days Four and Five: Oxford

Took the train from Devon to London last night and returned to the George Hotel. Was to have dinner with a Facebook friend but he couldn't make it - pity, as I could have seen other people; however, I was really far too tired for a social evening anyway. Yet didn't sleep very well, as it was a rather warm night. Up about 6 but having eaten Indian late I actually skipped the English breakfast (!!!) so as to be sure not to be late for the train today. In addition to losing the Devon-to-London train ticket, I'd also left my small toiletries bag back in Devon, so had to stop at a Boots to buy replacement hairbrush, toothbrush, eye shadow, etc. Took train to Paddington (so glad I packed light, oh the stairs, lugging things up and down in the heat - one feels incompetent and creaky, it's the stressful down side of traveling) only to be faced by 50 people ahead of me on ticket line! Hung in there, it did move fast and I got ticket at 9:10 for 9:24 train. Even got a Caffe Nero cappuccino and felt gleeful - until boarding. It was such a horridly full train, I had to STAND with my suitcase and cappuccino, packed in like melted sardines, all the way to Stroud, about half an hour, very exhausting and irritating I must say. After that I did get a seat, and was able to relax and enjoy sunny English views and my coffee.
Radcliffe Observatory

"Friend, you stand on sacred ground. This is a BOOKSHOP!"
At Oxford, my friends Jean and Lizzy met me and we drove to Lizzy's flat in Jericho. Such a pretty place, looking out on a sunny terrace. We chatted, mostly about publishing, then Jean walked me to Oxford University Press for lunch with Simon ("Stuck-in-a-Book"), who's working there now. Great fun. I ate the sausages and beans I missed earlier, and we chatted like billy-oh, as they say, in his lunch hour, he in the dawn of his career, me in the evening of mine. Then Jean picked me up and we agreed I no longer had the need to tour Oxford so we went to lovely cafe on top of the Ashmolean and had cream tea. Gorgeous fresh summery raspberry jam and clotted cream. When they closed we popped in a Waterstones and then to Browns where I had a big iced tea with white peach froth - refreshing in the warm weather. Then it was time to go watch Lizzy's bell ringing class at St Giles Church. I climbed up the ladder and pulled a bell with the donnish ringers, but the bells were muffled for practice and you couldn't hear them.
Roof of the Ashmolean
Cream tea at the Ashmolean
At the Ashmolean

Then we went to meet Jean's husband Tony at the Bookbinder pub in Jericho, lovely place with Frenchy food; I had an excellent ham cheese mushroom crepe with salad, and lemon tart. Taxi back to Jean's house on Cumnor Hill, and am now going to bed, super tired!
Oxford hosts in the garden

Oh what a lovely day in Oxford! Slept solidly soundly 9 hours. Jean fed me toasted crumpets for breakfast with Yeo (Devon) country butter and the most marvelous blackcurrant jam made by her friend who has a farm. Then Tony showed me round the garden, which he, now semi retired, has enthusiastic plans about, growing lettuces, planning a new conservatory and a pond. This area, a ten minute bus ride from central Oxford, is on a hill on the edge of the Downs, and it's truly another  earthly paradise: you'd never guess such countryside would be so close to the packed crowds of summer Oxford.
View toward the Downs

We went for a walk on the Downs. Jean turned back but Tony took me up to a magical wood looking out at the Downs, and we admired the sunny long views through the deep trees, ate early blackberries, climbed styles, talked about the history of the place - how a gulf in the wood was dug out in the 1840s for the brickworks, and the clay was carried up to the village, but the factory closed in 1930. The factory head was the first owner of their house, and the dug out woods have grown tall again. Nice to be able to picture something of the area's recent past, and to enjoy the woods: altogether a wonderful English afternoon.
Blackberry bushes
Stuck in a Style

Then Jean escorted me to the Oxford-to-Cambridge bus where I now sit on my three and a half hour ride. Very comfortable, leather seats, few passengers, and internet with my iPad. While Tony and I walked, Jean packed me the most marvelous lunch, Parma ham, lettuce and sweet baby tomatoes from their garden, scones with the blackberry jam, oatcakes and burstingly delicious English cherries. Washed down with cloudy Devonshire Apple juice.

Now as I approach Cambridge there is a downpour and internet is down. Shall mail this later.

Later - Am in Cambridge with more beloved friends, given such a warm welcome. The rain stopped and we're eating spaghetti, very happy evening.  Feel very fortunate, and as if it's worth even a 10 hour flight to see the brave (old) world, that has such people in it.

Edge of the Downs, outside Oxford.  Where I'd spend my life, if only I could.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

An English Summer: Day Three: Two Devon Houses

Endsleigh House gardens

 Saltram House
Woke today at 6:30, hearing the cows moo and saw Rosie's son purposefully striding about the farm buildings. I was then able to use his room for internet, and also had a lovely morning walk round the pretty garden, photographing flowers. Then breakfast, at which I was joined by the other guests, not the most congenial - an elderly couple who bragged and showed pictures of the country house in Kent where they used to work, and a lady who worked for a Greek shipping magnate in hopes he'd take her to Greece but it was only New York, which she HATED, she said with emphasis. Told stories of Sammy Davis Jr's bodyguards being afraid of kidnappings (?) and how she was forbidden to wear a bikini on a Long Island beach (this was 1967) and what a TERRIBLE place America was and how she'd never go back for anything. Since she hadn't seen the place in nearly 40 years and was addressing all this to an American, it was kind of peculiar, but didn't keep me from enjoying my bacon sausage egg tomato and thick brown toast with butter and honey.
A Devon country breakfast
Lynne picked me up at 10 am. Glorious sunny day, fresh feeling after last night's rain. We drove to Endsleigh House in Milton Abbot, which is now a luxury hotel, but with grounds perhaps not that much changed since the Duchess of Bedford, who had an affair with Landseer, met him for trysts there. Lynne told me all about it and I got the book, Mistress of the Arts, by Rachel Trethewey, which looks fascinating and will resonate much more now that I've seen the setting.  Endsleigh, built in 1811 as the sixth Duke's hunting lodge, is a place of truly swooning beauty, with gardens designed by Humphry Repton, and there's a deep and beautiful arboretum full of rare trees, where Lynne often enjoys walks - how enchanting!
Arboretum at Endsleigh
Overlooking the Tamar
Her reading group also has its meetings at Endsleigh in a room with 18th century Chinoiserie wallpaper and flowery green views out into the gardens. (Bit of a contrast to my reading group's digs!)
Beautiful antique "Chinoiserie" wallpaper
Fuchsia at Endsleigh
There are grottoes and a little 18th century shell folly but really it is the flowers that are the star - my word, the gardening there is English high art at its most transporting! Especially ravishing was all the buddlia covered with masses of butterflies, some rare ones.  After wandering through these amazing gardens, we sat peacefully gazing out at them and I drank my newly discovered favorite drink, Luscombe apple cider - sheer nectar! It was the Devonshire summer moment, to perfection.

 Butterflies on the buddlia

An English butterfly summer.  Picture borrowed from Lynne:  three species on one flower! She thinks it's a Silver Washed Fritillary on the left, Tortoiseshell above, Peacock below.
Luscombe apple cider and a perfect view
From there we drove through the lovely town of Milton Abbot and then to Plymouth. Heavily bombed in the war, there's not much left in Plymouth reminiscent of Jane Austen's day, but I think the light must have been the same. Its special quality of white, by-the-sea airiness must have enveloped Austen when she visited, as she likely did, as she sent characters in both Persuasion and Sense & Sensibility there. Our second beautiful country house of the day was Saltram House, home of the Countess of Morley who was Jane Austen's correspondent and admirer. Designed by Robert Adam, Saltram has most beautiful interiors, especially a saloon the first sight of which is staggering, with its gorgeous plasterwork ceiling. It's said to be one of the best preserved early Georgian houses in the country, and is a fascinating place, rich with Reynolds portraits (as he was a friend of the family) as well as works by Angelica Kaufman and Gilbert Stuart.

A portrait at Saltram House

Beautiful cabinet at Saltram House
Occupants of the cabinet
There's lots of Chinoiserie and lovely curiosities, and many portraits of Countess Morley, as well as the interesting and accomplished copies of paintings she made herself. Her edition of Pride and Prejudice is to be seen in the exquisite library, and there are also some papers of Henry Austen, who was her chaplain or clergyman, after JA died.  We "did" the house thoroughly, then had some lovely duck pate and salad and tea in the cafe. Then Lynne drove me to Plymouth station, where I had a slight mishap: in my haste on the outward journey I didn't take my receipt from the ticket machine, had no proper return ticket, and had to fork over another £50 for a new ticket. Never mind; these things happen in traveling, and here I am comfortably on the train going back to Paddington, watching the Dartmoor sea wall slide by with boats gayly scattered on the water.

The Countess of Morley's copy of Pride and Prejudice

 Lord Morley as a boy, portrait in the library

 Photograph of Lady Morley

A more flattering, younger portrait

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An English Summer: Day Two: The Darling Doves of Devon.

 In deepest Devon, looking over into Cornwall

Never thought I'd make the train this morning. Since I stayed up all night on the plane, and then spent my first day in London with Ron at Kenwood, remaining awake so as to get on English time, I successfully passed out cold at 10:30 PM. Was troubled by having painfully tweaked my arthritic thumb on my bag, but was able to sleep soundly till 6:30 AM and woke to find that thumb was much better as well as the rest of me. Called phone company and arranged for data roaming minutes so I could send pictures (it is a most unpleasant generational sensation to have the girl LAUGH at you when you say you're not sure you'll be able to figure it out), and repacked, leaving my carry on bag at the hotel and only taking a tote. I checked out, and they said I ought to have time for breakfast though it didn't start till 8; taking the tube from nearby Kings Cross to Paddington would only take 10 minutes. My train to Devon was at 9, and I could see that would be tight but I so hated to miss the George's full English breakfast! Greed naturally won out. I told the waitress I had to catch a train, and she very obligingly hurried, and I was able to scarf my heavenly plump English sausage, bacon, fried egg, beans, tomato, and heaps of brown toast with butter and honey. Then rushed out to the station, realizing no leeway had been made for not knowing where in station were the ticket collection machines, nor how to use them, not to mention finding the platform, and running long distances! And I tend to get flustered and blinkered in such situations, but there was simply no time for that: I could not. So I focused and actually made the train with 5 minutes to spare! Even got my reserved seat with a table, and am now sitting with a lovely cappuccino, gazing out at the scenery round Taunton, feasting my eyes on delicious green landscapes, while reading the equally delicious Armorel of Lyonnesse (1890s novel set on the island of Samson in the Scilly Isles, which I visited last trip).
My lovely hosts

And some of their lovely flowers

(Later) My friend Dove Grey Reader (Lynne, the well known Devonshire book blogger, whom I've long known online but was meeting in person for the first time) met me at Exeter St David station and we drove to her house which is in beautiful deep green countryside, lovely on a sunny day with fluffy English clouds above. The nearest village is Milton Abbot, and the larger town is Tavistock ("Tavy"). We went to Tavistock first, to the gorgeous Bedford hotel, very old and elegant. Had a lovely lunch, shrimp and crab sandwiches, then visited the Tavistock Pannier Market, an incredible 900 years old. There was lots to see and lots to buy, notably some very pretty English china, but my constant cry had to be, "Oh the lovely Victorian pitcher - no, I couldn't carry that home in my bag, could I..."

Tavistock Pannier Market - 900 years old!

Then we drove to DGR's house, through meltingly lovely Devon vistas. As we approached, through glimpses in the hedgerows I could see the beautiful land and stretch of the river Tamar that has a fine private salmon stream. In the distance, there were the hills of Cornwall, seemingly only a few fields over. At the house DGR's husband Bookhound welcomed me warmly as did their three cats, one blind, one deaf, both elderly, and a young tom whom the old dowagers keep strictly in line. Bookhound so kindly made and served lovely smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches and a gorgeous plate of scones, Devon clotted cream, and jam. And plenty of first rate tea. The embodiment of Devon hospitality! We enjoyed all this outside chatting and breathing in the Devon air.
 Dove Grey Cat
Lots of excellent book talk along with the clotted cream - so many books that I now admire to acquire! And I was most honored to be given an exquisite hand made holder that DGR thoughtfully made especially for me - out of patchwork fabric of Jane Austen's handwriting and quilt, and the quote from one of her letters:  "Have you remembered to collect pieces for the patchwork? We are at a standstill..."  One of the most perfectly appropriate gifts I've ever received:  a perfect memento of a perfect day in Devon.

 A beautiful Jane Austen handmade gift!
We then went out for another drive around Dartmoor but didn't walk as the weather was starting to sock in, heavy clouds descending and rain. Could see some tempting tors, but in that weather DGR most convincingly explained how the mist can come down and you'd be lost. We stopped at a lovely inn (Two Bridges) and stretched out legs on a curious old rock bridge.

Then DGR drove me to her friend Rosie's farm where I was to sleep. Ancient stone buildings, a working dairy farm. Rosie a lovely lady and she kindly set me up with internet in her office so I could check mail before bed. Met her sweet husband, tired after his long day on the farm. The quietest place I ever slept, I think - lovely thick mattress, perfect duvet, big bathtub. I slept like a log from 10:30, as well I might!
Rosie's farm

Crocosmia, which was growing all over Devon
Dove Grey Reader's justly famous blog can be found here:

An English Summer: My visit, day one

I arrive in England - Kenwood House
Monday, August 4, 2014

Since I have moderate fear of flying, the flight dragged hour by hour as I kept my eye glued on the trip map. Air New Zealand flew well, but that was all they did (granted, it's enough). Although I was supposed to have a window seat so I could keep my eyes on the ground, they gave me my bete noire, a seat smack in the claustrophobic middle of the plane. This agony I had to endure for 10 hours, with only the nastiest of food, no internet, and not a single watchable movie (Nemo? Juno? Hobbit?). But then I got up and went to a window to see, and there at last were the foggy islands. The first sight of them never fails to bring tears to my eyes, on this my 33rd trip, just as it was on my first.

Cartwright Gardens - where I usually stay in London
 And then I was on the direct tube (Piccadilly Line) to Russell Square, looking out in the above-ground sections on a perfect London day. Low 70s, sunshine, fresh breezes, English greenery, the flowers of summer, buddlia and rosebay willow herb, oh so beautiful, and I have ten days of it stretching out before me! Reached my hotel, the George b & b in Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury, and had half an hour to wash up and get settled in my room before friend Ron Dunning (genealogist, musician, Austen family member) arrived. There's nothing lovelier than seeing a friend after a long journey, you feel welcomed and oriented straight away.  
Guide, philosopher, friend - Ron at Kenwood 

Ron, like the knight he is, promptly whisked me away on a lovely drive to Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath - a more glorious greeting to England can scarcely be imagined! There I was, just like that, in the midst of Constable landscapes come to life. We had tea first, in the garden, iconic delicious English delicacies, egg mayonnaise sandwich and Victoria sponge. The house was simply beautiful, a stunning Adam house filled with Rembrandts and Constables and beauties as far as the eye could see. We followed this with a refreshing walk on the Heath, more views across grass and landscape over the city in the long distance. Then Ron drove me back to the hotel. Lovely drive too, through fascinating London neighborhoods, and there's no better companion than Ron for such a journey, for he has "the knowledge." We had a spot of Tandoori at my favorite neighborhood Indian place, and then I staggered back to the George, for some much needed and sound sleep!
Egg mayonnaise and Victoria sponge!

The Dairy at Kenwood
Tandoori at Motijheel in Marchmont Street

Friday, July 11, 2014

"A Beautiful Statue" - Waxing Wicked on the Waxwork

"...she gave one the idea of a beautiful statue, and even now, in her coffin, there is such a sweet, serene air over her countenance as is quite pleasant to contemplate."

"If I must give my opinion, I have always thought it the most insipid play in the English language." - Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
 Since I, too, must give my opinion, here is what I think of the new waxwork figure of Jane Austen recently unveiled at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. I don't actually dislike it; I like the dark, soft, intelligent eyes, and it is a sweet and thoughtful image. However, it looks too modern, with a suspicious nod to Keira Knightley. I do think they (sculptor Mark Richards and forensic artist Melissa Dring) did properly consult the existing photographs of Jane Austen's brothers Frank and Henry (the latter whom she was most especially said to resemble), and that was certainly the most logical place to start. Consequently the shape of the nose and eyes have a chance of being reasonably right, though of course all must really be guesswork. I question the narrowness of the face, for where are the round cheeks not only of contemporary description, but of Cassandra's own portrait? Poor though that portrait is, Cassandra probably at least had an idea of her sister's face shape, and showed it as rounded and nothing like as elongated as in this waxwork. Similarly, she really must have known how her sister wore her hair, and the tight short round curls of Cassandra's portrait are made nonsense of by the stylish Jean Shrimpton fringe of the waxwork! A woman of JA's day would not have worn her hair loosely falling in her eyes like a basset hound. That, despicably, is the movie influence again.

Cassandra's portrait

A friend mentioned the late Joan Austen-Leigh, one of the founders of JASNA, who inherited, through five generations, the exact nose of Jane Austen's mother, evidenced in a portrait silhouette. It was rather larger and more hooked than the noses of the brothers as seen in their photographs, but there is no reason to think that Jane Austen herself had her mother's very prominent nose; I'd accept that it was straighter, though still long, like the brothers', and like the silhouette of her sister Cassandra. I like the sculptor's version of the nose quite well.

Henry Austen
What irritates me most about the waxwork, however, is that sweet serene Mona Lisa expression. Maybe Jane Austen had a prettified insipid serenity after she was dead, and the spirit was all out of her. That's when Cassandra described her as looking like "a beautiful statue." The sculptor states that he was trying to make her appear like the woman who wrote all those wonderful books, and Melissa Dring says that Cassandra's portrait "really doesn't reflect the fun, witty, amusing person that all written accounts of her seem to portray." Well, true, but we may remember that Melissa Dring's own forensic drawing of Austen was absolutely appalling, making her look like a red-cheeked barmaid. She got so much abuse for it that no wonder the color has been toned down in this image, which is as pale as waxwork indeed, even though contemporary descriptions did say Austen had a high color. (Not like Melissa Dring's idea of high color I am sure, which was brick red alcoholic poisoning.)

Portrait by Melissa Dring

Although Dring made Jane Austen look almost cartoonish with her extreme coarse smirk, at least she has some expression (and she got the curls more accurately close to Cassandra's version). The waxwork has erased almost all expression except that of an elegaic, disappointed purity, and that arranged, composed mouth and lower face, in particular,  remind me of nothing so much as a laid-out corpse. I was very strongly reminded of an anecdote choreographer Agnes de Mille tells in her memoirs, Dance to the Piper:

"One day [Marie] Rambert explained to me why I did not give the appearance of beauty and ease which, she added, was the basis of all attraction. Standing before the great studio mirror (this interview was mercifully held in private), she arranged my face as she had so often arranged my members, pulling the eyebrows long, folding down the lids to look languid (the Sylphide expression - the expression of detached absorption which, Rebecca West once said, always reminded her of light constipation), twirling up the corners of my mouth. When she had done she said, 'There, that is my idea of relaxed serenity.' I raised the drooping lids and peeked without altering the tilt of my head. Stark amazement and shock stared back. It was the arranged face of a corpse."

Is that not reminiscent of what Richards and Dring have done here? The composed arrangement, the folded mouth, the demure maidenly ballet preparatory position of the arms (which may have brought to my mind the ballet reference above), may be forensically accurate, but this is a mild image of a still and silent presence, tinged with sadness rather than wit. A number of Janeites have called it "placid," and indeed there's no suggestion of Jane Austen's indomitable humor, keenness, subversiveness, or vibrancy.  It may have some spurious forensic accuracy, but "The letter killeth, and the spirit breatheth life." Really there ought to be a medium between Tring's barmaid smirk and this sculptor's posed composed arrangement. A little subacid humor maybe?  But no.  This is a pale vanilla waxwork.  A picture of perfection, such as makes me sick and wicked.